But back to my first dead hive. I saw less and less traffic on warm days, days that were so warm that most of my fellow beekeepers were doing inspections. Those hives that were jamming were bringing in lots of pollen ... on the 30th of January! It's still winter. It must be dandelion, which is now blooming. I didn't inspect, though. I still believe that in winter, no matter the temperature, you should leave them alone unless you heft the boxes and they're light, meaning they'll run out of food. Another reason to go in, I've learned: when you see less and less activity on warm days. I did not, but hoped for the best. Mistake.
My winter lesson Pt. 1: That box was not a box of hope, but a box of bees. A box of bees without a queen. I watched less and less bees come and go, until none were coming or going while the other hives were super busy. I did an inspection, and found a measly handful of bees clustered together on the top-bars. They had tons of food above them, fall honey. This hive was so strong in the fall that it was the heaviest. It also was only one and a half boxes tall, compared to Boris & Natasha, which were still at 2 and a half boxes tall. When I performed my last inspection in the fall, I saw the queen. The next time I opened the box it was to feed hive Rocky a candy block. That was unnecessary since they had plenty of honey in a shallow above the deep brood box (another clue ). When I opened the hive to put in the candy block, I thought their reaction of instant head-butting my face was aggressive. The other hives did not respond in that manner but were calm. I assumed it was the colder temperatures and the smaller single-deep with a shallow hive, in the mid-50s. Mistake. I should've known when my stacked nucs which were doing well but nearly out of food were calm as could be.
The hive was acting aggressively because it had no queen. And there was a roar, a sound I was unfamiliar with. Now I know both signs. I should've done an inspection at the time, found no queen nor eggs nor brood and then combined the remaining bees with another hive by putting a sheet of newspaper between them so they could become familiar with the queen-right hive's pheromones and slowly chew through to unit. Now, I realize the queen was killed one way or another, so therefore I assume it was me. Sometimes that happens in beekeeping. Another reason to have multiple hives and multiple laying queens. Come spring I'll be making more queens and hives. You never know, and I may end up re-queening Natasha if she needs it (she's barely made it through the winter).
My winter lesson Pt. 2: I hoped for the best. Doing so, I doomed what bees remained behind. The hive is never a box of hope. It is a box of bees, plain and simple. And if it dies, it is not a box of failure. It is just a box of dead bees. I went to work and cleaned it out of the dead bees to salvage the equipment and food stores and to prevent disease.
I made a gallon, removed the super atop the hive, put the feeder on top of the teeny tiny cluster of bees, gave them a prayer and then closed them up. In the following week, little syrup had been eaten. But some had! And on the next warm 55-degree Sunday where the hives in the sun were getting 66-degree weather, I finally saw more traffic coming and going from Natasha than before.
So five out of six hives surviving here at the beginning of February. Not bad. My goal was to have 4 out of 6 survive the winter, which also would be a great percentage to survive in my book. I just knew that the two smallest nucleus hives would most likely not make it. They are in fact very strong, and have eaten up more than a candy block each. I will put them into a full-sized hive in early spring and watch them progress and make honey. And I'll take frames from Hive Boris and Natasha and make more hives with great genetics and hopefully have plenty of honey and maybe some wax to start making candles or soap or lip balm out of. :-)
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Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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