Our Winter of Discontent

Friday, December 4, 2009

They're dead.


Where? I don't know. All I can report at this point in time is that our Hello Kitty Beehive was empty when we checked it this morning. Other than four or five dead bees at the bottom of the hive -- there was nothing. Nada. Zip.

Where did they go? That's the $64 question boys and girls -- because I don't know. I can tell you that this hive was so full of bees this past September -- that the show they put on at night was enough to make anyone nervous. It wasn't unusual to encounter a mass of bees like this.

Venus and I had a strong -- crowded and somewhat aggressive beehive just two short months ago. But in the space of that time -- all of the bees that you see to your left vanished.

They didn't die (as far as I know). They just aren't there anymore.

The first hint that something might not be right in the hive came earlier this week when the new President of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association (SABA) came across a post on this blog titled "Forget About it Fishback!"

Let's just say the new President of SABA -- Brian Fishback -- wasn't all that pleased. And he let me know in the form of the following comment:

"Thank you for you kind words. It is warm and welcoming to know that this is how you treat people that you call upon for support. The fact of the matter is I obtain a lot of older, worn-out bee boxes, frames and tools from folks not finding the time or interest in beekeeping. Many of the colonies I obtain are infested, run-down and deprived by the time I get a call. So, what I providing is a service to the bees as well as to those who call upon me. I'm sorry that you feel this way. Maybe you can make a difference by holding an honorable position in the association as I do....Sincerely, Brian Fishback."


It appears I touched a nerve. I didn't mean to do that. But sometimes -- well -- Bill Bird just sort of rubs people the wrong way. And -- what is largely "tongue in cheek" blog writing -- is taken quite seriously. I knew what had to be done.

I immediately called Brian at the number he left behind to profusely apologize. I told him that I didn't mean any offense -- and that my posting was merely a way to poke fun at people. But -- yes -- sometimes my "fun" can go a bit too far. I also told him the truth -- that I very much enjoyed and appreciated the support I had received from fellow beekeepers this summer. Without SABA -- the Hello Kitty Hive would have perished in June. That's the honest truth.

I think Brian appreciated the gesture -- and the apology. At that point -- the talk switched to bees and I told him about my reluctance to break into the hive to check on the bees due to some recent cold and nasty weather. During the last SABA meeting -- I had received this block of what's called "Pollen Patty," which I knew the hive would enjoy.

Brian advised me that I should have noticed bees flying in and out of the hive -- which I haven't seen since that blast of cold weather that the Sacramento area received in October. I knew the honey stores inside the hive were quite strong from my last check inside the hive in August -- and I knew the hive wasn't starving.

But the lack of activity? That concerned me. It concerned Brian as well -- who informed me that "his bees were flying today." He also related a somewhat scary story: He'd lost five of his hives in just the past month alone due to a condition called "Sudden Colony Collapse Disorder." This is the biggest problem facing hobbyist beekeepers and commercial Apiaries today. Normal, healthy, productive hives suddenly vanish without a trace.

Why is this happening? Nobody is quite sure -- but a great body of recent evidence points to a destructive little creature called the Varroa Mite. Beekeepers also refer to this pest as the Varroa Destructor -- because it can destroy entire colonies in a short matter of time. Invisible to the naked eye -- experienced beekeepers can spot evidence of the mite at work. But hobbyists such as Venus and I? The world clueless comes to mind.

Following Mr. Fishback's instructions to the letter -- my first move was to try to lift a corner of the hive. If it moved or lifted easily -- or weighed less than 20 lbs. (estimate) -- I was "in trouble" according to the SABA President. My hive, however? It wouldn't budge. I needed a shovel to lift a corner of it -- and by the time I finally got my fingers underneath the bottom board of the hive -- I knew it was more than 20 lbs. in weight.

Good news -- right?

Not so fast. The next move was to take my hive tool and pry off the top of the hive that the bees had long ago sealed with a sticky substance they secrete called "propolis." They had done an excellent job of sealing the top and bottom boards -- which was another good sign.

But when I finally cracked the top open -- well -- I instantly spotted "trouble" with a capital T. I should have seen a small mass of bees rising to the top to face the "human intruder." Instead -- Venus and I got nothing. And -- as I peered between the slats inside the hive looking for a mass of bees -- I found nothing.

No signs of life. A dead bee here or there. No spiders. No hive beetles. No mites. Nothing. The hive was devoid of life. What I found instead were combs that were rich with honey. I have a hive loaded with pollen and honey stores that would easily sustain a hive through the winter.

But the colony is gone. The queen is gone. There was no evidence whatsoever to support a scenario where the queen could have perished -- and worker bees attempted to create another. Instead I found empty comb in some places and many combs loaded with honey and pollen.

So -- what went wrong? You've got me. I don't think it was from lack of attention or lack of feeding. The bees had an ample supply of food inside the hive -- that much is evident. They had a healthy -- productive queen last summer -- as evidenced by masses of bees that would hang outside the hive entrance during those warm summer nights.

Does this spell the end of our beekeeping efforts? Honestly -- I can't tell you that right now. It's just too soon to say. It is somewhat depressing -- however -- to lose not one but two hives in the course of just one summer. It's time -- perhaps -- to take a break and think things over.

Perhaps I should have listened to Brian Fishback's generous offer after all.


Katie said...

Man, what a bummer! I wonder if they swarmed elsewhere?

The Vintage Vignette said...

How dissapointing for you both. I'm sure it was nothing you did wrong but just one of those flukes of mother nature. :)

Fred Hoffman said...

Interesting discussion of CCD at;

possibly a Nosema fungus?

Fred Hoffman said...

I discussed your dilemma with Master Gardener/Bee Keeper/CA Rare Fruit Grower Vince Conrad. You should meet him. He surmised that the disappearing bees may have been due to 1) an invasion of ants; 2) lack of a flowering food source in the vicinity; 3) any other of a number of reasons.