top of page

Why’d they die?


We all have losses (I count combining in my losses too). Anyone that says different does their math a little differently and at a different time of the year!


We all lose queens, contend with swarming, have failed or poorly mated queens, have some presence of disease, cull queens and colonies, have grafts that don’t take, or make a mistake on timing and then have ALL the external factors too!


Soooo many variables! This is part of what makes beekeepong challenging (and fun).


And yes, there is an emotional toll related to these losses. So I want to take a moment to acknowledge that.


Whether you are a backyard beekeeper starting with a hive or two, or you’ve grown a little to have a dozen or two, or if you are a sideliner with a hundred or more, or even a commercial beekeeper with thousands…there are losses, there are costs, and even at scale, the most experienced beekeepers experience disappointment when coming across a dead out on a pallet, in a queen rearing yard, etc.


By and large, I’m a proponent of taking responsibility for my losses, and I would offer that it makes a beekeeper better when they take ultimate responsibility for their losses as well.


Stay with me on this for a minute. You might point to the weather, the neighbor’s overuse of pesticides, the crop duster that just went by, a bear/raccoons/skunk, or even the more mundane hive beetles, wax moths, or mites as the reason your bees died.


But regardless of the reason YOU are the beekeeper. And unless you have a vendor (like me) who will help maintain or rent you the hives (shared or full responsibility on me) it IS on you, when you lose bees. :-)


Ok, still with me? Feel free to vent, comment, tell me I’m wrong etc. it’s all good. Beekeepers ALWAYS have different opinions and are MOSTLY friendly, or at least respectful about it.


So now let’s get down to seasonal specifics, in my general area (Midwest, Kansas City) and go over what I’m seeing most often. And ALSO what I have warned customers about on my website, blog, email list, and social media groups. I’ve even texted videos about this directly to customers that aren’t on the web much!


And this IS a little more of a head scratcher. So let me lay it out for you this way:


You did your mite treatments (typically in the fall but this can be an interesting topic on its own).


You made sure they were well fed, tilted slightly forward, and had appropriate ventilation. Right?


This is the baseline, simple, PRACTICAL advice that i give, and it’s really all that is necessary in most cases.


For my maintenance customers and for my hives, an additional recommendation I offer is the use of a monthly dry probiotic. (You never know what they will get into when they are out foraging, and I do observe higher survival rates in colonies with the brand I use and resell than those without).


But, you go out there in February or March and they are full of honey, and their dead.


Or…


You’ve done all of that…AND you even did a bunch of unnecessary (and potentially damaging) OTHER STUFF too.


AND THEY STILL DIED!


Let’s continue and get it ALL out!


YouTube and a club member (I’m not knocking clubs, I LOVE clubs) told you to make fondant, candy boards, use sugar cubes, or dump dry sugar or sugar mush into your hive…so you did.


Not realizing that when liquid feed, early nectar, and even water (respiratory condensation, snow/ice melt, rain, etc.) became available, the bee’s proboscis (what the bee uses to suck up fluids etc.) was damaged/worn from hydrating the dried sugar you packed into the hive as backup instead of last resort emergency feed. (If this is necessary, the failure already occurred in most cases!)


AND THEY STILL DIED!!!


Lets pile on some more, even less necessary things that some of us do mostly to feel like we are helping, that don’t necessarily improve things for the bees.


You used hay/straw bales (homes for mice) or something else as a wind break.


You wrapped or insulated around the hives (you could argue benefits foe reasons beyond survival, lid insulation versus sides or bottom, or even fully insulated hives (I have a few and use them for specific reasons).


You made and used quilt boards, or provided extra ventilation (if a little is good then a lot is better right? :-) not always!)


You cleared snow off then, you left snow on for insulation, you used warmers under the hives, you did a rain dance, sprinkled essential oils, attended natural / treatment free beekeeping seminars, you used rough hewn lumber three inches thick. You installed domes above and beetle traps and boards below. There are more swiffers in the top box than there are bees!


You installed sensors, weight and sound recording, blue tooth devices, trackers, and had a guy who has been keeping bees for 70 years all over the world, is cited in books come give you advice… and guess what?


THEY STILL DIED!!!


Why? (I know, I know, get to the point Mike!)


Sorry, I just had to get a few friendly jabs in for some of the things we do as beekeepers to over complicated things. It’s ok. I’m a tinkerer too!


Although never 100%, here is a very common cause of death even beyond or in addition to cluster size and colony health that should be remembered.


Brood.


Yes, brood.


Follow along. It’s late December early January and we have 10-14 days of warm weather. The bees are flying, some of us get excited and enjoy the entertainment of putting pollen out for them. And we are happy. The hive weight is good, those more advanced and experienced might treat again for mites, but may not dig much deeper.


Others might break the propolis seal and so a quick inspection. (OMG RIGHT? lol)


Those that dig in might see that the bees have consumed some of the resources and have some open comb here and there and wow!


BROOD! Isn’t that great? The BEES know what to do! It must be so! ;-)


Well, as some are finding out and most are misdiagnosing, this is not great news! It can be very bad news!


That 10-14 day spring weather and the extra space in the comb was enough to convince the colony that the queen should be laying!


And now…BOOM! The cold snap sweeps in. Snow and ice falls and the wind howls.


