One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Another Lost Beehive

We did so many things better with the hive this year. I genuinely had hoped that next year we would be able to harvest our own honey from a strong colony that had weathered the ups and downs of the difficult first year in getting established.

No such luck.

We were inspecting the exterior of the hive nearly daily since the robbing began in earnest. We had installed a robbing screen to allow the bees to peacefully go about their syrup-to-honey-making business. Then we had to remove the screen because it was choked with dead bees, which was alarming. Although that pile of dead bees was disheartening, the loss would become much, much worse.

A couple of days later, we had to remove the screen to again clear the entrance of dead bees. Bees began to fly out of the hive and then immediately plummet to the ground. I was alarmed and increasingly convinced that our hive was not going to survive. I left to go work in another area of the yard, and when I returned in thirty minutes, the ground near the hive was filled with crawling bees. No bees were flying; instead, they were trapped in a slow, painful crawl across the yard away from the hive, occasionally trying to lift themselves off the ground in a buzzy attempt at flight before again tumbling backwards to the earth. My backyard smelled slightly sour. I knew the hive was toast, but I didn’t yet know why.

The next morning, I went to do a more thorough exterior inspection of the hive while (I assumed) the colony was still asleep. The entrance reducer was blocked with what looked like dead, goopy bees. Goopy. After removing the entrance reducer, I used a stick to scrape out gunky, goopy, dead bees from the bottom of the hive. Once I had cleared out the bottom board enough that I thought the bees could leave the hive, I went back inside. I checked on the hive an hour later, and the entrance was again choked with dead, goopy, gunky bees. A few bees still lived in moments of molasses movement before falling still again. To me, it seemed as if the hive was oozing out dead bees in a kind of glacier-like shrugging and pushing. After scraping out more dead bees, I began to see larvae. I snapped a couple of pictures, conferred with more experienced beekeepers, and got the verdict I had begun to suspect:  small hive beetles.

What else could make such a disgusting goopy substance? When small hive beetles take over your hive, they rapidly reproduce. Their larvae can destroy your comb and your honey. The larvae will feed on the honey and burrow through the combs, defecating all the while. Their movement and feces cause the honey to ferment and create a gross, slimy, gunky, goopy, awful mess. And it smells. We were not looking forward to clearing out what was very clearly an already dead hive. What flabbergasts me is the speed at which our hive devolved from what seemed like a problem we could remedy and overcome (the robbing) to a complete loss.

Although we caught the robbing soon enough to rectify it (and began feeding syrup immediately to replenish lost stores) and had a treatment plan for mites, we still lost the hive to a small hive beetle infestation. After discussing the loss with some more experienced beekeepers, we learned that we should have treated for varroa mites with mite-away strips in August before then treating, as we had done, the hive with oxalic acid in October. Our hive was too weak, and the small hive beetles set up shop to do their destructive and disgusting business. We certainly saw adult hive beetles when we inspected in early October, but we would not have thought them at the level of an epidemic foretelling calamity.

Cleaning out the hive was a heartbreaking and backbreaking experience. Once we opened the hive, it reeked; my husband almost threw up. We had to scrape out all the honey the bees had originally stored for winter and the honey they had begun storing from our intense bout of feeding to rectify the insufficient stores. So much loss. To try to eke out any positive experience beyond learning from the failure, we did let the chickens clean a few of the frames for us. They were quite enthused with their larvae snacks. Still, the work was messy and painful. We couldn’t leave any of the drawn comb in the frames because we felt like too much had been contaminated, so we dubbed it the complete loss that it was. We stored our equipment in the garage until next spring. Yes, we are trying again. We’re both invested and stubborn.

Next year’s bees must draw out the comb, but we’ve learned to feed longer than we did with our first hive. Next year’s bees will be treated with mite-away strips in August and oxalic acid in October. We already have a robbing screen should rampaging robber bees attempt to clean out our new hive. Each step is a step closer to success, but it sure is hard to see in the midst of another lost hive.

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