A heart-breaking disaster

26th October 2016

I write this with a barely-suppressed tear in my eye and a couple of text books open on the desk in front of me.  I am searching, painfully, for an answer.  Up in the orchard, I have suffered a disaster.  All of my bees have died.

Their demise appears to have been very sudden.  A few weeks ago they were buzzing about very contentedly, and appeared to be very successful at filling their frames with honeycomb.

As a novice beekeeper, I might have failed to notice any distress – but I’m sure I did everything the books advise, trying to strike a balance between observation and not interfering too much.  The hive is in good order and the bees had plenty of food.
The text books offer a bewildering array of possible causes.  The West Country appears to be a relatively dangerous place for bees, with the most recent British Beekeepers Association surveys reporting around 15% of colonies dying here in recent years, every year.  There is much talk of predation by wasps, illnesses caused by the varroa mite virus and other diseases, and – increasingly – the consequences of crop spraying.
Also, my bees were a “rare breed” – the small black Cornish honeybee – which is supposed to be relatively immune to varroa.  But I guess there must be a reason why the breed is rare.  And bees do seem vulnerable all over the world.
A few years ago, a third of the entire bee population of the United States died in one winter.  The precise cause is still a mystery but there is no shortage of beekeepers blaming their over-chemicalised agricultural sector.
A friend told me he thought he had seen one of the large Asian hornets in the village recently.  They were first seen in Gloucestershire a few months ago and have now been confirmed in Somerset.  So far there is no official record of them in Cornwall, but they are deadly to bees.

I did know that in summer, worker bees live on average for only six weeks.  In winter, with less work to do, they can survive for up to five or six months.  Queens live for up to four years, but rely on the worker bees for food.
The experience reminds me of those years, a few decades ago, when my children went through a series of small pets.  The smaller the animal, the more rapidly they seemed to die without warning.  Hamsters, for example, which raced around their cage wheels one day, would be strangely reluctant to wake up the next.
It is not possible to over-estimate the value of bees, particularly in terms of return on investment.  They contribute more than £650m to the UK economy a year through their pollination services. Some 85% of the UK’s apple crop and 45% of the strawberry crop relies on wild bees and managed honeybees to grow.
None of which gets me very far in considering what I can do now.  The floor of the hive is covered in dead bees.  It is heart-breaking.  I welcome suggestions.  I suspect there is nothing else for it, other than to scrub out the hive and start again in the spring.