Well, things have moved on a little since my last report. We have had some warmer days, with temperatures up to 10 degrees on the warmest. This encourages the bees to loosen their previously tight cluster and enables them to leave the hive more easily to void their faeces without getting cold and dying before they can get home again.
Additionally, the queen is starting to lay more eggs now that she has sensed that the days are getting longer (though not necessarily always warmer). This in turn means that the foraging bees must collect fresh pollen (from gorse, mainly, but also snowdrops, aconites, etc) for their young brood. They also require water to dilute the solidified honey stores in order to be able to feed both themselves and their young.
I have stood alongside each of my hives on fine days during the past month to make sure there is pollen being brought home, because that is generally a sign that the queen is alive and has started to lay. However, I noticed one hive this week that had no flying bees, so decided I needed to investigate further.
This same hive had exhibited similar behaviour about a month back, but when I removed the top covers to check inside, a number of rather indignant bees came up to see who had opened the door and was letting draughts in. This time, however, there were no bees coming up to investigate, only the odd one or two who thought this opportunity to replenish their honey stores from an unoccupied hive was a great idea.
There were no piles of dead bees on the floor, just a few odd ones here and there, but there was quite a lot of evidence of voided faeces on the woodwork. It would appear, therefore, that the bees had maybe suffered a bad bout of dysentery through being confined in the hive too long during the cold, wet weather.
I have yet to examine the floor debris in detail to confirm why the colony died, but in the meantime have closed it up to prevent further robbing and possible disease transmission by the unsuspecting bees who were looking for a freebie.
Despite what we might read or hear in the media, colony losses over the winter months are not uncommon in the beekeeping fraternity. However, when they climb higher than about 10%, it is then that we realise that we have an unidentified problem. The Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that we hear about in the United States and parts of Europe, resulting in colony losses of 30%, 40%, even sometimes up to 60%, falls into this category but is not what I am experiencing.
CCD hives tend to have some sealed brood, possibly a very small number of bees (thoughoften there are none), and stores (sealed honey) which are left untouched by other insects. In my situation, there was certainly no brood and the honey stores were being robbed. The former implies that the queen may well have died, whilst the latter indicates there is nothing wrong with the hive per se. And since a 5% loss is quite acceptable, I am not unduly worried.
The wonderful thing about Nature is that she selects for survival. If a creature is weak or diseased, it generally dies (if human kind is not involved), so preventing the disease or weakness affecting future generations of that species. “Survival of the fittest” eliminates the weaklings and that is what I breed for – survivors, locally adapted queens and bees, bees that can cope with the parasite Varroa. But more about that later.