When a Hive Dies

It’s been a while since I gave an update on my bees. I recently bought a second hive - a full colony from a man in the next town who had to sell his bees due to a back injury.

Once the new ladies were installed, I finally named my hives. I decided to name the original hive Bird’s Foot, for the small yellow flower they foraged obsessively all summer, and the new hive Goldenrod, an important source of food just entering its bloom when they were installed.

Bird's Foot on the left, Goldenrod on the right.

Bird's Foot on the left, Goldenrod on the right.

This post is all about my original bees, the Bird’s Foot hive — we’ve been through a lot together, emotionally speaking. 

I started with them as a nucleus colony back in May, and as advised, was keeping them outfitted with a steady supply of sugar water to eat while they built honeycomb and stored food for winter.

In late August when what’s known as the fall flow (lots of nectar rich flowers in bloom) started, and they were packed solid with plenty of food for winter, I stopped feeding them the supplementary sugar water. When I opened the hive Labor Day weekend, I found that they had superseded (killed and replaced) the queen. Did they blame the queen for the sudden lack of sugar water and oust her? Who knows. They made several queen cells, and I saw that one had hatched, so I closed things up and let them be, with a plan to check them again in two weeks when she should have returned from the mating flight and begun laying eggs. 

When I checked again in two weeks, I didn’t see larvae or capped brood, but there was an obvious brood nest shape - I’m unable to see eggs because my vision is so bad, so I hoped that eggs were there that I just couldn’t see. Plus, bees were active and foraging, as well as drinking the sugar water that I started feeding again. 

When I checked this weekend, I saw capped brood! But then I realized, it was all drone brood. Drones are the male bees, and exist only to mate. In the fall, the female workers kick all the drones out of the hive, so they don’t have useless mouths to feed (sorry guys). So why all this new drone brood?

Drones are created when a queen lays an unfertilized egg, while workers are created when the queen lays a fertilized eggs. She can decide what she’s laying. The other way drones can be created? When a regular worker bee, who has never mated, starts laying unfertilized eggs. This happens in the absence of a queen, her pheromones, and the absence of the pheromones of plentiful worker brood. So when a queen is absent, and there’s no remaining eggs or larvae, workers can start laying drone eggs. 

A hive can’t survive when it’s full of only drones, because no one would do the work of building the comb, rearing the brood, or gathering nectar and pollen. And once one or several worker bees start laying drones, it’s very hard to get them to stop.

Still, I called my local bee shop, where I purchased this nucleus hive way back in May, and spoke to one of the owners. Almost any other time of year, she said, we might try to get the hive back on track. If it were summer, we could take some frames of open brood from my other hive, and let that pheromone permeate a bit. We could shake out the bees that are already in there, in hopes of eliminating the few bees who are laying eggs. After that, I would purchase an already mated queen and introduce her to the hive.

But now that it’s fall, she told me I shouldn’t take any brood from my other hive — they’re carefully calculating their winter population now, and to take even one frame would take up to 3,000 bees out of their population, a hit they might not survive. A hive’s population reduces in winter, from tens of thousands in the height of summer to merely thousands in winter. And just plopping in a new queen at this point wouldn’t work either, because of the laying workers.

I gave her a few more save-the-hive scenarios, and she explained why they wouldn’t work because of the time of year.

And then she said, “If it were me, I would let these bees live out their lives, and start fresh in spring.”

“Really?” My voice wavered, and I tensed in the “don’t cry don’t cry” way.

“I know, it’s sad. But your bees next year will be able to use all of the great work these bees did. In midwinter, they will likely all be gone, and you can feed their remaining honey stores to your other hive. And save all the comb — you won’t believe what a head start it will give a new colony. It won’t even seem like the same thing, they’ll move so fast.”

Yes, but — they won’t be these bees. These girls were so gentle, and I loved watching them. That phrase -- let them live out their lives -- hurt so much. It felt like defeat, letting them literally work themselves to death, and all for nothing. The hive would collapse anyway.

There is a European a tradition of “telling the bees” about major events in the beekeeper’s life. Mainly, the bees were told of the death of the beekeeper, with a ritual that could involve knocking on the hive a certain number of times and informing the bees of the news. This was to prevent any anger from the bees that might cause them to do something like disrupt the funeral. 

I walked to the hive, where the worker were still busily foraging. One wrestled with a blade of grass that was, I guess, annoyingly close to the hive entrance.

I told the bees what I thought was going on. I thanked them for being my bees, and teaching me so much in just a few short months. I thanked them for being gentle.

Later, when the sun started creeping down the other side of the mountain, I walked by my gigantic, late blooming cosmos. Pollinators of all kinds had been enjoying the blooms, which aside from the wild asters and a few perennials that were scraggling along, were the only things still blooming. One of the blooms held a honeybee.

She must have been very old; her wings were a little tattered, and she moved very slowly around the flower, drinking nectar, cleaning her face of pollen and adding it to the pollen baskets on her legs. She let me watch her for a long time. At one point, she stopped moving altogether, save for a twitch or two of her antennae. I thought she was dying. I wanted to hold her in my hand and keep her warm, but I resisted. What I wanted and what she wanted were two different things.

A much bigger Mason bee landed on her flower, and began nosing around. The little honeybee reared up and waved her legs at the other bee. It flew away, and she went back to work at her plodding pace. I watched her do this a few more times before she was satisfied she had gleaned everything she could from the flower, and flew away.

This was her living out her life. She was doing what she was made to do, slowly but fiercely. 

One statistic I saw said that first year beekeepers commonly lose 60% of their hives. So I’m not doing terribly, considering. I feel that I failed them, and I’m sad and sorry. 

But, and this is something I struggle with with human life and medicine, is death always a failure?