Another One (Two Actually) Bites the Dust

Dead hive being enjoyed by robber bees

Dead hive being enjoyed by robber bees

A little over a month ago I posted about robbing bees. It turns out that a colony had died and so some of the cleverer bees from the other colonies took advantage of the gap (nature abhors a void) and started stealing the unprotected honey.

It’s happened again.

I’d be panicking that maybe something was seriously amiss in my little apiary but I luckily had a visitor on the farm who is an expert apiarist, he works for the government in this capacity. He brought his right-hand-gal with him. They were kind enough to come into the apiary (smoker and hive tool in hand) to see if anything untoward was going on. I had my list of things for him to check ready:

Problem 1) I’d tried to save a dying, queenless colony (C2) a couple of weeks earlier by providing some young brood, hoping they’d make a new queen. He opened the hive and said to give up. There was clearly evidence that they’d tried to make a new queen (partially removed queen cell), but there was no queen in residence. The colony will die, the bees are “disheartened” and there is no turning them around, at least not in the middle of winter. She agreed and my suggestion to merge the hive with another using newspaper to separate them was frowned upon. The bees are too disheartened to even eat through newspaper and the risk of the remote chance that they have some disease is not worth adding a few bees to a winter colony in dearth. As it is a mid-winter dearth they have little chance of begging admittance to another hive. They are doomed. (Oh 😦 )

Problem 2) A reasonably strong hive (C1) had been experiencing high deaths, I suspected another pesticide poisoning incident. He inspected the hive and said it is fine. I spotted the queen, she is a lovely, fat thing the colour of caramel. This queen was from April. The colony was also requeened in January but that queen had died/vanished by the April requeening. I think we now have a good queen and the hive will do well over the winter. My expert did say there is plenty of honey and pollen stores but no indication of new food being brought in so, with a laying queen and a dearth on, a colony can run out of stores even when it looks like there is plenty. I’ll have to watch that with all my hives. :-/

Swarm of feral bees?

swarm of feral bees?

Question (not problem) 3) The swarm from 16 May (C3) is looking great. I asked my expert about it. He agreed that’s waaayy too late for a swarm (everyone agrees that). He noticed the bees were darker than my others (something I’d also noticed) and we surmised they are feral bees who moved into our apiary. This is apparently pretty common. We have created a giant lure which is fine with me. The swarm landed on the back of one of our hives and was easy to collect. It was the 2nd swarm to do that this autumn. (The first one didn’t survive.) Maybe this feral bee habit will help make up for our losses. 🙂

IMG_5718-002Problem 4) There was one hive (B1) that looked funny for the first time during this inspection. Bees were working hard to get into the small ventilation holes at the back of the lid. We looked out front (see the photo at the top of this post) and there were a lot of bees there too. We suspected robbing so opened the lid. All those bees out front were robbers. The colony is gone. No sign of disease or pests. Another failed queen, this one from the April batch. 😦 😦

Stray bees

Stray bees

Once it was dark and cold, I returned alone to my diminishing apiary. At night the robbers had gone back into their own hives so there weren’t been many bees in the hive. I loaded the 3 boxes making up Hive B1 (no colony in residence) onto my specially designed bee-hive-trolley (I didn’t know such a thing existed before moving to the farm and finding it in the shed). I put the boxes, undisturbed, in the honey room and went to bed.  In the morning I discovered that a few bees had camped out in the dead hive and woke up in the honey room. Poor things couldn’t figure out how to get through the glass to go back home (no doubt with full tummies).

In the next couple of days, when the weather permits, I will distribute the frames of pollen and honey amongst the remaining hives. Waste not want not.

All of the original 23 hives were requeened this year, half in January and half in April. We’ve lost 3 colonies since then (including C2 which is in its final death throes). The expert tells me 4 dud queens (counting the one that was requeened twice) out of 24 is an acceptable rate. It could, in fact, have been higher but the colonies may have replaced any other failed queens that we installed in January without us noticing. This wasn’t really possible with the queens installed in April, that was too late in the year for them to replace a bad queen.

