I have had a surprising winter with my bees, and sadly, not in a good way. I have very rarely lost bees in winter in my skeps. But this winter, I’ve lost nearly all of them. And I’m not sure yet why. I started the autumn with five hives (4 skeps and 1 in-wall hive). I am down to one. All through late summer and fall, the bees in each hive were doing beautifully, and all the hives smelled strongly of honey.skeps
My first loss was Charity hive. When I opened her up to have a look, I found about a hundred dead bees, and a hive well-stocked with honey. She had been fine two weeks before, so I am left to wonder if she simply absconded.
Next came Faith, who left a hive with no honey and no bees. Then Valentine, my wall hive perished as I watched her bees shrink down to a tiny handful. Finally, Genesis hive (who held Valentine’s prime swarm of last summer) died. In all cases, there were few bees left behind, and evidence in the brood combs of mite problems.
I have been told that spotty comb with punctured cells and bees dead with tongues out as they attempt to hatch are indicators of mite infestation. It can also mean the queen failed, bees began dying, and the brood combs could not be fully tended, so the remainder of the brood died.
I’ve checked the combs for mite droppings, and really don’t see much of it. I’ve not had mite problems in the skeps for several years. When the skep bees perish, it has always been because they failed to create a new queen mother after a series of swarms.
My one remaining hive–Feather– is in her fourth winter, and seems to be going strong. I’ve never managed to gather one of her swarms, because they always fly up and into my neighbor’s huge maple. But this year, she is my only hope for refilling my hives, so I am planning ways to set up very high bait hives, hoping I can attract some of her swarms. She normally sends out three each year.
A good friend of mine, who keeps all his bees in log hives which he suspends in trees, found all of them had died out last winter. I could feel his shock and sadness. When you offer your bees the best-of-the-best housing, trust them to manage their colony as they see fit, and then lose them anyhow, it can be very sobering.
I find myself asking if I even want to teach beekeeping classes right now. It is so hard to keep bees alive these days. I know everyone tends to blame all this bee catastrophe on mites, but I am increasingly inclined to put it as the doorstep of pesticides. Chemicals kill. That is what they are designed for. And they kill at very low doses.
I had decided last fall that I would only keep four hives this coming spring–three skeps and my wall hive. I like having less bees so that I can focus more on each hive and get to know them more deeply. Of course, keeping less means I am more attached to the ones that I have, and feel their losses more keenly.
So, I found myself needing to do some mid-winter honey processing. I am grateful for the gift of the honey, but would far rather have had her bees. When I process honey, I just cut and chop the combs into a big bowl. I set another bowl below a large strainer, dump the chopped comb into the strainer, and place the whole mess in my old oven, which as a pilot light that is just the right temperature to soften the honey without destroying the goodness of it.
I’m leaving most of the wax in the skeps for next year’s bees. It is fresh comb, only a year old, and I know the new bees will be thrilled with the “furnishings.” I take some of it for melting, and pull any of the old brood combs and melt them, too.
I feel I am still a very rank beginner to this style of beekeeping. I love the skeps, but have so much to learn in keeping bees in them. I’ve been riding a successful high with them for a few years, but this winter is setting me back on my heels, pondering what–if anything–I could have done differently.
I am determined to remain treatment free, and hands off. I believe it offers bees their best chance at thriving. My next task is simply to move forward into the spring and see what comes, learning from one colony after another.
One of my bee mentors is Torben Schiffer of the Beenature project. He has done extensive research of bees in logs, and has determined exactly what it takes to keep a bee nest healthy and thriving. I’m going to tell him of my hive failures this winter, and see if he can offer any advice. With bees, there is always much more learning to do!
Last summer, all the gardeners in our area noticed the lack of pollinators. “Where are the bees??” they all asked. In my own yard, while I had many honeybees, I saw few bumbles and I normally have at least six different bumble species on the plants I grow especially for them. It troubled me and I was hoping it was just some odd quirk of a year and not the shape of things to come in our region. My fingers are crossed for this coming spring, even as my heart is heavy with sadness.