Dead bees in the snow

Here’s a question and photo sent to me by Todd Eaton. Dead bees in the snow are a common concern and I welcome any ideas that we can pass on to Todd and others who are worried about the accumulation of dead bees in winter.

I have never been so worried about the bees. It’s 19 degrees outside, no wind. The past few weeks have been brutal as far as weather and temperature and today “seems” like a warm day. Is this normal for them to do this? I expect one or two but hundreds? I can see they’re taking a cleansing flight but what is making them do it this early? We still have many weeks of sub-zero weather coming.

It is normal for bees on a warmish day to take cleansing flights even in the middle of winter. February is not early to take cleansing flights. In fact, the sooner the better, the more the better.

Sometimes the sun beats down on the hives and warms the interior, especially if the hives are dark-colored as yours are. On occasion, bees can be fooled by the warmth, fly out, and die in the cold. But for the most part they know better and just take quick flights and head back.

Also, bees die every day. In the summertime, about 1000 per day per colony are lost. In the winter, the number is much lower, but there still are many deaths. You don’t say how long it took to accumulate this many, but if it happened over several days I would completely ignore it. Remember that snow affords us an opportunity to see things we usually don’t see, and sometimes those things are surprising.

Nevertheless, a couple things could be going on here. If it really was a warmer than usual day, undertaker bees may have seen an opportunity to rid the hive of dead bodies. If that were the case, it wouldn’t take long to accumulate this many. Just yesterday I was watching bees carry out bodies and drop them four to six feet from the hive, then do a U-turn and go back home.

As I said earlier, some could have been fooled by the warmth of the sun and got caught outside, unable to fly home. On the other hand, some of these bees may have been old and about to expire anyway. Bees often elect to die away from the hive—a mechanism that helps keep the hive clean and free of disease.

More likely, the dead bees you see are a combination of old bees, cold bees, and transported carcasses. It doesn’t seem like an inordinate amount, especially when you divide it by two. (I assume both hives have bees.)

I would not be overly concerned at this point. However, your bees could be experiencing higher than average death rates if they are plagued by mites or honey bee pathogens. Often, when colonies collapse from Varroa mites, the remaining bees persist in removing the dead until the very end. Given just the photo and no other information, it is nearly impossible to say and, at this point, there is nothing you can do but wait for the weather. In the meantime, though, don’t give up hope.

I’m sure other beekeepers have thoughts on this and will share their ideas. In any case, let us know what you find when the time comes.


Dead bees accumulating in the snow near two hives. © Todd Eaton.


Spring in February

It was warm and sunny today. This is certainly not any kind of February I remember—usually it’s one of our coldest months and one of the wettest. My little patch of lamb’s ears, which I bought specifically for wool carder bees, was loaded with honey bees—several dozen at a time. They were eagerly lapping up the water that was caught on the surface of the woolly leaves. Other honey bees examined the hose bibb, but it was dry.

The south wall of the house, exposed directly to the sun, was covered with honey bees. They would land and remain motionless for several minutes, taking in the warmth. Right in the middle of maybe seventy honey bees was a big fat bumble bee queen doing the same.

The bees were collecting pollen in two creamy shades of yellow, but here is something to remember: In most areas, pollen is available long before nectar. Many plants that are wind-pollinated produce large quantities of early pollen, but the plants with showy flowers and lots of nectar usually bloom later.

So don’t sigh with relief quite yet. Make sure your bees are supplied with enough honey or sugar to get them into the spring. Most colonies that die of starvation do it in late spring when stores are low, populations are getting larger, the weather is unpredictable, and the nectar-producing plants haven’t yet bloomed. It’s very easy to lose your bees just when you think you’ve made it.


Honey bee collecting water from lamb’s ear. © Rusty Burlew.
The water gets trapped on the hairy surface of the leaves. © Rusty Burlew.
A honey bee looks for water on a dry hose bibb. © Rusty Burlew.
This bumble bee queen was sunning herself on the side of the house. © Rusty Burlew.


How to feed bees in freezing weather

My husband came home yesterday and said the local postmaster was looking for me. It seems that one of his customers just lost seven out of nine hives and wants someone to explain why. Apparently he is a new beekeeper who took over the colonies from an elderly man and neither of them know why the bees are dying.