17% failure sounds like a pretty bad ratio to me but I’m trusting the expert. Anyone out there have any comments about what failure rate you might expect with requeening?

So, I’m about to have 21 hives in my apiary (B1 & C2 RIP). Still a lot, but each colony death saddens me a little. Yeah, I know, they’re just insects.


Holes appearing in the apiary


About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
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13 Responses to Another One (Two Actually) Bites the Dust

  1. Emily Heath says:

    Sorry to hear this. Re sharing the frames of honey and pollen out amongst the other hives, are you sure none of those colonies died of disease? Might be an idea to test some of the dead bees for nosema first (if you have nosema in Australia).

  2. We do have nosema here and our colonies have been tested for disease (including nosema and AFB & EFB) and are clean. I am (almost) positive it’s just a case of failed queens in winter when there aren’t any drones to fertilise a new queen. Any doubts I had were assuaged by the expert telling me not to waste the pollen and honey. He works in the department of the government that’s responsible to control the spread of diseases amongst bee colonies so I’m trusting his judgement here.

    • Emily Heath says:

      Ah, that’s ok then. Really good that the colonies are clean.

      • Well, I hope so. The test was done a couple months ago and though we collected bees across the colonies did a bee from each colony get checked? They certainly didn’t test one hive after the other. My expert tells me that they only check for nosema at a certain development stage and not al bees would be infected and… Oh bother. I could go crazy if I keep doing this. I’m going to stick with the advise of the local expert and hope the colony was as clean as it looks.

        • Emily Heath says:

          Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be fine. That commercial harvesting scene in More than honey felt like watching a massacre – in fact, it was a massacre. That bit with the hive boxes on a conveyor belt and the machinery coming down – arrrgh.

          • You felt that too? Seeing those bees chopped up, drowned and the desperation in them as they clustered in the corners of the ceiling was just horrid, horrid, horrid! What is wrong with humans? Yeah, they’re just insects, but they’re alive and would like to stay that way. It’s impossible to avoid ever killing a bee but it’s surely possible to take some care even if your motivation is money. I can’t help but think there will be some karmic payback – suffice it to say I don’t want to be standing next to the guy who owned that operation in a lightning storm!

  3. Must be particularly distressing for you not to know exactly. I am taken with that phrase: the bees are disheartened. I wonder if this is the law of averages for having so many hives. Could their bee a natural attrition rate the more hives you have? Also, if you have a great number of hives, are you more likely to attract feral, robbing bees? Sorry, I don’t have the answers to these….

    • I think it’s the law of averages. As my husband points out, bees have been on this planet for tens of millions of years (literally) and, if colonies never died out we’d be wall-to-wall bees. It’s just nature.

      I do think having so many hives in such a small area must be hard when there’s not much fodder around. The experts tell me this property can “easily” support 50 hives and often had more like 150. Bees are very good at surviving dearth with those honey stores but still…

      I too loved that phrase “the bees are disheartened”. He said it (more than once) like it’s a scientific term everyone knows. Maybe experienced apiarists do but it’s the first time I’d heard it.

  4. Just insects and yet there seems to hardly be a beek who does not develop an affection for them and mourn a dying colony.

    • It does help that I’m not the only mad person out there – do you think it’s the honey that addles our brains? 🙂

      What I have noticed is amateur beeks do mourn a dying colony and even loathe squashing a single bee. Truly commercial beekeepers somehow harden their hearts and kill bees and colonies without batting an eye. It freaks me out to see. Have you seen the movie “More than Honey”? If so, you’ll know what I’m talking about. That was like a slasher horror film to me. I was very unsettled by the end of that ghastly honey harvest scene.

  5. Oh I’m sorry for your losses, I get upset when my bees die too. I know they are insects, but they are also so much more. Hope all goes well now and thank goodness for your friend from the government and his right hand gal.

    • It is nice having experts pop by now and then – I shamelessly pump them for information. I suspect they all talk about me over coffee but trashing my reputation is worth it if I end up saving the life of some dumb old insects 🙂

  6. Pingback: Beekeeping Class | Laura Rittenhouse's Gardening Journal

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