It is with sorrow that I share with you our loss of one of the Whiting Forest hives. It was just 3 weeks ago that we had two live hives, so as the weather started to turn warm, it was NOT a good sign that there wasn’t any activity outside of the hive. I don’t know if we will ever know for sure what happened, but through some exploration we know what DIDN’T.
The thing a beekeeper MUST do after a dead-out is to dissect the hive. You have to look for the obvious and not so obvious signs of what may have happened.
We had a friend bring a dead hive in so we could explore what might have happened and there were only a couple of deceased stragglers left in the hive. That, combined with the fact that most of the bees left had varroa mites on them, was a sure sign that the mite counts in this hive were not under control before winter hit. It is very like the bees absconded…that means they left the hive for good. Absconding is different than swarming. Swarming is the super-organism’s (hive) way of reproducing/making more colonies – usually in the spring. Absconding is when conditions in the hive are not right for the colony and they decide to find a new home – all of them.
While it is disturbing to discover what happened, especially if it could have been prevented, it is reassuring to KNOW as well as a good way to learn for better success in the future.
In the case of the Whiting Forest hives, we took advantage of the nice weather to open up the dead hive and look for some answers. What were we looking for? Evidence of any of the following: Varroa mites, lack of resources = starvation, dead brood, or evidence of disease. We went through each and every frame, scraped excess wax, removed or fixed damaged frames and removed dead bees…the hive is now ready for new tenants.
What did we find? We found NO MITES – that was a relief, because we were fairly certain we had done ok on this front. There was still plenty of honey in the hive for them to eat, so they didn’t starve. There weren’t any large areas of brood un-emerged, so we could (not definitively) rule out a foul brood disease. The hive didn’t smell, so infection with Nosema (a fungal infection that essentially causes bee diarrhea) wasn’t likely an issue.
What did that leave? Well, Elly suggested that it was likely a queen issue which does makes sense. A hive without a queen isn’t sustainable. We know before we combined this hive with part of the queenless hive, we were queenright. Could that combination have caused an issue? Possibly if they had a laying worker, the bees might have seen the real queen as an invader. We tried to prevent this, but you cannot always predict what will happen. Could our final mite treatment of the season had a detrimental effect? Looking back, we know that during thermal imaging, this hive had a smaller population than the other…it could also have been the cold snap just did them in (they couldn’t stay warm). We won’t ever know for sure, but with this knowledge we will be better equipped for this fall.
I wish I could say that our second hive is still thriving, but I really cannot at this point. There are live bees inside, but not a ton and not much movement (coming and going). They too seem to have food left (the hive felt heavy). It was too windy today to go in and check, but we are saying prayers to St. Ambrose (patron saint of bees and beekeepers; we Google strange things while out at the hives sometimes) that they are still queenright and she is preparing to kick bee-making into high gear.
It is really hard not to get discouraged, but knowing we did all we could is helpful. We will surely debrief and see what more we could do next year.
Our plan going forward:
- Hope hive number 2 survives
- Install a package of bees into a hive with NEW equipment so that our Beekeeping class can see a colony truly establish their hive
- Hope our personal hives will provide a split to repopulate one of the Whiting Forest hives and that we have a nice year of blossoms for the ladies to explore