Hive autopsy, and spiders

I wrote a post back in January about a hive I had which contained the bees we rescued from a wall in a squash court in 2016. As it was free comb cut from the cavity in the brood box, I couldn’t have access apart from 6 frames in the super above, from which I could take some honey and check any brood. They seemed to keep the nest wholly in the bottom box but they have been extremely productive.

I noticed a distinct lack of activity today, and tell-tale wasps going in the makeshift entrance. I removed the lid: no bees. I lifted the hive off the floor: not a bee in sight. Whole hive completely empty apart from a few wasps and lots of wax moth. A month ago they were still flying, and although it’s sometimes difficult to tell if the bees are foraging or simply robbing, I am assuming it’s a recent occurrence because of the extent of wax moth damage; the amount of infestation can be used as a proxy for the length of time the bees have been gone.

The combs from the brood box were completely black, and this could be why the colony vacated the hive. The absolute lack of bees and no sign of disease makes me think the bees didn’t requeen following swarming and have perhaps joined another colony. If bees have no queen, the lack of pheromone makes them easy to detect by a stronger colony who will overthrow the guard bees and rob the stores. The robbed bees can decide to join their invaders rather than fight them – so called “silent robbing”. If the colony just fizzles out and dwindles to nothing, there are usually a few dead bees but this has happened recently and the entire hive is cleaned out so I suspect the bees have gone elsewhere.

Here are some photos. I couldn’t get any of the combs out of the box without breaking it all apart and there were an awful lot of wasps around so I have left it for now. I just love seeing what bees do when left to their own devices!

You can see how dark the brood combs are compared to the honey combs above the nest. You can also see how the wax moth are chomping through the former brood comb rather than the honey in the second picture: they like the cocoons and other detritus that gets left behind after the bees have hatched so they start here, and hence why they can be so destructive if they get a hold in an occupied hive as they was all the combs behind the grubs and destroy the nest from within.

I turned the brood box over to check for dead bees on the floor but there wasn’t a single one. The combs smell sweet and insecty – just as they should:

The bees had heavily propolised the entrance when they were in the wall, and continued this when they were in the hive: you can see the seam of propolis joining the box to the floor and kind of curtain across the entrance (bear in mind this is showing the underside of the brood nest). The combs are oriented in a peculiar way as we had to prop the combs up in the brood box when we took them out of the wall.

Here is the super that was on top of the brood box: correct way up on the left, upside down on the right. There was room to put 6 frames in the super, so you can see how they have adapted the rest of the space and attached their combs to the side of the box.

This hive was gradually being consumed by a blackthorn thicket and consequently the hive had a healthy population of woodlice, earwigs, and spiders. I took the lid off and saw something I’ve never seen before: a newly moulted spider, all translucent and wobbly. Her shed skin was next to her and I carefully tilted the lid back up against the hive to protect her as they are very vulnerable in that state.

Here she is a few hours later looking much more comfortable, exoskeleton now fully operational and having eaten her discarded and outgrown layer:

Amazing to witness such a thing, even though it is happening all the time, all around us.

I used to be a terrible arachnophobe, with proper panic and feeling nauseous at the sight of anything more than the tiniest spider. Having to get used to some whoppers in the hives whilst enveloped in a bee suit really helped and now I find them absolutely fascinating (although I still use a cup and card to put them outside rather than pick them up). Another beauty was this false widow, another common species in hives like the Tegenaria or house spider above.

I’ve often wondered if honeybees mind having spiders in their hive – of course they do catch and eat bees, but I suppose there are other bugs and beasties they remove too. Or perhaps the bees just leave their eight-legged housemates well alone.

I must say I don’t get sad when a hive no longer exists in cases like this as I don’t feel it’s correct to say it has died, as that is when they succumb to disease, starvation or toxicity and the like. If a colony doesn’t or can’t replace their queen I feel that is because they do not have the genetic favourability to continue and if they have produced swarms, then they have succeeded as a colony. I will rescue whatever wax I can to melt down, and clean up the hive so it can be used again next year.

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