I’ve had my first colony death. With only five hives, the loss is a visible one and I feel responsible for the demise of so many bees.
Of the four remaining colonies, two seem ok but the others are very small. It’s been too cold to get inside and see what’s going on, so I don’t yet know if they have laying queens. I also need to check for space, stores and signs of disease. Last year felt like I was getting the hang of beekeeping. Now I have more questions than answers and feel like a new apprentice again.
Bees can survive cold. It’s damp which is the killer. Over winter, a colony will cluster around their queen. They need to keep her warm and fed until the return of new supplies of pollen and nectar. Once temperatures rise, the cluster will disperse, freeing the queen to lay eggs and the forager bees to get out for fresh food and water.
Over Easter weekend, I lifted the hive roofs for a quick external assessment. It was too cold to disturb them further but next week is forecast to be warmer so I’m hoping to get inside and see what’s happening.
No one wants the death of a hive, but it’s definitely a learning opportunity.
I think my first mistake was misjudging the colony size in Autumn. Two hives were much stronger than the other and I should have used them as the baseline. If I’d merged them with the smaller ones, the clusters could have maintained an essential inner 35C, with the cluster exterior no less than 9C. Winter bees live six months, compared to the six-week lifespan of summer bees, but there will still be natural deaths throughout the colder months. This is risky for the weaker colonies as smaller clusters are less likely to regulate and maintain heat.
I’m thinking the second mistake was connected to leaving each hive with a super box of stores. My hives are British Standard Nationals. These consist of a brood box where the queen lays eggs and new larvae are reared, plus a smaller super box on top where the bees make honey in hexagonal cells of wax comb. I’d read about the risk of colony starvation, where it gets too cold for bees to leave the cluster and fetch stores, but this year I had extra honey so thought I was doing them a favour by giving it back.
Beekeeping may be one of the most contentious subjects in existence!
Ask three beekeepers the same question and you’ll get five different answers. For every argument in favour of removing supers over winter, there are others saying leave them on. In general terms, beekeeping is very much an individual practice and it takes time to learn the best way forward.
Did the colony die of starvation?
I wasn’t sure. The last time I saw them alive was in January when they were treated for the parasitic varroa mite. The colony was small, but starvation death often leaves protruding tongues and there was no sign of any proboscis.
They hadn’t touched the stores in the super but had eaten most of the brood box stores. The photo below shows how the cluster died a short distance from capped honey.
A cluster will move across the frames so long as they can maintain their warmth, but are less likely to move into cold spaces. I think the cluster was too small to keep warm. Cold doesn’t kill a healthy colony but they will struggle with damp. It’s rained a lot this year and I forgot to put insulation in the roofs. How much difference that might have made is unclear, but it could be a contributory factor.
I’m thinking the colony was unable to retain the necessary warmth, making it less able to search for stores.
Was it a mistake to leave the supers on?
I don’t think so. Although blossom is on the trees, and bulbs and spring flowers are out, there’s only been a few times when it’s been warm enough for foraging. The supers in the strong hives looked as they should. A perfect semicircle of empty cells where the cluster was strong enough to access their stores until temperatures improve.
What about the weaker hives?
In January I noticed the supers on the weaker hives were untouched so I uncapped the bottom rows of cells. This freed the honey to drip into the brood box, as a tastable, smellable reminder of the presence of stores. When I looked last weekend, the uncapped cells were licked clean but no others had been opened.
The clusters are really small so I’m hoping they can survive till next week’s predicted sunshine when I can do a proper inspection. In the meantime, I’ve taken the supers off the weaker hives and left some fondant directly above them, ensuring an easy source of energy for the present time.
Whatever you do in beekeeping there will be critique and people falling over themselves to offer alternative suggestions. This is mostly done in the nicest possible way but can leave you confused and unsure of what to do next.
I’m learning that experience is the most reliable teacher although whatever you choose to do, it might work or it might not – and that’s beekeeping for you!
Watch this space to see what happens next week when, fingers crossed, I can get inside the hives for a closer look.