Mystery of the missing bees

By: Natalie Davis - The Anson Record
Natalie Davis | The Anson Record Nancy Rupert inspects beehives to solve the 'Mystery of the Missing Bees.'
Natalie Davis | The Anson Record David Marcum stands with his beehives.
Natalie Davis | The Anson Record David Marcum shows Nancy Rupert the frames and evidence the hive was robbed.

When all of the bees from his four hives seemed to have disappeared overnight, Anson native Donnie Marcum reached out to the N.C. Depaterment of Agriculture to find out why.

Nancy Rupert, apiary inspector for the department, inspected the hives to solve the mystery. What she and Marcum found was the bees’ exit for several reasons, included among them visits from moths and beetles, robber bees and plain old bad queens.

Beehives need nutrition, a productive queen and to be able to withstand pest issues. For six months a year, they pull comb.

Marcum had four beehives, one of which he’s had for almost four years.

In the first comb, there were five frames that the bees left untouched, and would have been utilized if the bees were thriving.

“Now it could be that they didn’t have enough carbohydrates to do it, which would either be nectar or you feeding them,” Rupert said. “That also tells me that their queen was kind of lazy, because the queen being productive inspires the bees to draw out more wax.”

The frames are sheets of wax, commonly used by beekeepers to help the bees get a head start.

It takes about eight pounds of honey to make one pound of wax. If beekeepers let the bees make their wax, they are using up a lot of resources.

Marcum’s bees are given a headstart — the wax already in the shape of hexagons — for the bees to use their mouthparts to pull it out into comb.

The bees use the comb as storage compartments for their food, or the queen to lay her eggs. The hive was raising brood, or baby bees, but they opened a lot of them because they were starving. When bees are really low on food, sometimes before they take off and leave, they will start pulling out the babies.

“They have to decide either we feed us and our queen, or we feed the babies,” Rupert said.

Rupert also said that instinctively, they don’t know it like we do, but if they take care of that queen, she’ll lay more eggs if food ever comes back to them.

“They feel like this is a tough choice, and the babies are dispicible now, so that we can preserve our queen and feed her, and maybe she’ll lay more eggs,” Rupert said. “You can see the evidence of incompletely-developed baby bees, where they pulled the babies out of some of the cells because they couldn’t feed them.”

There’s a pest called wax moths, which usually comes in during the night, and lay eggs in the hives. The eggs turn into larve, which looks like worms. They will destroy the wax, and it can happen in less than two weeks from the time the eggs are laid.

Rupert said there was robbing — where other bees come and steal the food — in the first hive. Robbing often happens in the summer, and there would be more frayed edges of the cells.

“The results from the first hive is that the bees were low on food, they couldn’t live,” Rupert said. “Anytime bees leave a hive, it’s because something in the hive is unbearable for them to stay — a bad smell, an aggravating pest, or they’re short on food.”

The comb in the first hive was still usable.

It was late May when Marcum bought the hive; the nectar flow was almost over.

According to Rupert, in this area there was a lot of rain in May followed by a hot June. The nectar was at its peak in May. In some cases, the rain was heavy enough to wash the nectar out of the bloom. In other cases, it wasn’t heavy but bees won’t go out in the rain.

She added that about 25 or 30 years ago, you could put a hive almost anywhere in North Carolina and the bees would have enough food. Because of the growth of the state and population with shopping centers, apartments and developments, their source for nutrition has dwindled.

Bees will visit 50 acres of corn, for example, but get no nutrition from it. Same for 50 acres of pine forest.

“We’re killing their food,” Marcum said.

“It’s going to become more incombant of beekeepers to plant for their bees, or within the next 10-15 years, beekeepers will realize the value of good nutrition that bees go to get themselves, and farmers could plant all bee-friendly things, and rent out spaces for beekeepers,” Rupert said.

Ruprt said this year, everything was late. Most honey is made between mid-April and mid-June, a two-month window. A lot of people didn’t get their startup frames until mid-May or early June, when the nectar had already stopped.

“Once the hive is out of carbohydrates, they’re dead within hours,” Rupert said.

The second hive enclosed wax moths.

“I can smell the wax moths,” Rupert said.

