Winter Bee Hives Losses and Lessons

I have now gone though all my hives. My  last post was about what that entailed. This post is about the results, what I saw for good and for bad, and the result of an experiment.

The Overall Results

This is the answer to the question everyone asks: Over winter hive failure was 14%.

This isn’t to say that every hive is looking absolutely brilliant. Some do, some don’t.

Reasons For Deaths

I’m happy to say that queen failure was the primary cause. “Happy?” you might ask. Well, it sure beats varroa, or nosema, or starvation. Certainly no hive starved, but I’ll get to that in a second.

The “alive but not brilliant” I would attribute to our winter weather (warm and wet) combined with an experiment I tried.

Queen Failure The Percentages:

About 50% of the queens that failed had been purposefully bred in 2014. By that I mean either I bred them or I purchased them in 2014.

30% of the queen failures were in hives whose California purchased queens had been installed in 2014.   I’m not very impressed by their short-lived lives. I have gotten accustomed to hives that keep going for years (spoiled, I know). But California has been having rough times with drought, so that could be a factor.

The other 20% of the queen failures were hives that had been going for between three to five years. I think I can assume they were not the original queens, but their daughters and their daughters’ daughters. So their line had a good run, and they attempted supercedures at particularly bad times (warm, but wet winter with little to no drones around).

Queen Replacement at Brookfield Farm

I do not replace queens on a time schedule. I replace queens only when I see that they are failing. Interestingly, this failure is often preceded by me seeing the queen quite easily.

My queen choices are towards dark bees: Russians, Ferals, New World Caniolans and Hybrid-crosses of these. I figure that a hive of good dark bees is going to start getting their precious queen to safety – away from opening tops and moving frames – as soon as they can. If the queen is just hanging about, I put this down to the bees not caring to protect her and move her away from the disturbance (me), so she’s running out of steam.

In the winter, usually October to March, I do not open hives and thus do not see the bees. Should a queen, and hive, begin to fail, they will do so without my seeing the action.

There is an option of simply requeening with new queens every fall. But over the years, I have seen so many new queens fail, that I’m not willing to eliminate what seems to be a good queen on the chance something will go wrong in the winter.

Hives Weakend By Seemda

I did get a few hives impacted by  Seemda – I think it affects a lot of beekeepers.   You know Seemda: It “Seemed A” Good Idea At The Time.  Sometimes innovations work; sometimes they are a really bad idea.

This year’s Seemda was the removal of my little squares of insulation that sit on top of the burlap that’s on top of the top bars inside what I call the “collar.” The collar’s 2-inch-tall “box”, with the upper entrance, that sits beneath the lid

Bee Hive Insulation on top bars

Insulation Over The Burlap

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The insulation does not fill then entire space, leaving room for bees and airflow.  A very old post explains more (by the way I no longer wrap hives, which is shown in that post – I stopped wrapping after a successful experiment a few years back.).

Opening the top of an overwintering hive

Moving insulation & burlap to see the top bars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brookfield Farm bee hive collar with top entrance & insulation

Collar & Insulation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lately I got to thinking “Is it doing anything at all? Or is it just making me feel good?” Well, I can tell you how it affects my hives.

Affect of Insulation on Brookfield Farm Hives

In hives that are in the wide-open spaces with lots of sky (we don’t always have sun, just non-rain days), the hives did fine without them. No more and no less well than when they had insulation.

In hives that get more shade, it was a different situation: hives were damp, often with fungus. The bees all hunkered down in the lower boxes (I over winter in 4 westerns normally). But the clusters were smaller and weak. The sides of the boxes were very damp and many had white fungus.

Conclusion: Keep the insulation in areas with a higher percentage of shade.

No One Starved

Not only did the majority of hives come though with a good supply of honey remaining in February, but some had an entire box left. I had to shift frames around so that those bees would not get honey bound.

 An Odd Observation

As I was shutting up the hives for winter about five hives had such a high level of brood that I left them with five boxes. Bottom box has pollen, then two boxes full of brood (high numbers for my bees), then a fourth of honey/brood, and a box of honey.

In all cases, the queens failed. Queen cells were built – but of course the wet weather and lack of drones meant that the queens and hives were doomed.

Conclusion:

I think that the presence of that much brood so late in the season may be a queen’s last “hurrah”. So when I see this, I think I’ll move some brood into nucs that have enough bees to cover the extras, and put a small over wintering nuc on top of the overly enthusiastic queen’s hive.

What’s Happening Now

I’m on to supering those that need supers, and feeding, with frames of honey from the queen failures, those that need honey. I’ll post more about that next week. That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey in Maple Falls, Washington.

This weekend we’ll be at the Seattle Fremont Market, but not at the Ballard Market. I’ll be back at the Ballard Market on April 5. I’m having an enforced week off due to cataract surgery. A whole new world – or at least one with a different focal length – is opening up for me….

How did your bees come though the winter – or what are you doing to prepare your bees for the dark days to come in the southern portion of our world. And has anyone else seen this “tons of brood from a failing queen thing?” It was new to me…..

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About brookfieldfarmhoney

Brookfield Farm, a small off-grid apiary in Maple Falls, WA focuses on the beauty and bounties of Washington’s wilderness. I sell honey from our bees, whose naturally-treated, antibiotic-free hives are home to bees who fly Washington’s mountains and farmlands. Herbal salves and lip balms from Brookfield beeswax. Delicately infused honeys and vinegars. Varietal honeys from independent Washington beekeepers. Karen Edmundson Bean: beekeeper, photographer. Her love of the wilderness inspires her to discover new ways of bringing the wonders of nature to others. Brookfield Farm : the tastes, textures, sounds, and images of nature.
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4 Responses to Winter Bee Hives Losses and Lessons

  1. Emily Scott says:

    I have an alternative theory for the hives with lots of brood failing – varroa. Part of the reason the Asian honey bees which are varroa’s natural host can cope with it are that they tend to have smaller colonies and swarm more. The more brood you have, the more varroa you have, and sometimes that can be a hive’s downfall. It doesn’t make sense to me that a failing queen would produce more brood.

    Interesting about the insulation. I use insulation too and many of my colonies are in a shady spot, so I’ll continue!

    • You know, I you just may have hit it, because the bottom screens were not “knee deep” in the dead – so there were bees working to clean for a good while. Brilliant, as usual. But I got to thinking: there were no other signs of Varroa. All the brood had hatched very neatly. No sign of deformed wings in the dead. And there were those supercedure cells. the queens probably weren’t failing in September. Remember I don’t see the bees for a few months, I think they died in January due to the food that was left. So maybe failing queen later in the year, fewer bees, but with varroa still present, and too cold to break cluster and clean well (very cold in Dec)…Probably synergistic, as so many things are.

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