Beekeeping - losing your first bee colony
We started beekeeping in the Spring of 2018. Losing your first bee colony isn't the ideal way to start your third season in beekeeping but, sadly, that is what has happened.
Gwyneth - our first successful hive
After a couple of false starts, Gwyneth was the home of our first successful colony of honey bees.
We named our first hive Gwyneth after Gwyneth Paltrow who, with her (now ex) husband Chris Martin, named their first daughter apple. And our first colony of bees was a swarm found in an apple tree in Hailsham (geddit?).
We have 3 hives and we love them all, but have a soft spot for Gwyneth. After what felt like a difficult start in beekeeping, this colony has done amazing things. She was the first hive to give us a taste of our first honey in our first season, when we didn't expect to try any at all that year. She went on to give us 40+ jars of honey last year, plus a big, beautiful swarm that we managed to catch and pop into a Top Bar Hive.
We bought our Top Bar Hive secondhand on Ebay in October 2018, from a gentleman down the road.
We left all three hives, two poly national hives and one top bar hive, tucked up for the winter with plenty of stores. Ironically, Gwyneth was the one we were least concerned about.
What went wrong?
Up until about a month ago we regularly saw bees going in and out of all 3 hives on warmer days. We even thought we saw some bees taking pollen into Gwyneth, which is always a reassuring sign. But then suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, her activity levels dropped compared with the others. And then when I went to see them on Friday, there was no sign of life at all.
I was on my daily walk (we're in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak as I write this) and had only popped in to the apiary whilst passing. I had no suit or tools with me, but it was obvious that the bees had gone. I opened up the hive to find no sign of life.
At the weekend we went back properly equipped in our bee suits with hive tools, to check on the other two hives. The good news is they appear to be fine at the moment and (dare I say?) thriving.
Then, feeling nervous about what we might find, we opened up Gwyneth. It was immediately apparent that the bees had not starved. We had left them with a full super of honey last October, and many of the frames in the super were still full. I had prepared myself for thousands of corpses but, in fact, we could hardly see any bees at all.
If you don't keep bees yourself, you may think what I'm about to say is a bit mad. We felt really, really sad at this point, and I could feel the tears coming. All I could think was 'what did we do wrong?'. We have friends who are beekeepers, who feed their bees with commercial products through the winter. We use sustainable beekeeping principles wherever possible and, so far, we have never fed our bees. So our first thought was that we should have fed them. However based on what we'd seen so far, that clearly wasn't the problem. So what was it? Why hadn't they made it through the winter?
Hive Post Mortem
One of the first things you're told when you start beekeeping is that you need a mentor, and we have one of the best... Jennifer aka Wayward Bee in the next village along from us. I messaged her with some photographs whilst we were still at the apiary, saying that we were just going to close up the hive and go back to sort it out when we could face it. Her immediate reaction was: from what she could see in the photographs, the death of the hive didn't just happen this week. It must have happened at some point after we closed them up for winter, it could have been weeks ago. And because we haven't opened them up since then, we had no idea.
What I didn't realise is that, for a small fee, you can get an experienced beekeeper to do a 'post mortem' on your hive to try to work out what has happened. I thought this was the best idea ever and, in an ideal world, we would have been there with her to watch. But at the moment that would be against the social distancing rules. So once we'd left, Jennifer went down to the apiary and conducted a post mortem on the hive without us.
There were very few bees left in the hive, which would support Jennifer's suggestion that things had gone wrong a while ago. The handful of bees we'd seen coming and going must have been the last few.
It seems the problem may have begun when Gwyneth swarmed last summer. The old Queen would have left with the swarm and gone with the others into Topsy the Top Bar (a hive which is currently highly active, in fact going a bit mad). Her daughter who was left behind in Gwyneth may never have got going because she didn't mate particularly successfully, or the bees superseded her and that Queen failed. Seemingly it is common for new Queens to look like they're doing fine, but then fizzle out.
