A Winter Die-off

It seems as if one of my honey bee colonies starved to death sometime over the past two months. At a glance it may look like a normal colony. But trust me, those bees are dead.

I didn’t have time for a close inspection, so I can’t confirm that starvation is the cause of death, but I’d say it’s a pretty good guess. I didn’t top up any of our hives with sugar syrup before winter. I let the bees take honey from their own honey supers instead. Unfortunately, these bees didn’t get enough. And so it goes.
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Dry Sugar Check Up and Pollen Patties

It was warm enough today (1°C / 34°F) to take a peek inside our four hives and add some pollen patties. I didn’t have to top up the dry sugar that was added 46 days ago. The bees in the foundationless hive are low on honey, as I suspected, and have eaten through the most sugar, but they have enough to keep them going for a while. The bees in the conventional hives have eaten some of their sugar, but I still think they would have been fine without it. I could see several frames full of honey in each of the hives. The bees in the conventional hives were clustering above the top bars by the end of December, but a lack of honey doesn’t seem to be the reason. Okay, then, here’s how it played out in video form. First, a short version in HD that cuts to the chase.


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And So It Goes

File this one under “Another Slow News Day.”

What do rotting honey bee corpses look like in the middle of February after being buried in snow for a couple months? This:

We had a heavy rain storm over the weekend that melted and washed away most of the snow and revealed the bottom entrances of the hives that have been buried for much of the new year. I knew I’d see more dead bees. The old-timers seem to fly outside the hive and die. Several hundred of them are scattered around the yard, little black dots everywhere on the crusty snow. Sometimes the dead are removed from the hive, but I get the impression corpse-removal becomes a lower priority in the dead of winter when it’s hard enough just to stay alive. The bottom board of our one foundationless hive is nearly blocked with dead bees. Dead bees are accumulating in the other three hives, too, though not as bad.
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Cleansing Flights

I didn’t think we’d have anything to report until March, but I was wrong. The bees in both hives finally got to use the washroom today after holding it in for the past three months. The following photos and video were taken around 11am today, not a breath of wind, a mild 3°C / 37°F, blinding sun bouncing off the snow. First I saw this little guy outside the door:

(Yes, I know it’s a female worker and not a little guy, but saying “little girl” doesn’t work for me.)
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Adding Pollen Patties

I added some pollen patties (and one candy cake) to our hives today. Here’s the video, and then I’ll talk about it and show you some pictures.

UPDATE (Feb. 19/11): We don’t like to smoke our bees, but if we could go back and do it over again, we’d smoke ’em first. A few good puffs of smoke through the upper entrance may have driven the bees down below the top frames. That would have made it much easier to slip in the pollen and sugar — and it would have prevented me from squishing a clump of bees between the pollen patty and the inner cover when I put the inner cover back down (possibly squishing the queen).
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Hives in Snow Video

This video is not instructive. It’s just me digging a path through the snow from our back door to the hives in the backyard that are half buried in snow.

I cleared the lower front entrances afterwards, scraping ice away easily with my hive tool. A few guard bees came out and died from the cold immediately, but at least the colonies are still alive. I continue to be totally in awe of the bees. (See Hives in Snow for more photos.)

Notes from “ABC and XYZ”

ABC BOOK
I’m copying out the following for future reference from page 686 of The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture (1947 edition). It’s from the “Wintering” section. I will likely update this post many times as I continue to read from the book. These are notes for myself. They’re not meant to be comprehensive.

“Tests have shown that pollen supplements fed to unprotected wintered-over colonies beginning late in February to advance brood-rearing will yield one to two packages of bees [30 to 40 thousand bees?] about April 20… This control over brood-rearing based on the pollen factor makes it possible for the colony to develop in spite of unfavourable climatic or seasonal conditions… Forty pounds [18kg] of honey stored in dark brood combs should be present in the top hive body when 10-frame standard equipment is used.” The total should be at least 60 pounds of honey for a 2-storey wintering Langstroth hive.

How much wrap or insulation is used for wintering hives is determined largely by local weather conditions. Except for ventilation through an upper entrance, there is no universally correct way to winter hives. From page 694: “…beginners and those who have some doubt, [should] follow methods that have given good results… in their own immediate locality… It will bear repeating that localities differ so that what will work well in one may not in another. Specifically where there is excess moisture, packing [i.e., insulation] may do more harm than good, especially if it freezes.”

NOTE: The 1910 edition of this book (and probably the 1947 edition) are in the public domain. It can be downloaded in various formats or read online at Archive.org.
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Mid-Winter Observations

WINTER HIVES
It’s February 1st, 2011, and winter has finally settled in for St. John’s, Newfoundland. The snow is likely to hang around until April (bluh), so it’s more the beginning of winter than mid-winter, but we’ll call it mid-winter. It’s less depressing that way.

Our two winter-wrapped first-year honey bee colonies have been living off their honey stores for a little over 70 days. We added some sugar cakes to the hives a few days ago because the bees are clustered heavily on the top frames, which can indicate they’re running out of honey. I’m not so sure about that. I suspect it could be natural behaviour for cold-climate honey bees with Russian and Carniolan genes, but it’s safer to feed them hard candy than risk starving them out. Each hive now has around 2 kg of hard candy sugar cakes (about 4.5 pounds) and the same amount waiting for them in our fridge if they need it later on.
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