Dead bees all over the place!

Many beekeepers become alarmed this time of year when they realize dead bees are covering the bottom board, piled on the landing board, laying on the outer cover, or scattered across the snow. It looks like hundreds! In fact, it probably is hundreds. Many bees die this time of the year and there are many reasons why.

  • Winter bees are physiologically different than summer bees. Winter bees have more fat bodies and they are designed to live many months. In contrast, summer bees live only a few weeks. But by late winter, even these winter bees are nearing the end of their lives. More and more will die as spring approaches. By the time brood rearing is well under way, most of these bees will be gone.
  • In addition to old age, some bees die because of stressful in-hive situations. These include:

o   Starvation. Some bees may not have found sufficient food.

o   Disease. Any number of diseases may kill winter bees. These diseases include the viruses carried by Varroa mites.

o   Parasites. The mites themselves can weaken the bees by sucking their hemolymph.

o   Cold. Bees on the outside of the cluster may occasionally die of cold. Or bees taking cleaning flights may not make it back into the hive.

o   Dysentery. Bees unable to leave the hive for many, many weeks may succumb to the build-up of waste in their bodies. If waste is excreted inside the hive, it promotes unsanitary conditions that may kill other bees.

During the very coldest part of winter these dead bees may not be apparent to the beekeeper. Most die inside the hive and their bodies drop onto the bottom board. The pile can get quite deep without the beekeeper even noticing it. But as the days get warmer, the bees begin to clean the carcasses out of their living quarters. Depending on the temperature they may dump them on the landing board, or fly them out and drop them on the ground or in the snow. Suddenly you see them everywhere, but in truth, they have been collecting all winter long.

If possible, it is a good idea to clear the bottom board of dead bees. You can scrape them out by removing the entrance reducer and running your hive tool or a stick through the hive entrance and dragging it along the bottom board. You don’t have to remove every bee, just make sure the entrance is open. Beekeepers can lose hives to dysentery if the entrance becomes blocked and the bees cannot get out for cleansing flights. Also, if you are using an entrance reducer, it helps to make sure the opening is at the top—not the bottom—of the reducer.

Dead bees on the outside of the hive this time of year is usually a sign that everything is proceeding according to plan. If your cluster is active and has plenty of food, your colony is probably fine.

Rusty

Comments

CraftyFarmGirl
Reply

@HoneyBeeSuite r u sure it’s not just housekeeping on a warm day? There’s natural death that occurs through (cont) http://www.twitlonger.com/show/8mo62e

Hello_Kitty_
Reply

I’ve noticed many dead varroa mites as well and have to remind myself that this is normal in January.

This is from Michael Bush: “This is the accumulation of many days of mites that can’t get into cells because there is no brood, falling over a period of time. 40 or 50 a day is not considered unusual, so if you have a week’s accumulation of 300 or so that would be pretty normal and within the economic threshold. So probably they don’t need anything.

They may start to rear brood soon if your weather is reasonable as the solstice is now past. So if you want to treat (powder sugar) now might be the best time before they start to rear brood.”

This is from Serge Labesque: “The observation that you describe is a quite normal occurence at this time of year. Here is why: As you know, varroa mites reproduce in sealed cells of bee brood. Normally, they spend only a small amount of time in a phoretic phase (i.e. clinging to adult bees). This is the only time when bees can physically get rid of mites, or the only time when mites can fall to the tray, because mites are exposed then, and not inside sealed cells. Consider that mite population increases exponentially through the season to reach a maximum in the fall. This means that right now is when the number of mites is near its maximum in the hives. So, everything else being equal, you should expect to see many more mites on the trays than at any other time of the year. Furthermore, add to this that it is very likely that there is no brood in your hives right now. This means that the mites have nowhere to hide and to reproduce. So, the mites are all exposed, in the phoretic phase of their life. Consequently, the bees groom the parasites off each other, and the mites fall in large numbers. This period of the year is cleaning time for the hives, at least in respect to the varroa mites. This is why you see so many mites on the tray. Tell yourself that this is a good sign that your bees are at work, getting rid of the mites. Simply hope that they will do a thorough job, and your colonies will do fine in the spring. Do not be surprised to see a few bees with deformed wings in January. This is because the few mites that will be left in the hives will concentrate in the little brood that will be available then. You really need to give a chance to your bees to do the job on their own. Trust them. This is what I do. Understanding the dynamics behind what you observe can help reduce your worries, although we always worry about our bees. Right?

Please consider not treating your colonies with powder sugar or drone brood trapping.”

Rusty
Reply

This all makes sense to me except the last sentence. Why does Serge not recommend the use of powdered sugar or drone trapping? Well, obviously you can’t trap drones now because there aren’t any, but what is his argument against these practices in general? It seems to me that letting the bees “do the job on their own” is a little like letting your cats or your cows loose in the woods to see how they fare. The conditions here now are not the conditions that European honey bees evolved under and letting them fend for themselves borders on cruelty. I don’t believe in using pesticides, but a little mechanical help seems fair enough. Whether we like the idea or not, honey bee are now livestock. We have so modified them and modified their environment that the odds are overwhelmingly against them surviving without help.

Hello_Kitty_
Reply

I thought about lopping that last sentence out, but keeping it in is an example of “Ask 2 beekeepers a question and get 3+ answers” isn’t it? And I wanted to hear your thoughts, too. We’ve been torn b/n the “help them out because they need it” philosophy, and the “let the bees be bees” school of thought. Is there a happy middle ground? Now that we’re taking care of someone else’s bees, I really don’t know how to approach the hive. While winter seems endless, I feel like I’m running out of time to decide how we treat (or not treat) this colony of bees.

