All the colonies survived into March but Clarissa did not last into April. Since that happy day of observing traffic from all the hives, we had been uncertain of seeing any from her. Confusingly we would see foragers come to the entrance, flit about a bit, and then suddenly dart off to enter Beatrix or Dorcas. A very few may have entered but we were unsure. The other hives definitely had traffic.

Three Sundays ago we were sitting on our bench, watching bees at work, and finally lost patience. Without suiting up we impulsively opened Clarissa and had not a single bee come to question our intentions. Grabbing a hive tool, we somberly poked through the combs. She resembled a typical winter varroa death as described in this article. [Edit: 2021-Apr-23 Changed to link to a newer version of the article per comment from its author.] Looking at its points in detail:

  1. The colony was big and looked healthy in the fall.

    Yes, it did.

  2. A lot of honey is left in the top supers.

    Equivalently for our horizontal hive, the combs furthest from the winter entrance are full of honey while those nearest have just bit at the corners with slightly moldy cappings.

  3. The cluster is now small, maybe the size of a softball.

    Smaller. And moldy.

  4. There are hardly any bees on the bottom board.

    Definitely dead bees on the floor. Not as thick a carpet as we have seen but more than “hardly any”.

  5. Near or just below the cluster is a patch of spotty brood – some fully capped, and some with bees dying on emergence (heads facing out, tongues sticking out).

    Nearly no brood at all. We did see one cell where the occupant had just cracked open the capping and expired.

  6. If you look closely in the cells around the brood, you will see white crystals stuck to the cell walls, looking like someone sprinkled coarse salt in the brood nest.

    In past years before we took varroa monitoring and treating seriously, we would see such small crystals in many cells. We thought they were sugar until we learned that they were guanine from varroa waste. We see some such cells this time and more with large blobs. Incontinent varroa on diuretics? Could they possibly be larvae that had gone through a few freeze thaw cycles? We have not read of such a thing but the color and volume of these deposits do not quite match varroa poop descriptions or our previous experience.

  7. You don’t have records showing that varroa was under control.

    And there is a bit of a puzzle. We do have records indicating that varroa was under control except in Dorcas, not Clarrisa. We applied the oxalic treatment to all the hives anyway and verified that the mite count in Dorcas had declined to our target level. It is true that we did not check Clarissa’s mite count post-treatment but it had already been fine pre-treatment.

So Clarissa may not tick all the boxes for winter varroa death but it still seems the likeliest explanation at this point. And our fault yet again.

We began our beekeeping activities by shunning Langstroth in favor of our horizontal top bar hives. Over the years we would cast interested glances at Slovenian AŽ hives or log hives or other uncommon designs. But never Langstroth. No, never1. Why then were there ten, recently assembled five-frame Langstroth nucs in our basement? And why are they now in our garage, waiting to be painted? And why also boxes of black plastic frames on which we are daubing more wax?

We very much hope that this post will not prove to be hubris but after ten years of fumbling at this we finally feel able to reliably get most if not all of our colonies through the winter. That suggests there shall be more splits to be made and swarms to be reclaimed. We can finally see ourselves someday reaching that stage of beekeeper development where we have acquired more colonies than we want to manage. The usual solution is to sell or donate the excess. That is easier, and more considerate of the recipient, with equipment that is compatible and familiar to mainstream beekeepers. And so we are preparing Langstroth nucs.

Once swarming and splitting time arrives and we make up for any losses of our own2, it seems not entirely unreasonable to hazard the notion that we may, perhaps, just possibly3 yet have surplus colonies. In that happy event we shall contact our local beekeeping club and see if they would care to accept them. We may request reimbursement for the cost of frames and woodware. Or not. This is not our livelihood. There are always members in need of bees and we would be happy to be in a position to provide. And quite pleased with ourselves if we could make it a regular thing while avoiding the outcome of the titular fable and continuing to shun Langstroth for our own hives.

Of, course with all this preparation we shall likely have no more colonies than we have now. See, we really are pessimists.

1Hardly ever. There is, of course, nae-sa-wee Angharad.
3Are we indicating uncertainty sufficiently?

We have often stated that to be a beekeeper is to worry. That is particularly true in the winter when our honeybees stay inside their hives, which we dare not open to see how they fare. During most winters the cold days will be broken by the odd warm afternoon during which we may catch sight of small clouds of bees taking a quick lavatorial flight. Not so this year. The warm afternoons have seemed scarcer and we may have been too distracted by life in the times of pandemic to pay as close attention as we ought.

But this last week of February we did take note of a relatively warm afternoon and went out to the hives. We saw no clouds but there was indirect evidence that they had been out. All the hives had a scattering of dead bees in front. Although the sight of dead bees usually saddens us, this time we were elated. Bees die naturally all the time including while clustered, awaiting springtime. Seeing their bodies in front of the hive meant that other bees were yet alive enough to remove the dead from the hive. Even better, the snow was dotted with the mustard flecks of fresh bee poop. And, of course, the dead do not poo.

Then on the first Wednesday of March, with an even warmer afternoon, we did see bee traffic from each hive. Beatrix was booming as ever. Less of a show from Clarissa and Dorcas but traffic natheless. And a veritable, reassuring cloud from Angharad.

Early in winter, we had noticed her sodden bottom board with a layer of dead clogging the reduced entrance. The weather had been windy and rainy so perhaps that was the source of the wet? Shimming the hive to tilt forward ever so slightly drained it and it stayed dry ever since. As for the dead bees, we used a hooked stick to scrape the bottom board and clear the entrance. We had since been fretting that our shunning the local custom of an upper entrance in winter may have doomed her. But, no, she seems quite well indeed. We even spotted one of her bees returning with some sort of pollen.

And so we conclude with our usual observation that there is yet time for treacherous spring to freeze or starve them but for now we rejoice that we still have all our colonies.

Readers may recall our niece, who provides the tenuous beekeeping connection to this post. In 2011 she worked on a dairy farm in Tanzania and made several good friends to whom she remains close. In her words:

My friend Theresia, her mother, and aunt sell beaded jewelry and crafts to tourists arriving in Tanzania each summer. Because of COVID-19, those tourists never came this year, leaving Theresia and her family without a source of income. I have a large supply of items created by Theresia and her family which I would like to sell on their behalf here in the U.S. 100% of profits are returned to these Maasai women. Thank you so much for your kind consideration.

The items may be found on etsy here. Thank you.

In the last post we went into detail about the difficulties of the panel wrapping and taping procedure to insulate our hives. This year was the worst ever. Not only did we have all the problems of which we wrote but the day after we took the glamour shot of the hives in their new winter finery the duct tape already started to release its grip. We taped down the tape in response but to little avail. We would always need to apply some extra tape on a few occasions throughout a winter but never so soon nor so much. Unsticking faster than any season before, a mere week later loose tape ends were flapping on slouching panels like a bad complexion on a sullen teen.

Except for nae-sa-wee Angharad. The tape seemed to cling quite well to the trash bag covering her as opposed to the tar paper on the other hives, a thicker paper than we had used before. So, once again taking advantage of a favorable break in the cold and rain, we removed the panels, stripped them of the tar paper, recovered them with black plastic sheeting, and retaped. We considered using black trash bags as we had for Angharad but the panels did not quite fit well within and we would need much more cutting and taping. Easiest to just begin with the sheeting we had once bought for smothering weeds.

Weeks later the tape is holding and the hives still look neat and tidy. Lesson learned. And someday soon we shall cover the rooves.