Here are some photos from the summer of taking care of bees. They’re taken at the apiary of Bear Creek Honey, not my own apiary at The Beanstalk.
A few weeks ago I posted that my favorite hive, the one that made lots of honey last year, had died over the winter. At the time I didn’t have a good idea of what happened. My best guess was that the bees got dysentry, possibly from eating fermented sugar syrup. I think I’ve now come up with a better guess of what happened, thanks to the help of a couple of bee folks who know way more than I do.
Apparently fermeneted sugar syrup was probably not the problem because that would have made them sick right away, when they initially digested the syrup while filling the combs for the winter. Judging by how little food they ate from the combs, they probably died in November, so they made it past any bad syrup I may have fed them.
There is another salient observation about the hive: the cluster was split into two groups, one on the left side of the top box and another on the right side of the lower box. Apparently this is fairly unusual and indicative of a problem with the queen.
The folks-who-know-more-than-me wouldn’t even guess at what killed the colony until I mentioned the hive had been superceding in the fall. Sometimes a hive isn’t happy with their queen. When this happens, they will start rearing another queen, which is called superceding. This doesn’t always work and if the old queen is dying when the supercedure fails, the colony can end up without a queen. Without her pheremones to keep all the bees together and organized, the hive will die over the winter. I’ve been told those two pieces of information- the attempted supercedure in the fall and the split cluster in the hive- indicate there’s a pretty good chance the colony died because it was queenless.
Although sad, it’s good to know the colony probably didn’t die from a disease that I mis-managed. If I had more experience I may have noticed they were queenless going into winter but who knows. And I still don’t know for sure that’s what happened but it’s the best guess I have right now.
For those who are interested, the other hive is still doing really well. They’ve been bringing in lots of pollen so everything looks great.
And in a couple weeks I will be welcoming five new hives to the Beanstalk! I’ll post about their arrival when the time comes. I’ll have six or seven hives this summer, which probably won’t be enough to provide everyone who would like honey with some, but with my level of experience I’m cautious about getting much more than that.
The weather has been warm and sunny for the last few days. Coincidentally, I’m also working fewer hours at my day job so I had an opportunity to check my hives yesterday. I’ve known for a few weeks that one of my hives died and that one was still alive. But yesterday I took the time to open up the dead hive to see what happened. Here is what I saw:
Before I explain the photo, I will describe how bees overwinter. Bees do not hibernate- they remain active all winter, eating honey to give them energy and shivering to stay warm. They form a tight ball, or cluster, to conserve heat. In the centre of the cluster the temperature is usually around 32C. Beekeepers often put insulation around the hives so the bees do not need to work as hard to stay warm and to protect from sudden swings in temperature. Bees can go a long time without defecating in the winter, but they need to take cleansing flights occassionally. Defecating in the hive is unsanitary and can spread diseases so honey bees will not do it unless something is wrong.
Successfully overwintering a hive is the most challenging part of beekeeping (in my opinion). If a colony is in tip-top shape, with plenty of bees, plenty of food, and no illnesses or weakened immune systems, and if the winter weather is favourable, a colony will live. If one or two of those variables are not optimal, the chances of a colony surviving winter are lessened.
And now to the photo. All those brown specks are bee poo, which should not be in the hive. You can see the remnants of the frozen cluster in the upper left, just beside the shadow. I didn’t take off the top box to look at the bottom one; the cluster may extend down and become larger. To my surprise, there was lots of honey still in the combs. I had assumed they had starved but apparently something else happened. There were also many dead bees immediately outside the hive. Figuring out what went wrong is a bit like a detective mystery.
My best guess is that the bees got dysentry. Dysentry is not a disease in itself, it is symptom. It simply means the bees got diarrhea because they were eating something that was hard for them to digest. The sugar syrup I fed them this fall to help them build up their winter food stores may have fermented, which can cause dysentry.
But that’s just a guess. I’m not really sure what happened. I was also surprised that there were so many bee parts, rather than whole dead bees. Maybe the bees were carrying dead bees out of the hive and in the process the bees were falling apart, being frozen and brittle. If anyone has any suggestions on what happened to my hive over the winter feel free to leave a comment.