The decay of spring

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“Morning drizzle at ten a.m. We open the hive, bee friend, last time & it’s like entering Pompeii…I did not expect to see a bee’s point of death.”Β From Bee Journal by Sean Borodale.

Pepper’s hive had been losing weight for some time. The bees had stopped flying in and out of the hive entrance. It wasn’t too much of a surprise when Emily sent a text to say the colony had perished. I followed up her grim discovery a couple of days later by opening the hive to find comb upon comb of frozen bees. Each one had a purpose, a job to do, cleaning, foraging, feeding, until they just stopped moving.

It must have been the arrival of winter in February. The mild weather had tricked the bees into using all their stores and when a sudden cold spell blew through their starved house it swiftly took each and every one. I didn’t look for the queen, it was too sad.

I bagged up the dead bees and empty brood comb for the bonfire. Pepper is the first hive that Emily and I have lost to winter in around five years.

That was two weeks ago. Today Emily and I met at the apiary to inspect Peppermint’s and Melissa’s hives for the first time this year. We wanted to see what was what before the spring comb change. The story was much the same in both hives: plenty of bees, some leftover honey stores, and almost no brood except for two or three patchy frames. We consolidated the hive boxes by removing empty frames and combs of useless hardened honey and replaced with dummy boards to keep the bees warmer and bring the fondant closer to their nests.

As for the queens, we spotted Peppermint walking across a frame, but there was no sign of Melissa. The bees were well behaved, if a little skittish for their first proper inspection in around five months, and workers were bringing home pollen. These were perhaps signs that Melissa is alive and well, and perhaps indicated that both queens are still capable of laying enough brood to build up their colonies again this spring.

I propped up the empty super that had been taken off Melissa’s hive to the entrance. It was occupied by around 50-70 bees. This is something I like to try when unsure whether the queen is still inside or not, and it has worked in the past. The bees walked inside the hive entrance and cleared the super in 10 minutes suggesting that the queen could be with the colony, or maybe they were simply attracted to the colony’s common scent. It was clinging to a small straw.


Emily suggested that the persistent cold weather could have prevented the queens from laying much brood, and it seemed that both colonies had the appearance of only just surviving on the remaining stores and fondant. They were hanging on, they weren’t ready for a comb change.

We decided to close up and feed the bees sugar syrup for a couple of weeks to see whether this stimulates the queens to lay, and to find out whether Melissa is still inside the hive, before springing into action. We’ll then reassess the situation after Easter.

Spring is in decay this year. The mild winter has left autumn leaves in the garden at the same time as daffodils. I think the worst of the cold weather is behind us, but nature may struggle to spring back to life. A lot of TLC is needed.

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27 thoughts on “The decay of spring

  1. Dear Sarah,

    It is a horrible sight to see the demise of a perfectly good colony of bees. I checked a couple of my out apriaries last Wednesday and unfortunately I have lost four colonies….but that seems to be life!

    I live in Ipswich Suffolk and have kept bees for 36 years. My eleven year old son has now taken an interest in them so i am keen to build up the number of hives again. I was fortunate to have experienced 10 years worth of pre-varroa beekeeping and also very fortunate to have met a couple of ‘old’ beekeepers one who kept his stocks in straw skeps.

    One area of beekeeping I would like to explore more is preservation of the British Black Bee, but all these things take time shich seems to be in short supply.

    I have only just subsrcibed to your blog and it is very good thank you.

    Here’s to a rewarding beekeeping season.

    Regards Neil Page

    • Dear Neil, thank you for your kind comment and for subscribing to my blog. I am just a beginner compared to your 36 years of experience, and I am rather envious to hear of your pre-varroa years and encounters with skep-keeping beekeepers. I would like to hear more! I keep hives with a hive partner Emily Scott (http://adventuresinbeeland.com/) and this is the first hive that we have lost together from overwintering. It is so sad to see perfectly healthy bees, for there is no sign of disease, simply stop because of starvation and cold despite our best efforts. Pepper’s hive went into winter with a brood full of stores and bees, and a super of honey as well as a packet of fondant. I think the mild winter followed by a sudden cold spell in mid February has done them in. I am keeping fingers and toes crossed that one or both of our remaining hives survive by feeding syrup to stimulate the queens (hopefully), although temperatures are still between 8–13C most days, and by keeping them as warm as possible with insulation and dummy boards. So interesting you mention the British Black Bee, I saw these hives at the Eden Project in Cornwall as part of a project to reintroduce black bees. They looked beautiful! Here’s also to a rewarding beekeeping season for your bees, Emma.

    • There is hope. They look healthy and their behaviour gives no sign anything is wrong other than suffering from cold and lack of stores.

      We did the right thing today opening up to consolidate and insulate their living space. The lack of brood is my main concern even though it has been very cold, but on the other hand there is also no drone brood or many drone to indicate anything else might be wrong with the queens.

      Even though temperatures aren’t quite hitting 14C I think it’s worth trying to feed a little syrup to see if this stimulates them to get going. We fed syrup during cold spring and summer temperatures of 2012 and it helped to keep our bees alive then πŸ™‚

      If they don’t take the syrup down after 3-4 days I’ll take it away to avoid condensation/mould in the hive.

  2. So sorry about Pepper, though glad to hear that Peppermint and Melissa will likely pull through. That is quite the accomplishment, to keep the hives going for five years! Wow! Probably had to happen some year, I guess this was the one.