If we ever catch up with each other I will take a look, but seven out of nine is not a happy number. Without seeing a thing, my first guess would be starvation. Without a doubt, this was one of the worst years I’ve ever seen for lack of food stores.

Too cold and too hot

Last winter’s cold was interrupted by an unseasonably warm stretch that caused the maples to bloom early. This was immediately followed by drenching rains that kept the bees inside until the bloom was over. Then, just after the fruit trees began to blossom, a deep freeze shattered the flowers.

At that point, everyone was counting on the blackberry bloom to tide them over. But soon after the berries began to open, an extended heat wave dried them up. The arid summer and brown autumn that followed produced little nectar. Robbing bees were everywhere, gathering every drop of untended sweet. A sticky frame I had left on the picnic table soon disappeared under a pulsing mass of wings.

By September I had large, vivacious colonies with virtually no stores. Although I harvested not a single drop of honey, the hives were so light I could pick up the back end of most. I knew it would be a long, hard winter.

Making up for bad weather

I started by giving the colonies syrup while the weather was still warm, something I haven’t done in years. Then I fed them the frames of reserve honey I kept just in case. After that was gone, I started feeding sugar cakes. In spite of all the feeding, I lost one in December due to a clear case of starvation.

As I said, I haven’t yet inspected the seven dead colonies, but since the owner is close by and suffered the same weather patterns, I wouldn’t be surprised if they starved. And since many places in North America had sere summers, I wanted to remind you to check on food stores the first chance you get.

Too cold to feed bees?

Beekeepers often say they want to check for stores but it is too cold to open the hive. In my opinion, if you believe they might be low and the weather is cold, there is no point in waiting for a warm day to go through the frames. Instead, go ahead and give them reserved honey if you have it or at least a sugar supplement—and do it now.

Candy boards are extremely helpful and, this year, my plan was to make candy boards for each hive. I purchased the materials I needed to make the boards, but never got to it.

But the system I use allows me to feed the bees on cold days, even down in the 20s F. This is what I do:

  1. I make no-cook candy cakes by mixing a little water into a lot of sugar. I put the wet sugar in paper plates and let it dry rock hard. (If I’m in a hurry, I dry it in the oven.)
  2. When the cakes are hard I sprinkle each one with a drop or two of essential oil, such as anise. The scent helps the bees find the sugar, if nothing else.
  3. I pop the cakes out of the plate and stack them in a bucket along with my hive tool.
  4. At the hive, I take off the lid. The bees stay warm because the quilt box holds most of the heat in, even with the lid off.
  5. With the hive tool, I crack the quilt from the feeder rim below it, but I don’t remove the quilt.
  6. I take a candy cake in one hand, lift the corner of the quilt with the other, and slide the candy cake into the feeder rim, placing it directly over the cluster.
  7. If you are ready, this takes about one or two seconds. The hive loses very little heat because you never remove the quilt. It’s like opening and closing a window on a cold day: they get a little gush of cold air, then the temperature returns to normal.
  8. Replace the lid and go to the next hive.

The idea that you shouldn’t feed your (possibly) starving bees because they might get cold in the process doesn’t make any sense to me. If they are out of food, they will die whether they are cold or not. So if you think they might be short of food, prepare in advance, and do it as fast as you can. You don’t have to go through every frame and then decide.

Nature isn’t always nice

Naturally, the best possible food for bees is the honey they stored for themselves. But it doesn’t always work out that way even if you didn’t harvest. If you think your bees may be hungry, go ahead and give them some help. Warm weather may come too late.

Remember, too, that the rate of consumption increases as spring approaches. Just when stores are lowest, they use them the fastest. Every year, thousands of colonies die in the last weeks before the first nectar flows. Remember that, and check on your bees early.


A candy board is a good alternative to sugar cakes. © Herb Lester.

Beekeeping with a purpose

When should I treat for mites? When should I reverse my brood boxes? Should I add honey supers in May or June? How much sugar should I feed my bees? Should I replace my queens now or in the fall?

The problem with these questions—and many similar ones—is they can’t be answered without more information, so no one can answer them easily. In fact, you should be suspicious of short answers that come quickly.

Take mites, for example. When you treat for mites has a lot to do with how many mites you have, the method you intend to use, whether you plan to harvest honey from that hive, the general health of the colony, and your local climate.

