It was 18°C / 64°F today and the bees in all of my hives — even with shrew-proofing 6mm / quarter-inch mesh covering all the entrances — were out in full force.
I’ve heard arguments that the bees can’t get through quarter-inch mesh. But that’s not true. If it was, my bees would have been locked inside their hives behind the mesh all last winter. The bees in the above photograph wouldn’t be flying around today. …
People who idealize and romanticize beekeeping — I would guess that’s 99% of all people who have ever gotten into beekeeping, including me — are in for a big wake up call after they kill their first colony. Sometimes colonies die of natural causes, but whatever the reason, a hard fact of beekeeping is that bad things happen and colonies die. If honey bee colonies can die in nature even under ideal circumstances, they can die in a beeyard too.
My ragged queen bee (and her potential colony) finally died yesterday after what might be called a prolonged illness. And I’m okay with it. Honestly, I barely gave it a thought. Losing my first colony a few years back was a hard hit, especially since it was my fault and the colony was healthy and huge going into winter. The honeymoon phase of my beekeeping life died right there on the carpet. While it was certainly discouraging and sad at the time, I’ve come to accept that these things will happen and when they do, I give myself a moment (and curse to myself if no one is there) and move on. That being said, here’s the lowdown on what I found five days after I installed my ragged queen into a new hive — and after two weeks of keeping her alive with a light bulb inside a nuc box. (For anyone late to the party, all the details of this desperate tale are preserved through a unique label I just created called Ragged Queen.) So… …
The ragged queen I kept alive with a light bulb for two weeks. Caged four days ago and put in a new hive with new bees because most of the bees from her original starved-out colony were dead. How’s she doing? I would love to know.
I had hoped to lift up the top of the hive today to see if the queen is alive. Did the bees eat through the sugar plug and release the queen? Did they accept their new queen or did they kill her? Is she starved and dead in the cage? Is the cluster large enough to keep the queen warm? I do not know. The snow and the -16°C windchill (3°F) kind of put the brakes on my plans and the weather forecast calls for more of the same over the next two days. I’ll check on her as soon as I can, but man oh man, springtime in Newfoundland is brutal. Perfect timing on the snowstorm, Nature. Thanks a lot.
UPDATE (the next day): She’s dead. I’ll write a separate post soon to explain what happened and what I’ve learned from all this.
I carelessly caused one of my colonies to slowly starve this winter. The cluster was about the size of my fist, maybe a little larger. Ten days ago while I was getting ready to dismantle the hive and cut my loses, I found the queen still alive. I knew the cluster was too small to keep her warm enough to survive another month of cold Newfoundland weather, so I quickly jury-rigged a nuc box with a light bulb for heat, put the bees in that and hoped for the best. The bright light bulb killed off about a hundred bees like moths to a flame. I eventually replaced it with a red light bulb. Today I put a cage around the light bulb (in a different box) for extra safety and it looks like this:
Then I put the bees in like this (that’s a dummy board on the outer edge of the frames to prevent the comb from melting):
I looked over the bees during the transfer and couldn’t find the queen. There’s a chance she’s in there, but it doesn’t look good. I’ve done all I can. The bees won’t freeze with that light bulb. They have an exit hole close by for cleansing flights and three frames of honey. Now all I can do is wait.
Let’s assume this is a lost cause…
I think I could have saved the bees if I’d discovered them starving at least a week or two earlier. The cluster would have been larger. They would have had a better chance. Not using a caged red light bulb from the start probably didn’t help, but it was the best I could do on the spot with the materials I had available. I learned about a beekeeper who uses a red light to keep his bees warm all winter. I would never do that, but I do plan to keep at least one heated nuc on standby for next winter just in case (and I’d probably use a ceramic light bulb instead so the bees can’t even see the glowing filament). I’ve also decided to pick up a thermal imaging device for my smart phone. I already have a stethoscope, which has been helpful though it’s not what I’d call a precision instrument. Cheap endoscopes are also available, though I’ve heard people having mixed results with them. But I’m pretty sure if I’d been able to take an infrared photo of my starving hive throughout the winter, I would have seen the cluster begin to shrink as it was cut off from its honey supply and I would have been able to move honey close to the brood nest and save the bees.
