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

Dead hive

Dead honeybees

We had our first ever bee hive casualty this month...and it's all my fault.  I would love to follow the lead of modern beekeepers and blame the death of hundreds of bees on colony collapse disorder, but I'm pretty sure the problem was mismanagement.

Varroa mite on a dead honeybeeThis was my prize hive that began 2010 with double deeps, bulked up its colony in record time, and socked away nearly our entire year's harvest of honey.  When I checked them at the beginning of November, they had about 84 pounds of honey --- more than any other hive --- but I was a bit concerned because the hive's varroa mite numbers were also high (180 mites per day in September, declining to 74 mites per day in November.)  I considered either using an organic or chemical varroa mite treatment, but in the face of insufficient data on how many mites is too many, I instead decided to test my boundaries and see how the bees survived the winter.

Dead, small cluster of beesMaybe they had too many mites, but I don't think that's what killed them.  I was so confident in our hives' honey stores in early November that I skipped a month and didn't check on them until December 30.  At that time, the writing was already on the wall --- the bottom of the hive was littered with a thick carpet of dead bees and the cluster looked too small to cope with this winter's abnormally cold temperatures.  Sure enough, when sun returned on January 16 and bees came flying out of the other two hives, my prize hive was silent.  I pried the lid off and found a hive full of dead bees.

Starved honeybeesMy autopsy turned up only a couple of varroa mites clinging to dead bees, but lots of bees with their heads poking into empty honey comb,  desparate for dinner.  There was plenty of honey left, but the problem is that it was too far from their cluster for the bees to eat during December and January's long spells of sub-freezing weather.  When I checked on the hive two weeks ago, I noticed that the bottom brood box (where the bees were) was nearly out of honey, so I moved a bunch of full frames down from above.  Too late.  None of the fresh honey was touched, and I suspect the colony died soon after I checked on them in December.

Shun the fault I fell in!  Don't be lulled into a false sense of security by a fall check with copious honey.  Especially if you have a hive with a very large bee population, check in at least once a month (or more often!) and move honey around as needed to make sure the bees have plenty of food right in their living rooms.

I'm trying not to be too heartbroken by the loss, and to instead consider it a learning opportunity.  After all, this makes up my mind --- I'm definitely going to have to learn to propagate hives this year.

Our homemade chicken waterer arose out of a similar homestead disaster.  When two chickens died of heatstroke after their traditional waterer drained dry on a hot summer day, Mark developed a waterer that never spills even on uneven terrain.

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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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I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm sure the rough winter was tough on bees all around. With all the critters I've tried on our farm and had good luck with, I'm still intimidated to try bees. The management seems to take a lot of bee psychology and guesswork. I hope to try it in 2012. Here's hoping the rest of your hives stay happy!
Comment by Karen Mon Jan 17 10:09:45 2011

Thanks for your condolences! Losing one hive out of three over the winter is supposed to be pretty average, but I didn't lose any last winter, and I had high hopes I'd keep up the good work...

I don't think that bees are harder to learn than other livestock, but the timeline feels more like learning about fruit trees. I get feedback from my chickens every day in the number of eggs they lay, how perky they look, etc., but I really only get an idea for how well the hive is doing a few times a year. Maybe in a couple of decades I'll be an expert! I do thoroughly recommend them, though --- they're pretty low work and very rewarding.

Comment by anna Mon Jan 17 11:57:39 2011
so what now? can you save the honey that the hive left behind? do you give it to the two remaining hives or just collect it?
Comment by Anonymous Fri Jan 21 16:45:09 2011

I'm currently reading Natural Beekeeping, so I figure in a few days I'll have a more specific answer. My uneducated goal at the moment is to find a way to split one or both of our current hives so that we'll have three to four hives this year. (I'll probably split just one since my gut feeling is that splitting a hive takes a lot of energy on their part, and I do want to get a bit of honey in 2011.)

I'll probably use the honey to help the hives bulk up faster, or for the new (hypothetical) hive to eat as they grow new workers. If there's any left over, I'll extract it, but I'd rather push that honey back into the food cycle of the apiary and make them stronger.

Comment by anna Fri Jan 21 16:59:14 2011

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