Why My Honey Bees Died (or Are Starving Now)

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:

Pollen patties added to a hive that’s short on sugar. (March, 24, 2013.)

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.

A small colony that still has its own honey in the hive. (March 24, 2013.)

The bees in this photo haven’t eaten much of their sugar. They were started from a split and were fed syrup in the fall. Even though it’s not a large colony, it seems to be doing okay and may still have honey stores in the top box. On the other hand, here’s a large colony that has devoured about 2kg of raw sugar over the past two weeks:

More than 2kg of sugar devoured in two weeks. (March 24, 2013.)

Here’s a portion of that colony’s cluster clinging to the inside of an insulated inner cover:

Bees clustering under a insulated inner cover. (March 24, 2013.)

Why I’m not feeding my bees as much as I used to:

I first gave the bees pollen patties last year on February 15th. I delayed it by more than a month this year because all the swarms I had to deal with last year nearly ruined beekeeping for me. Swarms are a marvellous thing to behold — but not if your neighbours are a bunch of jerks. The stress of dealing with nosey, unfriendly neighbours and having the fire chief (and a fire truck) show up at my house because of my next door neighbour’s complaints — I never want to live through that again. Had 2012 been my first year of beekeeping, it would have also been my last. I’m still not 100% relaxed about the one hive I have hidden in the city. Anyhow, a colony can live off sugar if has to, but the queen won’t usually begin laying at a good clip until she has a steady supply of pollen (i.e., food for baby bees). I overfed my colonies last year and gave them pollen too early so that by the time May rolled around, the hives were bursting at the seams with bees that were ready to swarm all over the place — which is what they did. Although most of my bees are safely out in the country now, I don’t want them out of control like they were last year. That means no early winter feeding or over-feeding with pollen and not a lot of sugar syrup in early spring. I suggest the same for anyone with bees in the city.