Thank goodness we had a wind break, right?


The next opportunity that arises you notice no activity from your hive, or a few of your hives.


You might see erratic, robbing activity.


You pop the lid, and sure enough, bees are dead, in a cluster between frames, on the bottom board, and even some face first in empty cells right next to cells full of life giving resources!


Dead, dead, DEAD! With 60, 70, or a hundred pounds of honey! A double deep with an extra medium of honey, and 5lbs of sugar on top of that!


They key in this scenario, is most likely, brood.


Often the bees won’t abandon their brood, even to save themselves. So they actually starve to death, even while surrounded by food!


So, if you see dead bees, with their back ends sticking out of the cells, they most likely starved.


Light bulbs switching on? An “aha” moment? :-)


I already know there will be differing opinions, competing conclusions, and alternate observations. And yes, of course, I know that I’ve used some noncommittal language in this article.


But it’s funny, because Beekeeping doesn’t have a ton of absolutes! And there are so many variables to consider.


So, will this explain every dead out that we’ve seen? No! Of course not. But when you have a dead out that is full of resources, with lots of dead bees (not an abscond), then I propose that this is one of the most likely causes.


So you might be thinking now that this is great! You have a new understanding of why your bees died! And this may even make you feel better! After all, isn’t it kind of sweet and tragic at the same time? Those beers would not leave their babies, and starved to death, trying to save them! Very noble. :-)


But the next dilemma is, how do we avoid this? How do we keep the bees from starving? We can’t pack any more food into the hive can we?


Well, like most of Beekeeping, there will be several different ways to affect the Bees behavior. I’ll mention a couple of ideas and techniques that have proven useful for me that can change this outcome. Hopefully some others will chime in with some ideas or experiences and techniques of their own. I love hearing them.


OK. In this case, you could make an argument for a very harsh approach, like removing the brood entirely. Add as terrible as that might sound, it’s not entirely without basis, in logic and in thought.


You could also provide external manipulation through warming the hive. I won’t get into that other than to say there are a variety of ways beekeepers have done this. I have seen some use lights and have read about others using water heaters, heat, tape, heat, plates, seed, warmers, reptile, warmers, etc. to keep their hives warm. Instead, I will focus on what I consider a more preventative and practical means of doing this on a larger scale. Imagine trying to run electrical cords to 100 hives out in the middle of nowhere! Or a thousand!


This is why some larger beekeepers will put their bees in a shed over winter. It’s not as much to keep the bees warm, because we want the bees to stay in their hive, and we want them to consume their resources at a reasonable rate so that they’re ready for spring. So putting the bees in the shed, talking about thousands of colonies, is actually to keep them cool, but at a consistent temperature to control some of what we’ve been talking about here. :-)


Then again, there are a lot of beekeepers are urban and have power nearby or sub urban and have outlets nearby and many beekeepers decide to keep their bees in a rural area, where providing electricity is more difficult even for one or two colonies. So that’s where I’ll focus.


Your beehives are out there, they have brooded up early, and they’re too far away to run an extension cord to do any of these other things. OK?


So what can you do? You don’t wanna throw out brood, you want to prevent them from brooding up or make sure that there’s very little brood, right?


So, when you see a weather pattern with a warm. Coming up, think about what happens accidentally in the spring or during a flow.


Think about what happens when there are so many resources available that a hive becomes Honey bound!


Use that same scenario to your advantage here. You can do this a couple of different ways with some methods being more forceful than others.


You could, during your inspection, move resources around, so that frames full of honey are closest to the cluster, and that way the queen doesn’t have open cells to lay in. If you have extra frames full of honey that you can pull out of storage you can put those in to accomplish much the same thing, and to keep the cluster from moving over to empty comb to start laying later. Basically, you want the entire brood nest backfilled, so that the queen doesn’t have much opportunity to start laying eggs. In this case, you basically want them to be honey bound! Or that’s one way to think of it.


You can tell I’m trying to be over descriptive to try and get this across!


Another, more passive way to do this, and by passive, I mean, letting the bees take on some of the work, would be to feed them.


I’m not talking about dry sugar I’m not talking about a mountain feed or camp feed or sugar, mush or pollen.


I’m talking about syrup!


I know! I know! I know! You were thinking “what about moisture???” And “what about stimulating Brood????


I mean, after all, isn’t that kind of what got us in this position? :-)


Again, we are actually trying to prevent the queen from laying by doing what is one of the greatest essences and Beekeeping, and that is, managing space. In this case, we are using resources to fill the open or empty comb before the queen can lay in it. While this is a bad thing in the spring, because the queen, not being able to lay, can cause her to of scarred, or initiate a swarming process, during the winter, this prevents her from laying and brooding up too early!


So, this is a little bit kinder and gentler of an approach, certainly than ripping out the brood. It’s also less forceful than manipulating frames, and it gives the bees something to do.


What kind of syrup? This is always a great debate. Isn’t it? In this case, for utility purposes, and to manage moisture content, I would recommend using heavier syrup. 2 to 1 or thicker syrup instead of 1 to 1.


So that’s it! That’s my long drawn out article to help you help your bees survive the winter! After all, they are your responsibility, right? ;-)


98 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page