December 08, 2010

From Booming to Deadout

The hive in early September, full of bees.
The hive in early October. A reduction in population is normal,
but we're worried about their low numbers.
The hive in late October. Population has really declined
they've positioned themselves far from food.
The hive in mid-November. There are not enough bees to make it through Winter.
Early December: the floor below the cluster.
We opened up the hive and inspected every comb to try to determine what happened. There were not a lot of bees in the hive, and none were alive. They'd eaten all their overhead stores, so were out of food in the brood nest. If you follow my tweets, you'll recall that honeybees can last only 3 days if not in direct contact with food. If they can't break cluster to get to food, then a 4-day cold snap can mean starvation. We didn't have any extended cold periods in November and we saw that they were breaking cluster, so something else did them in.

I read somewhere that the minimum size of the Winter cluster is a grapefruit. I'm guessing that many bees would occupy 3-4 combs. We may have had enough bees to cover that many combs, but what little brood there was was spread out, so multiple small clusters or one big loose one was required. Neither can maintain enough warmth. And even though daytime temps were high enough for them to break cluster, since bees won't abandon brood, they ended up dying with food 2 combs away in either direction. It was their dedication to the brood, not the cold, that did them in. It's amazing how contracted the cluster can get, so we should have removed every single empty comb during Winter prep.*

Among the debris, we found a wax moth larva and dead varroa mites. But neither were at a level high enough to have overcome the bees. We really do think the colony simply shrank too much. Something may have happened to our queen as far back as September. Some beekeepers requeen then to prevent the situation we're in, but we're not comfortable with that practice. A fresh new queen may mean a hive full of young bees going in to Winter, but it also means someone has to kill the old queen.

Here's the link to photographs of the comb-by-comb inspection. Starting at a convenient place near the middle, proceeding forward through the brood nest, and finishing going backward through the honey stores, all combs were photographed.

So now we break down the hive. It's not all doom and gloom, though. In addition to a bonus crop, the deadout affords us the opportunity to get rid of the 3-year old and black combs, trim wonky ones and clean the glass window. I'm not sure where we'll get our new bees from. ZiaQueenbees in NM is an option but a 350 mile road trip with bees in the car... I don't know. I'll reach out to Marty Hardison. He isn't a supplier per se but he's big into survivor stock and he's local. I wonder if he'll part with that nuc he's overwintering.

* LESSONS LEARNED: do a Fall inspection of the brood nest to make sure the bees have plenty of overhead stores and check that the queen is laying well. If overhead stores are low, make sure to the honey stores abut the brood nest - ALLOW NO EMPTY COMBS. I don't know what one does about a failing queen. We'll ask Marty when we see him later today.


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