The Living Dead: Dramatic Irony in the Hive

Beekeepers lose hives sometimes; it’s a natural part of the life cycle, and thus of beekeeping. As much as it’s something a beekeeper must ultimately encounter, my only goal as a first-year beekeeper was to not kill my bees. After inspecting my hive this afternoon, I must now regretfully announce that I will fail at my only goal as a beekeeper this year. All my bees are going to die; they just don’t know it yet.

Six weeks ago, I had dared to hope that I would have a modest honey harvest, but today I looked in on the microcosm of their world and saw only starvation and disease. Almost all the honey we had seen in the hive is gone. A few frames in the super have some capped honey in them, but none of the deep frames have even a cell of honey in them. At this point in the season, my bees will starve this winter.

My latest frame of bees; notice how some are are black and rather greasy looking?
My latest frame of bees; notice how some are are black and rather greasy looking?

The impending starvation of the hive is a hard enough loss, but another unusual issue plagues my bees. Last night, Lee had expressed concern about some bees at the entrance of the hive that were visibly struggling, but I had assumed that the workers were kicking the drones out for being lazy bums. Now, we aren’t so sure. Amid the empty frames, swarms of worker bees, and an abysmal brood pattern, we found a group of slimy black bees, all quite dead, save one lone bee that twitched and tried in vain to crawl. Death was clearly imminent.

Close-up of my dead bees
Close-up of my dead bees

After some intense googling, it seems like my bees may have some variant of Chronic Bee Paralysis, which will kill an infected bee within days. Some strains are nastier than others and can lead to the collapse of the entire colony as adult foraging bees die off and too few bees are bringing home that much-needed bacon. The virus is spread among adult bees via direct contact, such as feeding or grooming, or by contact with the feces of an infected bee. Although a healthy hive can often withstand most strains of the virus, varroa mites may have weakened mine. There is no cure for any variant of Chronic Bee Paralysis.

A picture taken from eXtension of bees that died from Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus
A picture taken from eXtension of bees that died from Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus

And so I am reminded of Greek tragedy and the relationship between the actors on stage and the audience. No Athenian went to watch Oedipus performed without knowing the fate that would befall Oedipus—the very fate that he stumbled into by trying so desperately to avoid it. While every Athenian winces as Oedipus takes each successive step toward that inevitable fate, dramatic irony is at both its zenith and its nadir. So too, do I watch my bees, flying from their hive to forage, bringing pollen in their corbicula through the entrance, caring for larvae, and again stinging Lee in defense of their home. Each action is just another futile effort to avoid the inescapable outcome.

I am definitely saddened by the impending death of my hive, but I have also learned so much from these thousands upon thousands of bees this year. I will not let the tragedy of failing at my one simple goal stop me from learning more next year with my new package of bees.

Deeley, Anita. “How to Autopsy a Honey Bee Colony.” BeverlyBees. Beverlybees, n.d. Web. 26 September 2015.

Moore, Philip A., Michael A. Wilson, and John A. Skinner. “Honey Bee Viruses, the Deadly Varroa Mite Associates.” eXtension. n.p., 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 September 2015.

Ribiere, M., P. Lallemand, A.-L. Isache, F. Schurr, O. Celle, P. Blanchard, V. Oliver, and J.-P. Faucon. “Spread of Infectious Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus by Honeybee (Apis mellifera L.) Feces.” Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 73.23 (2007): 7711-7716. Web. 26 September 2015.

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