BEEKEEPING IN THE NORTHEAST - An account of my beekeeping, not a treatise of expertise, but for friends & family who wish to keep bees vicariously through me, and for the occasional apiarist passer-by.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hive Demise - Spring 2010

Wanted to report on what I discovered with the demise of my hive - Spring 2010.

Bottom line, my girls were victims of situations that arise as the result of striving to survive in a cold environment. I got them through the winter, but I believe an experienced beekeeper could have gotten them through to avoid the demise that followed; however, I have found that asking other beekeepers, while important and insightful, is not the call to action that personal experience with loss can be.


I'm a beginner in my second year. I have two hives in two locations. First hive: prepared for a year, watching my wooded yard for a sunny spot and my notes indicate that I picked the sunniest spot in a high ground area. The foliage increases every year, of course, so shade was more substantial in spring 2010 as apposed to spring 2009…but in Spring-Summer 2009 it rained almost 28 days out of 30. My first hive swarmed on the 4th of July 2009 but the remaining bees did well into fall. I did not extract honey, determined to get them through the winter.

Winter Preparations:

I used a slatted bottom board under a hive deep full of bees and medium super of honey. An insulation board was placed on top of the inner cover with a prop between it and the cover. I wrapped the hive when nights got into the 20's in the fall and took it off in the spring when days got longer and temps were in the 30's at night. I fed sugar syrup in the fall in large, ziplock bags poked with pinholes.

Spring Discovery:

My bees filled one frame coming into spring, first week of April. The hive was clean as a whistle except for some normal brown droppings outside of the upper entrance. I placed sugar syrup in a small feeder on the frames in an empty super. The bees crawled up en mass to say hello. Looking back, they were just so cold.

On May 6th, I reversed the hive deep with the medium super in hopes of getting the queen to move up from her winter home into the hive body. It appeared that some syrup had leaked down into the hive body. There was terrible mold on the bottom board and down the inside back wall and the frame bottoms. The frames in the hive body were old from the nuc I bought so I removed and cut the good comb out and set the frames in the sun. Cleaned everything, put in a new bottom board and clean hive body.

On May 26 I recorded that the nest was no bigger than a large softball. In the weeks following reversal, saw few if any bees foraging; but temps in our neck of the woods have been in the 50's and the early spring bloom was lost. I fed them sugar syrup first, then comb honey cut from the frames I found when I did the reversal. I knew they had food and moved the honey frames in close to the nest, but laid the additional feed on the frames above the nest for easy access.

The End:

Checking every week, in the end on June 9th, I found the queen, apparently healthy, with two assistants only. Chilled brood. A few starved bees. Lots of pollen and honey. Nosema stains throughout that had developed since May. I cleaned everything up and placed the queen and her two loyal attendants in a nuc box. Temps in the high 40's that night. No hope of her recovery.

I want to bring attention to two valuable articles from Bee Culture Mag, May-June issues, that also seem to validate some conclusions.

1. James E. Tew in his May article on page 39 "Honey Bee Packages" comments that his surviving over-wintered hives are only "soft-ball" in size, sometimes "baseball" in size. He states this is a modern evolution of over-wintered bees from packages, but I started with Nucs.

2. Tom Webster on "Nosema ceranae" which speaks of new strains of Nosema, how serious this is for wintering bees, and the need to feed properly and have sterile equipment from hive to hive.

3. Also, Ross Conrad, who fellow beekeeper, Ingrid and I were able to see at a workshop in Vermont this spring. His book "Natural Beekeeping" notes that Nosema is more commonly associated with heavy fall feeding of syrup. (Photo right - Queenie with Hope 10,031 and Faith 10,032)


I read again and again that cold does not kill bees. That they do not keep the hive warm, they keep each other warm and that they are heartier than we think. I read also that the biggest threat is starvation and moisture. So I worked hard on keeping good airflow in the hive and made feed available when it seemed they needed it. I also read they will not eat sugar syrup if they don't need it. Also to stay away from corn syrup because of incidence of Nosema and a general shortening of bee life.

The facts are my hive coming out of winter became, for whatever reason, too small to keep up with the queen, properly sealing the brood and keeping the sealed brood warm enough to survive what I felt were moderately cold temperatures. They also, as is their nature, left the hive when they were too sick or dying to help with it's survival.

Maybe the bees got sick when I started to feed them the sugar syrup in the spring and they would not leave the task of warming the queen and brood for cleansing flights, so Nosema developed. Maybe they were too cold to move around the hive and get pollen and honey for the nest and the brood. Maybe the older bees died off and those left were less capable of defending the hive and foraging. Maybe a valuable cycle of succeeding generations was broken. The little chilled bees in their cells were perfectly formed.

So it seems that when Ingrid was looking for a Queen a month or so ago, I would have done well to offer my queen with her softball size hive. That would have saved them. But how much of a factor was Nosema? Would it have contaminated her hive? I tested for everything else as well. I did the icky AFB test on pupae…also, no mites and no hive beetles. Tom bought me a microscope for xmas. All were clean, except for signs of Nosema. My second hive is new from a nuc this year and they are cranking; but not big enough to split to save this queen.

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