What to do with a Dead Beehive?

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In spite of best efforts, every beekeeper will experience a dead hive at some point – probably more than one time. When a honey bee colony dies it is often called a “deadout”. Now you have to decide what do you do with a dead beehive? Can any of the resources be saved? Sometimes, the answer is yes.

Cluster of dead honey bees in a deadout hive image.

Good beekeepers always strive for healthy productive hives. Yet, even the most experienced beekeeper loses colonies. Unfortunately, this is not a rarity and may not be a reflection on your beehive management.

Inspecting the Dead Beehive- Hive Autopsy

A dead colony is one of the saddest things in beekeeping. It’s a feeling of disappointment, sadness and even a little guilt. But don’t dwell on the negative aspects of losing a hive for too long.

Take advantage of the opportunity to do a bit of diagnosis. If you see any obvious problems, perhaps you can use that information to save another hive in the future.

Sometimes, you will find dead bees inside the hive. Other-times, the box will be completely empty. This does not necessarily mean that the bees have absconded. In the warm season, yellow jackets and other wasps will clean the dead bees out of a hive.

Opportunistic bugs such as earwigs may be found in the comb. They are taking advantage of any free food but do not represent a big problem.

Bees in hive low on food stores and in danger of dying - no honey stored near bees.

Where is the Cluster of Dead Bees?

It is common to find a cluster of dead bees that are head-first in the comb. Take note of where this cluster is located?

If the colony has not been robbed out of food, do you see honey stored near the cluster? Finding no food within reach could be a sign of starvation.

A very small cluster of bees may die from because they are unable to generate enough heat for winter survival of the colony-even with honey close by. A large cluster of bees may also die if honey is not within reach.

Dead honey bees headfirst in wax cells inside a dead beehive image.

The bees may not be able to leave the cluster to reach their honey stores due to extreme cold temperatures. Other times, they refuse to leave small patches of bee brood and everyone in the hive dies.

Inspect the Bottom Board

What do you see on the bottom board of the hive? Any signs of mice or mouse droppings? A colony will often abscond when mice move into their home.

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Look closely through any dead bees at the bottom of the hive. Do you see dead varroa mites or deformed bees with shriveled wings? If so, your varroa mite treatments may have not been successful.

A strong colony with a massive mite infestation can appear healthy to outward appearances – until it suddenly crashes from a mite bomb. Lack of proper testing for varroa mites may have stopped this progression.

Also, among the dead bees you may find Small Hive Beetles or their larvae. If beetles destroyed your hive, the combs will be full of beetle larva and slime.

Beetles usually cause colony collapse during warm weather – later Summer into Fall. Don’t panic over the presence of a few beetles in any colony – but you should monitor their number. If you see any increase – it is time to place hive beetle traps in the hive.

A frame from a dead bee hive image.

Wax Moths Do Not Kill Bee Colonies

Wax Moth larvae may be in the dead bees, comb and hive debris on the bottom board. But, please remember that Wax Moths are nature’s cleanup crew.

I often hear beekeepers say that wax moths killed their bees. No, they really did not. Wax moths fly into weak or dead beehives and lay eggs on the comb. Normal colonies evict the eggs or larva.

Weak colonies or dead hives with no protectors become a breeding ground for moths. The moth larva tunnel through the comb and leave behind webbing and feces (called frass).

The wax moths did not cause your colony to die. But why was the hive weak or empty to begin with?

This is a time to look back at your management tactics over the last couple of months. Did you ensure the colony had a good queen, etc.?

Any Signs of Disease?

Most colonies do not die as a result of disease but it sure can happen. Many bee viruses and pathogens are impossible to detect outside of a lab.

Often, we don’t know if the colony failed due to disease – unless you send in samples for diagnosis.

Also, many of the symptoms experienced by bees can apply to different causes. Nosema disease sometimes causes diarrhea but so do other problems.

AFB

The most serious disease to be concerned about is American Foul Brood (AFB). This disease does have some recognizable markers including: sunken and perforated cappings, ropy brood and a bad odor.

If you notice any dead brood in the hive that has symptoms related to AFB, ask for help from your state extension service or local beekeeping association.

This brood disease is deadly, uncurbable and spreads easily to other hives. Equipment from diseased colonies should not be reused and in most cases is destroyed. Fear of AFB is the major risk in buying used beekeeping equipment.

