My first year as a beekeeper didn't wind down to a productive, fulfilling end as I had hoped - and even come to expect along the way.
Rather, it came to an abrupt, tragic end a couple of weeks ago when I noticed no activity at the hive.
A month earlier, my hive was very healthy. It was mid-August. My earlier hive inspection showed no sign of mites or disease. But I did notice that the frames were pretty light and I didn't see a lot of capped brood. Before, bees covered every frame in both deep supers to the point that manipulating frames was difficult to do without occasionally smashing a bee.
They had been fighting off yellow jackets for a few weeks. I used an entrance reducer to limit access to the hive and occasionally, I would witness a bee in mortal combat with a yellow jacket on the ground in front of the hive. I never saw more than five or six yellow jackets at a time, so it wasn't at all a full-on attack. I put up three yellow jacket traps and caught a large number of them over the month of August. The picture of bees on this page was taken late in August - on a frame in the top honey super (which was never capped or highly utilized).
Early in September, I installed and filled a hive top feeder, taking care not to spill any of the syrup. When I checked it a couple of weeks later, there was still syrup and some dead bees in the feeder. I remember being a bit confused about why there was still syrup in the feeder - normally, the bees empty it pretty quickly. I removed the hive top feeder, noticing that the bees in the hive seemed very aggressive. There also didn't seem to be as many of them.
When I noticed there was no longer any activity at the hive, I did see a yellow jacket fly into the hive, meeting no resistance at the entrance. That's when I knew something was up.
I waited a few days to see if maybe the bees were clustered high in the hive. Finally, I took the hive apart. The photo on this page shows what I found - a silent, empty hive. The top super still had some - but not much - capped and uncapped honey/nectar. The bottom super had nothing. There were about a dozen dead bees on the screened bottom board and a few here and there on the frames, one wedged halfway into an empty cell in the comb.
The wax looked perfect. It wasn't chewed up or disfigured in any way. It's almost as if the bees absconded, taking everything with them.
I'm really mystified. If another beekeeper reads this and has any ideas, I would love to hear them.
I plan on putting in two hives next year, so I really do need to figure out what happened. This is not something I want to go through again - the loss is heartbreaking.
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Here are some comments that were emailed to me by a fellow beekeeper, after I told her that I know a lone wasp made it into the hive in the beginning of September:
When was the last time you saw brood, eggs, queen? My first hunch is that something happened to your queen, and the hive slowly died. It IS heartbreaking, but no matter what we do, sometimes hives die. And if you have only one, and it dies, you're left with none, which feels harder sometimes I think.
Don't give up Jim, sounds like you were a good caretaker for those bees, and I would encourage you to try again next spring. You know they didn't starve, you know you were diligent on mites - you're going to do just fine. It is not uncommon to lose your first hive, and while it never feels good to lose a hive it does get easier. (Unless I know it was a direct result of my stupidity, than I feel completely horrible all over again.)
Probably wasn't a wasp - her entourage/court/retinue would have protected her. But hard to say. Another possibility is that they swarmed and the new queen didn't make it back from her mating flight. If you noticed a sudden drop off in population in August that might be the case. I'm with you in that I try not to disturb anymore than I have to, but if you ever have any doubt or notice a change always a good idea to check further.