Eulogy fit for a Queen

The Queen is Dead.  Long live the Queen.

So I am researching what happens to a bee colony when it dies.  There are a lot of websites, and a lot of sections in the books on what can do a hive in.

Yes, I am doing my beehive post mortem.

I am also dealing with some sadness, because I loved having my bees in the yard, and it has been hard to see them die.  The worst part is knowing that perhaps a less novice version of me could have improved their situation… and their chances.  It has been a month since I figured out that my colony was going to die, and there was a single moment when I realized that there were no real steps I could take to keep that from happening.  And it is only just now that I am able to write about it.

I am also trying to decide whether, and when to do my next experiment with the bees.  Much of that question will be answered by what I determine to be the cause of death.  And to my degree of certainty as to the cause.

The colony entered into a death spiral before I even realized something was wrong.  The brood that I got with the nuc(leus) hatched (they were pretty stabby when they did) and started to build the frames out with good waxy comb.  But then they slowed down comb production, and the queen was laying in weird patterns.  She was not replacing them fast enough.

And by the time I looked again, two weeks later, the beetles had taken over and the bees had started raiding their stores of honey instead of building more and saving it for a rainy day.  With not enough new eggs being laid to replace the last generation (workers only live 6-8 weeks in summer, so continual replacement is critical), the death spiral had begun.

So I have to ask some hard questions before I introduce another hive.  If the factors that led to the death of my hive are elements that I can control, then I need to know. And if they are not, then I might have to rethink the location before putting another hive in.

1.  Was it the setting?

I live in a neighborhood with lots of lawn and lots of old growth trees. They are located at the edge of the woods in semi-shade, and the single deep hive I provided got morning sun and afternoon shade.  Directly down the hill – perhaps 30 feet away – is a stream where there is water for them.  I lifted them off the ground on concrete blocks (I have seen elaborate wooden frames used, but the blocks get them off the ground just as well.)

There is not much of a second understory that would provide a rich source of usable nectar and pollen (oak tassels just won’t cut it….).  And there is no agriculture nearby.

It is possible that my bees would have done well in a field of poppies. (Or any other flower.  I just like saying ‘poppies’.)  Since the environment is not a typical nectar-rich environment, it is possible that they did not do well for that reason.  If that is the case, I will have to think twice about installing another colony in the same place.  There are things that I can do to supplement, but at what point am I just subsidizing bee production with artificial setting?

My across-the-creek neighbor (my backyard hive overlooks hers) also just lost her hive.  Although we haven’t talked about it, I suspect that the same thing happened to her.  There might be something systemic affecting our bees.

Management measure:  I will be spending more time watching the bees from the outside, making sure they are bringing lots of pollen into the hive.

2. Was it the bees?  

In my reading, I have found evidence of some queens that just don’t do the job.  A friend of mine said that a couple of his hives were struggling, and he found the queen and ‘mashed her’.  And then described the process he had developed for re-queening.  It could be that the queen simply was not up to the task.  This seems less likely, because she was leading a healthy group before she got brought to the Woodstock yard.

But she was also from elsewhere.  One of the concerns with getting package bees (they send them to you through the US Postal Service) is that bees are adapted for the area that they are raised.  And might not flourish in the new space.

I got my bees from a few hours’ drive away.  Not exactly importing Arctic bees and trying to make them thrive in MS.  But maybe a more immediately local variety would do better.

3. Was it the beetles?

When I first took the bees out of the box and hived them, I freaked out a little because there were quite a lot of what I soon figured out were hive beetles.  When I spoke to the guy who sold them to me and another beekeeper besides, they both assured me that unless there is a LOT of beetles, it is not a problem.  Every hive has beetles.

Um.  What is a lot?  I just transferred the bees to their new home, and what moved in with them seemed like a lot to me.  How many before I need to worry?

The end result was a lot.  The beetles really took over and out-competed the bee larva.

I suspect that the beetles are just a secondary stressor, and not the origin of the problem.  Like diagnosing a nosebleed (just apply more pressure!) when the problem is something much worse.  But there is something that I can do to address the beetles.

Management measure: I will order beetle traps, and make that investment in the health of the hive.

4. Was it zika?

I was worried last year when I saw the mosquito spraying trucks come through, spraying for mosquitoes during the Zika Scare of 2016.  Knowing that I was going to have a hive, I had spent some time trying to figure out what was reasonable to ask the City of Vicksburg to protect my bees.  I would not ask them to shut down the program altogether – the mosquito problem and the risk was real.  But I had planned on talking to the truck driver, and as needed, the city officials, about delaying the spraying in our neighborhood until after dark, to give my bees a better chance.

But they did not even spray this spring at all.  So there was nobody to ask.

Now it is possible that the environment had built up enough toxicity from previous events to wreak havoc on the bees.  But without a real forensic post-mortem, I can’t fathom it.  And there would be no way of counteracting it.

5. Was it mites?

One of my mentors immediately asked me about the mite load.  Varroa mites are one of the biggest problems, and is one of the proximal causes of hive collapse.  If you lose a hive, chances are good that it was either poor management (gulp) or varroa mites.  And you can address a varroa problem through a number of techniques; left unchecked, it will destroy the hive.

But I had been spending quite a bit of time under the hood, so to speak, and had not been able to find any mites.  I had done a couple of dustings with powdered sugar to do a count, but had not come back with any that I was able to identify.  Which, of course, means I did it all wrong.   But by the time she asked the question, there were too few bees to even test.

Varroa management will be on my list for management measures, when I get the next hive.

6. Was it poor hive management?

This is where I worry, and am sad.  Because if my hive died as a result of something preventable that I simply did not take care of, then I am at fault.  I might very well have killed my hive.

Better management is something that I can take steps to accomplish.  I can feed bees.  At least until they are established, I can provide them gallons of simple syrup, and maybe even give them some protein pacs that are sold for this reason.

I can also better manage the bee space.  One of the things that I have read and discussed a lot recently is the management of the area inside the hive.  I had understood that bees don’t like open space, so I left them plenty of room to grow outward from the center frames, densely packed to fill up the usuable space.

What I have heard, though, is that it is better to intersperse your empty frames in the box.  By alternating empty frames and full, I can encourage the hive to fill in the space more quickly, and give them help in defending that space from the beetles.  Because they HATE having frame between brood and brood, they will start building up the wax comb immediately, and she will start laying.

Moving them out into the sunshine might help.  The first real indication that I had that there was something horribly wrong was when I saw that the hive was not clearing the trash from the entrance.  Dead bees, wax, twigs, leaves, all cluttering the entrance.  Housekeeping might be easier with less of a canopy shielding light.

Still I worry that it will not be enough.

Epitaph

I am very sorry to see my bees go.  The poor queen held on to the end (she is pictured below, a week before the rest of the bees gave up), and only disappeared once I had less than 100 bees left.  I have cleaned the combs, cleaned the frames, and have tried to improve the situation, so that the next round of bees will have a better chance.

The dying hive.  The late queen in the yellow circle.

And then I got a call today.  A woman in town wants a hive removed from the corner of her house. I went over during lunch, and she has agreed to let me do it.  She’s getting a deal.  Normally, it is a $300 charge for bee removal.  And since I have only done a removal one time before, I figure that I am learning on the job.  Doing it for free, and getting the bees.

My goal is to remove the hive, remove the brood, remove the honey.  And clean it out so they can close it up and avoid repopulation from another swarm.

And, in the process get myself set up for another try.  Local bees.  Feral hive.  Feed them, fight off the beetles, and get them started.

Wish me luck.  Long live the queen.

Published by Company Bee

Novice beekeeper trying to help out.

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