As of this writing, massive wildfires are raging across most of the western United States including Utah where we’re located.
Hundreds of thousands of acres have already been scorched and according to fire officials, it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better.
While we’re far from being in the top 10 worst wildfires in US history, we know that many beekeepers (even those far from the fires) are concerned about the well-being of their bees given the amount of pollution and contaminants in the air.
Should you be concerned about the health of your bees with regards to the wildfires? Let’s take a look.
First, we need to set the stage about what size of fires we’re talking about.
The fires in question aren’t your standard campfires that you roast hot dogs and S’mores over. They also aren’t your typical wildfire can be put out within a matter of hours.
The Coal Hollow Fire alone has already burned almost 25,000 acres and is at 0% containment, causing nearby residents to be on high alert for evacuation notices.
This is the kind of fire we're talking about:
Wildfires such as these are massively out of control and are pumping smoke pollutants into the air, coating the entire Utah Valley area in a thick haze. This haze is severe enough to cause people many miles away with respiratory problems to seek medical attention.
As you can see, we’re talking about really big fires that cause widespread problems.
But the question remains, if your hives aren’t in danger of being burned in the actual fire, should you be concerned about the well-being of your hive?
Like almost any study, you’ll find varying opinions on what the true effect of something is on your bees.
In the case of fire & smoke pollution, there are many who claim that bees' ability to forage decreases as air pollution (including fire & smoke) increases. This claim is backed by a research teams from well-known and respected institutions such as Penn State University and the University of Southampton.
This is a pretty popular opinion and many people tend to lean this way when evaluating whether or not their hives are at risk.
However, there are also multiple studies that show that forest fires are very helpful for bees (this particular study was conducted by the University of Oregon).
Surprisingly, this study found that bees were more plentiful in areas that had been moderately to severely burned by wildfires.
So, which option is correct if you’re a beekeeper in Utah, California, Oregon, Montana or any other of the western states that are experiencing widespread wildfires?
At Bear Country Bees, we tend to ride down the middle of any two extremes when it comes to taking care of your bees.
For example, we think it’s important to properly winter your honey bees. Ignoring good wintering practices is a bad idea. However, we also don’t think you need to go through a 1,000-point checklist to get it done.
In the case of the wildfires, we recommend that you pay attention to fire warnings and take appropriate action but don’t go overboard with trying to protect your bees from the haze.
We don’t recommend that you run out and buy any sort of fancy air filtration system or erect a fire shelter for your bees to protect their health. This is unlikely to have much effect (if any) on the well-being of your hive.
Instead of being all gung-ho about advanced tactics and techniques, we recommend you stick to the basics.
Specifically, we have these 3 things you should keep in mind (and only do if needed):
Let take a quick look at each of these.
This point is pretty straightforward. If your hives are in danger of being engulfed in the flames within the next few days, it makes sense to move them if possible*.
*Before considering this, you MUST understand and heed the warnings of your local fire authorities. If your fire authorities have instructed you not to return to save your hives, then just accept the loss.
We do not under any circumstances encourage you to rush into a dangerous situation to save your bees! Beehives are replaceable. You (and/or your friends and family) are not.
Move your hives if and only if, you have sufficient time to be well clear of the blaze and have been given clearance by a certified and trusted fire authorities.
This is the most likely action you’ll need to take.
If you’re in an area that has been devastated by wildfires, you can probably bet that most (if not all) of the flowers in the area have been wiped out.
But even if you’re not close to the blaze, there are often elements of the fire that affect the flowers for many miles beyond. Ash, embers, and even lack of sufficient sunlight for an extended period can adversely affect the quality and/or quantity of available flowers over the long term.
As such, we recommend you be prepared to give your bees sugar water if you find that most of the vegetation in the area has been destroyed.
Be prepared to feed your hive until the flowers in your area have grown back sufficiently. It’s entirely possible that this could take the a few weeks or even months.
In extreme cases, you may want to move your hives to a different location that has sufficient food for them until the flowers in your area are replenished. Traveling to your hives will take longer, but it will be better for your bees than solely feeding them sugar water.
At the end of the day, you won’t be able to do much more than wait for the smoke and haze to clear out.
We know many beekeepers that are very concerned if they aren’t actively doing something to protect their hives.
At times, it almost seems like this irresistible urge to do something so that you can have peace of mind knowing that your bees are safe.
You should definitely keep up on your routine hive maintenance, consistently check for diseases, and add extra supers or hive bodies on the top. But what we want to avoid is becoming “helicopter beekeepers”.
Here’s what Bret, our master beekeeper, has been telling beekeepers for 15 years:
Honey bees know what to do. They have been around a lot longer than beekeepers have. We can help & support them, but in most situations, they know what they need better than any beekeeper does.
Bees are strong, resilient creatures that are more self-sufficient than just about any other farm animal (an amazing feat when you think about it!)
The best thing you can do (other than following the previous two points) is relax and know that they will take care of themselves.
Let’s turn things over to you.
Did you find the information helpful? Have your bees ever been threatened by wildfires? Do you agree with the 3 to-dos? Why or why not? Do you have anything else you’d add to this list?
Can’t wait to hear from you!
Bryce is the CEO/CMO of Bear Country Bees and is in charge of marketing, strategy, and innovation. When he isn't obsessing over creating the best possible experience for backyard beekeepers, he loves reading Star Wars, visiting new places, and spending time with his family. He also sells weather and astronomy equipment and loves spending his spare time observing clouds, lightning, and storms.
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