Headless Honey Bees in the Snow

I found bee body parts scattered all over the snow near my hives today.

Body parts of headless honey bees. (Feb. 14, 2016.)

Body parts of headless honey bees. (Feb. 14, 2016.)

“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.

Signs of a shrew inside a hive. (Feb. 22/15.)

Signs of a shrew inside a hive. The white stuff is sugar, not snow. (Feb. 22/15.)


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First Sign of Shrews in a Hive

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:

shrew-scare
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Honey Leaking From Hive

I noticed some honey or sugar syrup on the bottom board of one of my hives this morning.

Watered down honey or syrup on bottom board. (Feb. 02, 2016.)

Watered down honey or syrup on bottom board. (Feb. 02, 2016.)

I’ve seen this before. It usually happens in the winter when open honey comb contracts in the cold and then expands in the sudden heat of a warm spell and drips out of the cells. That’s all that’s happening. The first time I saw this, I thought a mouse got in the hive and chewed open some honey comb, which is not unheard of. But there’s no way a mouse could get through my quarter-inch mesh.

Frost From Bees’ Breathe

The buzz of my bees has gotten quieter through my stethoscope in the past couple of weeks. I hope they’re not freezing to death. I don’t think they are. I think they’re just contracting into a tighter ball as the weather gets colder. I saw a sign of life in one of my hives this morning.

Frost showing up from respiration of the bees' inside the hive. (Flatrock, NL, January 26, 2016.)

Frost around the upper entrance of a hive. Temperature: -20°C / -4°F in the wind. (Flatrock, NL, January 26, 2016.)

That’s frost build-up on the shrew-proofing mesh of the top entrance, frost that came from the respiration of the bees’ inside the hive. Which means they’re alive. I’ve been eager to take a peek inside, but that’s good enough for now.

Attaching Mesh With Pushpins (Instead of Staples)

I removed the shrew-proofing mesh from my hives yesterday so I could clear out the dead bees that have accumulated so far this winter. I reattached the mesh afterwards with the use of a staple gun that produces a loud bang that vibrates through the hive and riles up the bees. But this comment changed everything:

“Would it be possible to secure it [the mesh] with drawing pins rather than staples?”

It’s absolutely possible. I did it today, just five minutes ago.

One of three thumb pushpins used to attach shrew-proofing mesh to hive. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

One of three thumb pushpins used to attach shrew-proofing mesh to a hive. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

The drawing pins / pushpins work just as well as staples as far as I can tell. That mesh isn’t going anywhere.

Three green thumb pushpins (instead of staples) used to attach mesh over bottom entrance. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

Three green thumb pushpins (instead of staples) used to attach mesh over bottom entrance. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

Now I can easily remove the mesh, clean out the dead bees and reattach the mesh without bothering the bees. I thought I might need to find a different method for keeping the shrews out of my hive for next year. Not anymore. The mesh attached with thumb pushpins instead of staples works perfectly. At least that’s my story for now.

Thanks for the tip, Emily.

NOVEMBER 19, 2016: The original version of this post referred to the pushpins as thumb tacks. The more common name (at least in North America) is pushpin, so I changed all the “thumb tacks” to “pushpins.”