I panicked while checking the hive a month ago. It seemed I stepped into a terrible 1970s horror flick as I watched worker bees eating away at their larva, stretching the mucus into long thin strands from the worm-like mass. There was also a hole the size of an average adult male hand in the part of the frame where capped brood and honey should have been.
Thoughts of failure set in as I realized the 50 percent chance of winter survival my bees once had now became scarcer. This real possibility of losing my hive created a bit of sadness as I realized my role as a bad beekeeper and a loser in the environmental cause. I also posed the question while watching in disbelief the larva being consumed was, “Why did I think it was a good idea to write about my first year’s experiences as a backyard beekeeper? Now the whole world is going to know that I am failure. Well, maybe not the whole world, but the whole Windham and Raymond community will laugh at me. Well, maybe not the whole Windham and Raymond community but those who follow my monthly article will roll their eyes in disgust.”
However, once I cut through the negative banter and got over my ego, I went into savior mode and texted my ever reliable and patient Master Beekeeping Mentor Mark Cooper of Windham. “Because of the dry weather we’ve been having, they are not getting enough nectar – feed them immediately.”
“But I have seen their pollen baskets fully bloated as they enter the hive.” I texted back. Mark further explained that although there was plenty of pollen in the area, it is the nectar they are lacking. As a result, they are eating the larva because they do not have enough food to feed them.”
Mark and I also discussed other possibilities that might force the worker bees to eat their larva. One possibility we discussed was hive robbing. This can happen when nearby hives lack their own food source and steal from another hives to make up for their loss. “How can I tell if my hive is being robbed?” Mark explained that the hive entrance will be very active later in the evening when the bees would normally be in for the night. Another telling sign is a large mass of bees will dash out immediately upon removal of the outer and inner covers. I could check that off the list as a probability because it did not happen when I opened the hive earlier that day. Later that evening, at 7:15 p.m, there was no bee activity at the entrance. They were indeed done for the night and were happily settling in. Obviously, the possibility of a robbed hive was eliminated and feeding them was now my focus. I began immediately.
I had stopped feeding them the sugar syrup back in June, as suggested by other more experienced beekeepers. Although some beekeepers do continue to feed their honeybees, I followed the more popular belief that the flowers, bushes and trees were in full bloom and the bees could rely on their natural habitat to get the food source. Unaware how much the dry weather was affecting the levels of nectar, feeding them again during the summer months did not enter my thoughts. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about the hive as my little Italian bees were producing capped brood and capped honey at what appeared to me to be a normal and healthy rate.
The usual biweekly hive check became weekly for a couple of weeks due to the danger my hive was experiencing. After one week of eating sugar syrup, my hive was back to normal, or as normal as it can be after such trauma. The queen continued to lay eggs and the once massive hole in the frame was rebuilt. They are still incredibly behind on capped honey production, of which is gravely needed for winter survival. I’m still very concerned about them and my hope that they will survive a cold Maine winter remains tentative. But I’m not giving up yet. I’m going to give it all I have to help them along their way to see next spring, with the hope that I’m still writing about our adventures together. Until then, I will begin to prepare them for winter. Check in next month to see how the next step occurs.