The wax moth adult doesn’t do the damage. It’s the larve.

The bees got a lot further along as far as production. The hive was robbed, which is a bee’s version of a smash and grab.

The robber bees come in when they realize the bees have left the hive or it is weak. They grab through and smash stuff because it’s not their home, and they don’t want to get caught red-handed, as it were.

“One of the frames was compressed flattened, and it’s very unlikely that new bees would even use it,” Rupert said.

The hive also showed evidence that the bees were trying to replace their queen. When they’re finished making a queen, it looks like a peanut shell.

“The placement of the new queens showed they were trying to replace a sorry queen, instead of getting ready to swarn,” Rupert said. “When bees get too full in their box in the spring, they swarm — half the bees leave and they take the already named queen, while leaving the replacement queen with the remaining queen.”

She added that the hive may have had queen failure as a part of their leaving. There was no brood.

“Sometimes when bees leave the hive, they fill their bellies with honey, but they can only hold so much,” Rupert said.

They don’t grab pollen, and they don’t open up the babies.

“The result is queen failure,” Rupert said. “It’s a little harder to tell with certianity what happened because of the honey robbing, but there must have been a fair amount of food storage.”

Ruprt added that it’s possible that the bees got weak before the robbing happened because of the failing queen, and when robbers came, they just left to flee the choas.

When other bees come and steal the food, it’s violent.

Marcum said that the third hive was so strong. He also said the hive had a very good queen in his observations of the hive.

Marcum caught the swarm in a neighbor’s bush.

“Within a week, it had it’s hive all built out, so I knew I had to move them out of their nook and put them in a box,” Marcum said. “Within two weeks, they ran out of room and were building on the side of the nook.”

Rupert said the wax moths took over the hive, and there was a lot of robbing. This made it harder to tell what happened to the hive.

“The wax moths will not get a hold of a hive until it becomes weak, because the bees will defend their hives against the moths, and they can stab the wax moth larve,” Rupert said.

“You can tell they robbed a lot of honey from here, and it makes no sense,” Marcum said.

“Something happened to weaken the bees, in order for the moths to take over, but you can’t tell because there’s so much damage where the evidence would be,” Rupert said. “Did they get robbed first and then leave, or did they leave and give the robbers free access?”

The third hive’s failure could not be determined.

The fourth hive Marcum raised for over three years, and said it was a very strong hive.

“It was all full and the bees were beginning to work on their next box of frames,” Marcum said.

The wax moths in this hive even went after the foundations.

“A lot of the time, the farther down you get, the more the damage of the moths,” Rupert said.

There was evidence of serious robbing. They destroyed the frames

“There must have been some hive beetle invasion, because of the shiny, slimy residue on the frames,” Rupert stated. “Once the hive beetles start moving in, and causing havic, the bees move out because they can’t stand the smell.”

Even if there had been a hole and it got wet, Rupert said it wouldn’t have been oily.

“It looks like the beetles invaded the hive, laid eggs, and the larve and slime drove the bees out with the smell,” Rupert said.

She added that hive beetles do not want an inactive hive, but they go after the protein-pollen, following the queen bee around eating the eggs as she lays them. They’re mainly after protein, but they’ll eat honey and nectar as well.

“The hive beetles usually don’t go after the hive that’s abandoned because they don’t have much of a future there; once the bees leave, production stops,” Rupert said.

Rupert stated that one advantage with the plastic foundation frames is that their easy enough to start over with, when you want to rebuild.

Natalie Davis | The Anson Record
Nancy Rupert inspects beehives to solve the ‘Mystery of the Missing Bees.’ Davis | The Anson Record
Nancy Rupert inspects beehives to solve the ‘Mystery of the Missing Bees.’

Natalie Davis | The Anson Record
David Marcum stands with his beehives. Davis | The Anson Record
David Marcum stands with his beehives.

Natalie Davis | The Anson Record
David Marcum shows Nancy Rupert the frames and evidence the hive was robbed. Davis | The Anson Record
David Marcum shows Nancy Rupert the frames and evidence the hive was robbed.
Apiary inspector finds variety of reasons, including just a plain old bad queen

Natalie Davis

The Anson Record