When Bees Die…

The weak colony that once represented all that is good of honey bees has died.  I was concerned about this hive in the fall and had to make some choices as to how to support them going into winter, settling on letting nature decide given the parasitic mite load this colony was under and the ample food stores they amassed, hoping they would pull through as this queen and her court were the most amazing honey bees I’ve had yet.

This hive, at it’s height, stood so high that I could barely pull the heavy supers down for inspections.  When I did inspect, they were so docile with my intrusions, flying about curiously but never aggressively.  I only needed smoke to encourage them back into the hive so I could restack without crushing them.  This hive also provided an abundance of honey this summer for which I remain ever so grateful, but it was their calm demeanor that has now set the bar for all future colonies and which I will sorely miss.

Just before honey harvest:  It was challenging removing the heavy honey supers from the top of this robust hive that housed tens of thousands of gracious honey bees.

We’ve had an odd sort of winter so far with lots of cold weather early on, temperatures plummeting into the single digits and not leaving the freezing mark for days, then surging into the 50’s and even 60’s.  It was on those warm days that I had an opportunity to check on the status of my honey bees to see if they were alive and to check on their food stores.

I was pleasantly surprised to note a few bees flying at the weak hive on each warm day and despite the numbers being low as compared to the more robust hive, I presumed they were hanging in there.  There was plenty of food stored going into winter and they took sugar syrup as well up until frost.  Their numbers were just so low and it seemed every time I looked in the fall, more bees had died off, causing the concern I had as winter approached.

Deformed wings were obvious in the spring and I did treat after the honey harvest, but I don’t believe they recovered from the heavy mite load and perhaps, I should have treated more aggressively, beginning last summer which I did not do toying with a more organic approach, and perhaps even with a winter treatment which I decided against.

Hooray for honey bees flying on a warm winter day!
Busy honey bees at the entrance of the hive on the right on a warm winter day, now my only colony until spring.

Last week, the temperature soared to the 70 degree mark and I decided to crack open the hives and see if any food supplements were needed.  When I approached the hives, I noticed a stark difference between the hives.  With little wind, sunny skies and excessively warm air, the one hive had lots of bees flying about, taking advantage of the warm weather yet the neighboring hive had just a few bees entering and exiting that hive.   I decided to open the weak hive first, knowing what I’d find despite my hope for better.

Whereas the hive on the right had lots of bees flying, the one on the left, only had a few.  Now I know these bees were just scavenging from the dead out hive on the left, taking the leftover honey stores and causing me to think the hive was still viable on warm days.
Winter beekeeping supplies:  hive tool, brush and homemade bee candy (or fondant) if honey bees are in need of emergency rations.

When I cracked the outer cover, no bees greeted me.  In fact, I could see straight down which meant their food stores were gone as well.  Sadly and rather reluctantly, I worked my way down until I found a tiny cluster of bees surrounding their queen, frozen in place, no food around them, except for uncapped sugar syrup they had stored.  Despite my suspicion, the sight still caused me to pause, my heart sinking at the sad sight.  Where once there was abundant buzzing life, now there was silence.

The tiny cluster of honey bees loyally surrounding their queen until death (the queen is marked in blue).  They are frozen in place, next to uncapped sugar syrup, too few in number to maintain the heat to move to capped honey elsewhere in their hive.

When I opened the neighboring hive, I was immediately greeted by honey bees exploring the upper boxes, perhaps taking stock of their honey stores which were still very robust.  The top box is completely filled with capped honey and the majority of the bees are still down low, which is good given that there’s a lot of winter still ahead of us.

A proper greeting from the now robust hive that struggled in early summer, boosted with resources by the now demised hive beside it that ultimately saved it, allowing it to now prosper.  Bees are moving about inside their hive on this warm day.
You can see the capped frames of honey looking into this hive.
A frame of capped honey from the top box of the strong hive shows ample food stores for now.

The loss of the one hive causes me to pause and reflect.  I’d like to know exactly what and where things went wrong, if for no other reason than to learn but it’s not so easy.  The bees froze to death in their tiny cluster but you’ll recall that I’ve said that bees don’t die from the cold.  Bees maintain temperature regardless of the weather by clustering and fanning wings, surviving in even the coldest climates. These bees starved, too low in numbers to maintain heat that would allow them to move to their food stores.  Too low in numbers to maintain heat because they have been dying off for months due to parasitic mites that I couldn’t or didn’t adequately control.

