Spring has Sprung…Yeow!

No matches needed today!

Through a few mud holes, around a snow drift or two, and I was able to get into my beeyard. The yard was intact. No wind or varmint damage.

My son Isaac has been around bees all his life. He’s seen the good and bad of them, having dropped any bee interest after a bad  encounter with Dee Lusby’s bees, near Tuscon. It’s not often he goes with me. Maybe he thought the old man needed a little help digging out or might have a heart attack or something. But I was glad to have his company.

Standing inside my beeyard he said, “It’s deathly quiet.” Even having been away from the bees for almost ten years now, he instantly knew what was wrong.

And he was right. No people noise. No wind sound. No bee buzz. No bees out front. No bees flying. No dead bees on the ground or in the grass. Just silence.

I started investigating last season’s weakest hives and worked toward the two best hives. Not a single hive was apparently alive, zero out of ten.

My mouth hung open for awhile. I banged some boxes again. Pushed my breath between a few frames. Listened? Nothing.

It was time to get to work.

The Worst Bee Job in the World

So, it was time to do the worst bee job in the world. I just hate it. And I’d done it thousands of times as a commercial beekeeper. The worst job? Cleaning out the dead outs.

A dead hive is a wet stinky mess. Bees can handle and need lots of moisture during the dry winter months. They conserve moisture inside the cluster. But when they die, that moisture is released. And when combined with the bees biomass and the sweetness of the hive, a rotten, moldy, fermenting, stinky mess is produced.

Scraping this mess off the combs and the bottom boards takes a messy situation and makes it even worse. With more than just a few dead hives, a beekeeper gets covered with the stuff. It soaks through the clothing and squirts through the veil.

It’s surprising how many wet bees can die in a hive. The biomass is about the same as a large cat or small dog that has disintegrated between the combs. And the smell isn’t much better. You never forget it.

Some beekeepers, when confronted with the mess, often assume the moisture killed the bees. But my experience indicates that released moisture is the result of the colony’s demise and not the cause of its death.

The Results

So, I took apart the first hive, and then another, until all the hives were opened. But not a single hive had the usual piles of wet, dead bees.Here’s what I saw:

  • No dead bees on the bottom boards or in front of the hives
  • No dead brood
  • No visible mites in the bottom board debris or mite fecal deposits
  • No moisture or mold anywhere in the hive
  • Honey, pollen and sugar feed abundant and intact
  • No open nectar or diluted honey
  • Only a few small circles of dead bees in the comb
  • The dead circle of bees were comprised mostly of callow to young bees
  • Original cluster size had no effect on dead hive appearance or outcome

The lack of dead bees was startling. An occasional two to three inch diameter circle of dead bees was found. Sometimes, this mini cluster would occupy several adjacent frames. But more often, several disparate mini clusters would be found separated from each other.

In a couple of hives, the marked queen was found in one of the mini clustesr. But the queens were strangely absent from the rest of the hives. Out of ten hives, about five cups of bees were scraped out. And about the same amount remained stuck in the comb. That’s about one cup of bees per hive which is essentially no dead bees at all.

The feed situation was just like I left it last fall. All open nectar/diluted honey, seen during my last fall visit, was gone. The rest of the feed hadn’t been touched.

Analysis

It’s obvious these hives died shortly after my last fall visit.

  • Bees left these hives without leaving dead bees inside or out
  • Hive became disorganized and dysfunctional, being unable to cluster, rear brood, open capped honey
  • Small amounts of October brood hatched but quickly died when open nectar/diluted honey ran out

Disappearing Disease of the Past

In the 70’s, my commercial bees suffered from traditional CCD or disappearing disease. Strong hives, filled with brood, a prolific queen, and in the middle of a great flow would suddenly loose all their bees leaving unhatched brood, feed and sometimes a queen behind.

I had a boomer 40 colony yard that consisted four story deep hives filled with brood, new honey, and bees. I’d worked them three days earlier and took a beekeeper out to show him what a boomer yard looked like. Opening the gate, I was met with silence. Only a few cups of newly hatched bees and the occasional queen could be found. No dead bees in the hives or on the ground.

I lost about 400 hives per week this way until the disease itself disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared.

Virus Overload Today

This new malady that killed my bees, is like that old disappearing disease. Starting three years ago, when I retrieved my bees from a commercial beekeeper’s yard, they were suffering from the same problem Randy Oliver described. I didn’t know it then. And it took me two plus years to figure it out.

Randy’s bees were infected with a virus overload. Unlike the old disappearing disease, it can take months or years for a colony to die. But when it does, it looks just like the old CCD. He’s been able to replicate the condition by feeding healthy colonies infected bee pulp. You can read about it on his website, linked in the Blogroll or published in the American Bee Journal.

I had hoped. . .

It’s interesting to think about what natural beekeeping is and what it isn’t. Hummm, topic for another post! I might be needed a few of them lacking my bees as a ready source. 🙂

In nature, the bee’s demise is all part of the natural process. Without a susceptible host, the virus changes or becomes non-viable. Infected nests are scavenged. New, less susceptible bees eventually return and life continues. It’s not so simple when a beekeeper wants to keep his hives full of bees.

Anyway, what to do? I have mixed emotions. It would be so easy, but expensive, to just order some packages and start over. Maybe some well virus exposed, but thriving, California bees would be the best choice. Isolated feral bees and mating might have a few drawbacks no often mentioned 😉 But:

  • Will new infected comb and equipment equal dead bees three years from now? No one knows
  • Can I even get package bees this late in the season?
  • Should I continue to keep bees in an area that they don’t naturally survive in?
  • How can I get away from the pesticide problem? The ag areas have always had problems. But now the county is spraying anything near water which is essential for my bee’s survival
  • I’ve been a bee nut for 60 years. Maybe it’s time to try something else
  • My wife says I’ll never change. Maybe she’s right

Time will tell.

-bW

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8 responses to “Spring has Sprung…Yeow!”

  1. Phil Moore says:

    Hi dennis
    I keep bees in the UK and have sufered similar losses but one apiary at a time, with me I inspect late feb then early march by late march most of the colonies are dead no bees just brood and stores even feed still in feeder, I have not lost a colony due to starvation for 4 years. I am assuming Nosema cerana spreading from site to site.

    About giving up bees, give it time but my guess is that within 12 months you will have bees, a beekeeper my son worked for said once the venom is in your blood there is no going back.

    All the best
    Phil Moore

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