    We are due for a cold snap this weekend and into next week in the Eastern U.S., there is speculation that it might impact the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC – we’ll have to wait and see. My three hives are ramping up, with multiple frames of brood. They seem to have plenty of stores nearby so they should be okay over the weekend and through next week.

    • Yes, we have been lucky so far! I did think this mild winter would see some loss but was hoping for the best. The bees had honey in Pepper’s hive but it seemed too cold even to keep the stores warm. The honey was uselessly crystallised on several combs. Perhaps this was from the ivy they foraged in autumn. After a mild winter the colony was unprepared for a real winter in February.

      I’m feeding our two surviving hives a very small amount of sugar syrup today as it is still cold and will see if this makes any difference. Also buying some insulation boards from the DIY shop to stick to both sides of the dummy boards to help the small colonies stay warm.

      I’m happy to hear your bees are doing well and building up the nest. This should keep them in good stead if you get another cold snap! Good luck πŸ™‚

  3. We haven’t seen much cold weather this year. Maybe that’s why it’s strange to see so many dead bees. In all of my bee hive losses, there are just a few dead bees on one or two combs. I can feel your pain in your loss, believe me. Good luck with the remaining hives. My one and only is still going, flying well on this very warm day.

    • Thank you πŸ™‚ Em and I have got on with the job at hand at clearing Pepper’s and keeping the remaining hives alive but it is a sad loss. I worry that the other two hives have too little brood for this time of year, despite the cold weather in February, but as they are both flying very well I will try to remain optimistic. I am feeding both hives a very small amount of sugar syrup today, though temperatures are barely reaching 0-10C outside this weekend, to see if this stimulates the queen to lay and the bees to build up more. Next week is looking marginally warmer at 10-13C each day but we could really do with warmer weather soon.

  4. I hope everything turns out to be OK with the two surviving colonies.Here, at least it looks like Spring has got a real hold at the moment, 5 days of unbroken sunshine recently and some warmth. The flowers are out and spring lambs abounding. I hope it’s not a false start with bad weather to come.
    xxx Sending Massive Hugs xxx

    • I feel like the worst of the bad weather is gone but a warmer spring can’t come soon enough. Thanks for your good wishes David, I hope you can send some sunny days our way! 🌻😊🌞

  5. Sorry to hear about your honeybee losses. I had wondered how the cooler weather would affect wildlife, I have seen a few solitary bees out and I think about them when, as today, we get a frost in the morning.

    • I feel sorry too for the bumbles and solitaries, and other wildlife, struggling during a cold spring. One advantage that honeybees have is beekeepers to insulate their hives and feed them fondant or syrup during bad weather. A disadvantage is that the honeybee needs to survive in greater numbers, and this can be a challenge as their numbers fall and they struggle to stay warm. All in all it would be better for everyone to get some sunshine soon.

  6. Dear Emma, Firstly I wish that there was also another button at the end of the blog other than ‘Like’. How can I say that I ‘liked’ hearing the very sad news of the loss of one of the hives. You and Emily had worked so hard and written so enthusiastically and informatively about your experience. I have learnt a lot from you and have been encouraged in my efforts.
    It is indeed sad to see the bees suffer so much from unusual weather patterns in the UK as well as here in France. On top of that it is disease and may you for longer period be saved from the Asian hornets.
    I do hope that Melissa and Peppermint hives pull through and bring back smiles on both your faces. Best wishes. – Kourosh

    • Thank you Kourosh. I’m happy to hear that you’ve enjoyed mine and Emily’s blogs, and we’re both grateful not to have had Asian hornet up till now. It was buzzing at the apiary today, despite the cold, for a beginners’ course. Emily and I made up insulation frames for the hives (basically frames wrapped with radiator insulation foil from the DIY shop) and used to close up the brood nests. The bees didn’t take to the syrup, it was a long shot as it’s still too cold. So we’ll leave the hives alone now other than making sure entrances are clear, insulation is in place and not causing condensation, and fondant is available. That’s all we can do till the weather picks up. Fingers crossed and thanks again for your good wishes!

  7. So sorry to hear about Pepper. I feel we have been saved over here because we have not been hit by the cold snap that I have been worried about. Our large Salix caprea is still full of bees and bumble bees gathering pollen that started three weeks ago. The plum is just about finished but the apricots are starting. I think lots of fresh pollen is needed if the bees decide it is spring. This year the weather in the U.K. seems to have been very mean to the bees. Amelia

  8. Oh, that’s sad. So depressing opening a hive only to see dead bees. I haven’t opened our hives yet, at least they do all seem to be flying.
    Good luck, I hope the other colonies pick up soon.

    • Thanks Helen. It is sad but I take comfort from seeing our other two hives flying. The days seem to be slowly getting warmer creeping up to 12-13C, and I remember it was a similar weather story last March although our hives were stronger then. Let’s all wish very hard for a warm front on its way. I’m so glad to hear that your hives are flying well πŸ™‚

    • Thank you RH. Poor Pepper, she actually turned out to be a good-natured queen last year, after being quite feisty in her first year. Much TLC distributed this weekend to our remaining colonies with insulated frames put inside the hive front and back, and a polynuc ordered just in case (polystyrene mini hive which could keep the bees much warmer). I suppose mild winters and cold springs are not that unusual, we will have to see…EST

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  10. Sorry to hear of your hive loss! I have always been impressed at your success at overwintering, but that doesn’t make a loss any easier. Best wishes for success in the coming year.

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