I am very much opposed to doing anything to a colony of bees unless you know exactly why you are doing it. I am equally opposed to inspecting for the sake of inspecting: if you know what you are looking for, if you know your purpose, that’s fine. If you’re inspecting because the calendar or another beekeeper says you should, you need to discuss it with yourself first.

Every time I advocate limiting inspections, the response is the same, “But doing inspections is how new beekeepers learn! If they didn’t inspect, they wouldn’t know what to look for!”

Okay, I accept that because the purpose can be stated. “I am inspecting my colony to learn what the inside of a beehive looks like.” Or, “I’m inspecting so I can learn the difference between brood comb and honeycomb.” Whatever.

But that doesn’t take all summer. It doesn’t take three years. It takes just a few times. The rest you learn by doing the necessary steps, not the unnecessary ones. Limit your interference and your bees will be better off. As Bill Reynolds showed us in his intriguing hive graphs, it takes a long time for bees to calm down from a disturbance. And his findings were seconded by other seasoned beekeepers.

Now, that’s not to say you should never open your hive. Of course, you must. But you need to know why you are doing it. I’ve written about this before in a post called “Is too much hive inspection a bad thing?” but now I’m going a step further by saying you shouldn’t do anything to a colony unless you know why you are doing it. Know why you are reversing your boxes, why you are feeding sugar, why you are replacing your queen, why you are adding an excluder. If you don’t know why, or if it doesn’t make sense to you, don’t do it.

My philosophy has nothing to do with Langstroth or top bars or Warrés or Nationals. It has nothing to do with treatment free vs conventional. It has nothing to do with Carniolans or Italians or Africanized bees. Seriously, a good beekeeper can keep honey bees in a cardboard box and they will flourish.

Instead, my philosophy has to do with common sense: every time you invade a hive, you are bugging your bees. They like privacy. They like autonomy. They like to be left alone to do bee things and think bee thoughts. To them, you are a pain in the bee-hind. All that business about, “My bees love me” is hogwash. They merely decided to give you a pass this time. That’s all.

Give your bees benefit of the doubt, think before you act, state your purpose, and use a healthy dollop of horse sense. Put the whys before the whens and whats, and you will become a better beekeeper faster.


Honey bees on a frame
Honey bees work even when we’re not looking. Pixabay photo.

New beginnings

Every beekeeper seems to have a different way to mark the beginning of bee season. But to me, the new season begins at the winter solstice—or more accurately—the day after the winter solstice.

Why? Simply because the bee colony is at its smallest in late November and December when the days are shortest. But after the winter solstice, the daylight hours gradually increase and brood rearing begins anew. It’s not a drastic thing, just a slow reversal. Usually, by the end of January, you can actually see the difference (if it’s warm enough to look).

I’ve read various opinions on how the whole thing works. Some say the hours of daylight does not cause the change, after all, the hive is dark regardless. Others say it is most definitely the cause. But for our purposes it doesn’t really matter. The fact remains that brood rearing reaches a low point before the solstice, and increases after. That is all we need to remember.

Many beekeepers claim that bee season begins in April with the production and delivery of packages, but that makes no sense. Beekeepers are certainly busier in April than they are in January or February, but the colony work begins a long time before the beekeeper gets involved. It’s egocentric to think the calendar revolves around us!

Many things happen inside the colony to increase brood production. For starters, the workers begin to raise the temperature of the brood nest. These warmer conditions stimulate the queen to lay eggs—just a few at first, but more and more as time goes on.

Keeping the colony warmer requires more food just when food reserves begin to dwindle. For that reason, many beekeepers like to check on their bees on the first warmish day after the solstice. Others don’t bother to dig through the hive, but add candy boards, granulated sugar, or reserve honey to be on the safe side. And because brood-rearing requires well-fed nurses, many beekeepers also add reserve pollen or pollen substitute as well.

Every beekeeping situation is different, and there is no magic recipe to follow. But it’s important to realize that change is taking place inside your hive. The beekeeper’s job is to assess the situation and decide whether something should be done.

Down in the southern hemisphere, the longest day has just passed and the hours of daylight will soon shorten and brood rearing will slow down. In either hemisphere, it is six months of growing and six months of slowing, and the further you are from the equator, the more drastic the difference. And then—six months from now—the whole thing will reverse.


Your bees will begin to raise brood regardless of the weather. Pixabay photo.
Your bees will begin to raise brood regardless of the weather. Pixabay photo.