How to Compost Your Bees. Lessons from a Failed Beekeeper.


Image credit: Sami Grover

Over the weekend I got to combine two of my biggest passions—composting and beekeeping. I'd like to say this was an exciting new permaculture experiment, but sadly it was just a case of facing up to my failure at beekeeping. In fact, I was faced with the unenviable task of emptying out my hives of moth-eaten beeswax and about 2000 bee carcasses into my compost bin. So what went wrong?Having excitedly installed my first beehives in the Spring of last year, I seem to have become TreeHugger's default bee correspondent. Yet while I have learned an awful lot about the fight against Colony Collapse Disorder, the struggle to lift bans on urban beekeeping, and even the mysterious case of red bees and red honey in Brooklyn—I am afraid that this theoretical knowledge did not translate into real world success.

If for no other reason than to save face, I would love to claim that I too was victim of the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, but the thousands of dead little bee faces looking up at me when I opened up the hive suggest that my furry flying buddies met a more mundane, yet equally deadly, fate. It is most likely that my bees died during the cold snap of last winter, but—being busy dad with a new baby— I have only now gotten around to clearing out the hives. Here's what I know about what happened:

  1. After a promising early start, my colonies never really thrived in their first year. (Due, in part, to insufficient feeding.)
  2. I did witness some robbing of the hives by other bees. (Bees will steal honey from weaker colonies if given the chance.)
  3. Last winter included some pretty strong cold snaps, and I never saw any bees reemerge in the Spring.

I suspect it was a combination of factors that lead to these deaths—and I am trying to learn all I can to prevent a repeat next time around. I do know that losing colonies in their first year is by no means uncommon, as bees spend an awful lot of energy building up wax in their hives, and generating sufficient numbers to let their body heat carry them through the winter.

Whether or not my own inexperienced actions contributed to my bees' demise is hard to say. My feeding routine was half-hearted at best—I simply found myself too busy to deliver the recommended sugar water every few days in the Spring. And while many of my more organic-minded friends have been advocates of not feeding sugar to bees, most old-school beekeepers I know argue that feeding is 100% essential in the first year. I also know that while I checked on the colonies regularly to look for pests, diseases, and to make sure the queen was alive, but as a newbie I confess I found it surprisingly hard to know what I was looking for, or even what I was looking at.

One thing I do know is that I loved getting to know my bees, and observing their complex, beautiful world up-close, and I have no doubt that I will try again. But before I do, I'll be returning back to the books, the listservs, the forums and the beekeeping clubs and trying to learn all I can from those who are out there doing it. beekeepers of the world—please feel free to share your thoughts below. And if anyone knows the best method for composting bees, feel free to share that too.

More on Bees, Beekeeping and Colony Collapse Disorder
Colony Collapse Disorder and the Epic Fight to Save the Bees
Vanishing of the Bees: A Documentary
Honeybee Disappearances Finally Solved?
Honeybee Mystery Solved? Not Quite, Say Experts.
National Wildlife Federation's List of Tips to Help the Honeybee

Tags: Agriculture | Bees | Colony Collapse Disorder | Farming | United States