Climate Change in my Backyard: Beekeeping during the Climate Crisis

Aug 16, 2019

By Douglas Smyth, LCV Member

Beekeeping runs in my family. I have kept bees for more than 40 years. I inherited them—and all the equipment—from my father, who had kept them since the early 1950’s. Back then, his beekeeping methods were fairly simple—he never did anything for the hives except extract honey in the fall. For many years, that’s all I did, too.

A few years ago, before I moved from a rural part of New York’s Dutchess County to the Shawanguk Mountains, I started to notice a change. I started losing hives most winters and had to run around to buy bee packages or “nucs”—which are, much like they sound, small bee colonies for purchase. By the time I moved to the Shawangunks across the Hudson River, I had only two surviving hives to bring with me. And this year, for the first time in many years, I successfully wintered two hives, which felt like a great success but was a feat that would have been commonplace even 10 years ago.  

So, what has changed to make my bees so vulnerable? Obviously, chemicals like neonic and sulfoxaflor pesticides—and the negligence of Trump’s EPA to ban these chemicals— are a huge threat to bee populations. The place where I live is semi-rural, surrounded by woods, near preserved wilderness. There is little commercial agriculture in a five-mile perimeter from here, so pesticide exposure ought to be negligible for the bees, who only range about a mile from their hives. Nevertheless, even here, my bees have to be coddled in order for them to survive.

What I’m seeing is the effect of the climate crisis. 

Starting a few years ago, I found that honey production was low. Some years, I haven’t been able to extract any honey at all—a clear sign of struggling bees so I had to adapt. First of all, I have to feed the bees, which I never used to do. 

Because of dry conditions and unpredictable weather—hot and dry some years, cold and damp in other years—most flowering plants aren’t producing as much nectar as they used to. In particular, goldenrod flowers—which are usually a sweet treat in the late summer—are blooming earlier and earlier. This cuts short the season in which bees can get the nectar that they need to sustain them through the winter. 

So now, beginning in late September, I start feeding my hives “bee tea,” a mix of water, cane sugar and several herbs in a tea infusion, and “candy,” sugar cooked and dried, at critical times during the winter. This superchargers the hives coming into the full blooming season.

I also have to cover the hives with insulator boards, top and sides, painted black on the outside. Insulation is apparently necessary, now, in winter, because of the sudden, severe drops in temperature, especially when we’re visited by the polar vortex, caused by the warming Arctic Sea. 

Sometimes it’s hard to see how your life is being affected by climate change. My family has not been harmed by hurricanes or wildfires. I’m not fleeing rising sea levels. Even though we’ve not suffered in those ways, we are obviously affected by climate change. As a beekeeper, gardener, and lover of trees, I feel the terrible damage we are doing to  everything on Earth—even in the relatively temperate climate of the Northeast. 

This year has been good for my bees. I took off four boxes loaded with honey from the two hives, possibly as much as 100 pounds—a rare success these days. But I don’t know what next year is going to bring. All I can do is keep my bees alive for now and keep fighting alongside organizations like LCV to protect these critical species.