What’s killing the honeybees? The tragic ending to my first year keeping bees.

9 Feb

Five months later and with the promise of new bees arriving this weekend soothing me like a sweet low hum, I’m finally able to describe the tragic end of my first year of beekeeping.

The Bee Apocalypse

July 24 about 10 a.m., we noticed a massive exodus from the hive. This wasn’t an exuberant swarm though; this was thousands of dying bees crawling from the hive like zombies.

When we approached the hive, there were already thousands dead near the entrance. When I pulled out the bottom board, piles of bees fell to the ground. Clearly, the carcasses had been blocking the bees inside from moving between the comb.

Those on the ground crawling were clearly in great pain as they twitched and hopped amid rocks and mulch. Hundreds twitched around me at any given point in a ten foot radius around the hive.

Inside the hive, bees clung tightly to the comb as though they couldn’t fly. And that was indeed the case for most bees. Any who made it out the front “door” to the landing board simply dropped off to the ground, twitching.

On this first day when 90% of the hive died, the bees were aggressive and confused. My father-in-law was stung in the ear simply walking nearby.The next day and those following made for a more docile hive. Perhaps those left could no longer move.

The Next Day, It Continues

Honey dead from unknown poisoning

Honeybee dead from unknown poisoning

The die-off continued for probably four days until only a few hundred bees remained. Inside the hive meanwhile, still born bees were hauled out of their cells and discarded by the workers. The tiny carcasses were white in their larval stage when disposed of by their sister bees.

A week later when we examined the hive, there was definitely no queen and the remaining bees seemed to have difficulty using their back legs. Any and all larvae were (intentionally?) still born and removed. The only bees coming and going seemed to be robber bees.

In the second week, we tried combining the remaining girls with a nucleus colony from a friend but had no luck. Whether the honey itself was poisoned or some other element of the original toxin remained, the curse was transferred to the new colony as well. In a week or so, the newly combined hive had contracted the same paralysis and the new queen stopped laying.

In this weakened state, every day became a battle between the bees and natural opportunists such as carpenter ants and wax moths. Quickly, wax moths gained the edge. We tried manual removal of the wax moth comb but without success.

The Disappearance

Eventually, the entire hive (or what was left of it) disappeared, leaving robber bees to clean house. That they did.

For a week, the hive was a frenzy of activity; the landing board stained with the foot traffic of thousands of careless bees coming and going in a house they feel no need to keep clean. They stripped the hive utterly bare. Honey, pollen, larvae — all were removed. Even propolis was worthy loot. We witnessed bees wrestling propolis off the sides of the hive interior.

In 3 weeks, my entire colony of 30,000 bees was decimated. It’s nearly winter now and nothing remains.

The hive sits empty but hopeful about housing a new colony next year.


2 Responses to “What’s killing the honeybees? The tragic ending to my first year keeping bees.”

  1. Stevedore February 18, 2009 at 4:51 pm #

    How sad – my condolances for your loss. May you have better luck with Kerry.


  1. The girls are here! « mistress beek - February 15, 2009

    […] She’s a robust hive of bees from B. Weaver, housed in a beautiful top bar hive of TJ and Bill’s design. We’re feeling damn lucky to have a merry band of Apis mellifera back in our lives given the disheartening events of last season. […]

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