The state of the hives

If you’re thinking about getting bees, I have one recommendation: move to Cape Cod.

It’s not because bees thrive here, or because we’re in particular need of pollination. It’s because you can learn about beekeeping from the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association, a group of insanely committed volunteers who are very generous with their time and expertise.

A couple weeks back, I took a look in our hives and didn’t like what I saw. There were bees in both – just a few in Big Bee, a few more in Little Bee – but there didn’t seem to be much in the way of brood, and a lot of the cells were wet and empty.

I e-mailed Claire and Paul Desilets, club veterans who have been keeping bees on the Cape for two decades, to ask about the wet cells and lack of activity. Claire offered to swing by and take a look at the hives one day when the weather was good.

That was yesterday. They came over in the early afternoon, and we suited up. We opened Big Bee, the weaker hive, first.

The news wasn’t good. There were a few bees, and the queen was still alive, but there was no viable brood. Claire found a patch of dead brood, but the queen had clearly stopped laying, in the absence of a critical mass of bees to tend the eggs. We took both deeps off the bottom board, and found a huge pile of dead bees.

What happened? No way to know. It didn’t seem to be starvation, as they had plenty of honey stores and there were still fragments of the fondant we fed them over the winter sitting on top of the frames. Claire said it could have been that they broke cluster when weather warmed, and then didn’t re-cluster when it got cold again.

Big Bee, I’m sorry to report, is doomed.

Little Bee has a slim chance. We found more bees, and some brood, in that hive, but it wasn’t nearly as robust as it should have been. Compounding its problems is the probability that its queen is weak – last year, Big Bee was the strong hive and Little Bee didn’t even manage to draw out all its comb.

We’re going to let Little Bee take its chances. But what to do about Big Bee? The club ordered some nucs (mini hives of four frames, complete with laying queen), and we could buy one of them for $85. Or we could hope for a swarm.

Every year, people find swarming bees where they’re not wanted – in the eaves of houses, the parking lots of restaurants, the trees in parks – and call the few people who specialize in swarm removal to come get them.

I’ve never dealt with a swarm, but people who have say it’s pretty straightforward. You shake the swarm into a receptacle, make sure you have the queen, pop a lid on it, and Bob’s your uncle. Then some lucky beekeeper gets a swarm delivery. I have officially volunteered to be Swarm Removal Assistant, both so I can see how its done and so I can get on the list of hopeful recipients.

The only upside to all this is that there is some honey to be harvested from Big Bee. We’ll leave some, in case we get new inhabitants, but we’ll be able to take a couple of frames’ worth.

The state of the hives, in short, leaves much to be desired.

10 people are having a conversation about “The state of the hives

  1. I am a new beekeeper as well, so what do I know? — not much. I live in Colorado, so the climate here is much different from the climate on Cape Cod (we are in the high desert – in other words, we stay very dry here). For all I know, I wonder if the wet cells are due to excess moisture in the hive. Of course, you say, but where did the excess moisture come from? At the beginning of the fall, we were told to put small shims of wood – maybe 1/4 inch thick under the lid of the hive to help with ventilation during the winter. It seems so wrong — don’t the bees want to stay warm during the winter? Well, we were told that if you don’t shim, all the moisture in the hive rises to the top, and then condenses on the underside of the lid and the wet, cold water falls back down onto the bees, chilling them. Do the Cape Cod beekeepers shim their hives?

    We had a very mild winter here, and both of our hives came out of the winter doing really well — yeah!, but they have gotten more aggressive, and I have been stung multiple times every week for the last three weeks. They were bothering my husband on the other side of the house without him coming near the hive, even. Does anyone know why they might be more aggressive coming out of the winter? They are Minnesotan hygenics, and last year they were very content and easy to be around.

  2. I wonder how the big outfits that actually sell the bee packages with their queens manage through the winter. I mean, what’s the trick?

    I’m sorry about your bees. Would a new queen save Big Bee? Being a Swarm Assistant sounds like a really good idea!

  3. Sorry to hear about your bee troubles. We lost a hive last fall and we never did figure out what happened. We just got a new box-o-bees this spring and are making another run at it. Good luck with yours. I look forward to reading bee stories through the summer.

  4. Tamar, my sympathies. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am living and learning vicariously through you. I’m so grateful for everything you’re teaching me/us, just by describing your experiences, here. I mentioned moisture in the hive, a while back, in the comments of another post. Do all Lang hives in New England suffer from moisture? Clearly not. But the 2 things that blogs keep talking about over and again are: moisture in the Winter hive and the accident of opening the hive (to feed) when it’s too cold…causing the bees to take deadly cleansing flights. Clearly, you didn’t contribute to the latter…the former could be either due to the nature of the box or its position in your yard. Or dumb luck.

    I still don’t have bees, so I still don’t know what I’m talking about…I keep reading. I’m more convinced than ever to go with a well ventilated TBH, or a TBH with a Warre-style quilt box for moisture control in winter.

    Love the idea of your capturing a swarm! You can do it! You can do anything. Do you combine the Big Bee and Little Bee hives now, in order to disinfect the Big Bee boxes? If there are pathogens in the Big Bee boxes, won’t they be of risk to a new nuc? Do you wait for a swarm and count on their robust immune systems? Does a beek need to worry about such things?

