I apologize for my absence, but we’ve been in the process of moving. We made the decision on a bit of a whim, but my husband is a builder and has always dreamed of building his own home. We threw our house on the market and were shocked when it sold in about 12 hours… and its been a whirlwind since then! We’ll be spending the next 8-10 months in an apartment while we build the new house, but bought 3.5 acres, so we’ll have plenty of room for bees!
This year we came out of the winter more successful than the last couple. We have one good, strong hive still alive! *Insert pause for celebratory dancing!* Up until a couple of weeks ago, we had two seemingly good, strong hives alive, but one of them died off in the last few cold days of spring. We were confused as, sure we’d had a cold snap, but nothing unmanageable, even for a small end-of-season cluster. Maybe a handful of bees were left, so when it warmed up just enough, we dumped those bees into the surviving hive.
Once it really warmed up and we were able to get into the hive and really analyze the remains. The only thing out of the ordinary was a mouse nest in the bottom of the hive. Certainly we knew we didn’t want mice in the hive, but could this be the reason for our hive’s collapse?
Yes, but probably not.
The problem with mice in the hive is that (1) they are destructive and (2) they are stinky. As you probably know, mice will chew on just about anything (including hot electrical wires) and the inside of the hive is no exception. As they pass the long winter months in a hive heated by your hardworking bees, they will say thank you by chewing up frames and comb. Depending on the number of mice, how long they are in the hive, and their general voracity, they can do some pretty extensive damage. Mice have even been known to climb up through the comb, disrupting the cluster and causing damage to honey frames. In fact, our bees seemed to be in the top frames earlier than usual this year and it makes me wonder if they were moving away from the mice.
(2) They are stinky. Like most living things, mice urinate and while humans might not smell it upon opening the hive (a small blessing), bees are certainly affected by it. Smell is a crucial component of how honeybees communicate and orient inside the hive and the introduction of a new and strong smell, can affect their communication and general comfort. The strong smell will usually deter the bees from that part of the hive and could, if left unchecked, result in absconsion.
While I’d love to use the mice as a scapegoat, another very real explanation is a virus of some sort. When bees are sick they will often leave the hive to die as a natural quarantine. It is possible that, on the first warm afternoon, bees left for a cleansing flight and couldn’t return because they died or were weak, or left purposefully due to some pathogen.
When bees die of starvation, you’ll find tons of dead bees in the hive, many on the bottom board and others stuck head first in the comb. When bees die of the cold, you’ll often find them still in cluster, clinging to the comb. However, we found very few bees. I suggested to my husband, hopefully, that maybe they had drifted into our second hive, but we both knew it was too early in the season for that and the second hive did not look unusually large in terms of bee numbers.
Given the prevalence of mites in our area, I’m going to guess that our bees were weakened due to mite populations last year and also the usual end-of-winter scarcity. They left on a cleansing flight and many were not able to return. It is definitely a bummer, but further reason to keep on top of those mite checks and treatments. Here’s a post I wrote recently for the Kalamazoo Bee Club regarding mite treatment.
There’s also the positive that one hive did make it and we have a local nuc coming in May. Onward, beekeepers! Happy Spring!
For more information on how to analyze a dead-out, check out Dr. Meghan Milbrath’s new post.