Upon close inspection, bees outside the cluster are seen dead, head into cells in search of food.  Uncapped sugar syrup is visible on either side of the tiny cluster of bees.  Bees on the frame beside this one were all head in but I didn’t take more pictures as I stood quietly taking it in.

So why were there bees going in and out of this hive?  Likely this hive died weeks ago and has been robbed of the honey stores I observed going into winter.   Neighboring bees have been flying in and out of this hive, absent guard bees to defend the colony, and they’ve been stripping the food supplies.

When bees die, there are a lot of emotions which may seem puzzling given that honey bees are insects and a part of nature.  I chose to let nature take it’s course and I suspected they wouldn’t make it through the winter because despite a summer treatment, their mite load was so heavy that only a second aggressive chemical intervention could possibly help, possibly.  Yet seeing their failed status deeply saddened me.

It feels like a big fail on my part but I accept that I chose this path.  It still feels crummy though.  While beekeepers make many errors and certainly choose paths that may or may not have been the most optimal in hindsight, we seek to support our bees as best we can, recognizing that there is so much of beekeeping that is completely out of our control.  By playing any role at all though, we are a part of a magnificent force in nature.

I work hard to provide a rich food environment for my bees by planting bee friendly plants that provide nutrition in as many seasons out of the year as my geography allows.  I do not use chemicals at all, choosing to accept plant losses as an expense to organically grown vegetables and plants.  I work with my nearby farmer to understand what and when his crops are sprayed so I can choose to keep bees in on windy days when they spray.  I don’t take honey unless there’s an abundance and when I do, I leave plenty behind.  But treating bees for the parasites that plague them is a grey area for me still.

I don’t like to use chemicals and last year, I decided I’d forgo treatments despite the advice of fellow beekeepers.  And on the surface, they seemed to respond to that just fine, ramping up this past spring in such a crazy manner that I couldn’t get additional boxes on fast enough, even surprising my mentor at times by how fast they were building up.  But the warning was there.  The hive beside it almost failed and I found myself in need of resources from the stronger hive to boost them, which worked, seemingly at no expense to the large hive that continued to crank out new bees and store honey.

That should have been ample warning but I ignored it.  When bees presented more frequently with deformed wings, I knew it was indicative of a varroa mite problem but accepted it as part of the beekeeping landscape today, deciding I’d need to treat after honey harvest.  Perhaps I should have treated sooner, especially since bees were spotted with x-wings, showing a severe problem, but their volume was so robust, I decided to wait, not wanting to introduce chemicals into my hive that was chocked full of honey, or whatever excuse I might have had in delaying the treatment.  In the end, it was too little, too late.

I’ve waited over a week to write this because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it, especially given the diverse audience that reads my blog- those that are familiar with the woes of beekeeping and those not, but all concerned about bees in general.  I have many mixed feelings.  I am frustrated at my failed choices, sad for the loss of more honey bees, and mad at our environmental choices as well that play a role in bee health, wanting to just blame someone or something else.

Not knowing exactly where things went wrong can be maddening.  The frustration in beekeeping I experience the most is not having a clear answer or direction to follow because the bees can’t tell us and there are so many options and opinions.  So I’m learning to accept that beekeeping is complex and there’s no single source that I can turn to for a definitive answer, particularly with today’s issues plaguing bees that muddy waters even further.  Experience has become my best education.  In the grand scheme of things, these are insects and I will start again but in that grand scheme, I recognize how vital a role honey bees play in our environment and that I played a role here too, so that part saddens me.

While not surprised, I feel bad about this loss and my role in it, whatever that may be but I want to be transparent so others can learn from me and I can learn from my mistakes or choices, however it’s viewed, because there can not be growth without recognizing errs and failures, disappointments and unknowns are all part of the journey.   What that leaves me with is a recognition that today’s backyard beekeeping environment needs chemical intervention to support bees as much as I don’t like it.  I keep two hives on my property and the luxury of organically keeping bees leaves little room for loss with that set up, having now suffered the equivalent of a 50% loss by the choices I made.

