This morning I woke up from a recurring dream, a nightmare really that my bees are dead. They aren’t just dead though, they are gone. As I have so many times in my dreams before, I am walking toward my bees, constantly assessing my surroundings. I am looking for signs of anything out of place, a molested hive, bear tracks pressed into the earth, varmint scat. The silence is deafening as I near the boxes, no buzzing, vibrating or warm hum can be heard. I stand next to a hive and insert my hive tool under the top cover, as I’ve done so many times before. This time though the hive moves with my effort to break the propolis seal, a bad sign that the contents of the hive have no weight, dead bee weight.
In my dream, as I peer inside the empty box, I see nothing, no bees, no frames, not a stitch of evidence that the box ever contained a thriving colony of thousands of thrumming honey bees. I wake up unnerved and feeling about as hollow as that box of nothingness in my dream. It’s this time of year, as winter loosens her grip, that my anxiety gets the better of me and the “empty bee box” dream starts.
Overwintering honey bees in cold climates, in my opinion, is kind of like playing Russian roulette. It’s anyones guess if, 1. The winter will be somewhat predictable, and, 2., The bees will be strong enough and smart enough to make it. Nowadays with the perpetual moodiness of the climate (yes, due to climate change), it’s almost impossible to anticipate the upcoming winter conditions. Unprecedented weather events are quickly becoming the norm, upending any preconception we may have of what our local weather holds for any given season.
A year ago, I was fretting over this in Billings, MT. I overwintered 5 1/2 hives. My 1/2 hive was a very small nucleus hive I split from a strong hive late in the summer. I was mostly fretting over this little community of bees, worrying myself regularly that they were going to crash and burn, more realistically starve, freeze and dye. I’d find myself with my ear to the side of the box on warmer days, ecstatic each time I heard the hum drum of the girls inside. I’d think to myself, “How exciting if they could make it.”
Little did I know what the future held. The winter of 2020-2021 in Billings was not terrible by my standards, I’d endured 11 North Dakota winters, Billings was a cake walk. Sure it dropped down into the negatives for a week or two but it never got to what I would describe as miserably cold (my very unscientific descriptor of the weather). We would warm up and cool down, warm up and freeze, warm up and stay warm. The weather was literally…up and down.
When the bees started flying around the backyard in early March, I was thrilled. My two and a half hives made it! The other three were at a friend’s property about five miles to the south as the bee flies. I needed to go and check on them but I figured I had time, besides it was only the start of March. I popped the top of my two big hives in the backyard and they still had plenty of honey (a full box and a half in fact), the ladies down south should be fine. My half hive was also doing well. Though they were still only a small colony, they were bustling, carrying out the detritus from the long winter months.
On March 18th I have video of the bees flying around the yard, bringing in some hefty pollen pants to the colonies. I couldn't be more thrilled. Distracted with our upcoming move to Wyoming, I kept putting off going out to my other bee yard. I figured that if my backyard bees were doing so well that the other hives just five miles to the south would be doing just as great.
Eventually I carved out some time between the move, soap making, the end of the school year at home, saying goodbye to friends and packing, to take the quick drive to my other three hives. I contacted my friend Kevin who owned the property where the bees were to check if it was ok for me to visit. He assured me that all was well and to come on down. He told me that he’d walked the back end of his property a week or two prior and saw the bees flying. Good news for me! I was excited.
I gathered all my supplies and a couple boxes of honey and pollen patties for the girls. The backyard bees had blown through their honey in the past two weeks and just to be on the safe side I brought extra food along. Fast forward to the scene of the crime. And I say crime because what happened nearly was. A crime of negligence, a crime of complacency, a crime of “I will do it tomorrow.”
As I walked up to the three colonies of bee boxes I was struck by the silence. Three large bushes blocked my view of the hives. As I neared them I was constantly taking stock of my surroundings seeing nothing that reassured me that the bees were foraging. I looked at the ground for animal tracks that might lead to the hives indicating robbing or possible destruction of the boxes. I saw nothing. The hives were now in view and only a small gathering of bees could be seen at the entrance of my smallest of the three hives.
