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 moved the top deep with the tiny cluster to a new bottom board while I inspected the rest of the hive. I found some dead bees but nothing too usual for this time of year.
I found no signs of mice or shrews having been in the hive.
I found more than enough honey and frames of syrup to keep the bees alive.
I also found in the top deep some frames of partially drawn comb full of moisture. It looks like water but it could have been nectar.
I also found in the lower deeps many frames of opened or uncapped honey.
I found frames of fully capped honey (no photo) on the opposite side of the cluster in the top box. Then I came across some frames that barely had any drawn comb on them and I began to realize what I’d done.
The frames of basically bare foundation cut the bees off from the rest of the honey in the top deep — and from the honey in the rest of the hive it seems.
The empty frames got in there late in the summer when I thought I put a full deep of honey on top of the hive, but it looks like I forgot there were some empty frames in there — empty frames the bees didn’t have time to draw comb on. Which means they stayed down in the middle deep for a while, but when they naturally came upstairs, probably about a month ago, they got stuck on one side of the deep and starved to death. The empty frames acted as a barrier that they couldn’t or wouldn’t cross. The bees will follow the honey from frame to frame, but as soon as they hit a wall in the form of empty plastic foundation, they stop. If there was comb on the frame, not just plastic, they may have walked across to find the big fat honey frames on the other side, but I’m guessing the plastic felt like the end of the line to them, and just like that, they were contained to three side frames in the top deep. Had they been able to get back down to the middle deep, they may have found the honey down there. But the cold probably kept them clustered where they were — and they starved.
It’s possible the queen died from natural causes earlier in the winter and the cluster has been slowly dying off. It was a late-season supersedure queen that probably wasn’t well-mated and the cluster was never large. They may have gotten too cold to stay warm. But I’m pretty sure I killed them.
They even had sugar over the top bars they could have eaten, but I had most of the sugar concentrated in the middle frames, not off to the side where the cluster was trapped.
I could be completely wrong, but that’s my read of the situation at the moment.
I was going to leave the cluster exposed to the air so they’d die quickly instead of slowly dying over the next few days, but I put one of the solid frames of honey right next them on the off chance they can eat the honey and stay alive. Though I’m pretty sure they’ll be dead by this time next week.
Now I have to check the rest of my hives to see if any of those bees are cut off from their honey in the same way.
I also realize I need to be more aggressive with my winter beekeeping. Other than dropping in emergency sugar, my tendency is to leave the bees alone in the winter because it’s too cold to expose the brood to cold air. But if I see the bees clustering to one side of the hive again, I’ll move frames of honey next to the cluster to make sure they have access to honey, cold air be damned.
UPDATES: Read the comments for this post and then A Heated Nuc Box for updates on my attempt to save these bees.
P.S. (April 6, 2016): I mentioned that I saw feces on the frames near the cluster and that I’ve seen that in the past when the queen died in the middle of the winter. But I know now that’s always the case. Sometimes it’s just too cold for the bees to break cluster, especially if it’s a small cluster, and the bees are forced to poop inside the hive because they just can’t hold it in any longer. I’m pretty sure my bees were stuck in their hives for at least three months straight this winter.