My First Loss of the 2020 Winter Season

I’ve kept a close eye on Genesis colony since her last swarm in early summer. She came to me as a Daughter (or cast) swarm in early April, and by early June, she was sending out swarms galore. Four in total by the time she was finished.

I get nervous with such swarming events in a hive that only set up housekeeping a few weeks previous. My concern was that she would not requeen successfully, and that–it appears–is what happened. I never saw a strong orienting flight after her last swarm, and the only time the bees seemed really active was when I put out food for them…

Yesterday, on a sunny warmish day when all the colonies were celebrating with bees flying everywhere, Genesis was silent. So this morning, I cracked the propolis seal which had fused the skep to the log round eco-floor, and tipped her back.

The combs are stiff in cold weather. Sometimes, I leave a perished hive to sit for the winter, but then I have a lot of wax moth mess to clean up come spring.

The nest was completely filled with beautiful dark combs that were all fully checkered with pollen. I’ve never seen so much pollen in a bee nest before! Every comb was heavy with bee bread. I pulled out my bread knife, and began slicing the combs from the skep, and setting them in a large bag for freezing. I want to keep that pollen for next year’s bees, if they have any interest in it.

Comb after comb of “stained glass” beauty in the pollen stores.

As I cut, I could hear buzzing high up in the top of the hive. Eventually, I found them–a cluster of about 50 beautiful, tiny bees huddled on a chunk of honeycomb. Carefully, I cut around them, and was able to extract all the bees on their comb. My gut told me that they would be welcomed into any of my other hives, so I carried the bees over to Valentine colony, my in-wall hive. I placed the comb on the landing board to the hive, and sat back to watch.

A few Valentine bees came out to have a look, and immediately began feeding on the small chunk of honeycomb. The Genesis bees hurried to the hive entrance, and crawled all around the bamboo tube, sniffing and exploring. Then, each one in her turn entered her new winter home with the Valentine bees. They were welcomed with no argument. These hives are sisters, each one a Daughter to the Mother hive that lives at the library in my small town.

Genesis is welcomed happily into Valentine colony!

We placed the library hive several years ago, and she has done well. I collected three of her daughter swarms, and am now down to two. My remaining three colonies–Gobnait, Charity, and Valentine–are all doing well. I have no idea who will remain come spring. Having lost all five of my colonies during winter 2019, I no longer assume anything with my bees.

Reading and study have taught me to be less grief-stricken when I lose a hive. In  21st Century America, it is the norm that many, many swarms and colonies will perish every year. We lose them to systemic pesticides, varroa mites, poor forage, and poor habitat. Back in the 1900s, those who studied bees closely determined that around 80% of wild swarms survived their first winter. Now, we know that around 80% of swarms perish before or during their first winter. Times have changed.

I don’t count success in terms of how many of my colonies overwinter successfully. I measure success in terms of having enough colonies survive to fill my empty skeps come spring. For me, that means that I need only one strong hive to survive. That one hive then will swarm come spring, and it will swarm several times. When I gather these swarms, I can fill any empty skep I have with a new colony. I only keep about four colonies a year now. It is an easy number to tend and brings no hardship to the many native bees I support on my little city lot.

Genesis built one Looong comb that reached deep into the eco-floor.

Success for me is in keeping bees as wild as possible, protecting their integrity to live as they choose, and evolve as nature intended. I fully believe that commercial beekeeping will collapse under its own wretched weight, and the bees I keep will be the “seed bank” for bees  to come–bees who are free to mate, forage, and swarm as they choose. Bees who are free to “remember” who they are. Research claims that bees can recall their original abilities within just a single generation of living wild. I want to give them back their memories and abilities so that the world will have bees long into the future.

