This winter has been a tough one for beekeepers across the country. US Beekeepers are expecting a loss rate of around 38% of their colonies before spring arrives. Here in the South, record highs in December drove bees to eat their food stores up, thinking spring was right around the corner. No matter your mite treatment, if your bees didn't have proper food to make up for that loss they were going to have a rough go at it when the colder temperatures returned.
The bees in a warmer hive will also start making more brood in these warm spells, making it even harder for them to keep warm when the temperatures drop again. Our apiary experienced a loss rate around 40%, the highest rate we've seen so far. In response to this extreme loss we reacted swiftly to supply the remaining hives with solid food. Sure enough within no time at all the hives all started to stabilize and we have as of yet sustained no more losses in the apiary. Simply put, bees need to eat to make heat. While we still have another month to go before we're out of winter's grip, we believe we've seen the worst it has to bring this year.
Understanding dead-outs in your apiary can be tricky. Hives can die from a variety of factors. The main reasons are mites, starvation, cold and viruses. All are very interconnected as they usually lead to one or the other (ie. mites lead to viruses). In the picture above you'll see bee butts sticking out from the cells. This means the hive likely died from starvation and cold. When the bees die like this it's because they were trying to find shelter from the cold within the comb. Notice there is also no food around the bees or their brood. If they had food they would've been able to use it as energy to warm themselves. Mites could've also played a factor in this even though we treated extensively in the fall.
To combat wintry conditions and difficulties the best thing to do is prevention and preparation in the fall. Start by treating your hives for mites with oxalic acid every 4-5 days for a month starting in August or early September. You can repeat this treatment regiment in October as well. Unlike other forms of treatment, oxalic acid does not harm the bees in any way. Next thing to do is to feed them lots of heavy, sugar syrup at a 2:1 sugar to water ratio. Opinions vary from beekeeper to beekeeper but a 10 -frame hive should weigh close to 70lbs by the end October if they are to survive through winter.
Lastly, if you have a few hives that are smaller (1-3 frames), your best bet is to kill the weaker queens and combine them. As the saying goes, "one in hand is worth two in the bush." The greedy beekeeper in me thinks of the possibilities of having two weak hives in the spring and attempts to keep them separate instead. What I'm neglecting to take into consideration is that the stronger a hive is, the better their potential for getting through winter. Also if I get this strong hive to survive I will most definitely be able to get at least one split of it come spring, making up for that other queen I lost in the fall.
Unfortunately for our apiary, the lessons we learned through this process won't be able to go into effect until next fall. For now all I can do is feed as much as possible, especially during warmer days, and treat for mites while the brood count is low. Just know that if you lost bees too, you're not alone. And finally, if you think your bee season ends in the winter you are most definitely mistaken. There is always something to do in your apiary!