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Are We Misusing "Annual Survival Rate" as a Measure of Beekeeping Success?


Here's a topic that I have not seen addressed anywhere.

Regarding survival rate, it seems that the unspoken assumption (and maybe this is just me) is that we are hoping/striving for 100%. In other words, a 100% survival rate is the ultimate, and theoretically achievable, goal. It is assumed, perhaps, that if we could provide "perfect" conditions for honey bee colonies then they would all survive, at least for several years.

But is that truly the natural ideal? Have honey bee colonies around the world ever had a through-to-next-spring survival rate of even close to 100%?  Even before the industrial revolution?  Most, if not all, creatures have a reproductive survival rate of far less than 100%.  Maybe just a 50% survival rate (just to pick a number out of the air), through-to-next-spring, even in the wild, is as good as it has ever been for honey bee colonies.  (Think about it; in the wild, a 100% survival rate of all swarms would mean that we would ultimately be overrun with honey bees.)

Here's what I'm wondering: It occurs to me that we might actually be better honey bee stewards if we had more realistic expectations and a more holistic definition of what "success" is.  In other words, wouldn't we be better bee-centric beekeepers if, along with all the other things we're trying to learn to align with nature, we aligned our survival rate expectations as well?  It seems to me that an assumed survival rate of higher than may even be natural is part of what drives so much of the intervention associated with conventional hobbyist beekeeping.

Theoretically, it would be nice if we were able to tell an aspiring, bee-centric newbee: "Let's say you do everything perfectly from the bees' perspective.  Then, if after 7 years you have a survival rate of just XX% (and we would know what percentage to put there), you will have reached the pinnacle of all that you could realistically hope for; the pinnacle of what honey bees are even designed to do."   

But, of course, there are just too many variables.  Even if our stewardship of honey bees was ideal from the bees' perspective, and we were able to keep everything perfectly consistent, there would be different average annual survival rates based on how the colony started that year.  For example (and again, just to pick numbers out of the air), perhaps the following Average Annual Survival Rates are the very best that we could ever hope to achieve in each case (and these numbers assume the colonies stay in the region where they've successfully over-wintered):

A first-year package of bees with a queen from a queen-breeder - AASR: 35%? 

A first-year split purchased from a commercial operation where the bees make their own queen - AASR: 40%?

A colony like one of those above, but that has already survived one winter - AASR: 45%?

A captured swarm from a colony that has already survived one winter - AASR: 50%?

A captured swarm that has, itself, already survived one winter - AASR: 60%?

A captured wild colony that has been living in the region for years - AASR: 65%?

A captured wild colony that has already over-wintered in its new hive - AASR: 70%?


Again, I just picked those numbers out of the air (although I have been doing some research that informed those choices). 

The point is simply this:

An assumed ideal of a 100% survival rate in our apiary may be totally unrealistic and may, in the long-term, actually cause us to inflict more harm on our bees, through the intervention we might bring to bear, as we pursue that goal.

In conclusion, I'm wondering if:

  1. Survival Rate might be a much more complicated measurement than we've realized.
  2. An assumed "ideal" of 100% may be completely unnatural and unrealistic.  (And maybe even harmful.)
  3. Perhaps we've been misusing average annual survival rate as a measure of beekeeping success.

For myself, I'm also wondering if relaxing my short-term expectations, and being more realistic about the survival rate of honey bee colonies (even in the best of conditions), might help me to be a better honey bee steward by contributing to a more long-term and holistic view of what beekeeping success actually is.



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  • Scott Sailors on

    Simon, I love the way you think! We, to the great detriment of honey bees, and ourselves, tend to think about honey bees as individual colonies. (I’m going to write about this soon; watch for a post titled Macro vs. Micro Beekeeping.

    But all the colonies in a region are connected to each other. Of course they are. They have to be in order to survive as a species. It has been documented that drones from other hives are allowed to enter a hive not their own and walk all around on the brood comb. What are they doing if not assessing the welfare of the colonies in their region and sharing that information between colonies? This is speculation, at this point, but I am expecting to see research in the next few years that bears this out.

  • simon kellam on

    Scott. Very interesting article. I have been wondering the very same thing myself after reading about Thomas Seeley’s study of 42 wild colonies back in the 70’s, pre varroa days. He found that when a founder colony occupied a tree for the first time its survival rate was as low as 20%, yet when another colony came to re occupy that very same tree its survival rate was as high as 80%. Therefore I conclude that maybe colonies are working for each other and even sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the spices ?? That would also answer another conundrum of mine. As bees are so intelligent why do they swarm late in the season when the chances of survival are slim….to start up another nest sight for a future swarm of bees ??

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