The yellow hive is silent. That's because all life inside her has ceased. Suddenly and without warning, all of the life and activity that makes a honey bee colony exciting came to a cruel and abrupt end. And I've thought about it extensively since I discovered it days ago. Needless to say, it has broken my heart.
Last Thursday night, I decided to go check the hives by "listening" to them. As many old-time beekeepers will tell you, you may not see a lot of activity around a hive in winter, but you can always listen for life inside. While many beeks will put their ear to the hive and tap the sides it to arouse the colony, I use a medical stethoscope instead. Just as a doctor will listen for signs of life through his stethoscope, I listen for life with mine too. The stethoscope works well because you can put it all on the sides of the hive and better find where the colony is positioned. Plus you don't have to do all of that bending and stooping to put your ear to the boxes.
I listened to the orange hive first and heard the distinct sounds of buzzing inside the top brood chamber. Then I moved to the green hive, and while not as loud, I could hear the bees in the top box. But when I moved to the yellow hive, the strongest colony in my yard, I could find no sounds anywhere. I moved the scope to the sides and the front and back, and no matter where I moved it, there was no noise of any kind. That's when I immediately knew that something was seriously wrong.
Not being able to stand it, I carefully opened the top of the hive...and my heart sank. I could see dead bees all in the bottom, and a small cluster in the middle of the frames at the top -- all dead. There were no bees anywhere else. Trying not to panic, and thinking they may be so cold they couldn't move, I closed the top and went inside the house. But in my heart, I knew they were all dead. I was so upset that I sent my friend Jared a text message with the news. I guess I just had to tell to someone. After we talked, I decided that I would check on the next warm day which would be over the weekend. The forecast was calling for temperatures in the low 50s, so I knew I would get the chance to look inside.
On Sunday, the temperature rose to 54 degrees, so I went out to look further. My suspicions were correct, the colony was dead..I only found one lone bee crawling around between the frames. While I didn't dismantle the hive because I want to do a more intense examination later, I could see that they apparently starved to death. The honey was gone from the middle frames while there was honey left in the frames to the sides. And while there was a candy pattie directly above them, they didn't move one inch from the cluster, so they apparently starved. It was the saddest sight I've seen in my beekeeping experience.
This was my first colony of bees. This is the colony I cut my teeth on to be what I hope is a better beekeeper. This was the only colony I harvested honey from. The queen was a champion because she was an excellent layer and the workers kept a great hive. They were extremely gentle and it was true delight to work this colony. Plus it was just a month ago that they were alive and thriving.
And then all of a sudden, poof, they're all dead.
This experience has taught me a valuable lesson. No matter how confident you feel about your bees, never take it for granted that they'll be around in a week or a month from now. While you may see a lot of life outside the hive, you need to know what's going on inside the hive too. Outward appearances can be deceiving.
Unfortunately its too late for my bees in the yellow hive. As soon as its practical, I'll move their honey to the other hives to keep them going for what's left of this winter. And I'll introduce a new colony to the yard this spring. Life will once again come to the now silent and desolate hive.
Goodbye, girls. I'll miss you. Pleasant flights!
*Note: The bottom picture is from the fall of 2009 when the yellow hive (it was still white then) was making food stores for the winter. As you can see, the workers did a terrific job of making honey, and the queen laid an excellent pattern.