One of my students contacted me earlier in the week to say he’d noticed a reduction in flying and a lot of dead bees outside the entrance and behind the mouse guard. They had been foraging and bringing in pollen for the last few weeks which is usually a good sign that the colony is getting ready for spring build up. Bruce’s colony was a swarm from last summer and had done well (although not anything extraordinary) and were only covering about 6 frames. As they were in a National, I suggested he made a cover to go over the hive to protect them in the winter, and being a keen woodworker, he built a wooden “shell” which sat over the hive to keep the weather off. Their garden and surrounds are well provisioned with forage, and following my advice, he’d planted crocus and some new native trees to provide additional resources, showing how having a hive can really encourage good husbandry and engagement with our gardens.
As with the other colonies which have died, there were no honey stores in the hive, and a few cells of pollen. We have had a succession of storms through February, and last weekend we had Storm Jorge which although milder and less destructive than its predecessors, still brought strong winds and rain. There is plenty of blossom around now, but of course even if it is not technically too wet and cold for the bees to fly, they are reluctant to take off when it’s breezy, as shown in this study at LASI, part of Sussex University.
There were Varroa mites – a few on the board but some on the bees too, and a number of bees with stunted abdomens and deformed wings. The queen was quite small, but there had been brood. This time last year I was checking my bees as it had been so warm and mild through February, plus we had had a good autumn with the bee flying well in to November; this year will have challenged many small colonies as well as other pollinator species. I suspect the bees would have made it if last month hadn’t been quite so stormy. Remember the bees in the colony now are those which hatched in the autumn, and their strength and vitality will enable the colony to build up in spring. They can’t survive if they are tired and weak due to damp, cold, lack of food, and Varroa. When Bruce had contacted me, I said he could try sprinkling some icing sugar on to the crown board as an emergency measure but of course it was too late for this to make a difference.
What can we learn from this? If possible, unite colonies in the late summer so that they have a larger mass of bees to maintain core temperature. Insulate early in the autumn to preserve precious stores. If you have more than one colony and can spare a frame or two of honey to boost a smaller one, do so. If your bees are only covering 6 frames, consider transferring them to a nuc box so they can overwinter in a smaller space and conserve heat.
Bear in mind that all the above suggestions are easily considered in hindsight. There are risks in uniting colonies in the autumn unless one is definitely queenless, and moving them to a different box needs to be done with care so that the queen isn’t damaged. Feeding is of course an option, but one needs a crystal ball to determine if that is going to absolutely be necessary, and as I have said countless times, a more sustainable approach is to ensure your bees have sufficient stores/bees/insulation as the sticking plaster of sugar syrup is not really a long term solution.
The drawn comb will be used top bait Bruce’s two hives, so we now have to wait and see how the remaining colonies we have in our apiaries and environs respond to the spring weather, if and when it finally arrives…