Bliss Buzz - Winter Hive Inspection/ Beekeeping Journal

We had a warm enough day (in the 60s) a few days ago for me to go into my hive, Monkey, who I feared had died.  I had noticed she was not active when the others (Stella and Balsamic) were on days in the 50s and that she had not been clearing out the dead.

Lovely, natural brood comb, notice it's differently colored than honey comb.

I also did not hear her when I did my listening.  Throughout the winter I will check on them when I just want to know they are alive in there and to say hello (I don't disturb them often though).  I put one ear up to the hive and close the opposite ear, then knock quietly twice.  This creates a quick rising buzz from the cluster.  Hello gals I say with a smile in my heart.  I talk and sing to my bees during the rest of the year; they know my voice and often even teach me songs and melodies, like Yaje teaches Icaros.  Anyway, I am not a singer, so only the bees get that; they don't seem to mind my lullabies and chants.  :)  In fact, I fancy that they like it.  I do know they pick up on one's mood when one is in or around the hive and singing has a calming effect on us both.  One does not want go into a hive in a hurry or angry, though sitting by a hive when angry will help one to process that powerful emotion into a more productive one.  It's like taking a walk in the woods - Nature has that effect.

Monkey on left, Balsamic on right.

Monkey was indeed dead and I greatly mourn this loss.  This was her 6th winter; she was treatment-free and the culmination of my years of small-scale beekeeping.  My basic goal being to create and support genetics that do well in my area with all its inherent qualities along with my management style which is simply to let the bees do their thing and bee healthy and support them in that however I can.  I feel they know better than me what they want and need.  This is my tenth year but I still feel I've only touched the tip of the iceburg in getting to know the Honey Bee.  Which is partly because of how deep the understanding goes, partly because much of what one is initially taught is wrong imo and I had no like-minded mentor and had to find my own way, luckily with the bees help, and partly because for most of these years I only had 2 hives, though I expanded to 3 a few years ago, and 4 last year.  I am considering doing more, but do not want it to get out of hand like my books and plants have, ha.  Particularly, I'd like to provide locals with locally adapted treatment-free bees (beyond all the swarms I have allowed over the years).

Death - a part of Life.  Death begets Life, Life begets Death...

All the dead bees from the hive in the bottom of a large wheelbarrow; I will feed them to the birds - a treat for them.

Stella before clearing...
...after clearing the entrance for ventilation.

So, the inspection became an autopsy.  I found no signs of disease or serious pest infestation, Monkey had plenty of stores (3 medium supers of honey), and a large enough population (about volleyball sized cluster).  The cluster however was a super below the stores and not next to any, so they may have starved.  I do not understand why they would not be at, or move to, their stores as we have had plenty of warm enough days intermittently throughout the winter for them to do so.  I wasn't able to get any response to this question in beekeeping groups online, as to why this would happen...maybe with climate change and the sporadic weather (we had 70 degree days in late Fall not too far from single digit nights in early Winter) they got caught unaware; there were a lot of single bees throughout the hive doing their thing.  They did not have any brood to stay with to keep warm, so no discernible reason to not move.

Or maybe she was not queen-right.  I could not find the queen during the autopsy and I went through the hive thoroughly.  So maybe she died in the fall or winter and they did not have the means to replace her without brood.  So sad. I am told that hives will just give up when this happens.  Which makes sense since they would be doomed anyway (unless I as a keeper had a warm winter day to go in and notice this and could remedy it with brood from another hive - this being a long shot but the type of interference/support I do give the bees).

Another possibility is that they got too moist and then chilled, but this theory I feel is the least likely as there is no mold in the hive, I have screened bottom boards, quilt boxes on top, and the hive next to Monkey made it with similar conditions.  The only difference was Monkey had an entrance reducer, Stella and Balsamic did not, but I just can't believe this is it as most beekeepers seem to recommend a reduced entrance, but something to consider nonetheless...  Also we had this serious blizzard you see in the pictures that landed us with 31" of snow that did block the entrances of all hives for hours while we shoveled to them, but again 2 made it, so I don't think that's it.  Alas, there is no definitive answer and so we go on...


I also went into winter with a fourth hive, Lorax, whom unfortunately did not do well and was fairly weak going into late Fall, meaning she had low population and not a lot of stores (she was new this year, and an out-of-state, not treatment-free package, something I intend to never purchase again).  She ended up being robbed which I caught happening but did nothing about.  The irony is I think it was likely Monkey who robbed her as Monkey was such a strong, vigorous hive.  I allowed this because not only did I think there wasn't much I could do short of propping Lorax up with lots of artificial feeding, but also because I don't feel inclined to support weak genetics and dying off is the way of the wild.  I want bees that survive without much interference on my part.  I will give a little food if that is the difference between life and death, but after this robbing, it was no simple matter and robbing is hard to stop.  Also, this hive not being like the others and therefore not having interchangeable components means it's hard for me to manage.  This was my second try in this hive, which is a hexagon, made with Sacred Geometry in mind, and more tree like.  I may just use it as a bait hive again...  I realize through my involvement with beekeeping groups online that the source of my bees is largely the problem and I am fighting an uphill battle from the start because of it.  Monkey was also an out-of-state, not treatment-free package, but she made it and kept making it!

The very edge of Monkey's cluster, dead.  Note the bright pollen in a few cells and the queen cup upper left.

Luckily Stella is her split so I have Monkey's genetics there.  Balsamic was a package, so exciting to see her making it and she sat right beside Monkey so similar situation environmentally (small woodland clearing, semi-shade).  Stella sat in the sun in the garden and was a hot hive, and yes I mean her mood in addition to temperature.  I had a fig near her I expected to shade her, but it did not grow as expected.  That will need to be remedied this year as I think the summer sun may have been a bit much...

Another queen cup, this one at the bottom and likely from prior swarming; the ones higher up are for supercedure.

I also have Monkeys genetics in the wild woodland bees she birthed by way of swarm over her 6 seasons.  These wild bees are likely to be the drones that mate my queens.  I happened to be around for 2 of these swarms and it's a magical experience when the air fills with bees and the buzz cacophony fills the entire yard as they come out of the hive and group.  Unfortunately, they gathered about 30' up in the same tree each time.  I hope to put out more bait hives this year, though I've not had any luck with them in the past.  And I still am putting it out there to collect swarms others notice but do not want, but have yet to have this work out either. 

Medicinal Propolis
 Overall I am sad about the loss of Monkey but the positive in this situation is that I have not lost the genetics completely and I have lots of stores for the remaining hives that will assist them getting through the winter, coming into Spring strong, and maybe I will even get to harvest some honey this spring...  Mourning the loss of my friend during autopsy was mixed with the blessed sweetness of fresh honey that I licked directly out of the hive with gratitude.  Loss is all the more extreme when mixed with the Love that created it.

Also, I harvested lots of Propolis in the process of autopsy and will be making an herbal blend of "sick room" incense with it soon that I will sell through Ravenwind Botanica.  I plan to split the remaining hives come Spring and surplus honey will go to them first, along with all this wonderful drawn comb, giving them a huge head start.  And I will leave you with a very recent video of the vibrant Stella after most of the blizzard snow had melted.  :)

On another note, I am excited to see how my Mason Bees wintered over and this Spring am putting out Leafcutter Bee houses...  Bliss.


  1. This was interesting to read! Thank you so much for sharing your experience's and how the bee's function....

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