We proceeded back to the house. Evia and I (mostly Evia) cleaned up around our honey workspace and we went out to harvest! We were not expecting much however. We didn't harvest last year because of the drought and knew we lost some hives after our freaky weather spring (got nice and warm causing the bees to go into massive reproduction mode, then was cold for 4-5 weeks with no flowering - nothing for the larger hive population to eat.) Still, we started the blooming period with at least 5 hives, one fairly strong, and four weak ones. Today was the day to see how they survived, and to remove the known dead hives for storage (otherwise they just become homes for mice and roaches and ants and yellow jackets and spiders and... well, you get the idea).
Noticed a lot of the dead hives had a bunch of really dense spider like webbing in them - almost fluffed cotton thick. They also had something we had seen before in dead hives - rows of cocoons of something. We thought they were hornet nest. We noticed they actually seem to eat some of the food frame before spinning their cocoons, whatever they were. Of course, the dead hives typically had become populated with mice and other things.
I kept disassembling hives, cautiously peeking into each to look and hear for activity. Evia hauled the empties back to the house for cleaning and storage. The first few were dead, which was not a surprise, but to my dismay I wasn't finding any alive. To our great distress, we only found one hive still alive, and it is not strong. We removed empty excess supers from it, since I heard that empty space was a problem in the winter since it needed to be defended. I came in and hit Google hard - what could have killed all my hives? Ends up the answer was really obvious, disgustingly so. Its a worm called a Wax Moth. Those cocoons, a section of which is pictured with this post, is they home. As their name implies, they eat wax, and it doesn't bother them if its honey storage or a baby bee. A very strong hive can fight off a few of them, a weak hive is doomed, the wax moths will overrun them. ALL the dead hives we removed were heavily infested, with hundreds if not thousands of cocoons. Apparently this is the number #1 reason hives should not have much extra space, its too hard for the bees to defend all of it, and once established in an unused corner of a hive, the moths win.
The only good news is that a good cold winter (with a few days below 0 being ideal) will kill the larva and eggs. Obviously, some survive somewhere, but putting your equipment in a deep freezer for 24 hours is considered a reasonable treatment (for empty hives of course). We are going to manually clean everything up, plastic bag it to try and keep mice and other things out, and just leave them on our concrete porch to freeze this winter. We didn't see many live larva, so hopefully they ran their course (having eaten all the wax in the hives), but a winter outside will hopefully allow the equipment to be reused. Read that a lot of people just burn the hives after facing this, especially in the south without cold winters. That seems a bit radical to me up here, not to mention expensive.
Alas, this means we are out of the honey business for awhile. With new colonies now upward of $140 plus shipping, we won't be re-establishing anything soon. If we are very, very lucky, our one remaining hive will survive the winter. If it does, I will keep it space constrained, and again with a bit of luck might catch it before they swarm. If I do, I'll be able to split the hive. With good weather, I might be able to do that 2 or maybe even 3 times in a year (be a lot easier if we lived here).
Overall, its been a horrible learning experience, and an expensive one. One way or another we will get back into bees, but if the remaining hive dies out, that won't probably happen until we find ourselves living here. At least I won't make the same mistakes again: Its fairly common practice to leave a hive body for breeding and one full of honey for the bees to winter on. I added a super (6" frame vs. the 8" body frame) figuring more honey would be better - I didn't take into consideration that the bees would have to defend that extra space over the winter when they were both depleted in number and mostly concentrating on keeping the queen warm. Likewise I added a lot of extra space in the late spring for them to fill, again not thinking about their need to defend the homes. At least this explains why full-time bee keepers will visit their hives often and only add a single super at a time, both as a way to prevent swarming (more space! no need to swarm!), and of course to collect more honey.