Rusty
Reply

HB,

It’s just another opinion, of course, but to me the happy medium is helping the bees with mites without using commercial pesticides. Personally, I use a combination of screened bottoms, drone trapping, grease patties, essential oils, powdered sugar, and queen sequestering (to break the brood cycle.) I have never, ever not-even-once used any of the commercial acaricides. My mite drops are not especially high, although I do see deformed-wing virus on occasion.

Just as organic farmers have certain “tools” they use to accomplish their goals, natural and organic beekeepers use “tools” as well. But breeders who are trying to raise survivor stock let their bees go it alone. Unfortunately, they often lose just about everything. But they knew that going in, and I believe their work will eventually benefit the rest of us. I appreciate what they do. But that is not my particular mission.

I am enamored by honey bees and enthralled by wild bees as well. I want to raise awareness about both kinds through my site (soon to be two sites.) I believe in organic farming and natural beekeeping and I’m aghast at what our federal government thinks it’s okay for humans to eat–namely systemic pesticides and genetically-modified organisms. So, in short, my personal mission is to spread the word on these topics and issues. I’m not in a position time-wise or financially to raise survivor stock and select for resistant bees. We all can’t do everything, and that means I have to treat my bees for mites in ways that fall within my belief system.

In regard to two beekeepers and three answers, I say what I always say. I believe there are many ways to accomplish the same thing. What is right for one person may not be right for another, and what is right at one point in time might not be right at another point in time–even for the same person. To decide what is right is highly dependent on your ultimate goal, your resources, and your system of beliefs. We are all in a position to learn from each other and that is a good thing.

Once you settle on your ultimate goal, you will know what to do. You are smart, articulate, and sensitive to the issues. I, for one, am very glad you are a beekeeper–you represent us well.

Phillip
Reply

“Also, if you are using an entrance reducer, it helps to make sure the opening is at the top—not the bottom—of the reducer.”

I think I understand that now. I made my own mouse-proof entrance reducers, but the openings are flat against the bottom boards. Melted snow over the past few weeks has clogged the openings. All the dead bees, I assume, would have clogged them up too. If I get a really warm day, I might pull them out, flip them and clear out some of the dead bees. That could be a few weeks from now (our winter is really just getting started).

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

I don’t think I could bear “winter just getting started.” I am so ready for spring. On the other hand, I miss snow. We had about 15 minutes of snow this year. So sad.

suz
Reply

What about a ton of dead worker bees during the first 2 weeks of October? The Carnolian hive has a ton in front, but is very busy bringing in pollen. The Italian hive isn’t doing anything: no pollen going in and haven’t been taking the syrup, but there aren’t very many dead bees in front of that hive.

Frank Olson
Reply

I too have a hive with a lot of dead bees (several hundred) on the screened bottom board (went clear down and removed the brood super and cleaned the screened bottom board) as well as several on the entrance outside of the reducer. I could not see any mites when I checked the white board. It looked like only several hundred bees were left in the hive and I could not locate the queen (which is not unusual, I have a hard time finding her). Just after Christmas I checked and this hive was not strong but looked like it should make it through the winter, it still had a goodly number of bees and honey stores.

Two questions:

1. What could have killed the bees?
2. Should I try re-queening this hive or combining with the strong hive next to it (if so what should the procedure)?

Your help would be greatly appreciated.
Frank

Rusty
Reply

Frank,

Remember, there will always be a certain amount of dead bees. Some bees die every day. If the weather is good, the other bees cart the bodies away. If not, the bodies are allowed to pile up.

If the remaining colony is really as small as you say, and there is lots of food remaining, my first thought is mites. Seeing mites (or not) doesn’t make much difference. They don’t like to be seen and do a good job of hiding.

My first question to you would be when and how did you last treat for mites? Mite-riddled colonies often collapse during late fall/ early winter, so the timing is about right too.

When you get a chance, look at the empty brood combs and see if there are any white dots inside the cells. If so, that is a sure sign of mites. If you can’t find the queen, it could be the hive went queenless and that is the cause of its demise.

You can combine the colonies with a piece of newspaper between them. If you can’t find the queen, combine with a piece of newspaper and a queen excluder. Put some slits in the newspaper. If the small colony goes down and unites with the larger one, you should be able to find and pinch the weak queen and then you can take out the excluder.

Requeening a hive with only a few hundred bees is pointless. Just cut your losses and try to save the remaining bees.

Laurie
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I just checked my hives today because my bees were out doing cleansing flights even though it was 29 degrees, but it was sunny. Two hives are doing great. One hive was dead. It appears it was too weak and the cluster died due to cold. My question is, there are frames with sealed brood, what should I do with those?

Thank you,
Laurie

Rusty
Reply

Laurie,

As long as the colony didn’t die of a disease, you can put the box containing the frames on top of another colony and they will dispose of the dead brood once it warms up a bit. You can freeze the frames first if you think they contain moth or beetle eggs.

Some people let chickens or wild birds eat the larvae, but unless the frames are protected they will also attract larger creatures.

You can also clean out dead larvae with a garden hose. Very messy. I always get splashed in the face with rotting larvae when I do this.

I vote for letting the bees do it.

Cali
Reply

What do I do with the dead bees that that I brush out from the bottom board? Let them decompose? I don’t have chickens to eat them (yet, that’s this year’s project).

Rusty
Reply

Cali,

You can just toss them in the grass, but it is best to do it a distance away from your hive because a pile of decomposing bees can attract predators such as skunks and opossums, and you don’t want them hanging around your colony.

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