Hives in Winter

Dead Bees in January

Wintertime Bee Status

January 11, 2017
The weather has warmed up to 54 degrees F today, warm enough to open my six bee hives and do a thorough check. I still have  syrup top feeders on them, with the vents mostly sealed with duct tape, and pollen patties. I hope to not find too many dead bees in January.

Hive 1.  Heavy with honey stores, some syrup left in the top feeder and some pollen patty between boxes, the bees happily moving about in a loose cluster near the middle. I used a stick to clean a few dead bees off the bottom board and closed it back up. So far so good.

Hive 2.  This hive greets me with total silence. Dead bees are sitting along the tops of frames, others are in groups with their faces buried in cells, and then there are 3 inches of freshly killed bees laying on the bottom. I am horrified and disgusted and mad. It is so aggravating to do everything I can to keep them alive and still have them die on me.

Bees Buried in Comb
Bees Buried in Comb

Hive 3. Sounds and looks Ok with plenty of stores and the bees near the middle.

Hive 4. Plenty of honey, pollen patty, and bees but they are all in the top box, so I switch the bottom box to the top, clean off the bottom board and seal them back up. Bees like to move up, not down, so I am giving them room to do that.

Hive 5.  Dead quiet. A few frames have patches of dead bees with their faces pushed into cells but the entire bottom of the hive is covered in three inches of dead bees. I am again mad and frustrated. I feed them, buy them new queens, treat them for mites and am repaid by them dying anyway. I don’t get it.

Bottom Full of Dead Bees
Bottom Full of Dead Bees

Hive 6. Feels nice and heavy, still has some pollen patty and syrup and the bees are hanging around as a loose mass. After cleaning off the bottom board, I closed them back up, relieved that four hives have made it.

Two Hives Dead and Four Left

It is only the middle of January and I have lost two of my six hives already. Winter has not arrived in earnest yet. It makes no sense to me that these bees have died surrounded by plenty of food. I pull off my gloves, hang up my bee jacket and call my bee guru, Ed Forney.

He asks how I’m doing and I tell him, “Well, I was better before I opened my hives and found two  dead outs already. “

I tell him about the three inch deep mass of dead bees in the bottom and he says,
“Sounds like they must have gotten into something, maybe some kind of pesticide.”

“Seriously? What could they possibly get into this time of year? “

I wonder if it is possible that the farm across the road, recently replanted to wheat, might have been sprayed to kill the weeds first.

“If there were low growing weeds blooming in there when he sprayed, your bees could have been hit by that.”

Herbicides aren’t supposed to kill bees but something certainly did.

     I am hesitant to call up Neil, who farms across from me, and ask if he sprayed anything recently. I don’t want to sound accusatory or make him feel threatened, I just want to know what might have killed my bees. He told me earlier this year that he would let me know in advance if he needed to spray any insecticides and that he doesn’t usually need to. This kind of conversation is better done in person. Phone calls can be like E- mails and Facebook sometimes- you can’t read the persons face and body language- so things can come across differently than you intend them to. He is a nice guy and I know he does not want to kill my bees.  I need a good old, foot-on-the- bumper kind of talk with him, out in the tractor shed, just trading stories.

Storing Hives With No Bees

I have to deal with the two dead hives yet, so I go back out to the bee yard to retrieve the two dead-outs. I load them, so nice and heavy with honey stores, into the wagon and pull them up to the porch to clean them up. The piles of dead bees seem so fresh, almost alive. I scoop them up with my hands to put in a bucket to feed the chickens. They are so beautiful that I retrieve a magnifying glass from the kitchen to get a closer look. It is not often that honeybees are still enough to study up close. Then I see one moving. She is not dead yet. They are so freshly dead that this one is still dying. I grab my camera and take some close up photos, thinking maybe I will be able to see better with the zoom. Maybe I can learn something.

One Live Bee
One Live Bee

That is when I remember that the USDA Bee Lab in Beltsville will analyze bee and comb samples you send to them. I go back in the house to Google them and then search the house for isopropyl alcohol and a shallow plastic container to hold a handful of bees. Maybe they can figure out what killed my bees.
After getting back from the Post Office I get back into clean up mode on the two hives, scraping off and saving the excess wax and flicking dead bees off the frames. Some of the bees are wedged face first into combs and I have to pinch their tiny butts and pull them out, without squishing them. I can’t get them all and hope that’s Ok. I will be using these frames of honey to help rebuild new hives in the spring if all goes well-unless the USDA finds there is some horrible disease lurking in there.

Sealing Up Stored Hives

To keep my four boxes (2 from each dead hive) safely stored until I need them, I need to stack them up and treat them with ParaMoth. I learned the hard way just how destructive Wax Moths can be a couple of years ago when I tried to store another dead hive. Moths will get in there and dig deep trenches in the wooden walls of the hives and eat through the wax , letting all the honey drip out on the floor, while they chew up all the wax. I can’t afford to loose drawn comb, honey and expensive wooden ware to them again.
I start the storage stack by placing a lid upside down on the porch floor. This will seal off the bottom. Then I add an empty deep box, moving the frames into it one by one as I clean excess wax and dead bees off. I have three other frames of honey saved from earlier this summer that I add to the stack. I end up with a stack five boxes tall, and on the top frames I lay a paper plate with 6 Tablespoons of the ParaMoth crystals, then the top lid, weighted down with bricks. The stack will freeze which will kill any Small Hive Beetles (SHB) and the fumes from the ParaMoth will kill any moths.Hives Stacked for ParaMoth Treatment
I told Ed on the phone that I was giving my bees until August to start paying me back for all the money and hard work I have put into them and he assured me that he would help me with that. He is going to show me how to set up two of the hives for serious honey production and two for back up population and comb builders. The stored honey and brood frames should really help out with starting some new hives in the spring from splits off my over wintered bees.

That is the plan so far, I have not given up yet.
-Wendy lee, writing at Edgewisewoods, Gardens and Critters.

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