It was a winter of bee starvation. In the past few weeks I’ve heard countless tales of beekeepers losing all or nearly all their hives to starvation. Many of these hives had not a drop of honey left. Others had full frames of honey remaining, but the bees starved anyway.
During cold weather, the bees cannot leave the cluster in order to find food. Oftentimes, honey stored just beyond the edge of the cluster is never touched. As the bees move upward, they consume the food the cluster encounters. The resulting pattern resembles a vertical tunnel through the stored food.
Warm periods during the winter allow the bees to move around and find more of the food. Sometimes the cluster may move toward one side of the box and eat the honey there. But after it becomes cold again, they are even further from the stores remaining on the other side of the box–which is why you sometimes see the dead cluster on one side or in one corner of the brood box.
A similar type of movement occurs in top-bar hives. Although the bees don’t move up, they may gradually move left or right. But if they eat their way to one end of the hive, they can’t turn around and traverse the empty combs to get to the other end. So they starve.
The cluster of bees won’t leave brood unattended, so even though there is very little brood in the winter months, it anchors the cluster to one spot. It seems like the bees would move freely inside their box, but instead, they are always attached to the nursery.
Placing feed–especially hard candy–just above the cluster is very effective because that is where the bees are most likely to find it. In addition, heat from the cluster keeps that area warmer than the surrounds, so bees can move onto the candy without freezing.
A lack of honey may be due to over-harvesting, but it may also be due to paltry nectar flows or particularly long winters. Whatever the cause, feeding sugar is a long, time-consuming, and expensive ordeal–but it may be the only way to keep your bees alive.
The photo below shows what typical starved bees look like. The bees–still in the shape of a cluster–all died head-down in a cell with their little butts sticking up in the air. Each is trying to survive by licking every last molecule of sugar from the bottom of a cell, but when that gives out, they die from lack of fuel or freezing to death. It is a very sad sight to see. The photo was kindly provided by Jared Watkins.