When you love someone, you are never really prepared to lose them. When my beekeeping, gardener Grandfather passed, he had end-stage renal failure and we had 5 years to prepare – it wasn’t enough. Last winter, when my 14-year old cat passed, she had been telling us for weeks that her time was coming to an end – it wasn’t enough.
No matter how prepared we ‘think’ we are, when it happens, we realize we didn’t have enough time to prepare ourselves.
Wednesday we had a little bit of warm weather – about 55º and decided it was a good time to inspect our 4 hives. We stood in the bee yard, observing the colonies for quite some time.
One colony was very busy. A constant stream of foragers leaving and returning with their pollen baskets packet with the lightest pollen I have yet to see.
Two of the colonies were slightly busy and grew more so as we opened the bottom entrance to their hives, sweeping out the dead bees that had accumulated (honeybees normally live about 6 weeks. Winter bees are ‘fat’ bees and can live about 13 weeks; irregardless, you’re going to have some bees die during the normal course of winter, which need to removed.)
The 4th colony.
Mr. Misty assured me they were fine – they must be – two weeks ago they had been just as active as the other colonies.
I knew before he opened the hive lid and found the first batch of bees dead atop the sugar board we had given all the colonies to help supplement their feed.
Two weeks ago they were a buzz with activity. Today, the insides of the hive, frames, bees – all covered with mold.
According to an annual nationwide survey, last year between April 2016 and April 2017, beekeepers lost 33% of their colonies. Talking to other beekeepers, it’s not unusual to suffer a 50% loss. A number they seem comfortable with.
With the loss of our one colony, we have sufferd a 25% loss. Less than an average, yet I’m no where near “comfortable” with that number.
We knew this could happen. We spent 6 weeks in beekeeping classes, endless hours in beekeeping meetings, done hours of research learning about all the perils of beekeeping, but it really wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to prepare us for the deafening silence of our colony.
So, why do colonies die? More importantly, why did OUR colony die.
The answer is really complex. While many surmise the reason has to do with the weather, there is quite of bit of research to indicate that more often it’s parasites and diseases, with poor nutrition and exposure to pesticides closing in from behind.
Dr. Danny Najera, a professor at Green River College located in Auburn, Washington, and his students have been doing quite a bit of research regarding colony collapse and what factors might predict colony survival. They have been monitoring approximately 100 colonies in the King County area of Washington State. For more about their research and findings, visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GreenRiverHoneyb
Late last summer, he was a guest speaker at one of our monthly Beekeepers Association meetings.
His research seems to be pointing toward Varroa destructor, an external parasitic mite that attacks the honey bees, as on of the greatest factor in colony collapse. In fact, it was his reasearch that lead us to treat our bees for Varroa, this fall.
When evaluating viability of a colony, if there is more than 7 mites per 100 bees, that colony has a 32.5% death rate, whereas a colony that has less than 7 mites per 100 bees only has a 4% death rate. Here is a link to the slide show he presented to our group: Slideshow
We did everything “right” – we built an enclosure to keep them out of the weather, the hives are off the ground and slightly pitched forward to allow any moisture to drain out and each hive has a moisture box on top to wick up condensation. We treated our bees for parasites, monitored for diseases, made sure they had access to quality feed and forage and we are pesticide free on our 12 acres.
So, what happened??
The colony that died was already weak to begin with. If you have been following us for awhile, you might remember our last post about our bees, Adventures in First Year Beekeeping and how our original Carniolan Queen swarming on us.
She had a really weird laying pattern and tended to create a lot of drone bees and her progeny built really wonky looking comb. When compared to our thriving Italian colony, that started out as a “nuc”, this Carnioan “package” colony just never did as well.
Being new beekeepers we took it for what it was. Even after she swarmed on us, we looked at it as a learning experience (which it was) rather than a warning of things to come. I think a more experience beekeeper may have recognized the problem, extrapolated the outcome and dealt with it… by squishing the queen and allowing the hive to raise a new one or purchasing one.
Final postmortem – What killed our hive?
Starvation? NO. They didn’t die butt up with their heads in the cells – The hive had more than enough capped honey and we had supplemented with a sugar board, just in case.
Foulbrood, dysentery or parasites? NO. NO. NO. The bees didn’t look deformed, black or greasy. The hive didn’t smell bad. The questionable cells passed the prick test. There was no brown or yellow staining on the front of the hive to indicate dysentery. And, we had treated for mites.
Weather? The most missused attribution to a colony’s collapse, in our case looks to be the culprit. Crazy, right? The thing we have no real control over.
Bees are cold blooded creatures. In the winter, they form a cluster in the hive to stay warm. They eat honey, ‘shiver’ to create heat and they wait for warmer weather. But, if the hive population is too low, they wont be able to produce enough heat.
When we saw them out buzzing around a couple of weeks ago, it was during a short spell of warm weather which was quickly followed by very cold temperatures and torrential rain.
Because this hive was already small in numbers, when they broke cluster to forage for food, it looks as if they just werent able to cluster back up and create enough heat to keep them alive and dry.
Wet, cold bees are dead bees.
As I sit here and write this, my heart is very heavy. Bees aren’t just some insect that flies about, that we swat at in annoyance. These are much needed pollenators, who are extremely important to our ecosystem. And, they are our ‘livestock’, which regardless of size, we care for with the very best of our ability out of respect for what they provide us.
This wont be our last lost. But it’s our first and the freshest…and probably be one we will always remember.
Are you a beekeeper? How have your bees faired so far?
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8 thoughts on “Homestead Buzz – Deafening Silence”
Sorry for your loss. I do believe your post mortem is spot on though. Great deductive skills!
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Thanks! Now going forward, we have to re-evaluate if we really do want to go commercial or maybe take it a bit slower.
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J > We had a succession of winter losses, over a few years, and eventually had to accept our islands are not suitable for honey bees – too windy/wet. 98% humidity almost winter-through. No wild honey bees. Eventually we had to give up and transfer the remaining need to someone in the Inner Hebrides, who knew how to consolidate them into existing hives\swarms. We did learn one thing: cold itself should not be a severe problem if the air is dry. Protect from wind, but not flow of air or sunshine. Insulate the lid, certainly, and wrap sides: but only with vapour permeable material. Ventilation is essential, lots of it, otherwise the colony will get damp and susceptible to freezing, and bacteria. We wish you success!
Thanks so much!!
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What a disappointment! Thanks for sharing your experience, though. I have read with interest your articles on beekeeping. I am sensitive to the stings and I live in town so I don’t have hives. But I have a bee garden where I plant to attract the foragers. Bees are so interesting!
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They are very interesting! I enjoy sitting close to a hive and watch them come and go and how they interact with one another.
“Losing” colonies is very normal. If they all survived, over and over, with the beekeeper solving every one of the bees’ problems, it’s almost as if they eventually would never be able to survive without us. We are almost there. That being said, one out of four dead would have most backyard beeks giddy. It looked like you had a major moisture issue with all that mold. One simple split, and you’re right back to four. But winter isn’t over yet.