Already I’ve noticed that bees kept in skeps behave differently from heavily managed bees. Skep bees are gentle and relaxed. They welcome other bees, just as they welcomed Genesis’s little band into their ranks. I need no gear or smoke to be with these bees. I’ve witnessed no robbing activity ever, and can even feed honey openly without fear that it will set off a robbing frenzy. There is sense of calm peacefulness with these bees that I cherish. Perhaps it is the result of the small hive sizes where bees don’t have to work incessantly to prepare for winter. I know I have so much more to learn about keeping bees this novel way.

Genesis upturned at Valentine’s doorway. There is about a half cup of honey floating in the bottom of the skep. I’m sure it will be cleaned out by days end!

One of the things I’ve noticed with skep beekeeping is that none of my failing colonies ever become “laying workers.” A laying worker colony means that in the face of the queen perishing and with no ability to create a new queen (meaning that there are no queen-laid eggs left in the hive) worker or “maiden” bees will begin laying eggs. Because these maidens are not mated, they can only lay drone eggs, so they do. Hundreds of them. In this way, nature offers a way for the colony to send its genetics out into the world in the form of hundreds of drones who will mate with queens from faraway hives and share the ancestry of their Mother hive with these virgin queens.

Gobnait has built up slowing this year, which is the way I like to see colonies create themselves.

But my bees choose not to go this route. If they find themselves queenless, they just carry on with their habits until they slowly expire. Each week sees less bees in the hive. And eventually, they will be down to a small, hearty handful. There will be few dead bees to be seen, because the remaining bees have carried them all off, keeping the nest tidy til the very end.

This was the case in Genesis–no unhatched brood, not too much honey, a clean eco-floor with no dead bees, and no evidence of mite droppings in the empty comb. I know that Genesis was having some mite trouble, as I saw a handful of deformed-wing (DWV) virus bees with their shriveled wings, yet even with that, the virus-stricken bees looked healthy and strong in every other way, which is not often the case with these bees. Often, bees with DWV look disheveled, with patchy hair and shrunken bodies.

Charity is my only colony from a different bloodline. This prime swarm came from my friend, Pixie, whom I’d gifted a swarm to last year. Now, these bees are back in my yard again!

But Genesis’s bees all looked beautiful and able, to the very end. I sorted all the honey into chunks for feeding bees in the future. We took no honey for our household, as I have plenty remaining from other hive losses. Genesis supplied her future sisters with six large packets of dripping honeycomb that I’ve bagged and frozen.

I emptied the hive completely. It seems that if I leave a lot of comb for the incoming swarms, they tend to build up too fast and send off swarms a few weeks later, so I’ll be stripping any future skeps of all their comb, leaving one comb for the bees to work with.

With the falling of the leaves, I know that I’ll be seeing far less of my beloved bees in the coming months.

I placed Genesis upside down next to Valentine’s entrance, so that the bees can clean up the honey drips in the no-empty hive. And I brought a big, dripping slab of honeycomb to Gobnait and Charity. Genesis is already supporting her sisters!

Thank you, Genesis for all your hard work this summer. You are gone, but never forgotten. Your honey will sustain your sisters when they need it. Your hive will shelter a new colony of bees come spring. Your pollen will be placed out for early spring bees, and your wax will be used to plug holes and entrances when needed. You live on!

3 thoughts on “My First Loss of the 2020 Winter Season

  1. As always, a beautiful and informative read, Susan, honey-rich with your ongoing learning and endless love of these sacred creatures. The photos glow. Among them, my favourite is ‘Genesis is welcomed happily into Valentine colony!’ — a key moment in the story and one resonant with the gentle environment you’re always creating for those colonies who come into your care. ~ kwp
    (Thanks for sharing this with us in fb too. Am thinking of you with extra love re Dec 3rd event. xo)

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    • Thank you for your kind support! I so enjoyed writing about the bees, and taking those photos to share. I realize that teaching is truly my joy, right alongside of writing. So I write and teach not only for you, but for myself, also. It is healing for me to tell these stories!

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  2. Hi Susan. I’ve just inherited/acquired a laundry basket in the shape of a large skep. I’m researching with a view to making a skep this spring and have found your words interesting and informative

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