Mass casualties

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New Bee
Sep 13, 2010
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We kept bees for about five years in a very rural mountainous area of central Italy. It wasn't all plain sailing nor a huge success in terms of honey production, but we did learn a lot, we managed to actually keep bees through some pretty harsh winters, we built up our colony numbers at a modest rate and we kept them healthy. The result is that we consider ourselves fairly competent beginners.

When we moved to Pembrokeshire last year, we were keen to get back into beekeeping. We didn't manage to fit all our woodenware and equipment in the initial van loads, but after our visit to Italy at Easter this year we did bring two 10x14 brood bodies, floors and roofs.

We then acquired two nuclei with mated Buckfast queens and things progressed in what seemed to us a very satisfactory way. The queens rapidly came into lay and the colonies built up steadily.

We had to return to Italy during the summer school hols, and our last inspection before we left on 25 July gave us some cause for concern since there were so many bees, so much brood and a few queen cups in the middle of frames. If we'd had more equipment, we would have done splits, but we were reluctant to buy yet more boxes when we had stacks of the things in Italy. Also, we convinced ourselves that the fact that there were several frames with neither brood nor stores meant that the colonies had room for expansion.

We returned on 23 August to a ghastly scene: masses of dead bees on the ground in front of the hive entrances and under the hives. Typically Welsh summer weather meant we couldn't open the hives for a couple of days, but when we did we were thoroughly depressed.

There were still a large number of bees in the hives, but most seemed listless. Sort of like how you'd expect the classic relaxed Buckfast worker to behave if she'd over-indulged in the spirit of that parish. Apart from a few drones emerging on one frame in one of the hives, the comb was completely empty of eggs or brood. The mesh floors also had a large number of dead and dying bees.

In one hive, there were about a dozen emerged queen cells and a few others that had been torn down. In the other hive, there were a couple of emerged queen cells.

The only positive thing was that the empty brood cells were all clean and looked like lovely new drawn comb should look; there were no signs of foul brood. Just frame after frame of vacant cells.

There was perhaps a total of one frame of capped and uncapped honey in each hive as well as pollen stores, so starvation seems unlikely given the time of year.

We live in an area surrounded by dairy pasture and an MOD range that's mainly grassland which also is used for pasture when the tank shells aren't flying. The fields are separated by woods and hedges. Because of this and because the dying bees aren't twitching and writhing about, pesticide also seemed to us an unlikely cause.

We decided to move the frames to different brood bodies on different floors, since this seemed the simplest and least disruptive way of getting rid of all the corpses. When we did so, we discovered a young queen in a small cluster on the underside of one floor. We placed her on the top bars and she immediately disappeared down into the hive.

We just (27 August) did another quick inspection and spotted her in the hive. We weren't able to spot any eggs, but we're trying to positive and hoping that this is simply because she hasn't had time to get into egg laying mode.

Less positive is the fact that there were again a large number of dead and dying bees on the OMF in both hives. Consequently, we've done another shift to clean floors.

There are also a lot of bees that are lethargic and look to be on their last legs.

Since placing the queen in the one hive, the activity there is markedly different to what's going on at the hopelessly queenless hive. While there's a fair amount of activity at the queen-right hive entrance when the weather is halfway decent and even a bit of pollen coming in, the other hive has only occasional coming and going.

We understand that the weather here was pretty grim while we were away, so we think that's a reasonable explanation for how the other queen was lost.

We're used to seeing small piles of dead bees outside hives after a period of foul weather has prevented undertaker bees from carrying the bodies off. Given the population of the hives a few weeks back, we can see how natural mortality rates might result in masses of dead bees on the floor and outside if the undertakers were not able to keep up. We're also wondering if a relaxed approach to undertaking might be a Buckfast trait. I don't recall ever seeing this mentioned.

We'd be very grateful for comments and suggestions. We've purchased a new queen for the hopelessly queenless hive, but we do have niggling doubts about whether this might be a waste of money.

Apologies for the length of this, but attempting to paint a reasonably complete picture.
Could be local spraying?
Just guessing, are you sending any of the dead bees off for investigation?
Hmmm ... Queen cups seen on 25th July ? And a young queen with a small cluster under the mesh floor ? A dozen or more emerged queen cells ?

Sounds very much as though there have been a lot of swarms and they have dwindled. What you could have left is old bees .. four weeks at this time of year is old for a bee and if they have been continually swarming once you lost the queen there would be no new brood .. some drone cells - could have been laying workers ?

You did not tell us what sort of hives you have brought with you - it's a bit warmer in the summers where you have been - have you got gaping holes in your crown boards ? Cold wet weather whilst you were back in Italy would not have helped the bees that were left behind after swarming.

I'd try and get what's left into a smaller, warmer space ... some insulation on the top of the crown board and dummy them down to a few frames - you might even consider combing what's left of the two colonies ...

Apart from the listless bees there are no other signs of disease (deformed wings ?).

Well ... that's my five pennorth but there'll be plenty more in due course I imagine.
A lot can happen in 4 weeks!

Swarmed themselves to death - multiple queencells, lack of space.
Varroa - have you treated recently/ever? Deformed wings? crawlers ? Not responding to smoke? Check the few remaining drone cells for varroa.
Poison - Collect dead bees for possible examination.
Giant 4 dimensional lizards

Some or all of the above?
Hivemaker, thank you for that suggestion. Having looked at the symptoms described on BeeBase for CPBV, I'm happy to say that they don't fit with what we're seeing.

Pargyle, the hives are T*orne's cedar 14x12. Your comments make a lot of sense to me.

Considering the timing, it would be possible that the drones we saw emerging were from some of the last eggs laid by a now-flown queen. Since there's no capped brood or larvae and we haven't been able to spot any eggs, we're hopeful that we don't have laying workers. Not yet, anyway...

