Richard Mendel, ad hoc coordinator of Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers, was on the phone a lot in March, giving advice to local beekeepers dealing with a lot of confused bees. Most of the region’s bees emerged from their hives two or three weeks earlier than normal, enticed by springlike weather early in the month–so early that there were not yet enough blossoms to make foraging worth their while. Forced to live on food stored from last year, many hives experienced a shortage when temperatures dropped back into the thirties and forties. Most bees cannot leave the hive at those low temperatures, so even though by that time there was plenty of food outside, they were in danger of starvation.
“This is a touchy time,” said Mendel in late March. “Right now it’s a case of paying attention. If you just walk away and think your bees will be fine, you’re going to get a surprise.”
Beekeepers can add food–sugar granules or sugar water–to the top of the hive if necessary. But once the fragile cycle of bees and blooms gets out of sync–as it did this spring–it can mean a big setback, not just for bees, but for the fruit trees and other crops they pollinate.
“If we have a long spring now, with temperatures back in the forties or worse, and a lot of rain, [then] a lot of blossoms will be washed out of nectar or won’t be generated at all,” said Mendel. “If things don’t go well [with the weather], everything could go sideways.”
Beekeeping has always been a delicate business, totally dependent on–and vulnerable to–an interconnected chain of events in nature. But in recent years bee populations around the country also have been under stress from seemingly intractable threats like pesticides, disease, and “Colony Collapse Disorder,” the puzzling phenomenon that causes the sudden loss of entire colonies. According to Mendel, a survey last year by the Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association revealed that beekeepers lose 24 percent of their bees each year–and that was before this year’s weather problems. “Even some of the best beekeepers in the area are losing their hives, and it’s hard to figure out why,” Mendel says.
The early spring also caused a lot of buzz at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, because fruit trees were blooming a full month before the frost danger clears. Scott Robertello of Kapnick Orchards says a “freeze event” in late March that devastated Traverse City’s tart cherry crop caused “very minimal damage” here, but he won’t rest easy until around mid-May.
“The old-timers say a killing frost can happen till the first full moon after Easter, and that will be May sixth,” Robertello says. Does he believe that? “Let’s just say I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”