A Depleted Home

A few days ago, a friend invited me to visit her bees.  In one part of her apiary, there were three hives, neatly lined, single-storey. These hives had started the season as packages five weeks earlier. Two were excellent. They had six frames of brood and two weeks’ worth of new young bees, the offspring of the queens in the hives. I’m guessing these colonies had about 12,000 new bees each. But there were other bees in the hives. Those were the honey bees that had arrived in the package. By now, they were old. They’d spent their first few weeks in the southern hemisphere, the last five here, in Canada.

I wasn’t sure how many of the bees were the original New Zealanders and how many were new bees, born in Canada. Of course, younger bees look younger – fuzzier and plumper than the darker, weary, hairless, aging non-fuzzy bees. Almost anyone could distinguish the young from the old. But I wondered how many of each type might be in those two hives, both of which had started with a queen and about 6,400 workers from New Zealand. Were half of the original bees still alive? One-third? Quarter? None?  I got an answer of sorts when I opened the third hive. It was queenless. The only bees were old bees. The entire population consisted of the original New Zealand bees from the package which had been installed over a month ago.

Compared to the first two hives, the third one, at the far end of the line, was shockingly lethargic when I lifted the lid. Not a single bee flew up to greet my face. The bees on the tops of the frames moved slowly, mechanically. I could not help but engage in an unscientific anthropomorphism – rather than the happy buzz of her prosperous sisters, this colony whispered, “We are sad.”  These bees, aged and facing the impending demise of their colony and themselves, had no way of continuing. They had no queen.

Their listless malaise lingers in my mind. They were a defeated population. I was immediately reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, his scene where he compared a queenless hive with Moscow when the abandoned city was approached by Napoleon’s soldiers:

“Meanwhile, Moscow was empty. There were still people in it, perhaps a fiftieth part of its former inhabitants had remained, but it was empty. It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty. . . In a queenless hive no life is left, though to a superficial glance it seems as much alive as other hives.”

Tolstoy, verbose yet compelling, continues on and on, accurately describing the condition of a dying queenless colony, so similar to what I saw at this moment. Some day, I will revisit Leo Tolstoy, his bees, and his wife’s concerns for his sanity (she claimed that there were times when he could not be removed from his apiary, even for meals or visitors). I wrote a few words on Tolstoy’s description of a queenless hive last year. For now, suffice to say, I had opened a hive which Tolstoy could have described as suffering negodnost. It was in trouble.

It appeared that the queen which had arrived with the package had died immediately after release in her new home. She never laid eggs. There was no sign of hatched brood. And certainly no young bees. The colony was now queenless, but strangely quiet. It was not buzzing with the discordant tones of a typical queenless hive. It was populated by the murmuring elderly. Significantly, it had no brood, no queen.

Above, you can see what such a failing colony looks like. Below, I have zoomed in and I’ve numbered a few things on the picture so you can pick out what I’m writing about.

  1.  The colony has stored some pollen, but it appears neither fresh nor enticing. Instead, the pollen is shiny, as if licked by every bee in the hive, as though glossing the food would somehow beckon hungry larvae to arise from barren cells.
  2. Number 2 marks a spot without pollen and honey. If there were a queen present, we’d see eggs or larvae in these cells.
  3. Here we see the shiny reflection of nectar in the spot where brood ought to reside.
  4. Throughout the hive, all the adult bees are dark due to their general lack of fuzz and hair. Their baldness results in a shiny metallic look which is sometimes black without the diffusion of light that would occur had the bees been hairy. You also see a likely K-winged bee (up and left of the ‘4’) which could indicate an eponymous virus. Finally, you notice that many of these workers have long, exaggerated, skinny abdomens.
  5. Looking just below all those aging workers, we see untouched pollen supplement on the top bars of adjacent frames. This was diligently offered to the colony by my beekeeper friend but it remains unused due to the lack of larvae. If you feed pollen supplement and find a hive that’s not using it, that could mean they don’t have any hungry larvae.

These are typical signs of a colony which has been queenless for a long time – scattered shiny pollen, unused pollen supplement, lethargic bees, small population, elderly bees, and, of course, no viable brood.

I took several pictures of the three frames which had bees wandering around the combs. At home, I counted the bees in the pictures. There were about 1,200. That’s a little less than one-fifth of the original number that was released in the box five weeks earlier. (But far better than Tolstoy’s Moscow analogue with just one-fiftieth of its population.)

1,200 gives me a rough estimate of how many original bees might be in a colony about a month after setting it up as a spring package. This is not a scientific test, just an observation of one hive. It’s possible that this is an unusually high number of original workers because a queenless hive doesn’t demand much work. The old bees were not gathering much pollen, didn’t need much honey, and certainly were not feeding any larvae. They were not working themselves to death. On the other hand, occupying a queenless unit, some of the old bees may have drifted into better hives, leading me to underestimate the number of old bees which would normally be in a hive five weeks after a package installation.

Nevertheless, the number (1,200) is probably representative of the population of elderly bees in a normal package on week five. Added to the new bees (12,000) that a queen-right package would generate, we have over ten times the population – 90% being new bees.

Using these numbers as a guide, I created a graph, giving us a look at the population dynamics in a hive started as a package. It shows the shift in bees as old ones die and the new queen’s young bees emerge. I’ll post it next time and explain why beekeepers should care about hive populations – and the quality of their queens.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeepingblog.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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7 Responses to A Depleted Home

  1. Ray says:

    Superb description of a dying colony Ron, and it made me sad. I got to wondering why 1. they were not typically angry and aggressive as a hopelessly queenless colony often is, and, 2. why their were no laying workers as is also often the case.

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    • Ron Miksha says:

      I was also puzzled by the bees’ disposition. I looked closely at the cells but found no signs of laying workers (i.e., scattered multiple eggs, some clinging to cell walls). As usual, I worked without a veil. The bees stayed on the frames, never approaching my face. I know that I am incorrectly attributing human emotion to bee activity, but to me they really seemed tired and too defeated to fight. There were not many bees, but yet there were over a thousand – a spirited defense could have been launched. It wasn’t.

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  3. susan rudnicki says:

    Yep—a demoralized colony. I have seen this too, in feral colonies that fail in superceding their old queen. One observation about Tolstoy—the kind of beekeeping he was doing was probably quite different than this example. He would most likely have acquired his bees from local feral stock as it swarmed in the Spring. It is known this type of locally adapted stock has better resilience to diseases and pests and stamina for the local conditions. The relevance of this type of bee acquisition is that the survival rate is a lot better than imported packages—here in the US the loss of package bees is VERY high, both because of lack of genetic diversity, and lack of resistance to varroa and the vectored diseases.

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    • Ron Miksha says:

      If you get a chance, you might like to read the excerpt from War and Peace. The dying hive which Tolstoy describes is quite different from what I saw. Tolstoy gives us a weak colony being robbed – his analogy for Moscow under occupation.

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  4. susan rudnicki says:

    Yes, I am sure you are right about what he saw v.s. what your friend’s hive had going on. But I am just observing that the root of the issue comes from different original circumstances. Many newbees do not realize the short historical period of package production and the way it has become the norm. In much of the world, pastoralist beeks are practicing the old fashioned way of swarm catching because that is traditional and there are no breeder bees produced in their countries. (or anyone with the disposable income to buy)

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