My two hives that I sent into the winter with a booming population and two full boxes of honey were silent, save for a few flies lazily meandering around the boxes. My heart sank as I stood motionless, letting the reality of the situation settle into me. Call it dread, regret, shame. I felt it all. Upon inspecting the two hives, it was clear to me that they had recently died as their bodies were not too brittle or decayed.
By all accounts, they looked healthy, no crumpled wings or splats of excrement on or inside the boxes suggesting disease, no varroa mites on the bottom boards and both boxes were secure and free of any sign of mice or other pests. Just a giant heap of dead bees and completely empty frames, no honey, no pollen, nada. Completely bare. From my best assessment, my bees starved to death, and not during the harshest months of the winter. They starved in spring. They starved when my backyard bees were bringing in loads of pollen in unseasonably warm weather. They starved when the days were warming and the returning birds were already on eggs. How was this possible? It wasn’t that bad out.
I thought long and hard on this. I could make a million excuses as to why my bees starved, all of which were not my fault, or so I tried to tell myself. The reality of the situation though was that for the population of bees in both hives, they just simply ran out of resources. Though the hives were only five miles to the south, the temperature on average was 10-15 degrees F cooler than at my house. This was according to Kevin who reminded me often that the valley he lived in held the cool air. Dandelions had not popped yet and spring was much slower to return leaving the bees with nothing compared to just five miles north.
Regardless of the factors, I did not get there in time to feed them. Call it murder without intent, involuntary beeslaughter…I was a murderer of bees. Interestingly enough, the smaller hive of the three was alive, but barely. They were just nearing the end of their resources and within a day or two would have had zero stores of pollen and honey. I fed them a pollen patty and a new box of honey. They made it just fine and traveled to WY with us. By the way, this was a nucleus hive, though much bigger than the one in the backyard, I didn't think it would make it through the winter.
That’s the thing about beekeeping. Sometimes you bet on the wrong horse, make assumptions based on colony size. Sometimes the underdog of your bees wins the prize and you're left standing there holding your smoker completely miffed. Moral of the story, you better make your bees a priority. Don’t put them on the bottom of the list. Don’t make excuses and delude yourself into thinking they are “just fine.”
Check them throughout the winter. When the weather breaks and you have one of those oddly nice days in January, pop the top of the box and make sure they have food. Throw a box of honey on top if they need it, add your sugar or whatever method of feeding you prefer. Snug a pollen patty in there too. They’ll eat it when they need it. It won’t go bad in the cold. Check them every week by putting your ear to the box and listening for the hum. If you can’t drive out to your bee yard every week, do it at least every few weeks or so. Heck, even once a month or after a major weather event is better than nothing. You’ll be able to tell just from listening where they are in the hive. Are they moving up? If so, they are most likely going through resources. Have a plan, be ready to act on it. Don’t wait for the perfect day!
I used to put off visits until conditions were prime for opening boxes. Nowadays, if I think the bees are starving, I’m opening the box and adding food. I figure the handful of bees that might die due to chilling are better than an entire hive perishing due to starving. You’ll know without tearing through boxes if your bees have food left. If they need food, feed them, if not, close them back up.
It’s March 8th today and our temperatures are all over the place. Last week it was almost 60 degrees F at the peak of the day. I opened my two hives up to take a look. Both hives had eaten two pollen patties each since tucking them in last fall. I have two full boxes of honey on them remaining. They are both just starting to move into the first box of honey. I added a pollen patty to each for good measure. For the foreseeable future, our temps. range anywhere from 21-51 degrees F during the day, to nighttime lows ranging from 0-27 degrees F.
I’ll continue to keep a close watch on the girls. I anticipate them making it this spring and plan to split them going into the season with a hopeful four hives. My biggest concern today is a cold wet spring, another murderer of bees. With a little bit of luck, good weather and lessons learned I am tentatively hopeful, a sentiment of a beekeeper who has failed but too stubborn and in love with beekeeping to quit.
About the author: Alisa is a soapmaker and beekeeper with a background in wildlife biology. She is the owner and maker behind UBU Soap n’ Bees. She lives along the Green River in WY with her husband Colin, and daughter Fin. As a family they enjoy hunting, fishing and exploring the outdoors together, along with movie night and trips to the big city for sushi and treats. Moose the yellow lab and Abby the bun-bun are also part of the family, in addition to their small apiary of honey bees.