Colony Collapse Comes Home
It’s been a busy summer and fall, with much travel, and less time for my usual gardening, beekeeping and blogging. Finally getting caught up on garden chores, I went to check the bees this weekend since we had a bit of nice weather. Unfortunately, the new was not good. Here is this year’s bee story, with a ghoulish ending none of us want.
Aug. 5: The honey flow is over now. I could take the honey off the hives, but we are about to go for a summer trip to Ithaca New York for a couple of weeks, so the job can wait until we return. Plenty of activity in all of the hives, but little for the bees to get now that blackberries are behind us, and the dry season is here.
Aug. 21: The honey came off the hives today. It was past time. Nothing more had come in since I last checked three or four weeks ago. There really is little reason to wait past August 1st to pull the supers around here, even though we still have several months of nice weather ahead.
This year I did the chore after work, around 5:30 PM in the evening. The bees were already quiet, lounging on their porch when I started the task. The weather was calm and warm so I didn’t bother with smoke. I opened the lid of the biggest hive and quickly piled the three supers full of bees and honey to the side, then closed the colony up again, now considerably shorter. One at a time, I placed the supers on end, on top of the closed hive, top bars toward me at the back of the hive. With my air compressor, I blew out the bees from between the frames. The jet would blow the bees into the air in front of the hive where they would regain their wings and head for the front entrance. It seemed that the evening air drew them home better than when I do this task in the heat of the day. There was no cloud of bees to contend with; only a few intent on returning to the super that required more persistent blowing. When the super was clear I would quickly run it into the garage and put a cover on it to keep the robbers away. The next super to be cleared would be hoisted on top of the hive, and the procedure was repeated until all supers were clear of bees and sitting on the growing stack in the garage.
On to the next hive, same procedure. In about an hour I had removed and cleared all nine supers from my five colonies. I never had to break out a frame, so there won’t be too many honey drips to contend with. Not all of the supers were full. I wish I could count on the bees filling up everything I give them, but that seldom happens. With a couple of unintended swarms, requeening delays, and too much rain during the main blackberry flow, this is not the best honey year for me. But the swarm I captured in May produced some honey as well as a small surplus from the rest of the colonies, so there will be enough for the usual gifts and annual usage.
All hives are now down to the basic two-brood chamber colonies that I like to have for the rest of the season. With the queen no longer laying with the same intensity that she was in the spring, the bees are more likely to remove honey from the supers and bring it back down into the contracting brood nest as they consolidate winter stores. Most newly arriving honey is also stored below, which is just fine, since you want to avoid getting too much unripened honey into the extracted harvest, or the honey can ferment.
Sept. 8: Extraction day. A long day with many friends stopping by to help got the job done. Total yield was about 180 lbs this year. That would be OK for three hives, but not so good coming from five.
Oct. 7: Back from a three week trip to Europe. The bees are supposed to be taking care of themselves these days. I notice that the yellow jackets are doing more patrolling outside the hives and there are bee wings and legs on the drop board. I install entrance reducers on the hives to help the bees keep the yellow jackets in check.
Nov. 6: The theoretical problem of honeybee colony collapse became much more real for me today. At the end of August, when I took the honey off one particular hive (the “Green colony”), I thought I was leaving a colony set for the winter. This colony had given me some trouble in the spring, when it unexpectedly turned up without a queen, and it took a couple of tries to get itself queen-right again, but throughout the summer it had plenty of bees and it was the one colony where I never found a single nosema infected bee. With the stretch of time in the summer when the colony was without a queen, there was a break in the Varroa production cycle as well, so the mites were never too bad on this hive.
In retrospect, I should have been more bothered about the yellow jacket predation I saw last month. Strong hives don’t tolerate yellow jackets. Something wasn’t right. When I checked the drop board today, there was nothing on it. I pulled the lid, and there on the cover, all by herself, was the queen, the last surviving bee in the hive. It was the most forlorn sight I’ve ever seen in my beekeeping experience. Digging deeper, I pulled off the top deep box, heavy with a good 50 lbs of honey ready for the winter. In the bottom chamber not a bee was to be found, but the remnants of a brood nest showed that the queen was laying up till the end. The frames next to the brood were nice food frames. Everything was in place for a healthy colony. Plenty of stores, even a queen, just not a single worker bee!
I moved on to check the neighbor colony. This one gave me the bulk of the honey I removed this year. Virtually no debris on the drop board here either. In the top box there was a handful of bees. I glimpsed the queen running along the edge of the frames, agitated and seemingly at a loss as to what to do with herself without bees to make a real brood nest cluster. I’ll be surprised if there are any bees left here in a week.
In the back yard, the hive that had been sick with nosema was also dead. Despite its nosema infection, this colony became prosperous enough to swarm in late June. I treated it and the other colony on its hive stand with Hop Guard around this time as well. The colony had half a super of honey when it swarmed, and I was not expecting any more. The queen was established and laying before I headed out on my summer travels. I noticed odd activity, which I should have realized was the colony being robbed out by other bees. But with no one home, there was no fighting at the entrance.
If there is a silver lining, it is that I’ll probably have another hundred pounds of honey to extract, honey that was supposed to feed the dead colonies over the winter. I’ve got to get on with this soon, too, or the wax moths will have a field day and I’ll have a mess. I find the unattended brood combs the most susceptible to wax moth damage.
That leaves two of my five colonies still limping along with reasonable size clusters, but nothing to brag about. I have to admit, I am not optimistic. Chances are the remaining colonies are buffeted by the same stressors that killed the others. The million dollar question – what is it? Probably not nosema; the Green colony tested clean throughout the summer. What we don’t know we can blame on viruses and pesticides. The big pallets of Bayer Rose & Flower All-in-one Care that were at the local home center this spring keep coming back to me. That’s a ton of Imidacloprid, a milligram of which could wipe out my bee hives. It was being promoted as a “weed and feed” for garden flowers that my bees visit. Who knows?