You may well be right about the ventilation issue. What we have learned to consider good summer ventilation could well be a bit excessive for Wales, even in August. (As a side note, we found it interesting how some of our Italian bees used propolis to completely seal the ventilation cones in our gabled roofs.)

One of the first things we did on returning with our full kit was to put on the polycarbonate quilts we used in Italy during the cooler months. I hope we won't have to put on the additional sheets of insulation we used on top of the quilts for a few weeks yet!

We will, however, dummy down as you suggest. Even with all the casualties, there are still a good number of active bees in both hives at the moment. Too many, I think, for going right down to a nuc.

And, no, we can't see any obvious signs of disease like deformed wings. The abnormally inactive bees just look tired, actually.

Thymallus, there is still some capped honey. Nothing like what there should be at this time of year, but that shortage would be consistent with repeated swarming, I suppose.

I still find it very odd that the undertakers haven't done a better job.
A few issues worry me.

Lack of stores might indicate starvation. Italianian imports worries me re SHB. Swarming and casts might be a factor. More imported hive parts worries me. Spraying might be a problem. Nothing here to sort out the real reason.

That leaves us with an enigma. More information and observations required to comment sensibly.
sounds like swarmed and starved to me, July into August wasn't the best around this neck of the woods - also hope all the hives were thoroughly sterilized on import
On a side note - would you not consider getting bees more along the lines of black AMM bees. I know I will be stoned to death by some on this forum for addressing this but if some of the posts are correct (over swarming, masses of bees etc ) and on the basis that disease or poisoning are not factors, get one of these mated black AMM queens and compare her performance with the other queen you have over the next 12 months. IF you are going to buy a queen you might as well spent it on a different breed of queen and compare. Thereafter you can make a more informed decision.
Think starvation. Is the capped stores crystallised? Try spraying frames and bees with watery sugar syrup to see if that gets them moving. Worked on one of mine today before I united them with another hive with a very active queen and retinue. Despite the prospect of better weather, I am thinking of limited feeding on some hives to keep them going.
A few issues worry me.
Italianian imports worries me re SHB.

That leaves us with an enigma. More information and observations required to comment sensibly.

Abruzzo is about 500 miles from Calabria (where the SHB outbreak was) and the OP (it seems to me) got some British Buckfast bees - although hive sterilisation would have been a good idea.

I'd agree that more information would help but as 'help me' posts go on here I think the OP on this occasion did a pretty creditable job of describing the situation and circumstances.

It still sounds to me like swarms and casts followed by some lousy weather ... but with a bit of TLC it's recoverable if there's no disease.

As an aside - JBM not a million miles from the OP - leaves top insulation on all the year round (as I and I know many others on here do). And definitely no top ventilation ..... here we go again ...
As others have suggested , I would put money on swarming and starvation even though there was some honey left.
It has been vile here all summer with low,temps and poor nectar flow.
I am down around 50% on yield this year.
A lot of that honey was consumed by the supered hives ...i watched several heavy supers completly empty in days some time during July. Very depressing !
And the new colonies and nucs ALL needed feeding at various times.
I am not far from you.
Feed them asap and treat for varroa.
Hivemaker, thank you for that suggestion. Having looked at the symptoms described on BeeBase for CPBV, I'm happy to say that they don't fit with what we're seeing.

There are two strains of CBPV, and one which results in piles of dead and moribund bees on the floor and in front of the hive, not a nice sight, but unfortunately becoming more common, can look at first very much like spray poisoning.
Thanks to all for additional comments.

Clarification: bees were not imported from Italy by us, but purchased from an established supplier in England. Queens were imported - by the supplier - but we understood the bees in the package to have come from their English apiary.

We had no problems with disease in Italy, but hives were cleaned and treated with bleach (oh, what fun...).

I'll look into AMM further, but what we've now ordered is a Carniolan queen. We've worked with them before and found them good - in Italy, of course. Given that one of the reasons we went for Buckfast was their supposedly low tendency to swarming, we've not been hugely impressed with the (purportedly) Buckfast queens we had.

Jenkins and Goodwood, your confirmation about the weather we missed is a sort of comfort.

We'll dummy down, insulate, treat for varroa, feed, give the queenless hive a new one, cross fingers and keep and eye on things.
I've had an awful lot like that this year , like you say very depressing, I also know of a lot more beekeepers who've had the same if I was a betting man I'd say CBPV the more prolific the bee the worse it looks. I know you've said you checked bee base but sometimes it's not completely black and white
Poor season
Swarmed into oblivion.
No nurse bees left
Turned cold/wet and ruined them.
Your trying to start a rave in a retirement home.

If you plan on going to italy in the swarm season try and get a babysitter.

Does the queen you have ordered come with a free ladder ?
Sry, only joking.

Time for you to adapt to the forage mate. :)
Weather and seasons can be interesting here, makes you think how many would die out if we left em to it.
All you need to do is get used to the weather but good luck with that and you have chosen a difficult place to do it.

1 piece of advice is buy a lot of sugar its looking like a long drawn out mild autumn.
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There are two strains of CBPV, and one which results in piles of dead and moribund bees on the floor and in front of the hive, not a nice sight, but unfortunately becoming more common, can look at first very much like spray poisoning.

I'm with Hivemaker, bees don't starve mid summer when there are frames of stores available, the corpses and listless bees smack of a virus issue. The lack of brood or laying queens is likely due to swarming and no suitable mating windows for the vrigins but this doesn't explain corpses and poor house keeping. Could be the foreign bees didn't like our clean Pembrokeshire air, try buying locals next time, less likely to collapse from virus and more likely to cope with the **** summers.

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