Friday, February 23, 2007

Death by Dwindling

two frozen beesWhen some people arrive at this page via search engines, I can sometimes see the query which brought them here (sorry if that freaks anyone out). Lately, several poor souls have arrived here on the the heels of the search term, "bee death." I am sorry to welcome you, fellow beekeepers, to a woebegone club.

Today we investigated the death of the colony I keep, alongside one of my friend MaryEllen's, at a historic mill site. It's important to do this in order to determine whether a disease was present that could affect others; to learn what mistakes might have been made that could result in the death of other colonies managed in the same way; to decide whether any of the equipment or comb can be used again or rather should it be sanitized or discarded; to secure the site against possible robbing out by healthy bees; and to clean up the dead.

To see a more extensive explanation of what we found, you can look at a bunch of photos and a narrative on the sidebar at right. But here's the short version.

My bees froze to death. They need each other, in the thousands, during this cold, hard time of year in order that each individual flex her tiny muscles and contribute that warmth to the whole. When we popped the top, I expected to see thousands of dead bees, because I am seeing many many many dead bees at two other hives, and fear the worst there. I expected to see those thousands with their heads stuck into the bottoms of empty cells, starving because I failed to feed them enough, or ensure that their stores were close enough by — a mere 2 inches in the coldest weather.

However, what we found was a clean hive, with just a few dozen dead bees on the bottom board, and just a few hundred clustered around each other, not able to hold off the cold.

We looked for signs of disease, and some were there. There was an instance of chalk brood, but that is a disease of weakened colonies, not one that brings them to their knees. There was no AFB, but there were dead larvae in cells with no wings. There were thousands of dead mites on the bottom of the hive, and they were stuck like fleas to dogs on the poor last bees standing.

The picture here is not a good example of what the remnant cluster looks like — you can see better on the sidebar — but it does show the limit of what I could do for them. Those bees are on a frame full of nectar, and the last thing they saw on this Earth was each other.

Varroa mites seek a symbiotic relationship with the bees, but they kill their would-be partners with their vigor. And then they, too, die. It's hard for me not to think of humans and our demands on the planet, as well as the limits on what we can do for other creatures once balance is gone.

When confronting the death of these bees, I approached with too much of a sense of being at the center of responsibility and blame, because I never had that much control and power. Knowing what I do now about the mites, and about the almost sure death of the Mill bees, I think I should have considered other alternatives, including the use of pesticides. But those are blunt tools in clumsy hands, too, and such violently lively mites might best be escorted out of the picture at the cost of one colony of bees. But I will never know, or at least need much more time to learn, before I have the kind of wisdom that will tell what should live or die, and whether I should make it so.


Anonymous said...

Hi Toni,

Sorry to hear about your hive. I know that for a beekeeper, the loss of a hive is felt at a deeper level than most other non-beekeepers know.

For me, a hive is an icon of hope. And when lost, a measure of hope perishes as well.

I've looked at the pictures. Very few bees are present. Yet, there was a substantial area of patchy brood toward the end of last year. I suspect the queen failed in the early fall, leaving the hive with an older work force, too old to survive the winter.

Another possibility would be tracheal mites which cause early winter hive losses, few dead bees inside the hive and very small winter clusters which fail in the late winter/early spring.

From what I see, the frames and feed are still good and can be used to establish another hive. Since it was a functional problem and not disease, there's no need to render and scorch. Having drawn comb will be a great advantage to your bees next spring.

Sincerest Regards
Knowing that spring is coming. And the resiliency of both the bee and the beekeeper, contrasted against the dark winter, will again revive.

Peter Gladis said...

Hello Toni,

I am very sorry to hear of your bee colony loss - I am still enjoying the fruit - and work - of your many fine bees. I am very sad to hear of this - so I can only begin to imagine how you feel.

Is there any chance that this is what has been reported as "Colony Collapse Disorder" in recent articles? For example in the "Philadelphia Inquirer" on February 5, 2007, entitled: "Mystery killer silencing honeybees":

And on FEB 2 article in the PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW Entitled: "Bee die-off in Pa. 'worse than we thought'":

My very best to you -

Peter Gladis
Plainville, CT

stephanie said...

I don't think pesticides are the answer. In fact, a lot of us believe the use of stronger and stronger pesticides over the last century is what's weakened European honeybees, making them more vulnerable to the mites and other diseases that are so prevalent today. It's my opinion that's what's at the root of "colony collapse disorder," which The New York Times reported on yesterday (Feb. 27, 2007): a weakened species; stresses of being transported from field to field; overtreatment for mites; and then exposure to multiple pesticides in farm fields. I'd want to get out of there too.