I have good bee news and I have bad bee news.
The bad bee news is that our colony from last year is dead. They didn’t make it through the winter. On the first truly warm day of spring, I went down to the garden to check on them. They should have been flying all over, enjoying the sun and reorienting themselves.
A few days later we got all suited up just in case and opened the hive.
It was totally empty!
There weren’t just dead bees – there were no bees. Honestly this was one of the best case scenarios (coming in at a long second to living bees). I was having horrible visions of thousands of dead bees rotting in the hive. Instead of a disgusting job of scraping bee slime out of the hive, we had pristine frames and a whodunnit on our hands.
Our screened bottom board had a few dead wasps on it, and our first thought was that the bees had been overrun by them. If that had been the case, though, there would have been bee corpses everywhere.
The wasps weren’t killers – they were just opportunists. They must have come in after the hive was abandoned to steal the remaining honey. An unoccupied hive is an amazing find if you’re a wasp, unless you’re this poor little guy, who somehow died in the act of theft.
My friends Will and David had come along, and we shed our veils and coats and did a thorough inspection of the hive.
In spite of the wasps, there were still patches of honey. One or two frames were still pretty heavy with it. We’ll put these in the hive to give the new bees a head start.
Some frames will not be going back in. When the colony disappeared, the wasps weren’t the only opportunists to set up shop. The wax moth is a particularly gross pest drawn to beehives. These moths lay their larvae in honey comb – when the larvae hatch they tunnel through the comb and leave behind this distinctive webbing. Their favorite food (because they are so gross) is the skin of bio material left behind in the cells when a baby honeybee emerges. They craw from cell to cell, gorging themselves on this skin.
A strong colony should be able to fight off wax moths without a problem. They’re mostly a hazard when you store used comb that’s full of tasty brood skin but unguarded by bees.
We found this webbing in a few of the frames. We won’t be reusing this comb, but we will save the wax. We gouged out the webbing (because who wants that?) and put the frames in our solar wax melter.
What else did we find? Nothing much. A single cell of hot pink honey. Maybe one bee went off the grid and harvested a melting Skittle.
A sad sight – a lone bee, about to be born but with no one left to take care of it.
And a gorgeous display of packed pollen in different shades.
So what happened to the bees? They didn’t starve, or freeze, or get murdered. If they had, we’ve have the bodies. Kim and I went to the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association meeting to talk to the experts, and the prevailing opinion is that Varroa mites are to blame.
Varroa mites are usually to blame when it comes to honeybee problems, especially here in the north where overwintering is so difficult as it is.
We didn’t treat aggressively enough for mites in the fall, so as winter wore on, the mites’ numbers increased. Bees with high mite infestation are much more susceptible to disease. Just like with everything else, bees’ attitude toward disease is very self-sacrificing. On a warm day, infected bees would have flown away from the hive to die, hoping to prevent the spread to other bees in the colony. But it was spreading anyway, and these sacrificial flights happened again and again until literally no one was left.
But I said I had good bee news, too, and I do! We’re moving on and learning from our mistakes, and we have new bees on their way! On Wednesday we’ll be picking up a package from Georgia – a little mesh box containing a queen and about 3,000 bees.
This will be the foundation for our new colony.
I’ve posted the same article on my personal blog, where you can read about my adventures beyond the garden.