Unsolved Mystery: What Happened to Our Bees?

Our first year as urban beekeepers ended on a sad note: we lost the entire colony. On a recent, warm spring day we opened the silent hive in search of answers. Our investigation was inconclusive, but we ruled out starvation.

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About Bob Vivant

I'm a writer, recipe developer, and photographer. I write about food and human nature and the curious intersection of the two. After collecting a few degrees and nurturing an unsatisfying, 15-year love affair with corporate America, I chose a new path, one that would allow my passions for writing and all things food to flourish. My cooking focuses on whole grains and fresh (local!) ingredients with a few naughty bites thrown in for good measure. Chocolate truffle cake anyone? I believe that recipes are mere guidelines, and food rules are made to be broken. I strive to make cooking more approachable for those who say, “I don’t have time,” “I don’t know how,” or “I just didn’t eat those things as a kid.” Anyone can make pizza from scratch and fast and easy doesn’t have to mean processed. I'm committed to changing the way people think about the food they eat – one bite at a time.
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17 Responses to Unsolved Mystery: What Happened to Our Bees?

  1. Richard says:

    Your video showed some clues… the same thing I have seen in hives I have lost in the past. One thing that is hard to see though is how much runny bee poop is on the frames – those plastic frames are not my faves. I can see it on the inside of the hive body, which leads me to believe that your bees were weakened by an intestinal parasite (nosema). Normally you wouldn’t see any defecation like that inside a hive. And, probably you are right, they were weak and never were able to reform the cluster. One of the things that causes nosema to be worse is moist conditions. I notice your hive is really close to the ground. We had piles of snow this year… bees keep the hive warm, or at least the cluster, and it was probably wet inside the hive. This just makes everything worse, I have found. Cold + Wet + possible Mites + possible Nosema + new Colony. I can give you some other hints when I see you (I hope) on Saturday at http://www.greenmetropolisfair.com. I am installing a package at Bubbly Dynamics sometime this weekend (when the package arrives).

  2. beth says:

    That video is so interesting. You guys are such a smart, cool couple. I can’t wait to catch up!

  3. Bob Vivant says:

    Richard, your comments are extremely insightful–thank you. Yes, our hive had a lot of snow around it for much of the winter. I had hoped it would insulate the hive through our bitter cold spells. We have so much to learn.

  4. Bob Vivant says:

    Cool couple? I don’t know about that Beth. Did you happen to catch a glimpse of Greg’s tube sock and Croc ensemble?

  5. Emily Heath says:

    Sorry that you guys lost them all :( I agree with Richard that there are signs of unusually bad dysentry, which may indicate nosema.

    I can’t tell from the video if you’re using an open mesh floor or not. This is a good thing to do as it means if the varroa mites lose their grip on the adult bees and fall on the floor they they can’t climb back up again. It’s also good if you have a hive which allows you to slot in a varroa monitoring board (just a piece of cardboard or plastic which the mites fall onto) in above the floor now and again to measure the daily mite drop, which it doesn’t look like yours does? When I was doing this in December I was literally finding hundreds of the little buggers on there in the space of a couple of weeks, which soon gets you recognising what they look like!

    Your comb looks pretty dark to me and so possibly quite old? It’s a good idea to change the comb annually to prevent diseases such as nosema building up and give them a fresh start.

  6. BobVivant says:

    Thanks for your comments Emily. We do have an open mesh floor and we had a tray below to catch the mites. Our mentor had told us to spread a little vasoline on the board so that the mites couldn’t get off once they fell through the mesh. We did check at the beginning of fall for mites, but it didn’t look like there were any bugs on the the vasoline board. Maybe we looked too early and should ave check late fall or early winter.
    A few of our frames are likely old dark combs that we got from our mentors with our bees last May. The other frames are just a black plastic foundation. -Greg

  7. Emily Heath says:

    Ah good. Surprised you had no mites in the fall as they usually build up over the summer. Mine had a few mites dropping at that point but they seemed to get worse in December, perhaps because there was no brood then so they were all overwintering on the adult bees and started dropping down. I treated with oxalic acid in late December which really seemed to help.

    You having black foundation explains why the frames looked so black! I’ve not seen that before. What’s the advantage of the plastic frames, are they less heavy?

  8. Chantal says:

    Oh sadness! I continue to be quite distraught for you both. They seem to have gone into winter so strong!

