Finding a Deadout in Your Bee Yard
Beekeepers work very hard to maintain healthy honey bee colonies. We go out to check our colony on a mild winter day and find our hive dead. This is called a hive “deadout”. We sometimes blame ourselves but is it our fault?
Finding a dead hive is no fun. Months of hard work spent on building the colony and let’s not even mention the money spent. When a colony fails, we lose the work put into it as well as the hope for future rewards.
As we beekeepers spend winter days perusing through beekeeping books and journals. We find ourselves thinking about that deadout beehive that was found recently.
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.
Because honey bees reproduce in a cyclic manner, you expect large populations in the Spring and Summer with smaller Winter populations. Sometimes this can cause problems.
Over Wintering Bee Colonies
Over-wintered colonies are valuable. Beekeepers work diligently to prepare colonies for the long, cold winter weather.
A strong 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.
During Winter, honey bees cluster inside the beehive and bees 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.
While honey bees do not enter true hibernation, you will see little activity on cool days. If you live in a region that has some warm Winter days, the bees will fly outside a bit.
Every honey bee colony has different genetics – much like we as humans are genetically different. A bee colony that has made it through Winter in good condition may have good genetics.
We strive for this type of bee. And the beekeeper, has invested a lot of time and work into prepping that colony for winter. We want to avoid Winter deadouts as much as possible to protect our investment.
Is the Hive Deadout Your Fault?
Finding a colony of dead bees in Winter (or any other time) is a frustrating experience for any beekeeper. It is especially difficult for new beekeepers who have worked to become the best beekeeper possible.
They worry that they failed to do something. Is it something we did or didn’t do that caused our colony to fail? 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.
During Winter in most locations, the weather is cold and the colony is not doing much. Because of less activity, there are fewer things that can go wrong. But, if things do go wrong – we often don’t notice until it is too late.
Top 3 Causes of Winter Deadouts in Bees
- Extreme Cold Temps – too few bees
- Starvation of the colony
- Condensation inside the hive
#1 Extreme Cold Temperatures Kill Bees
Cold temperatures play a role in dead bee hives. 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. Stored honey is consumed by the worker bees. They can 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 going into Winter.
An unhealthy marginal size colony going into Winter is a deadout waiting to happen.
#2 Starvation Is A Common Cause of a Winter Deadout
I see more colonies that 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. And if they have brood in the center of the cluster, they will often NOT leave the brood to reach honey.
To a degree, we beekeepers can not control where or not the cluster moves. However, we can make sure our colonies are strong and well fed before cold arrives.
#3 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.
Inspection of the Deadout Colony
When did you last notice hive activity? Your beekeeping journal is a good place to keep records.
Check your hive monthly. No, you don’t always have to open the hive. And you would not want to open a live hive in cold weather.
Place your ear near the hive (on the back side please). Tap gently on the side of the hive (Or you can use a stethoscope), you should hear a healthy buzz.
Failure to hear a buzz indicates a need to look inside. If your colony is dead, you will want to remove it from the bee yard promptly.
You don’t want other bees to rob out any honey stores before you have had a chance to inspect. Robbing bees spread disease from hive to hive.
Also, if the colony died in the last couple of days, varroa mites may get on robbers and ride back to a new home.
If no sign of disease is present, excess honey can be frozen and used later to feed needy colonies.
Do you see a large number of dead mites on the bottom board?
Colony collapse due to varroa is more common in late Fall. However, heavy mite infestations shorten bee lives and cause the population to drop.
Short-lived bees may not live until Spring. This leaves the colony without enough bees in the cluster to generate heat. Dead bees that look deformed with short abdomens or missing wings are another sign of varroa.
A varroa infested colony is more subject to viruses. This makes the colony unhealthy and less able to sustain life.
Did you successfully treat for varroa? Not only did you treat if needed, but did you check to make sure it worked!! Sometimes bees will vacate the hive when conditions are too bad.
Disease Can Kill Bee Hives In Winter Too!
Do you see any dead brood? That’s okay some dead brood is normal in a deadout but you may want to investigate a bit father.
Smell the brood – Is it stinky? I mean seriously stinky. If you are concerned about American Foul Brood, you can send a sample off to the bee lab for testing.
American Foul Brood is a serious issue and occurs more in some regions of the country than others. I have never seen it in my hives but you should always be on the lookout for it.
Brown stains all over the outside of the hive can be signs of Nosema. This dysentery condition weakens bee colonies and can cause bee death.
A little bee poop staining is not cause for alarm. Bees can have dysentery without having Nosema. And, they can have Nosema without having dysentery.
Some treatments are available for Nosema treatment but beekeepers argue over their effectiveness. Still, take note of any uncommon things you notice.
Do You See a Moisture Problem?
As you opened the hive, was the underside of the top dry? Bees can withstand cold temperatures. They cannot survive being wet and cold.
Avoid feeding bees sugar water during Winter. This can add to moisture in the hive. Use other winter feeding measures if you are concerned about food stores.
If you live in a cold climate, they will not be able to break cluster and access the sugar water anyway. It is very difficult for the bees to reduce the moisture content of the liquid during Winter.
Queen Excluder – Take it OFF ?
How many brood chambers do you use? Some people use 2 deeps, some mediums. I use a deep and a shallow for the bees. Everything above that will be for me.
Do you use a Queen excluder? That’s okay. Did you take it off the hive for winter? No? Oh please say that yes you did take it off.
If not, as Winter progresses and the colony moves up how will the queen go with them? She can’t.
If the queen is trapped below the excluder she will die. Without a queen, colony numbers will eventually drop to a non-sustainable level.
Bees Face Down in Comb
Did you find a cluster of dead bees with their heads in cells? This is the common indicator of death by starvation.
The cluster could not or would not move to stay in contact with honey stores. Sometimes they don’t move even when it seems they could have – we don’t know why.
Did You Monitor Varroa?
What about varroa mites? Did you do a mite check early enough in the year for the bees to raise healthy winter bees? Did you check to see if it worked?
If you don’t check after treatment – you don’t know it worked. Varroa mites can easily be responsible for colony deaths.
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. Finding deadouts in the Winter beeyard does represent a loss. And sometimes, we lose more than 1 colony during Winter.
It is a loss but it is also a learning experience that can help you grow as a beekeeper.
But hey, if you want to hang your head and shed a few tears. That’s okay – I’ve done it.
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