Last week I took advantage of our warm weather here in Denver and opened up the hives to take a look at things.
Our original hive is in great shape. This hive has a one-year-old queen I witnessed cutting herself out of her cell last spring after the old queen swarmed. Workers are bringing in pollen by the bucket load on warm days. There is new capped brood on frames surrounded by bands of pollen and honey. There are stores of honey in both the deep boxes. Some of the old legacy frames with foundation have a weird green mold in a couple spots. The bees are avoiding the older frames and I will swap them for fresh frames next time I open the hive. Close inspection of the bottom board shows no sign of mites, close inspection of the frames shows there are no other issues. It has now been a full year since any chemicals have been used on this hive. Contrary to the predictions from the chemical and foundation crowd, everything is going swimmingly in this hive. This is a strong hive by any measure and the bees are in tip-top shape and aggressively foraging.
On opening the new hive I found the bees dead in a ball across several frames. They had starved during the last snowfall. Our new hive had our original queen who swarmed last spring and who would be two years old this spring. This queen was raised from brood in a split nuc. This means she was a supersedure or emergency queen and these are not always the strongest queens. After she swarmed, this hive was always noticeably weaker than the new queen in the old hive. She was very good at hiding otherwise I would have replaced her with one of the new queen cells she left after swarming.
The frames the dead bees were on contained honey stores on the far end. Unable to move from the tight ball in the cold, they starved inches from food. Close inspection of the bottom board and frames show no sign of disease and zero mites. Clearly, this hive died purely from starvation and not from any form of disease. There is a white mold that looks a bit like cotton on the bees in the dead ball. This would be caused by the moisture released from the dead bees in the ball. The mold would have formed between the time they died and when I opened the hive.
What does this mean? After the winter we just had, I could have been more aggressive about feeding sugar water to the bees. I am generally opposed to this on the principle it is better for them to eat honey than sugar. You can check out Bush Bees for an extended discussion of the ph of sugar vs. honey and what this means for the health of hive. Having said that, I knew we have just had a really bad winter for Denver and I could have helped out more. We had snow and ice cover from October to February and the temperatures were very cold during that entire period.
On the other hand, this was also a weak queen and the hive may not have made it no matter how much I propped it up with sugar. We probably will have another snowstorm or two to go since Denver gets some of its heaviest snowfalls in March and April. So if the last storm had not been the end, the next snowstorm might have been.
I feel it is better to let stronger hives succeed and weaker hives fail. Natural selection is the only way we are going to get bees which can fight off the mites, disease, pesticides, chemicals, and beekeeper induced stresses, and produce strong queens and strong colonies in the future. Foundationless comb and chemical-free management are only going to get you so far. Good feral genetics will only get you so far. It would be better to combine a weak hive with a stronger hive in the fall or requeen in the spring. While I would not intentionally kill a colony, a weak hive is a weak hive and needs to be culled from the gene pool for the future of beekeeping. Propping them up with sugar and chemicals is counterproductive in both the short term and the long term.
The wild hive in the oak tree appears to be doing fine with plenty of foraging activity. I am very happy they made it through the winter intact as they are a valuable source of drones to mate with my queens.
This week I spoke with the conventional beekeeper who sold me the original nuc regarding the hives and the complete absence of disease after a year without chemicals. She is considering trying foundationless and chemical-free on some of her hives this year. I think the real eye-opener for her is not a single mite on the bottom board of either hive after a year without chemicals. She had personally observed mites in these hives last spring while helping me with the swarm. I am sure she thought I was nuts when I told her I was going foundationless and chemical-free. Now she seems to be on the cusp of conversion to backwards beekeeping.