Bees cluster in the winter. There must be sufficient bees to keep warm, though they do lower their body temperatures in winter, with the bees in the outer part of the cluster maintaining a temperature of only about 50 degrees F. Food must be very close to the cluster so they can access it. In cold weather, clusters cannot move more than a few inches to get to fresh stores. Hooked on knowing more on winter clusters? Check out this webpage: Winter Clusters
The cluster in Split AA was of good size, spanning 5 frames in a medium super. They were out of honey that they could reach, but I had been feeding them sugar bricks. The dead cluster was right next to their sugar brick. As I took the hive apart, I saw bees head-first in the honeycomb, trying to scrape honey from the bottom of the cells that just wasn't there. Breaks your heart, and is a sure sign that cause of death was starvation. But why couldn't such a strong cluster move to access the sugar that was within reach? Something else may have been at play here. I found the queen, a small one, that I remember marking this summer with a small dot on her thorax. She was small for a queen, but a good one just the same, and had made a strong hive of daughters. On the bottom board of the dead hive I found many dead bees. I found no brood in the hive, though this time of year brood would usually be present for spring growth.
In preparation for winter beekeepers make sure their hives have lots of bees, lots of food, and NOT lots of varroa mites, which can weaken the bees and spread disease, though unfortunately they are present in every beehive in the U.S. to some degree. This hive, though populous, had a heavy mite load in the fall so I had treated with oxalic acid, a natural mite treatment. With all the evidence, my mentor and I decided the large cluster may have been weakened by mites or the viruses they carry, and finally succumbed. I will be sending a sample of the dead bees to a lab to identify possible factors that contributed to their demise.
|The queen of Split AA, found right in the middle of the cluster that was trying to keep her warm and fed.|
On a happier note, I have finally found a sugar brick recipe that I am happy with and other beekeepers might find useful if they have had any trouble making finicky sugar brick. This is used for emergency feeding of bees coming out of winter if they are out of honey or can't reach it. Bamboo Hollow has a great recipe which I follow. The full version can be found here: http://www.bamboohollow.com/fondant-recipe.php
Here is the quick and dirty recipe:
- 4 parts sugar by weight (4 lbs)
- 1 part water by weight (1 lb)
- 1/4 tsp white vinegar per lb of sugar (1 tsp)
Heat ingredients in a pot, stirring frequently with lid on, until boiling. A heavy bottom pot works well. Continue to boil with the lid off until the syrup reaches about 240 degrees F (Soft ball stage on a candy thermometer). Then, boil for 15 minutes at that approximate temperature (I usually turn heat down to simmer and syrup continues to boil at the correct temperature). Then, turn off heat and pour mixture into kitchen aid mixer, or leave in pot to beat with hand beaters. Cool to about 190 degrees F, then beat until white. I usually have to keep stirring while it cools to keep it from clumping up and cooling irregularly. Then, pour quickly and carefully into molds ( I use square 9" x 9" baking pans lined with wax paper). Let alone to cool.
Even on very cold days, you can pop open the top of your beehive briefly to see if the cluster is at the top of the hive. If they are, they have moved up through their honey stores. I start checking this at the end of December. Place the sugar brick (removed from mold) right on top of the top bars, then place a 2" wooden spacer, then the inner cover, then the outer cover. Depending on the size of the brick, check back soon to see if they need more or need it moved closer to them. I check about once a week on a non-windy day without snow or rain. Cold is OK.
I hope those sugar bricks get the other 3 hives through the winter safely. And maybe I'll buy a bottle of Wigle Whiskey's Landlocked PA buckwheat honey "rum" and pour a splash on the site where Split AA once stood. The dead bees have all been deposited into a garden bed, where they will go back to the earth and help the spring flowers grow. Rest in peace lil bees from Split AA. Til next time, Hannah.