Hives that fell into rot and ruin
Each time I read the following letter, I get a picture in my mind of the honey bee hives I used to see as a kid in rural Pennsylvania: peeling paint, rotting boards, rain-admitting gaps and holes. That was before Varroa mites and a host of other diseases, and colonies persisted for decades until the hives disintegrated into compost.
But this story is current—very much in the age of Varroa—and comes from Renaldo, a beekeeper in southern Oregon.
Our children have a hive/colony they were given over 10 years ago. The ONE deep, is rotting into the stand, which is leaning against the fence in a state of near collapse. The hive consists of one deep with a queen excluder atop that, with two western supers above the queen excluder. It is a mess. I can only imagine the black horror the comb must be.
There are numerous holes in the body of the main hive body, rot and ruin reign. Yet, this hive/colony has been alive and thriving for over 10 years in its present location. When it was given to them, they hoped it would not collapse in the transfer.
So, we have had numerous purchased, pampered, primped, fed, and loved (if you will) colonies started, helped, protected, and failed. We feed them when they start. We treat for pests. We protect from predators. We take little honey and feed in the fall to carry them over.
Our children’s bees have been thriving for 15 years or more with nothing from humans, though they have taken no honey. Fifteen years for a bee hive seems to be a long time, no? Why am I confused?
P.S. You really should see this thing. They have left the entrance reducer in place forever. The bees have chewed it into a sliver. They pop in and out of little rot holes in the sides of the box. They are thriving!
In my experience, a colony like this shows up now and again, but it’s hard to explain. I have one right now—not nearly as ancient as Renaldo’s—but certainly old enough to be intriguing.
My own dilapidated hive
My story involves an empty top-bar hive that I intended to repair. Once upon a time it had a screened bottom, but the screen was ripped out and left dangling by raccoons who feasted on the bees, brood, and comb.
So the hive sat there a year or more, awaiting my attention, until one day my husband shouted for me to “Come quick!” At that time, an enormous swarm was filing into the bottomless top-bar hive and calling it home.
This thrilled and irritated me at the same time. I was pleased to have the colony but stymied in my plans to fix the hive. We jury-rigged a bottom board to keep out the raccoons. Using scraps from the wood pile, we fashioned a board that could take the place of the screen, drilled dozens of holes in it for ventilation, and slid it in the spot reserved for the Varroa drawer. I figured it might hold for the summer.
Because I didn’t really want the colony in that location, and because I prefer my Langstroths over the top-bar hive, I decided to take from it freely. I never took honey, but I stole anything else I needed to bolster other colonies. I lifted brood, queen cells, worker bees, and combs.
By autumn, the colony was weakened by my ravishing, so I decided to let it go. It had been an asset, but it was now small and I didn’t have an easy way to combine it with my Langs. So I did nothing. While I treated and fed my other colonies, and prepared them for winter as best I could, I did nothing for the colony in the top-bar hive. I reasoned I would rebuild the hive in the spring once the colony was gone.
That was six years ago. In each of those years I have taken two or three shook-swarms or Taranov splits from it. It continues to provide me with queen cells, brood, bees, and wonder. Still, I have never taken a drop of honey, nor have I treated, fed, quilted, or insulated. The spot where it stands—once sunny, dry and warm—has grown over with deodar cedar, western red cedar, and Alaska cedar. Low to the ground in deep shade, it no longer gets sun at any time of day. On spring mornings while my other colonies are out foraging, these bees haven’t even peeked out the door. The colony defies everything I know about keeping bees.
Why does it happen?
So Renaldo, you are bewildered for the same reason I am. I sometimes think colonies thrive on being left alone. But then I remember how often I’ve raided that colony and think maybe it is the profile of organisms that live within the hive that makes a difference—the communities of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other creatures that somehow stay in balance when we don’t go in and try to enforce our standards. Then again, maybe it’s the way the physical design of a certain hive interacts with its environment, a feng shui kind of thing.
I’ve noticed that queens I take from the TBH do better than anything I can purchase, and I attribute that to being local and genetically suited for my region. But I’ve never had one of the resulting colonies last so long or be so adept at mite control. I believe it’s more than just genetics, that some hives have an elusive quality, a biological give-and-take, that magically allows the bees to thrive.
Honey Bee Suite