What killed our bees?

Puff Puff..Where are the bees?

Some stories are harder to tell than others. As if saying it out loud makes it more official, and real. This is one of them.

Bees are active through most of the year but in winter I have to wait to see the bees. I always wonder how they are doing. Sometimes when I can’t stand see them for long periods of time,  I go up to the hive and blow a puff of warm breath into the upper entrance. On real cold days it can take a few breaths but a curious bee will eventually come out to meet me, look a little annoyed, and return to her cluster. It always makes me smile to know the colony is still alive. Then, there are the times when I puff and puff and no one answers, no one comes to see who is daring to come so close to their home.

If this happens I take the next step and open the top of the hive. At this point I can feel myself becoming a little tense as I peek down the hole in the inner cover. I f I can see right down to the screened bottom board it’s bad, real bad. It has happened a few times this winter. I checked after the cold snap and both colonies at ARMS, Queen Lara and Queen Purple, named a Rivers Day have passed. I saw them, cold and unmoving with a small cluster of bees all around them, maybe 50. All dead. My heart broke. I always feel responsible for caring for them and seeing them dead makes me feel like I failed, that I made a mistake somewhere and caused this to happen.

From what I am learning there are many causes for bees to die off. From what I can see in the hive there was no shortage of food, they had stores of honey and pollen. There was also no sign of disease, nosema, a disease that affects the bees gut and causes them to have diarrhea leaves traces behind and you can see it, smell it. Looks like brown runny drips close to the entrance usually. Like they tried to make it out but couldn’t quite get there in time.

There was a reported increase in European Foul Brood this past year according to the Apiary Inspector Jaquie Bunse but her description of seeing twisted off-white larvae in the comb was not seen in these hives. There are no larvae this time of year. And lastly the dreaded varroa, well I did not treat with chemicals this year and we did have some varroa. The bees in the hive had wings and did not show signs of being deformed from the ravaging varroa that crawl right into the comb while they are still forming. So I am not sure what the problem was exactly. I do know it happens. Most healthy Bee colonies split into two every year and it stands to reason that not all of them would survive or else we would inundated with bees.

Some of the research about the decline of the honeybee is looking at genetics, looking at what makes a good hive good. I have two such hives in my backyard In Spring Summer and fall, they are active in the morning and long into the evening gathering food. They clean the hive, (I see the debris that they clean out just outside the entrance) The queen lays lots of larvae, the hive is sealed with propolis to prevent drafts and intruders. And the bees groom each other, cleaning off the varroa.

There are many things that bee keepers do to help their bees and it is as individualistic as each person who takes on the challenge. Some things I do is to  help ensure the hives stay out of the wet, so I have the hives raised and in a place that gets sunlight. I always make sure that they have enough food, protection from hungry mice, and watch for signs that show that the bees may be sick and know what has to be done to help them so  they don’t spread their sickness.

So I try and console myself by saying that even though the hives seemed strong, but now I can see something was wrong. Could it be something in their genetics? Perhaps letting them die and the strong survive can have a positive effect in the long run. I will order new bees for the hives at ARMS and  I hope the few remaining hives in my backyard are there when I puff a breath in the entrance.. Puff Puff Puff…the snowdrops are pushing up through the frozen ground, spring is just around the corner…..and I am hopeful that the surviving bees will be out to collect their nectar and pollen as early as February!


– Loretta Jackson

  1. Geoff Clayton Reply

    Thanks Loretta for sharing your story and your bee connection to our educational program which would bee so much less without you.


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