Having scuttled our thermographic monitoring plans by insulating our hives we are left to rely on older indicators of winter hive condition. We have looked for mustard stains dotting the snow, indicating that bees have had a cleansing flight. But we have not had any lingering snow this year and any stains would be less apparent in the grass. We have looked in vain for dead bees in front of the hive, which would indicate that there were live bees who have brought our their dead. But we have scavenging scuttle-crunchers to further dispose of bee corpses before we might find them.
That left us looking for bees entering and exiting the hive on warmer days. We did get this reassurance a few weeks ago spotting a few bees flying near Clarissa and Beatrix. None were seen near Dorcas but a few sound thumps on the roof produced guard bees at the entrance. The next day the cold returned bearing a little snow. We still had all three colonies.
But we could not tell how much honey they still had. Some beekeepers ‘heft’ their hives to get a sense of the weight but that is more difficult with our horizontal hives and we had not been keeping track. If we wanted to know the state of the pantries we would have to open the hives to look. Since then, although winter storm Jonas did not reach us, the temperatures dropped again and we returned to dithering over opening the hives to check their honey supplies or keeping the propolis seals intact and fretting with crossed fingers. On the last day of January, with temperatures rising to just below 50°F(10°C), we finally gathered our courage.
Beginning with Beatrix, we removed the roof and eke, and then ran our hands over the tops of the top bars. We felt a distinct warmth where we expected the cluster to be concentrated. Repeating the procedure with Clarissa we found the bars to be uniformly cool. Likewise with Dorcas. Oh, woe.
We removed the bars from Clarissa’s unoccupied section. The pillow of wool within was a little damp, indicating that it had done its dehumidifying duty. Moving through the occupied section we found bar after bar of ample honey and a floor carpeted with dead bees with neither dampness nor mold. And then we were surprised to find a live cluster, but what a small one, fist-sized. We looked for the queen at the center but, as usual, could not spot her. Dorcas told the same story except that her cluster was slightly larger and the bees at the center had an attitude of clustering with intent, so we were more certain that there was a queen within.
In both hives the cluster would need to move near the cold walls to reach the next combs. Even though Clarissa had left passages through her comb while Dorcas had only the bee space at the edges, the passages were near the wall and far from the huddled bees. In an attempt to assist we punctured the combs close to the bees with a Phillips screwdriver, making tunnels nearer to them. They simply continued milling about as we reassembled the hives but perhaps the honey our work exposed will draw them and give them strength to carry on.
At the last we turned to Beatrix, expecting to find the same situation but with an even larger cluster since we had detected some warmth. But as soon as we cracked the follower board loose a great buzzing went up with little dark faces crowding the opening and a few bees taking to the air. Yet the warm spot we felt was many bars away. What were the bees doing here? Proceeding along through the bars we found the entire hive crowded with bees and yet holding ample honey stores. Beatrix, ever the laggard runt of the apiary, was wintering beautifully. If her luck holds we shall have to make a split early to avoid her swarming.
Consulting Dr. Meghan Milbrath, it is likely that our October mite treatment was too late to be as effective as it could have been. Even if we reduced the mite numbers devastatingly, they may have already spread a lethal load of viruses among the bees.
In summary, one yet-thriving hive and two nearly dwindled away. Clarissa is almost certainly doomed. Dorcas has a chance of bouncing back. Beatrix with her huge population may exhaust her stores before Spring but in that event we can transfer comb from Clarissa.