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And then there were none

April 9, 2012

 

Our last colony of honeybees succumbed to the type of starvation that occurs when the hive population is very small. I was worried about this colony as we tucked it in for the winter. We didn’t rob any of their honey and left their honey-filled shallow super on as they had failed to fill two deeps. I hoped the mild winter would offer the bees a chance of surviving to build their population this summer, and I was heartened to see them flying when the weather warmed to unseasonable temperatures last month. I fed them a two-to-one syrup of sugar and water, as we would for a newly established nucleus hive. (Nucleus hives are purchased as three to fives frames of bees with a queen already introduced, bred and laying, as opposed to the common “package bees” which consist of loose bees in a box. Packages are shaken into a hive and the queen is then introduced to the group and must embark on a mating flights. Although she can begin laying eggs within two to three days of being mated, worker bees take 21 days to emerge, so there is a noticeable lag in population building with package bees.)

This colony was neither nuc nor package, but was a swarm captured two summers ago. It is possible it was one of our swarms that nested in the eve of a neighbor’s home that had functioned as a honeybee domicile for some 20-years previously. If so, it boasted a Northern-bred queen, as we have traditionally used Lagrant’s Honeybees of Ware, Mass for our nucleus frames. Some of those Lagrant’s colonies were still thriving here six years after being purchased. Last summer we brought in nucs from a seller who brings colonies to Massachusetts by the tractor-trailer truckload. These southern bees did very poorly, and both nucs were gone by fall.

Last week, when the sun warmed the front of the south-facing hive, I expected to see some bees going on cleansing flights, or at least hanging out around the entrance. I saw nothing. I cracked the telescoping outer cover and began to pry apart the propolis, or bee glue, that held the inner cover to the top super, when a bee came out to investigate. Relieved, I closed the hive, thinking the population must be very low and the bees are staying close to the queen and waiting for warmer weather.

A few more sunny afternoons without flight had me worrying more, and when I opened the hive yesterday, I discovered the bees had perished. My findings revealed a textbook case of low-population starvation. During cold weather, honeybees enter their “winter cluster” in which they surround the queen and keep her and each other warm. They are so committed to retaining warmth in the cluster, they will literally starve to death rather than move out of the group. The smaller the population, the less likely it is than any will move away to get food. I have had colonies starve to death below a full super (10-frames or roughly 40- to 60-pounds of honey.) In the photo below we can see about one half of the cluster, the other half remaining on the abutting frame still in the hive. The queen is right in the middle of this incredibly small group. Note the presence of capped honey in the corner of the frame. There was plenty of capped honey on the outer frames in this super, in addition to full frames of honey in the super below, as well as a gallon of sugar nectar attached to the hive entrance.

The bees in the cluster look  small, but dead bees tend to shrink as they dry.

Here is the departed golden queen separated from her cluster for contrast.

I didn’t find capped brood or eggs in the hive. It makes sense that the queen would not be roaming around laying eggs with such a small population struggling to keep the hive warm. I did find broken down supersedure queen cells. These queen-rearing habitats are created when the colony needs to replace a queen because she is unproductive. She may be dead, old, injured, or otherwise malfunctioning. These cells are created on the face of a frame. Swarm cells, by comparison, are created to raise a new queen when they want to force a swarm out of the hive, and they hang off the bottoms of the frames. They are usually formed when bees think the hive is becoming overpopulated. Beekeepers add extra living space, or supers, to the hive to prevent bees from raising swarm queens, as it is nearly impossible to reverse the swarming impulse once the process has begun. During the primary swarm the old queen leaves with around two-thirds of the worker bees. Virgin queens remain in the hive and fight until a single victor remains. They sometimes kill each other and leave a hive queen-less. After-swarms are smaller and contain some extra newly emerged queens, and as many as 21 virgin queens have been observed in a large after-swarm. Swarming is bad news and a major set-back for both beekeeper and bees. Colonies do best with the largest population possible without tipping into swarm mode, though that can be a difficult balance to achieve for the beekeeper.

It was interesting to find two y-shaped supersedure cells on a single frame. I’ve been keeping bees for 10-years this May, and I don’t remember seeing too many twin queen cells like this. They are usually a solitary open-bottomed cup, with a raised exterior often described as looking like a peanut shell.

The bad news is that is expensive to buy new honeybee colonies, especially nucleus hives, and especially five-frame nucs. The good news is we can mechanically till the garden closest to the hive. Bees are sensitive to vibrations traveling through the ground and up the hive stand. You are less likely to get stung mowing a lawn 15-feet from a hive than rototilling 50-feet from a hive. The last time I tilled that garden was in 2005, and when I did guard bees from three hives attacked, stinging me many times on the head. It was the most stings I had ever withstood, and in what is probably the worst place for stings. The venom was powerful enough to keep me in bed all the next day, a break I usually reserve for having a baby. After the honeybee attack I turned that garden by hand – and quietly, too. This week I’ll fire up the rear-tine tiller and churn a foot of composted chicken manure into the soil, offering thanks for silver linings. I’m sure I’ll be thinking about getting more bees while I’m tilling.

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