We opened up the hive this afternoon for the first time since the winter. We’ve been seeing a fair bit of activity coming and going from the hive for the last couple of weeks, so we weren’t too worried about the hive as a whole, but were looking forward to seeing what had happened in there over the last seven months.
It looks like we’ve had some moisture problems with the hive, especially near the back. There was quite a bit of black mould on the bottom of the hive and some bits of mould on the empty combs that were near the back of the hive as well. There were a handful of dead bees and some other litter on the bottom, so as we pulled combs out, we scraped at the bottom of the hive to clean out a lot of that mess. There weren’t many bees on the combs near the back and we pulled any of the empty combs that had any mould on them out and set them aside. According to “The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture”, mould issues on the combs are common in the spring (especially after damp weather) but usually clear up on their own once the weather warms up (A.I. Root, 1978), but we didn’t read about that until afterwards.
As we moved through the bars, we saw more and more bees, which is a great sign. Overall, we estimate that we have around 5,000 bees which would have been close to what we started with last year. We did see a few troubling signs, though. On one bee, we spotted a clearly visible mite. We did only see the one bee and were carefully checking all of the others, but it is likely that we’ll see more mites as we go along. Hopefully the bees are able to keep them under control on their own; if not, we’ll work on culling drone brood (mites’ favourite breeding grounds) and maybe switching our bottom board to a screen (to help keep mites out once the bees have flicked them off of their backs).
Another sign that is not encouraging is that we saw between 10 and 20 bees with Deformed Wing Virus. This is a really upsetting thing to see in bees as the virus causes the bees to be born with almost no wings. DWV infected bees usually die quickly and are often expelled from the hive (Highfield, et al. 2009). While the virus is often not the cause of an entire hive collapse, it is implicated in conjunction with varroa mite infestations and thought to be transmitted through the mites as well as through worker bee saliva. Most often, the bees can clear themselves from this infection, but it is thought to be the potential downfall of hives over the winter, though. There have even been studies that have shown that bees infected with DWV have learning deficits. Bees will have impaired associative learning and memory formation (Iqbal and Mueller, 2007). We hope that our bees will kick this virus, but in the meantime it is pretty heartbreaking to see bees with no wings crawling around on the ground.
Some positive signs were also present in our hive. There was plenty of honey left over in combs that we had left full of honey back in October. There were no signs of starvation, which would usually present with dead bees with their heads inside the comb (reaching for that last drop of honey). There were really nice looking stores of pollen and new brood in uncapped cells. We also saw the queen surrounded by bees on one of the combs with new brood!
For general hive spring maintenance, we had a goal of pulling out some of the oldest comb that had come from the nuc last year and was still on a plastic frame. It is generally a good idea to cycle old comb out of the hive as old comb starts to darken and can host additional bacteria or viruses that isn’t desirable in the hive. We were able to pull three of the four old combs as they were almost empty of any nectar, pollen or brood and none had many bees on them. We left the fourth comb as there was new brood cells and a good stock of pollen stored. Finally, we inserted some new top bars and moved the brood nest closer to the front of the hive.
We hope that with the “spring cleaning” the bees will be able to grow their hive and overcome any nasty health issues that are lingering from the winter. We’ll be doing some brainstorming this season on how to deal with the obvious moisture issues that must have been present over winter and see if we can do a bit better for next year. Thank goodness for the dandelion flow that has started in Calgary – our bees should have no problem finding a plentiful source of nectar and pollen for the next few weeks.
How have your first inspections gone? Any advice as we get through our spring sniffles? Leave us a comment!
- Root, A.I. 1978. The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. The A.I.Root Co. (page 194)
- Highfield AC, et al. 2009. Deformed wing virus implicated in overwintering honeybee colony losses. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 75:7212–7220.
- Iqbal and Mueller. 2007. Virus infection causes specific learning deficits in honeybee foragers. Proc. R. Soc. B 274:1517-1521.