Finding a Beehive Deadout in Winter
Most beekeepers work very hard to maintain healthy honey bee colonies. But sometimes, we go out to check our colony on a mild winter day and find our hive dead. This is called a beehive “deadout”. We sometimes blame ourselves but is it our fault?
Finding a dead hive is no fun. The beekeeper has invested months of hard work into the colony.
When a colony fails, we lose the work put into it as well as the hope for future rewards.
Losing colonies often causes first year beekeepers to give up. Why did it happen? This is a puzzling problem because we want to prevent more lost hives of deadouts.
Why did the bees die? The possibilities are many but we have a few common reasons to consider. Of course, our goal is to prevent future colony losses.
Smaller Winter Bee Colonies at Risk
Because honey bees reproduce in a cyclic manner, colony populations will vary due to time of the year.
Larger populations in the Spring and Summer will fall to smaller Winter populations.
These smaller Winter populations can sometimes can cause problems. This is especially true when extreme cold temps arrive.
Beekeepers work diligently to prepare colonies for the long, cold winter weather. But there is only so much we can do to help the bees.
Over wintered colonies are valuable. A strong healthy colony coming out of Winter has the potential to be a good honey producer the following Spring.
And if the colony comes through Winter in good shape, perhaps those bee genetics are some that we want to keep in our bee program.
Smaller Colonies Face Special Winter Challenges
During Winter, honey bees cluster inside the beehive. Bees are cold-blooded insects that can not fly in cold weather.
These colonies of honeybees survive winter by consuming stored honey. You may not see much activity from the outside, but the bees in the hive are working together to survive.
Honey bees do not enter true hibernation, you will see a little activity on cool days.
Every honey bee colony has different genetics – much like we as humans are genetically different. Some hives will send out a few foragers on cooler days and some will not.
A bee colony that has made it through Winter in good condition may have good genetics. We strive for this type of bee.
Is the Dead Bee Hive Your Fault?
Did you kill your bees or cause them to fail? Maybe… maybe not. Beekeeping involves a lot of variables and we can not control every aspect of beekeeping.
It is especially difficult for new beekeepers who have worked to learn how to become the best beekeeper possible.
Sometimes, yes it is something we failed to do. But that is not always the case.
A dead hive is a sad outcome, no one will deny that fact. However, it is also an opportunity to learn.
This adventure becomes an educated guessing game because we will not be able to determine the reason for failure of every deadout.
Once you find a dead hive, it is time to do a necropsy. We piece together various bits of information to tell the story (as much as possible) of the dead bee colony.
This is where I rely on my beekeeping journal and notebook. I may not remember what I did in each hive for Winter prep but my notes will remind me.
Top 3 Causes of Winter Deadouts in Bees
- Extreme Cold Temps – too few bees
- Starvation of the colony
- Condensation inside the hive
Extreme Cold Temperatures Kill Bees
Extreme cold temperatures play a role in the death of some hives. Beekeepers in areas of extreme weather learn how to prepare their bees.
Honey bees are cold blooded insects. If their body temperature drops too low they become sluggish and unable to move. Unless the bees become warm quickly they will die.
Bees have a ingenious system for surviving during the cold months. The honey bee cluster is nature’s way of preserving bee life during Winter.
Bees cluster close together inside the hive and they generate some heat. Stored honey is consumed by the worker bees.
Then, they unhinge their wings and vibrate the wing muscles to generate heat!
The system works amazingly well. However, if the hive population is too low. The cluster of bees will not be large enough to survive.
Or, if the cluster loses contact with their honey stores. They will starve in place on the comb. Yes, your bees can die with a full box of honey on top but just out of reach.
How many bees must you have in a cluster to survive cold temperatures? The answer varies.
It depends on how low the thermometer drops and the duration of cold. Each hive is different.
Genetics and colony health play a role in the cluster size needed to keep the colony alive.
You also need a good population of healthy worker bees – fat winter bees going into the cold months.
An unhealthy marginal size colony going into Winter is a deadout waiting to happen.
Starvation Causes Dead Winter Hives
More colonies die from starvation in Winter than any other cause. Do I mean that the bees did not have enough honey to last during the season?
Yes, that is often true. But, a honey bee colony can starve to death with boxes of honey on the colony! How is this possible?
As the temperature drops, the bees inside the colony cluster closely together. The outer edge of the cluster is always in contact with cells of honey.
During a period of warm days, the cluster moves a bit to remain in contact with honey. A larger cluster has the energy to move at cooler temperatures than a small cluster.
The bee cluster must stay in constant contact with honey during periods of cold.
If a prolonged cold wave prevents the bees from moving, they may consume all of the honey in reach. The bees become unable to generate heat and freeze.
Even though they succumb to the cold, it is a lack of food that caused their deaths. So starvation is the culprit.
Also, if they have brood or baby bees in the center of the cluster, they will often NOT leave the brood to reach honey.
We beekeepers can not always control where the cluster moves. However, we can make sure our colonies are strong and well fed before cold arrives.
Condensation Kills Winter Bees
Some regions have more problems with hive condensation than others. This is another instance when your climate plays a role in your honey bee management.
A cluster of live bees, eating honey and generating heat, gives off moisture. The warm moisture rises to the top of the hive.
If the temperature is very cold outside, moisture can condensate on the underside of the hive top.
This causes water to drip down on the bees. Most of the time bees can cope with cold temperatures. But wet, cold bees are dead bees.
Some beekeepers use quilt boxes and other strategies to absorb excess hive moisture. I have not needed to do that in my area.
However, it may be something to consider for your hives depending on where you live.
Not all beekeepers need to wrap up hives during Winter. If you live in an area that benefits from hive wrapping, be sure to allow for good ventilation. Even a Popsicle stick on the top box will raise the outer cover up just enough.
Keep in mind, we are not trying to keep the inside of the hive warm. We want to give the healthy colony a draft free space to live in during the cold of Winter.
Preventing Winter Deadouts
We can not control all aspects of beekeeping. But, here are some tips to help reduce winter losses.
- control varroa mites numbers – keep colonies healthy
- evaluate brood patterns in early Fall – replace sub-par queens
- combine colonies with very small populations before Winter
Sometimes Deadouts are Not Your Fault
The sad truth is that losing bee colonies in Winter is a common thing for beekeepers. In recent years, the percentage of Winter colony losses has grown.
Twenty years ago a beekeeper might lose 10% of their colonies in Winter. So, if you had 10 colonies you lose 1. Today, it is not uncommon to lose 50% or more. That’s half.
It is very disappointing to lose bee colonies, but a beekeeper should not be too discouraged.
It is a loss but it is also a learning experience that can help you grow as a beekeeper.