Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Super Sad True Bee Story

So. . .

The bees died.

At least the ones I keep with my neighbor did—the hives in Ohio seem to be doing well. Unfortunately, losing colonies is a common experience, one that is shared by all beekeepers. Everyone loses their hives at some point. The key to successful beekeeping is accurately determining WHY your bees died and taking realistic precautions to prevent it from happening again. Beekeeping is a constant learning experience and it is so important not to let yourself
get stuck in a rut, making the same mistakes over and over.

Mistakes are an OK thing, so long as you take the opportunity to learn from them.

This isn't the first time I've had hives die. It won't be the last time I'll have hives die. It will be sad every time. I'll try to avoid getting any more philosophic than that.

Instead, I'll walk you through my process of determining why these two hives died. In the US, the most common reported causes of death are starvation (32%) and weather (29%), followed by weak fall colonies (14%), mite infestation (12%), and poor queen quality (10%). That leaves less than 3% for losses due to diseases, including CCD. (source) These numbers are probably more than a little skewed, as they were based on responses to surveys, not impartial inspections. Beekeepers are a prideful bunch and are reluctant to admit their mistakes, so when someone asks you why your hives died, it's easy to pass the buck and blame the weather. I'll get this out of the way now:

I make mistakes. Mistakes that have killed off entire colonies. I do try to avoid repeating them.

Anyway, the first signs that something had gone awry came in the first week of January. My neighbor Philippe had gone up to the roof where the bees live to check on the hives, knocked on the sides, and heard no activity. The next weekend, he invited me and my apprentice, Emily, up to the roof to take a look.

The first thing we noticed:

Plenty of honey.
Image by Emily V., 2011

The bees clearly had enough honey stored away for the winter, and most of the frames were chock full of capped honey and pollen. They certainly didn't die from a lack of food.

The second thing we saw:

Uh oh.
Image by Emily V., 2011

Right in the middle of the lower brood box, the top of a dead cluster, just a few inches from frames of capped stores. As you can see, the bees died IN their cluster:

The upside is that it is a great view of a winter cluster configuration.
The downside is that they're dead.
Image copyright, 2011

Inspecting the bees themselves, I saw no signs of disease or a serious mite infestation. No deformed wings or bodies (the result of a virus vectored by Varroa mites), no bad smell, no signs of fecal spotting within the hive (a common symptom of a bad case of Nosema), or other typical signs of disease. Obviously the bees were dead and that's usually considered a bad sign, but since it’s winter, there is no brood and thus no infection from any of the brood diseases. I am pretty confident that I can check diseases off the list as a cause of colony death.

Super Sad True Hipster Face.
Image by Emily V., 2011.

Both colonies were strong the entire year and had virile queens, so that leaves starvation and weather as the leading candidates. I mentioned previously that the bees seemed to have plenty of capped honey. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that they didn't starve. If the outside temperature is too cold to break the cluster and move to new food stores, the colony can and will starve in place, inches from the food that they need. It happens surprisingly often, and there is very little you can do about it. Jim Fischer of the New York City Beekeeping Meetup Group has mentioned that if the bees are too dumb to move three inches to get to food, they don't deserve to live. It's harsh, but sometimes you just have to accept that the fates have conspired against your bees and there is nothing you can do about it.

Darwin is a jerk.


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