The Lost Bees

I thought I would share what went wrong with the bees. I feel that if you can’t be the good example, you should be the horrible warning.

As you know, the bees left. One day they were there, the next they weren’t. They took all their honey, left only three new-born bees to die in the combs and they (presumably) swarmed away. This happened during our loveliest weather, which as you probably know, comes right before the worst weather, here on the central coast. Here they are, just two weeks before their exodus:

As new bee keepers, we look for clues, even if we don’t know how to interpret them or even know to interpret them as clues. Since we had been in the hive not too long before they swarmed, we can say the hive looked healthy. There were no signs of disease that we could see. We added a second super to the hive, somewhat late in the season and had been monitoring it. I was worried they wouldn’t have it full before winter but the girls had been busy as…well…bees. The air was filled with bees on the day we took these photos. All of the returning bees had pollen sacks that were full.

After the bees left, there were some other clues. They didn’t leave any brood, which means their leaving was a planned event. There were three bees left in brood chambers. There was no sign of disease. The hive still smelled good, like a clean, well-tended hive should. It looked like someone still lived there. I felt a little like Goldilocks, waiting for the bears to come home. The biggest clue to why they left was the clue that I didn’t recognize as a clue. They cleaned out all of their honey. That healthy, thriving hive, was probably starving.

What we didn’t know was that the nectar flow was weak, this year. Bees need nectar and pollen and we didn’t have enough pollen. Many bee keepers feed a simple syrup-like food to their bees in the fall. Dave and I had been to a Santa Cruz Beekeepers Guild Meeting and had heard the debate about feeding vs. not feeding. we decided to take a fully “organic” approach to our bees and let them forage for their own food. It seems that once you start to feed, you have to keep feeding for a good portion of the year because the bees build their numbers beyond what the natural environment can support. Most years, this would probably have been a successful strategy. We have a fair amount of forage for bees on our 36 acres. We have Manzanita and Eucalyptus, as well as a host of wild flowers. What we didn’t have was the weather for the nectar producers to be successful and our beautiful bees were running out of energy.

Of course, we didn’t know this. we had to take our clues over to Mountain Feed and ask Carla, the resident bee expert. As soon as we told her they took all their honey, she knew. Dave went into immediate denial. they were so healthy, they were growing….Carla just smiled and nodded. I detected a hint of sympathy. Of course it makes sense and I’m sure this isn’t Carla’s first swarm story. She said that one of the long time, expert bee keepers in Santa Cruz, who chooses not to feed, lost 10 hives! I guess I don’t feel so bad.

Losing the bees, while tragic, was a  good learning opportunity. It gives us a chance to hone our philosophy. I still think we will be as organic as we can be but we will also pay closer attention to changes that occur in the environment and react accordingly. After all, as bee keepers, we are trying to keep our bees, not put them in a box and hope for the best.

Better a bee on my butt, than a bee in my bonnet!


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dee on November 29, 2011 at 13:17

    Great info! Is there anything you could plant that would give late season food for them?


    • Posted by aztechalo on November 29, 2011 at 18:55

      Dee, according to my recent research, the top plants for keeping bees healthy, year round, are: phacelia, borage, echium, melissa and goldenrod. Outside of that, there are hundreds of things that I will eventually get around to planting. I hear willow trees are great for them.


  2. Posted by cassie rathbun on November 29, 2011 at 13:50

    Live and learn! Very interesting!


  3. Posted by husband on December 5, 2011 at 21:42

    Didn’t know the bee was there…


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