Frass from moth larva on comb inside dead beehive.

Cleaning Up a Dead Hive

The amount of work required to clean a dead beehive depends on the damage inside. And, the possible cause of death. Any hive suspected of AFB should be tested and possibly destroyed – burned.

However, when a dead hive (not believed to be diseased) is found quickly most of the frames of honeycomb may still be in good shape. This is wonderful news and a chance to recoup some resources.

Store Good Drawn Comb

Remove any frames of comb that contain a lot of wax moth damage. Don’t worry about a small amount of webbing or damage. A strong new colony will patch that right up.

Tear out old black honeycomb (so black you cant see through) and discard it. Some folks attempt to melt it down and get a little beeswax but the smell stops me.

It is always a good idea to rotate out old frames of comb. Replace them by installing new wax foundation or plastic (if your prefer) for healthier colonies.

If you used plastic foundation, scrape off the destroyed comb, webbing and frass-if the damage is significant. There is no need to replace good wooden frames if AFB is not suspected.

Bees invest a lot of energy into building comb. Good drawn comb is a rich resource for a new colony. However, they are vulnerable to attack by wax moths during the warm months if not protected.

Freeze the frames for several days (to kill any pest eggs) and then store the supers of drawn comb in either an airy shed or moth tight location.

Clean the Hive Boxes

After removing and storing valuable resources and removing all the webbing and trash in the hive, you are left with the wooden beekeeping super boxes.

Some beekeepers believe it is a good practice to wash the box in a light bleach solution. I’m not sure it helps but it shouldn’t hurt.

If the dead beehive has become a “hot mess” before you discovered it, you might see wax moth cocoons in the wooden ware.

You can simply scrape them off and scorch the inside of the hive box with a torch if you wish. This should kill any hidden moth eggs.

Frame of honey saved to give to new bees or eat.

Can You Harvest Honey from a Dead Hive?

In most cases, you can harvest honey from a dead hive. If the honey seems clean and fresh (not fermented), and you have not treated for mites with chemical treatments. It should be safe to eat or keep frozen for later use by other bees.

It is a good practice to always keep a couple of frames of honey and pollen in the freezer if you have room. They will come in very handy later on-for you or the bees.

Why Beekeepers Fail to Detect Dead Beehives Right Away

How does a beekeeper know that they have a dead beehive? This seems like a very simple question but the answer is more involved that you may think. There are several common reasons for this lack of knowledge.

  • failure to do hive inspections routinely
  • colony failure takes place during Winter
  • activity noticed at hive entrance is robbers not residents

Good hive management requires routine hive inspections. This is why modern hives have removable frames – unlike the early straw bee skeps. Don’t leave your hive uninspected for months at a time during the warm season.

Another time of year when a failed colony may surprise you is during Winter. We don’t open hives very much during in Winter beekeeping. Or at least we should not as the cold temps are dangerous for our bees.

If you are wondering at the status of your bees during cold temps, this method may help reassure you.

Place your ear against the back of the hive and give a firm tap on the hive wall – you should hear a brief buzz.

When beekeepers rely solely on bee activity at the front of the hive to gauge hive health, they may be very wrong.

You may be seeing robber bees that are cleaning out the dead hive – rather than foraging colony members returning.

Ways to Lessen Colony Losses

Sometimes dead beehives are preventable-if you catch a struggling hive in time.

  • inspect hives regularly
  • check your queen status
  • monitor pest levels
  • feed when needed and check food stores routinely

When was the last time you inspected the hive that is now dead? You may believe is was recently but perhaps it was longer ago than you think? What were hive conditions? Check your beekeeping journal or notebook if needed.

Final Thoughts

Finding a dead hive in your backyard apiary is never a good thing. It is especially disappointing for the new beekeepers.

It is frustrating to lose a colony that never made it through the first season. But it is also disappointing to the seasoned beekeeper to see a hive that fails.

Dead hives represent a loss of time and money too. Often our first response (or at least second – if you are a crier – like me) is – to question why this happened. We do not always find all of the answers we are seeking but it is good to attempt a diagnosis.

The best thing to do with dead beehives is to try to analyze a possible cause and then save every resource possible for new bees. Refer back to your beekeeping records to ensure that your hives remain on track for the season.