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I was hoping to get this blog out earlier in March, but like many beekeepers I know, we also make maple syrup. The sap ran like crazy from mid-February until this past week. Now that I’m spending less time in the sugar shack, I can get writing about what has been happening in the Apiary during the month of March.
Critical Time of Year
I went out during the first week of March to check the hives. March is a very important time to do regular checks of the hives, weather permitting. In this area, the queens begin brood production in February, and the population of the hive begins to increase. This means more mouths to feed, and using up the honey stores more quickly. This occurs just as the hive is nearing the end of winter, but before there is much, if anything, blooming yet.
This is the time of year when some hives might need a little help – adding extra frames of honey, fondant (a type of sugar “candy”), or even putting on a feeder if it is warm enough.
Most of the hives were doing great, but unfortunately, I found that one of the hives had died since my last inspection. It always makes me a little sad when a hive dies, but I try to remind myself that death is a part of nature, and in this case, losing only one out of sixteen hives is still pretty good. The wooden hive in the image to the right is the one that didn't make it.
Performing a Beehive "Autopsy"
When a hive has died, it is a good idea to do a “postmortem” exam to try and narrow down what may have caused the hive to perish. If you know what caused it, you may be able to avoid it with another hive.
The first thing I did was to check my records to see if there was any indication that this hive had had any problems this past season. Declining population, an older queen, or problems with swarming are some of the warning signs.
However, this hive seemed to be doing fine going into winter. It was a nucleus hive that we started with brood and a swarm cell from another hive. When the cell failed to produce a laying queen, we introduced a new queen that we ordered. After that, the hive did well. I had recorded lots of bees, a nice laying pattern, and plenty of honey being stored.
So, I started going through the hive itself to see if I could find a cause of death. One of the most obvious things to look for is the hive starving, running out of honey stores – especially this time of year. In this case however, the hive still felt very heavy. When I opened it up, I saw the two winter patties that I had added in February had not been touched.
The top two supers were almost completely full of honey as well. Some other signs of starvation are finding many dead bees with their heads stuck in the cells of the fames – trying to get food, or an entire cluster of dead bees in an area with no food nearby. I didn’t see any of these in this hive.
While well populated hives do not usually succumb to cold, moisture in a honeybee hive can be a problem. In the fall, we addressed this potential problem by making sure we had both upper and lower entrances for ventilation, as well as a screened super of straw above the inner cover to absorb the rising humid air from inside the hive. There was no signs of excess moisture in the hive, such as water droplets or mold, so I do not think that excess moisture contributed to the death of the hive.
One thing that I have seen in some hives that we have lost in the past is dysentery. Normally bees will not defecate within the hive – instead, they wait until a warm enough to day to leave the hive (this is called a “cleansing flight”).
However, long stretches of cold or infection by Nosema (a fungal disease) could cause them to defecate within the hive. The main sign of this is fecal stains on the tops of the frames or on the front of the colony. There were no signs of this in the hive, and as this was an unusually mild winter with many days for cleansing flights, I do not think that dysentery caused this.
There were also no indications that honeybee pests were the culprit. This was a new hive with a broken brood cycle, meaning that varroa mites (an ectoparasite) never really got a foothold. We did use sticky boards to monitor mite populations throughout the summer and fall, and the mite levels were low to non-existent each time. Small hive beetles were also not a problem - only one was spotted in this hive the entire season. No signs of mice, scratches at the front entrance from skunks, or any other disturbance.
Also, when I reached the bottom of the hive, I found most of the bees that were dead on the bottom board, and that there was no sign of deformed wings from a varroa related virus. And again, my records did not indicate any signs of disease.
So, by the time I had taken apart and looked through the entire hive, I still had no idea of what caused this hive to perish. The scientist it me really finds it bothersome to not be able to pin down a cause, but sometimes you just have to accept it and move on.
The Ontario Beekeepers Association has put together a very helpful checklist that you can use when trying to determine why a colony has died. I have found it to be very helpful when trying to figure out why I lost an overwintered hive. You can access it here.
Spring is Just Around the Corner!
The good news is that the remaining hives are doing great, and we’re hoping to make some new colonies from these hives in the not too distant future. Today the Red Maples started blooming, which means the Sugar Maples aren’t far behind, along with many other honeybee nectar sources.
Hopefully everyone’s bees are doing well as we go through this final push towards spring.
Jennifer Ford is a science teacher and co-owner of Bees of the Woods Apiary outside of Altamont, New York. Over the past seven years, Jennifer and her husband have expanded the apiary from two to 18 beehives, and share what they have learned about beekeeping with others through mentoring programs and presentations. Learn more about Bees of the Woods Apiary and beekeeping in general at www.BeesOfTheWoods.com or on the Bees of the Woods Facebook page. Read all of Jennifer’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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