APRIL 6, 2016: Even the caged light bulb attracted and killed some bees. If I had to do it again, I’d wrap the cage with heavy duty tinfoil, or perhaps even better, I’d use a large tin can instead of a cage and poke some tiny heat holes throughout it. Judging from what I’ve seen so far, I’d say a 60-watt light bulb, even behind a big tin can, would provide enough heat to keep the cluster and the queen alive.
The first photo shows what is essentially a wooden nuc box with an exit hole drilled in one end. Inside the box on the left side are three frames of honey. In the top corner of those three frames of honey is the sad looking tiny cluster of bees from the starved colony, the smallest cluster of bees I’ve ever seen. Even more incredible is the queen walking around the middle of the cluster, still alive. …
One of my colonies has been quiet for a some time now and today I found out why. The bees have been slowly starving to death. The cluster is not much larger than my fist and it’s probably queenless by now.
I took a quick peek under the hood and could tell the cluster was tiny. I also noticed poop on the frames near the cluster which usually means the queen is dead. Feces inside the hive is often a sign of nosema, but the bees also make a mess of the hive when the queen dies in the middle of the winter and can’t be replaced. I’ve seen it before. In this case the cluster got so small it wasn’t able to stay warm enough to keep the queen alive. That’s my best guess. …
I found bee body parts scattered all over the snow near my hives today.
“Ah man, what the hell is this?” was my first reaction. It was a natural reaction considering the last time I saw bee body parts was inside one of my hives last February — when shrews preyed on most of my bees until they were dead.
This is the time of year when I say to my bees, “I know things are looking grim, but just hang in there for another two months and you’ll be alright.”
The number of dead bees that fall to the bottom of a hive in the winter can be alarming. The bottom entrance of most of my hives look like this near the end of November:
But that’s just he beginning. Most of the bees alive inside the hive today — let’s say about 15,000 bees — will be dead before the weather warms up again in the spring. That pile of dead bees is gonna get big. Check out this bottom board from one of my hives last year:
The bottom entrance to that hive was clogged with dead bees by January and I wasn’t able to clear it out, so the photo might be a fair example of how many bees can safely die over the winter, at least in a large colony. That particular 3-deep colony was full of bees (living bees) by the end of June and gave me my first honey harvest before the end July.
So it’s not all doom and gloom.
The other good news is the Winter Solstice (usually December 21st or 22nd), the shortest, darkest day of the year. In theory, the queen begins to lay again, or increase her laying rate, once the days get longer. She won’t go wild with laying eggs right after the Solstice, but with longer stretches of daylight, at least new bees will begin to emerge to replace the winter die-offs.
That’s why I usually feel pretty good if my bees are alive and well by the end of January. They’ve gotten over the hump of Winter Solstice and baby bees are just beginning to emerge so the population is more or less stable. As long as they don’t starve to death or get eaten alive by shrews, I’m good. New bees should outnumber the dying bees sometime in April or May so that the population begins to go up and up until it peaks around June and stays there with about 50,000 bees until the end of July. Nice.
The next two months, though — that’s when I worry the most.
I discovered one of my honey bee colonies dead about a month ago. (See A Winter-Die Off and this video for the details.) My guess was the colony starved to death because it didn’t have enough honey. Judging from what I saw during the post mortem examination I did today, I was right.
P.S.: I would have had a more detailed post with photos and a video uploaded by now, but I just spent the last three hours trying to get my Picasa web albums to display photos like it always has for me. I had a simple, streamlined method of posting photos through Picasa that’s worked perfectly for years. But a recent effort by Google to integrate photos into Google Plus (their version of Facebook) has messed up the whole thing. I don’t like Facebook but I do like Google Plus, so it’s too bad they had to blow it. Anyway, I’ve managed to get to everything back to normal, but I don’t know how I did it and I don’t feel like wasting anymore time on it. I have little patience for constant upgrades that usually fix things that aren’t even broke. I might post a video next weekend when I’m in a better mood. In the meantime, here’s a slide show of what I found: …