Bring Out Your Dead : Winter Bee Hive Declines

Spring finally arrived here in Maple Falls, Washington.  It came fast: snow banks melted, creeks filled with rain which poured for hours on end, trees toppled in the wind, then the blue sky appeared.  Ah joy, ah relief, ah – off to go around the bee yards and see who made it though the winter.  A quick clip to show you part of the bee yard at Brookfield Farm in the middle of the hives’ emergence from their winter wrap to first spring feed and powder (my first foray into posting video here – shot on my ipod).  You’ll see wrapped hives, piles of sash cord, jugs of feed, a tray of powdered sugar, a smoker, and all the debris of the transition.


Back to the musings about winter losses

I had about an 18% loss.  The autopsies currently show the majority of failures were queen failures.  One hive looks like it had a massive mite infestation that it could not overcome, or the bees were possibly not resistant to mites and had a normal mite load.  I breed and purchase queens with an eye to mite resistance, but not every creature born to a breeding program is perfect.

Loss – loss is always a drag.  But it is part of beekeeping.  30% loss is now considered normal.  One yard queened with one type of bee can have different degrees of losses in each year.  Yards that are near each other, which have the same queen stock, and have been run by the same methods can have different degrees of loss.  This is all normal.  Which got me remembering what it was like when I started out and had only one bee yard.  Some would die and I would think “What have I done wrong?” Self –assessment is always good, and hive assessment is a “must”, but the answer may be “You did nothing wrong. This is nature.”

Having a number of bee yards allows me that perspective.  But if you’ve only one yard, and you’ve had some losses, take a look at your bees, your dead hives, and your records.  What type of bees did you have?  Were they suited for your environment?   How did you manage your bees?  What actions did you take over the year, and especially in the fall?  What did you feed your bees?  What was the weather like?  You may want to tweak some of your actions (can’t change the weather), but do not despair.

If one or more hives has survived:  Order one or more queens.  Build up the hive(s) that remains; and prepare to do some splits just before the queens arrive.

If you’re raising your own queens then you have some good stock there: they survived.  Build up the hive. When the drone comb is capped or drones are flying, make some splits and raise your queens.

As long as there was no disease in the dead hives – that was in “look in your dead hives” – you can use the honey that was left behind to help boost the surviving hive or be installed with the splits.

I can hear howls of  “you can spread disease by moving frames of honey”.  Yes, you can. That’s why you do an autopsy on the dead hives for foul brood (it does not always smell), nosema (a very hard one to assess, but tons of fecal matter is a good clue), chalkbrood (I’ve never seen it), CCD (never seen it in my hives) and all the other diseases.

Most beekeepers I know do move frames from hive to hive.  The surviving bees have probably been in the dead-outs already.  After all they were living next to a really nice supply of honey that they could get to very quickly.

So if you have suffered some winter loss, remember: Take a deep breath and say “dead bees, I didn’t want those girls anyway.  I can make some changes and carry on, or use those survivors to try to breed bees that are more suited to the climatic and health issues that surround my bee yards.”  Farming, especially farming wild animals that you don’t get to see for many months of the year, is challenging, but it is a fascinating challenge.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees and Honey, in Maple Falls Washington.

How’d your bees do coming out of winter?  Are you making any changes?  Do share, we can all learn from one another.

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