We Lost One Beehive

Yesterday while I was chopping wood outside on a surprisingly warm February day (of which we’ve had quite a few) Andreea called from far away Bucharest. She asked me to look in on the hives, she felt the bees calling for help. A few weeks ago we listened to the hives (but didn’t open them – so as not to disturb the bees) and both were rumbling with life.

I stopped, collected what wood was already cut and stored it and went off to have a look at the bees. I was sad to find that the first and larger hive had many bees that were all dead. It looked like they died of starvation (the combs they were on were emptied) even though there was still an ample supply of honey on other combs.
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It blows my mind that this next image looks like it was taken from a living hive – yet all the bees were motionless. I am assuming they are dead and not caught in some kind of time-warp tarp … though I am not convinced … so I left them there as is.

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And there were quite a few combs with honey stores (more towards the front of the hive):

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It would have so much “easier” to witness this had the honey-stores been empty … but we left them plenty of honey (all the honey) … and yet this happened.

I opened the second hive only shortly to find that is was vibrant with life. The bees were pretty aggressive and did not respond to the water spraying … so I made it a very short visit (I didn’t bring the smoker with me). I was surprised because it was the smaller of the two hives, where the bees were transferred (from a standard hive to the new top-bar hive) a few weeks after the first hive (both transfers were difficult to do – in the end the only thing that worked was shaking them in). In this hive the bees has less time to build new comb and collect honey.

A few more potentially relevant facts:

  1. The bees arrived during a difficult drought year where there was limited flowering. Still they seemed to build up quite impressive honey stores. The first hive (the one that got a head start) was almost full of top-bars (that we gradually added), many of them laden with honey.
  2. We didn’t collect any honey for ourselves from either of the hives (we were looking forward to the leftovers of spring).
  3. This winter started early – the first snowfall came in the beginning of December (which brough a snow cover we only saw at the end of January the previous year).
  4. This winter has been surprisingly warm. February is usually the coldest month yet this year, so far, days have seen above-zero temperatures (with some days as high as 7c) though most nights drop below freezing … and the forecast seems to be for similar weather in the foreseeable future.
  5. I’ve heard speculations that this mild winter may continue longer than usual (into April).
  6. In the first hive, because it was so alive, vibrant and full (literally of populated top-bars) I gradually shifted (in season) the bars around to get the leftover bars from the standard frames (that were chopped and cropped into the top-bar form) toward the back of the hive – so that they become honey-storage combs that we could gradually remove from the hive (to replace with properly fitting standard top-bars).

I am asking myself:

  1. What went wrong with the first hive? Was it starvation or could it be something else? My feeling is that I was wrong to intervene in moving the bars around. It seems that the bees continued to use the older comb for brood – and those bars ended up being at the back of the hive while the honey-stores were in front (that is how I found the hive yesterday). I am also guessing that the due to the warmer temperatures the bees have been less dormant and more active – causing them to consume more of their winter-stores. I am guessing the this combination of mistake & circumstance are what caused them to starve – though I am not sure.
  2. How should I have gone about moving out the chop-and-crop bars? The more I think about this question the more I become convinced that the best thing was, from the beginning – when we transferred the hives, to (1) give up all the brood that came with old hives that we purchase; (2) transfer only a few frames of honey to support the bees as they establish themselves in the new hive; (3) let them build new comb and grow new brood directly in place in the new hives.
  3. Would it be OK to move some of the remaining stores from the dead-hive into the new hive for the remaining bees to use? My instincts tell me that this should be OK. Both colonies came from the same keeper and lived together side-by-side on our property. They were exposed to similar worlds all along – so that “crossing honey” should not be a problem.

Update: I’ve posted a question on this topic at the Biobees forum.

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