Of course we'll never know exactly what happened. But it was reassuring to learn more from someone who knows more about beekeeping than we will ever know. If you lose a hive and can find someone who is prepared to do this for you, I would highly recommend it.
So all very sad. However the swarm from Gwyneth, which is now in the Top Bar Hive, has lots of capped honey already. So much so that we'll be going down there again later this week to give them some more room.
I wish they could have stayed, but the good news is that the swarm from that hive is still with us, in Topsy. Not to mention Hive Molly - a 2018 swarm caught round the corner in Molly's garden. They came to us only a matter of weeks later than Gwyneth, but they have so far worked at less than half the speed. So a colony with completely different characteristics. But they, as I write this, are thankfully still here.
So we now have a spare hive ready and waiting, in case either of our remaining colonies decide to swarm.
Back into the beekeeping season with a bang for us. I wonder what this year will bring?
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Hi Beverely, Thanks for your reply. I don’t have a mentor currently but there is a young man who has bees who works at a previous job I was at. I’m going to see if I can contact him and he’d be willing to be a mentor. He’s told me about beekeeping classes at a nearby area college and is very knowledgeable. He;s even brought me some of his honey in the past that I enjoyed.
I love the idea of obtaining swarms from nearby!
I’m in U,S, but do hope can connect with those around me doing beekeeping.
Where I’m located I have a huge property but would have to section off area from my nosey dogs lol and keep closer to where I can supervise since a chance of vandalism would destroy what I start. I’m not deterred though to go forth. I will visit Jennifer’s site although she’s a good distance from me. I’m open to learning and look forward to what your sharing as well. Have the best day!
Ah how lovely Dale, thank you for your kindness. How beautiful to have hives in the hills. We are lucky enough to have a vineyard within walking distance of our home and the owners let us keep our bees there rather than freaking out the neighbours by having them in our garden. So we are most fortunate! Warm honey from the hive simply cannot be beaten. Thank you again, may you stay well :)
What a fascinating tale.
We just take things for granted without thinking of how nature works. Where I live the hives are all in the hills and the owners can be seen on a regular basis checking them out.
The resulting honey is lovely.
Long may your hives reign (:-) )
Hi Cindy, thank you for this! We had a shaky start in 2018 when we had a couple of small swarms that didn’t get going, but then the big one more than made up for that and we learned a lot through that process. No we didn’t buy our bees. We were advised by our mentor to start with a swarm rather than buying bees bred for beekeeping. She happens to be one of the swarm coordinators for our area, and put across a compelling argument for doing so. One being that, if you acquire bees very locally, they are more likely to survive. Already familiar with the conditions, they are simply a group of bees from a (hopefully) thriving colony who decide to up and relocate. Plus they haven’t been in the post for a couple of days, and/or travelling across the country. So our first swarm was caught by that swarm coordinator. Then a friend who lives around the corner had a swarm in her garden and messaged me (this is what happens when people realise you keep bees !), and Jennifer helped us to catch it. Then when our own bees swarmed for our third colony, we were able to get the swarm ourselves without help. It’s a fascinating and very rewarding thing to do. I went on a number of traditional beekeeping courses before I started, and then you start to find ‘your way’ of doing things as time goes on. And you never stop learning. I really hope you decide to take the plunge. If you’re anywhere near East Sussex, Jennifer runs courses on sustainable beekeeping in our house, though obviously not now in lockdown unfortunately. Her site is at wayward-bee.com. Good luck!
Thanks for sharing. I haven’t started doing bees yet and I’m sure I’d be a bit discouraged if this happened to mine once started. I’m sorry about Hive Gwyneth yet you seems excited for what the year will bring and this is good. I like your enthusiasm!
So did you not purchase bees rather get them from your property? You mentioned the swarms in the crab apple tree and Molly around the corner. This would be good to know as I get started. I appreciate what you’ve shared and gives me excitement to get started.