On a walk past the bee yard the other day I paused to put my ear to the hive, something I do regularly throughout the winter. I discovered that only one of our two hives was making its normal faint buzzing sound. It was a warm (45 degree) sunny day so I opened the silent hive and found it full of dead bees, many of them near the top but also many with their noses deep in the comb, a sign of starvation.
I felt terrible – I thought I had left them enough honey for the winter, but maybe not? On closer inspection I found a few frames of capped honey not far from the cluster of bees. The upper entrance showed evidence of cleansing flights and there were quite a few dead bees outside on the ground in the snow – had they been sick or was it just too cold? Each hive had an insulated winter cover with plenty of air flow to keep them dry.
I tried not to get teary, but instead stomped around the bee yard in frustration. Like any new parent I was plagued with doubt and guilt – what did I do wrong? Plenty, I’m sure, but how do I make sure I don’t make the same mistakes again?
Our adventure with bees began three years ago at the Burlington screening of the award-winning documentary film “Queen of the Sun: What Bees are Telling Us”. I then took Ross Conrad’s Organic Beekeeping course and passed the exam given by the Vermont Beekeeper’s Association.
Our two hives did fairly well the first year, but to be safe we didn’t extract any honey. They came through the winter very strong, so strong that I missed preventing one of the hives from swarming, leaving it mostly empty with a Queen cell. I’m afraid I did something to interrupt the acceptance of the new queen or she didn’t return from her mating flight, because after 6 weeks there were no new eggs.
So I split the strong hive and introduced a new Russian Queen. I made notes on which boxes had nectar, eggs, and capped brood. Throughout the rest of summer they seemed very strong, I added supers as they needed them, and then we extracted honey in early September.
We took 3.5 gallons total from the two hives, leaving a full shallow on each, and an empty shallow for the bees to fill during the goldenrod flow. In October one of the two hives seemed weaker and hadn’t filled their second super, so I did a mite count using my IPM board and they both had a fairly heavy infestation, so I fed the hive, adding BeeHealthy, and treated them both for mites with ApiVar. There was no evidence of Nosema or Foulbrood. We did have some pretty cold weather this winter, but I’m questioning how much honey I left them, and plan to leave them more next year.
So what’s my plan for my dead hive? First I’m going to clean it out and do some more investigating. Here’s my plan - Take out the frames one by one and brush off the dead bees and vacuum out the ones still in cells. Scrape of any bridge or burr comb and propolis from the frames and inspect the comb to see if any frames need replacing. Do the same with the hive bodies, cleaning off the frame rests etc. where the propolis really gets in the way. Then I’ll work my way down to the bottom board getting everything cleaned up. It might be a while before the new bee package arrives so I’ll store the empty hive in the barn (where it’s still freezing) in a plastic bag until it warms up outside and then air it out in the greenhouse so it doesn’t mildew.
I have to decide soon if I’m going to order a new package of bees with a new Russian Queen or try to raise a new queen from the overwintered hive, and split it in June. The advantage of splitting an overwintered hive is that hopefully some of the genetic material of the bees that survived can be passed to the new hive, breeding tougher, more resistant bees. This is the approach of both Ross Conrad and Kirk Webster, a well-known Vermont honeybee queen breeder, who didn’t use chemicals at all when tracheal mites were first discovered in the state in the late 1980s. He lost 95 percent of his bees the first year, but by breeding the survivors, now has a resistant stock. I would love one of his queens but there’s a two-year wait-list. Knowing how busy we are in spring, I’ll probably start with a fresh box of bees in early May.
Losing hives is fairly common now (30% is the average) – honey bee colonies are overrun with difficulties (Colony Collapse Disorder, Nosema, and now Zombie bees. Our wild bees are almost extinct (the national Academy of Science reported a 96% decline in the four abundant species), and it’s now being shown that wild and domesticated bees are passing diseases to each other.
To make matters worse the U.S. market is being flooded with cheap honey from China (laundered through other Asian countries – see this article on Honey laundering) and this honey is often contaminated with banned antibiotics and diluted with corn syrup, yuck. The flood of cheap foreign honey is reducing demand for local honey = fewer hives = fewer pollinators = less local food.
So, yes if we want to keep eating healthy food we need to become advocates for healthy bees and local raw honey. Let’s all cross our fingers, and say a prayer for a warm spring full of blossoms and healthy bees.