Sarah’s hive was one of the most productive of my hives this year. Even though the bees did a lot of cross combing, they made some of the most beautiful and tasty white honey combs.
The colony had been booming all summer and there where no obvious (at least to me) signs that this hive was not going to do well going into winter. One of the problems I have with this hive is that since it’s not in my back yard, I don’t tend to get out to inspect it as often as I should. (Note to self – check the outyards more frequently next year). So, there was a 3-4 week period between September and October where I didn’t check in on this hive. That was all the time the nasty little varroa mites needed to totally decimate the colony.
When I finally did take a look, the first thing I noticed was very few bees at the entrance. A normal, healthy colony will have bees coming and going – and this day there were hardly any. When I looked in, I saw that there was very little capped brood, fewer bees and there were lots of uncapped, dead larva – classic signs of PMS (parasitic mite syndrome).
The queen was still alive and laying new eggs, but I could see signs of mite poop in some of the cells. That meant that any new larvae probably were going to be infested with mites. I decided to condense the hive down so they wouldn’t have as much space to care for. I removed some of the combs with the dead larvae (hopefully taking some of the mites too) and some of the cross-combed honey bars. I don’t treat for mites but I’m not sure that would have helped in this case anyway at this point. I was amazed at how fast a colony could be overrun with mites and go from boom to bust.
A week later I came back to check on the hive and when I looked through the window and saw a yellowjacket running around, I knew the colony was toast. When I opened up the back , there were dead bees all over the bottom of the hive.
As I moved into the combs, I found that robber bees and wasps had cleaned out every bit of honey from the combs. I was glad I took out the other honey! There were more dead bees and the bottom was littered with chewed up comb.
At this time of year, bees have very little sources of nectar and start robbing honey from other hives. A strong hive will have guard bees at the entrance to fend off the attack, but a weak hive can be quickly overcome. A hive like Sarah’s can be stripped of all it’s honey in a matter of hours. I don’t know how long it took in this case, but the devastation was total.
I took all the comb from the hive, scraped down the sides and dumped out the dead bees. I’ll take a torch to the insides in the spring to clean it up some more before adding new bees. The comb will be melted down for lip balms and candles. Some of the brood comb that I took out the week before still had honey on it. I froze them to kill off mites and wax moth larva, then trimmed off the empty comb below the honey. I’ll store the honey on the comb for feeding back to the bees in the spring if needed or to help start the new hive. I harvested some of the nice white comb that I got before the robbing and bottled that up on Friday. I even made up some little sample jars for the folks at my wife’s birthday party – which they all loved.
Next year, instead of buying a package, we’ll repopulate this hive with a split from one of my other hives (assuming one or two make it), or a swarm that we catch. I need to check on the hives more often to circumvent any problems before they get out of hand. And, I’ll try to buy or raise local queens that hopefully have better mite resistance than this one.
But for now, the sweet honey will take the sting out of the bitterness of a failed colony.