The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Knocking on wood for bees

Dead hive

To recap, we went into winter with three hives.  Our oldest hive is full of bees shipped to us from Texas in spring 2012 who swarmed in spring 2013.  Our second-oldest hive consists of a package we bought more locally this past spring, who were dusted with sugar to treat varroa mites this fall.  And our youngest hive was a very long shot --- a swarm captured near the barn in late June.

If I had to guess in October when I started winterizing, I would have said the barn swarm had a low chance of making it through the winter, this year's package had a good chance, and the Texas bees had a very good chance.  Nature has already proven me wrong.

Busy bee hive

In early December, we enjoyed one warm, sunny day, and I saw quite a few bees going in and out of the barn-swarm hive.  While I would have liked to believe these bees were happy residents, I had a sinking suspicion that colony had perished and a stronger hive was stealing their honey.  I figured if that was the case, there was nothing I could do about it, though, so I left them alone.

But you know me --- I like to know where I'm at.  So this week I set out to see what I could tell about our hives without opening them up.  I started with the oldest hive, who I'm most confident about, stuck my ear up against the box...and heard nothing.  Could they really be dead?

Clunk!  The camera around my neck knocked into the side of the hive box, and suddenly the bees inside began buzzing angrily.  Two happy lessons learned at once --- if you don't hear bees in a winter hive, give the box a little knock; and, this hive is alive!
Dead bees
The next stop was the second-oldest hive, which I had a lot of faith in too.  Here, though, my faith didn't seem to be grounded in reality.  Even after knocking on the wood, no buzzing was forthcoming, so I opened up the hive and found it dead.  (Photos at the top of this post and to the right.)

I'm a bit bamboozled about what happened to this hive since it had a healthy population (despite slightly higher than recommended varroa levels) going into the winter.  Now, there are only about 150 bees in the hive, a few reaching into comb as if they'd run out of food, but most on the bottom-board and entrance.  If the hive wasn't also completely empty of honey, I'd say the culprit was colony collapse disorder.  But maybe the colony collapsed long enough ago that whatever usually keeps other bees out of these hives dissipated, and the hive was robbed out?

Without much hope, I headed up to the barn-swarm hive, knocked on wood, and heard buzzing!  Despite very low numbers going into winter, this plucky little colony has survived many nights in the teens.  Maybe what I saw two weeks ago was this hive's workers stealing all the honey from the dead hive so the barn-swarm hive could make it through?

All of this musing aside, I think I've decided not to go with straight-Warre-style management next year, and instead to split the strongest hive.  I've got two boxes of Warre comb all drawn out, and that hive seems to have resilient genetics, so it's probably a good idea to turn one into two.

That won't happen until midspring, though.  For now, I'll just hope the two remaining hives last through the rest of the winter...knock on wood.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Comment by irilyth [] Tue Dec 17 10:14:28 2013 suggests that this is not the origin of the phrase, but I like it. :^)
Comment by irilyth [] Tue Dec 17 10:16:20 2013

Hi Anna and Mark,

I would seem like a different baby monitor transmitter mounted on each bee box would make listening to the bees inside from your warm house pretty easy.

You could get even put it inside the hive.

Pretty cheap to try out! Probably worth a try?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you both :),
Comment by John Tue Dec 17 12:42:56 2013

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