    Rhetorical questions. Looking forward to your hive updates, after the swarm.

  5. My sympathies. Our one surviving colony didn’t make it through the winter either. But we’ll get a new package next weekend, and it makes me optimistic for their chances that we’ll be able to offer them what honey remained from the previous residents. Last year I made it on to the waiting list for bees from Champlain Valley Bees – for next year. This is the guy (Kirk Webster) who’s been breeding for disease resistance and toughness. So if all goes according to plan, I’ll be driving up to VT around this time next year. If we can’t keep those bees alive with two years’ experience under our belts, and plenty of nectar plants in place, well…I guess that’ll be a sign to hang up the smoker.

  6. Thanks, all, for your sympathy, ideas, and suggestions.

    We do try and make sure our hives are ventilated. There are wood shims between the top board and the hive top, and the bottom sits on two 2x4s so air circulates underneath. Still, it’s damp here and condensation may be a big problem.

    Joyce, I wish I had some idea about why bees would become more aggressive, but I don’t. Still, the upside is that you still have bees.

    Paula — A new queen wouldn’t save Big Bee. The queen is perfectly viable (as far as we know). The problem is that there aren’t enough other bees. Sigh.

    Mindy — Good luck! We’ll compare notes.

    Yvette — Your faith in me is downright inspiring, so I won’t try and convince you that it’s misplaced. As for the pathogens, unless it’s something like American Foulbrood (which it isn’t — that would have left unmistakeable signs), I don’t think there’s much cause for worry. People seem to re-bee existing hives all the time.

    Kate — I hope your new hive thrives, and I’ll be curious to see how you do with the VT queens. There’s a project here, run by my friend Claire, to breed local queens, but it got a tough start this year. It may be that breeding locally may help with some of the problems, but it’s hard to know. There’s so much about bees that we don’t understand. Which is, of course, part of what makes it so interesting.

  7. I am so sorry to hear that Big Bee did not over-winter and that your other hive is in trouble. A nuc for $85 IS CHEAP. I sell them for $115 and cannot produce enough to cover the requests, and still pollinate or produce honey. Last year was a really rough year for the southern bee breeders who do the packages with queens. They had plenty of bees for packages but the weather was lousy for nuptial flights when the queens were emerging. You may have simply gotten poorly mated queens who did not have a fully loaded spermatheca. They would not have the diversity of worker bee genetics they need to over-winter, they may have become sterile and been laying only drones when they should have been building the colony, someone could have used a pesticide in the area (like imidiclopirid coated grass seed-the stuff shows up in guttation water.), and many, many others. If you did not check for or treat for Nosema spp., there is a likely usual suspect. Nosema ceranae is rampant, widespread, persistent, and lethal if not treated. Live and learn, but notice that most of the list is beyond human control.

  8. Another option if you do not feel like investing that for bees right now. Let your good hive build up to a healthy number, remove a couple frames with brood in it along with the nurse bees that are on the frames. If the old queen is still alive remove her. The nurse bees wont leave the brood and they will notice no queen and raise a few from the brood. It will take awhile till the new queen starts laying but there is still plenty of time for the hive to be healthy by winter. This would be my option, but I raise bees to raise bees, Honey, wax and pollen is just a happy side effect. If you need quick numbers and a possibility of a honey crop by fall the nuc option is a good one.

  9. Greg — “Beyond human control” seems to be a fact of life in beekeeping. Between that, and the fact that I don’t think I have the skill to cover all the bases that are within human control, I’m feeling pretty helpless. One of our queens (in Big Bee) seemed very strong last year — the hive grew quickly, and there weren’t too many drones. Little Bee was sketchy from the get-go, though.

    Thanks for your perspective on nuc pricing. I’ve never bought one, so I had no idea whether $85. was on the low or high end.

    Rodney — Because even our “strong” hive is weak, I’m not sure if I’d be jeapardizing its success by taking a couple of frames of brood. I’ll look again in a couple of weeks and see how they’re all doing. In the meantime, all I can do is hope.

  10. Hi everyone, great conversation about failing hives. It is a real issue here in the Northwest also. Since I commented on your last post my friends have lost more hives. I have not lost any but I did have a bout of mites in my first hive.
    In my research for what to do about mites I found this amazingly good series of videos on bee diseases put out by the Florida University:
    In the Verroa Mite video he states very specifically that “if you open your hive and there is a pile of dead bees and plenty of honey it is most likely Varroa Mites”
    That is what my friends found and that looks an awful lot like what you have in Big Bee.
    Varroa Mites are relatively new to this country (1980’s) and I think it is a bigger concern than we realize.
    Varroa mite population rises in the fall just when hive population lowers in preparation for winter. This strikes a death blow to the hive when they loose more bees in the winter to parasitation and cannot keep a ball big enough to winter over.
    Varroa mites live in the brood cells and will just wait until you add more bees, and then infest them. One needs to treat the frames by freezing them to avoid a repeat infestations.
    Watch the video and see what you think.
    I chose to use grease patties for my mite problem but the jury is still out on whether this hive can overcome the problem. It’s looking pretty empty in there.

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