It was unseasonably warm at 6°C in my beeyard today (43°F), warm enough for the bees in most of my hives to get out for some cleansing flights, possibly for the first time in months.
Honey bee after a cleansing flight. (March 27, 2016.)
The bees were flying all around me and landing on me and I swear I could smell… bee farts.
Spring time in Newfoundland.
Newfoundland weather report for March 24th, 2016.
It’s been like this for most of March.
Translation for Americans: -18°C = 0°F; 82km/h = 51mph. And most of you probably know what snow is.
I used 6mm mesh (quarter-inch mesh) on my hives this winter for the first time because I lost most of my colonies last winter when shrews managed to squeeze through the half-inch mesh I kept on the bottom entrances. I’m not sure if the shrews got into the hives through the top entrances, but to be safe this winter, I covered both the top and bottom entrances with 6mm mesh. Now I’m wondering when I should remove the mesh, at least from the top entrances.
Opening the quarter-inch mesh and releasing the bees for cleansing flights. (March 19, 2016.)
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.
Tiny dying cluster (March 13, 2016.)
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.
SHORT VERSION: Dry sugar feeding may be more likely to work when the sugar is given a little spritz.
Bees chowing down on dry sugar. (Jan. 08, 2012.)
I know many beekeepers who prefer feeding their bees in the winter by pouring dry sugar
over the top bars because it’s quick and easy and it works. I know other beekeepers who don’t use dry sugar because the bees, instead of eating the sugar, remove it from the hive like they would with any kind of debris.
But here’s the key to the dry sugar method: THE SUGAR NEEDS TO HARDEN. It probably doesn’t absolutely need to harden. I’ve seen starving bees consume every granule of sugar within a day. Beggars can’t be choosers. But when the bees aren’t starving and the sugar is loose and crumbly, they sometimes remove it from the hive like tossing out the garbage. Anyway…
I had eight honey bee colonies going into winter last year (2014) and all but two of them were destroyed by shrews. The shrews squeezed through the half-inch mesh I’d been using since 2010 to keep mice out. But no one ever told me about shrews. The little buggers easily squeeze through half-inch mesh. They slip inside and pluck one bee at a time from the edge of the cluster. They eat the bee’s innards, toss away the bits of legs and other desiccated body parts, then climb towards the cluster for more… until they eat approximately 125% of their body weight in bees every day, gradually reducing the size of the cluster until the colony is dead.
That’s how I lost six colonies last year. With only one mated queen and no extra brood, I performed a miracle and managed to expand my remaining two colonies into five colonies last summer. They may not be the strongest colonies I’ve ever seen, but they’re hanging in there (so far). All of my hives have quarter-inch mesh covering every entrance now. Shrews will never get anywhere near my bees again.
Looking back on my notes from last year, along with photos and videos I shot and the memory of the experience burnt in my brain, the first sign of a shrew inside one of my hives seems obvious. It’s in this photo from January 5th, 2015:
Someone asked me when, why and how I feed my bees pollen patties. Here’s a photo from one of my first posts about the topic, Adding Pollen Patties. The colony pictured below, by the way, is starving. Usually the way it works is the more winter bees above the top bars, the less honey there is in the hive (usually, not always).
Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)
I’ve written about pollen patties a bunch of times, so I’m likely to repeat myself here. Do a search of “patties” in my little search engine box up at the top for more detailed information with videos and photos and so on.
One of my honey bee colonies died over the winter. (See A Winter Die-Off, A Winter Die-Off Post Portem: The Photos and Why My Honey Bees Died for more details.) It starved to death because: (1) I thought it had enough honey of its own and didn’t need to be fed extra honey or sugar syrup in the fall. I was wrong. I’ll feed my colonies in the fall for now if I have any doubts about their honey stores. (2) I wrapped all my hives for winter on December 1st and didn’t check on them for two months, not until February 3rd. I waited too long. I should have checked on them first thing in the new year and given any starving colonies some sugar.
|Dead cluster on a frame near the brood nest. (March 10, 2013.)
But now I know and I’m not discouraged by it. I had to lose a colony sooner or later. I went into the 2011 winter with two colonies, 2012 with four and 2013 with seven. So now I have six instead of seven. That’s not a catastrophic loss and it’s a pretty good survival rate for three winters of beekeeping. I also now have an extra twenty frames of drawn comb to work with this year. That’s a luxury I’ve never had.
One of my honey bee colonies starved to death over the winter and I suspect about half of the six colonies still alive are living entirely off the raw sugar I’ve been feeding them since February. There are many reason for this. I gave the colonies some of their own honey but didn’t top them up with sugar syrup in the fall. Some of the colonies were weakened last spring because they swarmed. One colony had a failing queen for most of the year. Another colony was a caught swarm with a virgin queen that didn’t begin laying well until mid-July. Another two colonies were started up from splits (not much different then starting from mid-season nucs). All of the above can significantly reduce a colony’s ability to produce honey, especially considering the short summers in Newfoundland. New policy: Don’t harvest honey from any colony that’s been potentially weakened (from swarming, splitting, etc.). The bees need all the honey they can get. New sub-policy: I’d rather not feed the bees sugar if I can help it, but for now on if I have any doubts, I’ll top them up with sugar syrup in the fall. It’s better than dealing with dead or starving bees in the middle of the winter. Here’s a photo of some bees today that have eaten through most of the sugar I gave them since February:
You can see I added two pollen patties but the sugar is dangerously low. I dumped in more sugar over the pollen patties a few minutes after I took the photo. I’ll have to keep a close eye on all the colonies now, at least until the May dandelions bloom and they can start bringing in nectar and pollen on their own.
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.
Starved out bees in cells. (March 10, 2013.)
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: