What a surprise we had when we opened up our two hives last week. First lesson: don’t ever underestimate Mother Nature.
To recap, we went into the winter with one strong and one very weak hive.
Amanda’s hive was booming strong; it produced some beautiful honey last year and we left it with a good 50 pounds of stores, both in honey and pollen.
It was so strong that bees were just about boiling out of the hive bodies every time we opened it. Why it never swarmed was a mystery to us.
My hive, on the other hand, went into winter very small. I’d lost the queen twice during the summer, and we took no honey off. I left it with lots of food but not a lot of hope; I expected the nest would be too small to keep warm. Amanda wrapped her hive with a thermal blanket, but I did not.
Throughout the winter we saw lots of dead bees on the garage pavement below the apiary balcony, almost all of them underneath Amanda’s hive. Not unexpected,we thought, as there weren’t a lot of bees in my hive.
Well, several weeks ago we opened up the inner covers and threw a pollen patty on the tops of the hives. It was too cold to clearly examine the nests, but it seemed that both had survived, although both were very light.
A week ago the weather was warm enough for us to dive in and get a good look, and boy, were we surprised!
Amanda’s once-strong hive had dwindled to almost nothing. Her queen and the remnants had migrated into the upper box and to one corner, and had eaten every scrap of food they could find. The nest was so small and cold that they couldn’t even get over to the pollen patty we’d put in the week before. She barely had a quarter frame of eggs and brood.
We quickly uncapped an emergency frame of honey we kept from last winter, moved the nest frames to the centre of the hive, and switched the brood boxes up and down. We also found a massive amount of dead bees and detritus cluttering the screened bottom board; the bees were so week they weren’t cleaning up. So we also replaced the SBB.
Lastly, we installed a frame feeder of sugar and water into which we mixed Fumagillin-B for nosema (which we saw no sign of) and some Pro Health essential oils.
After seeing that, I didn’t have much hope for my little hive. Hah. What we found was a much stronger hive, lodged halfway between the two brood supers, and spanning 4 frames. These ladies were going to town, and had chewed through more than half the pollen patty i’d given them the week before.
They too were nearly out of honey stores so I gave them a frame of honey and then added a hive-top feeder of the same treated sugar water we gave to the first hive. I didn’t switch the brood boxes as it would have broken up the nest and egg pattern.
At first I couldn’t understand why a weak hive like mine would survive and grow while a strong hive like Amanda’s had nearly died out. But it occurred to us that perhaps that’s a demonstrated case of “eating out of house and home.” Both had the same amount of food going into the winter. One was strong and ate itself into near-oblivion while the other had enough stores to not only make it through the winter but also begin building going into spring.
The natural lessons of beekeeping, learned the hard way, I suppose!