These Bees Are Goners

So I have a teenie tiny colony that’s pretty much toast. I knew going into the winter it wasn’t in great shape. It was result of a late season queen that was mated sometime in September, which is not good for all kinds of reasons I won’t go into now. But essentially it was (is) a small colony with a poorly mated queen that I should have combined with a strong colony before winter set in.

In any case, Marc Bloom, another beekeeper here on the Isle of Newfoundland going all-in like me, because, come on, there’s no turning back now, dropped off a 5-frame medium nuc box for me the other day and I thought now would be a good time to dig into this dying colony, transfer it to a smaller, probably dryer hive box, and maybe give it a fighting chance. So that’s what I did. Here’s the video, including a sort of post-mortem looking through the dying colony’s old frames.

00:00 — “Beehive” vs “Bee Colony.”

00:45 — A dying colony.

02:45 — Smoke, gloves and veil.

03:10 — A bee poops.

03:35 — A look at some bees flying.

03:45 — Opening the hive.

04:55 — The ragged stubby queen.

05:50 — Bees in their new nuc box.

07:15 — The post-mortem.

12:25 — Conclusions.

13:00 —The D.E. Hive.

14:00 — The nuc in its new home.

So what do I think of all this mess? Why is this colony dying?

Because I live on the disease-free island of Newfoundland (no Varroa, etc.), my experience with identifying and dealing with all the nasty diseases that affect most other honey bee populations on the planet is zip. I’ve read all about them, but I’ve never seen them here in Newfoundland. My bees have probably had Nosema and other diseases that are easy to overcome by maintaining large and robust colonies — which includes healthy, well-mated queens. But other than that, if there were any subtle clues to disease in this colony’s old hive, I couldn’t see them.

I didn’t see any signs of rodents getting into the hive either. No signs of shrews eating away at the bees. None of that ugliness.

There was zero sign of brood from the stubby-looking queen. A well-mated queen that has been laying usually takes on an elongated appearance. The queen in this colony has never been elongated, which leads me to suspect she’s a dud and always has been. Yes, some queens, usually with Russian genetics from what I can tell, don’t do much laying until natural pollen and nectar becomes available. So it’s possible that no brood isn’t abnormal for this queen at this time of year — but I don’t think so.

If I were to dig into most of my colonies at this time of year (near the end of March), I’m confident I would find a small patch of brood cells at the very least. Some queens give up laying completely by the time December rolls around, often earlier, but by January or February, sometime after the Winter Solstice when the days start getting longer, the queens begin to lay a few eggs and continue to ramp up their egg-laying as the days get longer, the workers get out for cleansing flights and eventually pollen and nectar start coming in (or when they’re given protein patties to give them a boost). So again, no brood in this colony is not a good sign.

Looking over my video records, I noticed that the hive these bees lived in got soaked during one our classic massively windy Newfoundland winter rain storms. I checked on all of my hives after the storm and noticed this one had a big ole crack beneath the inner cover, and with the rain coming in at a 90° angle like it often does on the east coast of the island, one side of the hive got drenched — and I think it was the side where the bees were clustering. Pretty much instant death for them. The frames I found that were full of mould and devoid of bees were on the side of the hive that got wet. All I could do after the storm was add some extra top ventilation to the hive (in the form of a ventilation rim and a Dempster Hive Pillow), which seemed to dry out the hive well, but by then it was too late. The damage was done and probably half the bees in the hive were dead, soaking wet dead.

Losing half the bees isn’t always the end of the world for a large colony, but for a small colony like this one, it meant the loss of the critical mass needed to keep the bees warm and able to break cluster — breaking cluster is crucial for accessing honey and getting outside for cleansing flights. Mould and dampness inside the hive as a result of all that water getting in probably didn’t help either. And neither did the dud queen. The end.

That’s what I think happened.

I’ll see what happens to the bees in the nuc box — as an experiment. But I won’t get my hopes up.

This might seem sad to some — and it’s definitely not the kind of thing that goes viral on Tik-Tok — but dealing with less attractive situations like this is as much a part of beekeeping as watching the bees make honey. As the old saying goes, “When someone falls in love with your flowers and not your roots, they don’t know what to do once fall and winter come.”