There was a day last week that I was up early guiding myself around the yard through the wet grass by a cup of hot coffee I held out in front of me like a lantern against the chill. The horizontal top bar was silent when I passed by, and I imagined the cluster inside clinging to their comb at the ceiling of the hive like a cloud of living steam. "It must be nice to exercise the sense to come in out of the cold and rain", but didn't think much else of it. Thirty feet away the girls of Isis were relentless in their coming and going. Well, as relentless as cold bees can be but, nonetheless, steadfast in their foraging. I checked and cleared their mite board, I don't remember the count specifically but it was nothing I was immediately concerned about, either. I timed the rest of my visit by my cup of coffee just watching them come and go. . .
Yesterday morning was similar with exception of Autumn's mix-&-match relationship with the barometer in Washington, DC. shuffling mild days and clear blue skies with the moody, dank and chilly days like cards in a deck. The bees of Isis, in the frameless vertical tiered top bar hive, with the new and "improved" top-barred double atrium (supered from underneath for spring, and to get the cluster as high off the ground for winter as I could) were as busy as ever. The corpses of a few drones littered "the jungle", the area of the ground in front of the hives where scavengers and predators alike come to break bread provided by the honeybees' roller coaster economy. A single bee with DWV (deformed wing virus) threw herself bravely off the balcony of Isis and trudged fearlessly into the jungle to meet her fate. A less intrepid drone was hauled outby a pair of his sisters who, together, flew him a few yards from the hive entrance and dumped him into the vastness of a lawn haunted by bee-eating birds, spiders, and wasps. The circle of life.
When, finally, the sunlight came from an unfamiliar angle and with my coffee cup empty I decided it was time to head for work. I passed by the Italians in the KTBH and noticed that the drilled entrances along the side were barren and the hive silent. They're dead. . . A beekeeper knows without having to look. I set my laptop down next to my empty cuppa' and carefully raised the lid. I lifted a top bar from the uninhabited portion of the hive and the screen bottom board, even there, was covered thick with dead bees. There was no time to confirm the obvious. I hurried home that evening racing the western horizon for the very last rays of the sun. As with any inspection I began with the first top bar just after the follower board into the brood chamber. It snapped free from the brittle comb running perpendicular to it but I was able to remove a entire group of the next few top bars propolized together as an integrated whole with comb intact, crossing from one to the next representing one of the cul de sacs that bees form instinctively for the purpose of trapping nest scent and heat. The combs were light and completely devoid of stores and mostly of brood, as well. A few capped cells speckled the broad matrix of comb. The rest of the top bars came apart in a similar cluster, attachments for the most part, were limited only at the box's upper edges and minimally to the hive's sides. The condition of these was the same: No stores, no brood, no hope.
I took the beautifully, if deserted, sculpted comb to the hippies around back who sat in a circle by the fire to ask if one of them had a camera. Katherin offered her shitty camera on a shitty phone to document my shitty fortune with this hive in the last shitty light that was left of the day. That's about the time the marked queen, the original from the package, climbed to the outside edge of the mass of comb I held bottom-up, still alive! I was hoping at least that they had swarmed over summer but it was apparent something had been wrong with this colony for a long while. If it was starvation (the lack of stores) that killed them there was certainly something else afoot that prevented them from building reserves throughout the season when the forage was rich. When I divided the tiered hive to add supers the top two boxes were quite heavy and the brood pattern that I could discern from the division was dense and uniform, in fact, the tightest brood pattern I'd ever seen. The Russian packages had originated form a different apiary out of Kentucky, these were from an unknown Georgia apiary. Had I discovered any symptoms with the KTBH earlier I'm not sure I would've chosen to feed them, being the difference between the two colony was so remarkable, so obviously "wrong".
I scooped piles of dead bees from the screened floor of the hive into a nearby basil patch depositing a scoop of a hundred or so into a small jar to be filled with 70% isopropyl alcohol and sent for biopsy to the Beltsville Agriculture Research Center
in Maryland. I'd also like to send a sample of the comb with a few of the capped brood intact, but that might have to wait until next week after the queen expires. I put the hive back together, the doomed queen with no (or painfully too few) attendants, and no winter stores to await death. I considered pinching her but I felt that I'm already deeply included in the karma of this colony and, should this experience reveal nothing else, indeed that of all my bees.