About a week and a half ago, Anthony went out to check on our bees to see if they needed more food, and to clear out any dead bees on or in the bottom of the hives. He made some fondant sheets to put on the inside top of the boxes, just in case they had gone through all of their honey stores.
We had a spell of a few warm days between 40-50 degrees, which made it the perfect time to go in and check on them. Generally speaking, it’s not good to open the hive bodies when it is colder than 45 degrees because it puts the bees at risk of getting chilled. They work hard at keeping the inside of the hives a warm temperature throughout the winter, and we don’t ever want to disturb that. When there are unusually warm days in the winter, you will (hopefully) see your bees flying in and out of the hives, making cleansing flights. Bees don’t like to poop inside the hives, so they basically hold it until there is a warm day and then they fly out to “cleanse” themselves.
Anthony didn’t see one single bee flying around, so he began to suspect that something was wrong. (I was working in Las Vegas for a week while all of this went down, so Anthony had to handle it on his own) When he opened up the hives, he realized that all of our bees were dead. He called our mentor, Rick, who told Anthony that he would be able to stop by and see what might have happened. In the meantime, he began to clean out all of the hives.
When he looked at the bees, they didn’t seem to have anything obviously wrong with them – they didn’t have deformed wings or bodies, the hives didn’t smell weird and there was PLENTY of honey for them to eat. So we took this to mean that they didn’t have any diseases. When Rick stopped by later and took a look, he told Anthony that he didn’t see any evidence of a Varroa mite issue. Varroa mites are one of the biggest reasons why hives don’t survive in our area. We found the queen dead amongst all of the bees in one of the hives, so we know that they didn’t die because they were queen-less.
There was about 20 pounds of honey left between the two hives. Many of the bees had stuck their heads deep into the cells, which based on what we’ve learned and read so far, can mean that they were cold and didn’t want to break out of their cluster. In the winter, the bees form a cluster to create a big ball of warmth inside the hive. It’s actually more complicated than that, but you get the gist of what I’m saying. Rick seems to think this is probably what happened. And since they didn’t break the cluster to go up to the upper hive body where the food was, they most likely died of starvation. Here’s a video of Anthony going through the hives and cleaning them up.
So what is the answer for next year? That’s an excellent question that we still don’t know the answer to. We had some seriously cold and windy days in January, with the wind coming from the south. We have open fields across the street from us and no windbreaks, so this could have sent some very cold air toward the hives. We built a northern wind break, but we don’t want to block the southern sun from hitting the hives with a southern wind break. If we do build one, it can’t be more than 2 feet tall. We had ventilation on both the top and bottom of the hives, but maybe it wasn’t enough. Without enough top ventilation, condensation can build up and drip ice-cold water onto the bees, thus making them too cold. Our plan right now is to read more, ask more questions, make some more windbreaks and maybe add a bit more ventilation.
We’ve ordered our new bees and more beehives; this year we are growing our apiary from 2 hives to 4. The new bees should arrive sometime around the end of April, beginning of May. We are upset and very heartbroken that we didn’t successfully overwinter our bees this year. Hopefully with a few changes next year we won’t go through this again. But that’s the thing with bees, or working with any living creature, I guess. You just can’t predict what’s going to happen. All we can do is educate ourselves and make sure we are taking care of them as best we can.