Winter Woes

Three hives going into winter.  Now two.  Again, really disappointing.

I went out about 2weeks ago to check on the hives.  We had a +40 degree day.  I had fed the bees sugar about a week before that, and all 3 hives looked fine.  All had honey, all seemed to have a lot of bees.
Now, the one hive I had thought to have the best chance for survival was dead.  A pile of dead bees covered the sugar I had fed them earlier.  Half a pattie still sat on the frames as well. I was really disappointed.  Late in the afternoon and upset, I just closed the hive back up.  The other two hives looked great.  Each had eaten some of the sugar I had fed earlier.  I added to this and closed them up.

The next day I went out to the hives again.  It was still above 40 degrees, so I thought I'd take a better look at the dead hive to try to find out what happened.
 The first thing I noticed was the size of the cluster.  It covered several frames, plus several hundred dead bees on top of the sugar.  Not a huge cluster, actually smaller than I had anticipated.  As you can tell in the top photo, though, the cluster sat right inside of about 6 frames full of honey.  There really was plenty of available food, and the weather had not been particularly cold.  The bees just wouldn't move to go to the available honey.  Even the side of a frame that had plenty of honey was not touched.

I didn't see any sign of disease.  Unlike the hive that had died out by January last year, I did not see any of the signs of nosema.  Just a soccer-ball cluster, plenty of food, and dead bees.  I got 12 frames with at least one full side of honey out of this hive.  I split that up and gave it to the other two.

Today, a couple weeks later, I went out just take a look.  Mid-twenties, too cold to open them up, I saw fresh claw marks on the front of one hive and the foam was really torn away on the back of the hive.  There was a pile of scat on the ground behind the hives I didn't recognize.  I have seen a possum out by the bird feeders, but it may have been skunk or racoon.  Hard to say.  The weather has been decent, in the 20's and low 30's for highs, so mammals have been out and about.

I've ordered patties and hope for a nice day to throw some in.  My fingers are getting cramped from keeping them crossed.
UPDATE  #1 (Feb. 7)  44 degrees today, so I went out to the hives, fearing the worst.  We ordered patties from Mann Lake.  I saw one bee outside the smaller hive, #3, so I knew at least one of the two was alive.  On opening them, both seemed vibrant and in good condition.  Each had almost all of the honey in the top box I added last time still untouched, which was a very good sign.  Bees were feeding on the sugar.  I put two patties in each and quickly closed them up.  Each was open only less than a minute.  Very good sight.

UPDATE #2 (Feb. 28)  One more hive dead--#3.  The low yesterday was -15.  This morning it was -10.  This is the end of February.  Usually I'm out with just a sweatshirt in mid-March trimming grape vines.  This year I'd better wear my boots or stand in the snow.
It was 28 degrees this afternoon so I walked out to the hives.  No sign of bees, so I listened to both hives.  Nothing on #3.  A solid hum coming from #1.  I opened #3 and, sure enough, all dead.  All the honey I had put in the upper super seemed untouched.  The forecast calls for temps in the upper 30's at one point this week, though lows will still be in the single digits near zero some days.  I'll try to get in the hive for a look-see on the plus thirty day.  Have to keep these bees alive.

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