    With that cluster pattern, looks like classic winter kill where they just ran out of honey in the right places or it just got too cold for them. Was the box of honey below or beneath the cluster of bees?

    The dysentery staining does seem pronounced, so that possibly may have played a role as well, as others have offered.

  9. BobVivant says:

    Emily,
    I am not sure what is the advantage of the plastic frames. We bought our hive on-line from Better Bee and the plastic frames were the only option. – Greg

  10. BobVivant says:

    Chantal,
    The box with honey was the middle box of the 3 and the cluster was in the top box where there was not any honey left. I actually wonder if there was very little honey in the top box at the start of winter and as the cluster moved up the hive they just ran out of honey. I am guessing that the cluster doesn’t move back down the hive during the winter? – Greg

  11. Richard says:

    I can help answer that question: The plastic frames are far more durable in general. The black plastic allows you to see eggs when they are newly laid. Also, sometimes the colored plastic frames have different size cells to encourage drone production for facilities that raise queens that need to be mated.

    Plastic frames work well in tandem extractors, yet they are far less likely to get filled than wooden frames with wax foundation (the bee-preferred frame). So, you have serveral basic options and variations on those options rated from what the bees seem to like best:

    Wooden frame with real wired wax foundation
    Wooden frame with a thin celophane membrane that is coated with wax (I do not like these at all – I can tell you why if you want to know)
    Wooden frame with a plastic board foundation that is sprayed with beeswax (that is what I use) – self assembled is least expensive and very easy
    Plastic frame with a plastic board that is sprayed with wax
    Plastic frame with plastic drawn comb (that usually comes in black or buff)

  12. Richard says:

    The cluster doesn’t move much at all unless there is a warm-ish day they can take a cleansing flight. In reality, leaving much honey in the hive is futile. If it is in the top, there is not enough space for the cluster, if it is below they won’t get it. Leaving some frames on the outside of the boxes is good, solid food is good (fondant “cakes” and pollen patties). I have used hive-top feeders with heavy liquid syrup food fairly successfully. Most beekeepers I know prefer the solid foods laid on the top bars of the top box.

    Also, if you are going into winter, you don’t want a lot of boxes. I use medium supers for everything, and I take them down to three, sometimes two only. The less extra space, the better. If there is a warm day in winter, you can always add a full frame of honey that you set aside.

  13. Richard says:

    And, one last thing and I will leave you alone: I just saw this from our friends at Heritage Prairie

    Farm: Last chance to buy tickets to our
    Honey Farm Dinner!
    Please sign-up online or call us by 4:00 p.m. today, Tuesday, April 12th.
    #630-443-5989

    Hear the Latest Buzz on Bees at
    Heritage Prairie Farm’s Honey Farm Dinner
    Saturday, April 16th at 6 p.m.

    colony collapseThis year may be the worst on record for our poor honey bees! Something is killing off our bees in record numbers, and it’s threatening our entire food chain. Much of our food is dependent on pollination- Even the pastures that feed our livestock!

    Hear the LATEST BUZZ from the CHIEF APIARY INSPECTOR in Illinois, Steve Chard.

    Every course will be a delicious celebration of our friend the honey bee.

    As a special THANK YOU, we are offering a 20% discount to beekeepers on farm dinner tickets. Call 630-443-5989, or email info@hpmfarm.com to purchase tickets.

  14. Well you’ve heard the saying, right: “Ask 10 beekeepers and you’ll get 11 different answers, right?”

    That’s my caveat ;-)

    So I’ve read and experienced that the cluster of bees moves upward into the winter to gather honey which means they can starve if there’s no honey above them. This may be what happened to your hive, sadly….

    My personal approach is, rather than feed bees, to leave them 3 boxes of honey and resources each winter. Alex and I have decided to go this route after reading the results of several studies at U of Minnesota regarding success factors for healthy overwintering. I wrote about that a couple weeks ago: http://mistressbeek.com/2011/03/08/3-deeps-overwintering-success/.

    Then again, we’re not keeping bees as a business but rather to contribute to the evolutionary fitness of the species, so feeding and mite treatment only makes our bees more reliant on those interventions for survival. At least that’s how we’ve come to look at it.

    Again, I’m really sorry this was the result of your first winter with bees. It gets better. Maybe it’s time for 2 hives ;-)

  15. Pingback: ChicagoREgen.com » It Takes a Community to Raise a Colony

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