It was a nice, sunny afternoon: what a gift in this cold, dreary, wet and endless “spring” of 2017. My beekeeping buddy Tim and I approached my 7 overwintered hives in the Boundary Bay yard with high hopes and light spirits.
I had no idea what was coming at me.
I have overwintered bees for 8 years now, and I have to say, I am pretty darned confident they are going to get through, and in awesome shape. My first mentor told me that overwintered hives are like Ferrari engines…and baby, I have always driven Ferraris!
So I have been guilty of an internal gasp of horror when I read the average national overwintering loss rate, which hovers somewhere around 60%.
“SIXTY PERCENT??!! What on earth??!!” I confess to a feeling of smugness in my own 90%+ average.
You know, overweening pride.
This apiary we were inspecting was a new winter location for me. I had wrapped the hives carefully: cosies, closed bottom boards, quilt boxes, fondant, entrances turned away from the wind. But as we peeled off the first cover, I could see how much trouble I was in.
Hive Southwest was dead. A complete surprise. And as we did the post-mortem, the reason became clear: I had left out the mite counting sheet in the fall wrap-up and the screened bottom board had been open all winter. My hive stands are 10″ high, and I sadly concluded the wind had howled under the hive and frozen the bees in spite of their best efforts.
We also observed some stunted bee abdomens. Starvation or DWV?
Learning: next winter the stands will all be converted to solid boxes, creating a dead air space under the hives, not a wind tunnel. I can paint the boxes a dark colour to maximize passive solar heat gain. I will do mite counts to ensure low mite counts after the final fall treatment, and check all colonies have lots of stores on board. I will check the hives more carefully after winter wrap-up to ensure I have not left an essential task undone.
Two of the hives remained strong, but not as strong as in years past. Looking them over, they were healthy, just low in population. Hmmm.
Two of the hives were down to 4 or 5 frames. Healthy but very small.
It appeared I had seriously underestimated the wind exposure in this new apiary. With lethal results.
Three of the colonies were candidates for “the softball club”….softball sized clusters of only one or maybe two seams of bees, the queen unable to lay freely as she is too short on workers to keep the brood warm. These softball colonies just stall, barely able to replace the old dying bees with new. They need a frame of brood and bees, and nutritional support (because they cannot spare foragers from brood-warming duty) to gain momentum and recover.
I found something I had never seen before: the mature queens in these very tiny clusters were laying multiple eggs in cells. No, not a laying worker or inexperienced new queen. Turns out a strong queen with a small cluster keeps laying desperately, but with such a small cluster area lays in cells over and over again.
To make things worse, I had been depending with complete confidence that these colonies would make it through the winter in fine style, and be split-able in early spring. I had 6 queens on order for early import, planning to boost apiary numbers early, and boost worker bee production in order to support a queen improvement project.
As Tim and I opened hive after disappointing hive, my heart sank. The project was now impossible. And there was no way I could find enough bees here for 6 new queens. All my bright and shiny 2017 plans were completely, utterly impossible.
I could have sat down and cried. And seeing what appalling shape the colonies were in, I felt ashamed. This was all my fault. I had really let these bees down. I hate letting the bees down.
What to do?
Well, after a restless night I realized I needed to take a cue from a lady who knew all about adversity:
Over coffee the next morning, I made my confession to my dear husband. I outlined what I had found in the beeyard, and what it meant to my summer plans. He gave me a big hug and posed the right question: what do you do with a sack of lemons?
My vision cleared. Thanks honey. Thanks Helen.
What will 2017 be?
Here is my reworked and inspired ambition: it will be a year of building and strengthening my apiary. I will get to do my favourite thing in beekeeping: grow little colonies into big ones. I will get to source superior queens and bees to add to my little gene pool here. Diversity in the gene pool and in the resulting colonies is highly correlated with bee health.
I will have buckets o’ fun practicing my queen rearing techniques, just on a smaller scale.
I will get my ducks in a row for serious queen production next year, but I can get a good start this year.
I will be more careful in my late summer bee husbandry and winterizing in my problem location.
I will have more time for the myriad of small projects and equipment/technique trials Tim and I want to run this year, including succession sowing of the derelict field we are in to boost forage opportunities for our bees, and testing some new forage plants I am growing out from seed.
I will be more grateful for the success I have. And more humble.