Now I need to focus on the hive that’s alive, grateful for these bees that will benefit the world around them and likely have some of the genes from the beautiful blue queen that I’ve lost.  While the remaining hive did not need bee candy and had plenty of honey stored for now, I did add pollen substitute as a protein source.  The winter solstice is now past us and the queen should be laying eggs in anticipation of spring.  Since there is nothing to forage upon in my area this time of year, pollen is not available naturally and won’t be for many weeks yet until skunk cabbage and early blooming trees begin to bloom, so I use pollen substitute in the form of a commercial pollen patty I purchased to provide much needed protein for young bees and to support the honey bees’ efforts in ramping up their numbers for the much anticipated and critical nectar flow in spring.  The timing of placing pollen patties and even the notion of doing so and with what ingredients vary but for our area, late January seems to be a good time to place them to stimulate brood rearing.

Placing the entire pollen patty onto a hive is not a good idea as small hive beetles can easily make a home under them since bees are not able to patrol the entire area of their hive in the winter, needing to cluster together on cold days to conserve heat.  I cut strips and place them on top of the frames by their food.  They are malleable and be wedged into place where the bees can most easily access them.  The remaining strips of the pollen patty can be frozen for later use.  Once pollen becomes available in late winter, they will ignore these and I will remove any remnants as natural pollen is clearly the better choice.

I’ll need to decide whether I will order bees for the spring or plan to split the current hive that seems to be doing so well, weighing the pros and cons and recognizing that even the best intentions are just that.  Nature always plays the greater, often unknown role.

My certificate of honey bee colony registration for the state of Maryland arrived this past week.  The total number of colonies registered is two.  That much I’m sure of- I will maintain two colonies, watching and comparing, affording me options and sharing resources, continuing my journey of learning the art of beekeeping, knowing there’s so much yet to learn and that my choices and views will continue to evolve as I play my small role as a steward to backyard honey bees.

My very good “bee friend” gifted me homemade mead made from her honey and the blueberries she grows.  It seemed like a good time to open this bottle that aged for one year after she made it in honor of my lost honey bees.

“‘To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,’ Emily Dickinson wrote.

One clover, and a bee,

And revery.

The revery alone will do,

If bees are few.

She could not have anticipated the state of apiculture today.  It is no longer so simple as bee, flower, honey.”

  • – from the Beekeeper’s Lament, Hannah Nordhaus


6 thoughts on “When Bees Die…

    1. It is sad to see the failure and know that I played a part in this. Fortunately I have another hive that is very strong at the moment, another good reason to have more than one hive at a time. Are you thinking of adding honey bees to your zoo? I thought you had mentioned that some time back. I hope this doesn’t discourage you in any way. I wanted to be transparent with this loss and show that it’s not all honey and pollinating; things happen, decisions have to be made, sometimes good and sometimes not so much, but the overall experience of keeping bees is rewarding, humbling and educational.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And you succeeded, it was a very honest and informative post! And it’s like that with all animals… You try to make the best decisions possible, but sometimes you make a mistake and it turns out wrong… Or something goes wrong and there is just nothing you can do… These things are heartbreaking but it’s a part of keeping animals and a part of life, really. I think beekeeping is really interesting and it would be fantastic for the children to see how a beehive works! But right now I’m too busy as it is. Maybe one day I will be able to! I can see that I have loads to learn first! Best of luck with your remaining hive x

        Liked by 1 person

  1. C, this is much like how it often felt to be a veterinarian. Even the best practitioners face challenges for which we were never specifically trained. But the education, years of experience, consults with colleagues, diligence, the desire and heart to press on… it all works together to make us better doctors, whether for dogs, fish, or bees.
    The cluster of bees around their queen is an image for the ages.
    Thanks for all you do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words and insights. It was a sad sight, yet one I intuitively felt I’d see before spring. While it feels like failure on some levels, I stand by my choice, believing their mite load was just too high and that they would not have recovered even if further chemical intervention had been able to kill off the mites. One of my lessons is that I cannot forgo varroa mite treatments in a small backyard apiary like mine without dire consequences. I don’t think I will ever stop learning with beekeeping, that’s for sure! On a positive note, the warm days we’ve had allowed me to check on the sister hive and it is doing great- plenty of honey stores yet available, pollen being brought in and the build up of brood has begun for the all important spring nectar flow!


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