The dead of winter

Many new beekeepers are concerned about the dead bees that accumulate on or near the hive in winter. Every week I receive several questions about this, so I want to elaborate.

Even in the healthiest of colonies, bees die every single day. According to Bees of the World (O’toole and Raw) a normal-sized colony loses about a thousand bees per day in the summer. These losses are replaced by a busy queen that may lay upwards of a thousand eggs per day. Most of the summer losses are foragers that die on the job and we never even notice them. Since they are out of sight and out of mind, most beekeepers aren’t too concerned about these daily losses.

But bees continue to die every day even in winter. The losses are not as high because the bees are not foraging and because winter bees have special adaptations that allow them to live longer than summer bees. Still, many die every day, and they die at home where we can see them.

If you consider that your healthy colony may have 50,000 or maybe even 60,000 members going into the fall but may have only 20,000 come spring (WSU Extension) somewhere along the line you lost 30,000 to 40,000 bees. That’s a bunch.

For the sake of argument, I’ll take the smaller number of 30,000 and divide it by 182, which is the number of days in October, November, December, January, February, and March. That gives me 164 bee deaths per day. The larger number of 40,000 gives me 220 bee deaths per day.

Of course these numbers are approximations. But most people who write to me are concerned about “five or six dead bees” on the landing board or “two dozen dead bees on the snow.” As you can see, those numbers are just natural attrition and are nothing to worry about.

For years now my own hives have been within a short walk of my house. Nearly every day I walk up there (for my benefit more than theirs) and I flick the dead bees off the landing boards. What I’ve noticed is that a new pile of bees every day is a signal that all is well inside. Only a healthy colony has the manpower—er, beepower—to dispatch undertaker bees to clean up the bodies. On warmer days they fly them off and drop them on the ground, but on colder days they just shove them out the entrance. In either case, all is well.

Now I begin to get concerned when I see no bodies, because then I wonder if the colony is as strong as it should be. In fact, in several instances this was my first clue of a failing colony. It’s not a sure thing, but it is a piece of information you can use when making management decisions or when you are trying to decide if you should peek inside.

But don’t forget to look before you flick. A couple of years ago, I found the queen among the five or six dead bees at the entrance. I was able to combine that queenless hive with a nuc in the middle of winter, and I ended up with a vibrant, healthy hive by spring.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

This bottom board came from a colony that overwintered successfully. Even though I removed a dozen or so bees every day, this thick mat of bees remained on the inside of the hive. The light-colored debris is from combs that were opened (bottom and right) and sugar cakes (top left).
This bottom board came from a colony that overwintered successfully. Even though I removed a dozen or so bodies every day, this thick mat of bees remained on the inside of the hive. The light-colored debris is from combs that were opened (bottom and right) and sugar cakes (top left).

Comments

Blake
Reply

Thank you! As a first year beek, I found this information to be very comforting. I just found your blog a few weeks ago and have really enjoyed catching up!

Ken
Reply

I worry about my bees because here in central Idaho the winter is cold. Lately, single digits and below and low teens in the day. (Hope it warms up). I even considered putting a reptile heater in to warm up the hive. (My wife talked me out of it. Said that God created bees and they have survived this long, so they probably will survive this winter [hope so]). When it was warmer I placed Reese patties in the hive and later candy boards. Well, I really look forward to spring. Your pictures give me hope. I don’t have that many dead bees. I would be interested on any comments about successful overwintering of bees in cold climates. I do know that bees are raised in these inhospitable conditions.
Willow Creek Honey

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

The problem with heating hives is that it can fool the bees into thinking it is warm outside. If they fly out of the hive in those temperatures they will be unable to return and they will die. Wives are always right.

Jacob N
Reply

It’s interesting how we see something we don’t understand and assume there is a problem. More often than not it is something normal or benign.

Rusty, Thank You, for another great post.

Nancy
Reply

Rusty,

You mentioned this briefly in an earlier post, and it’s a good thing. Yesterday one hive had several dozen dead at the entrance, and I surely would have panicked if I hadn’t read that.

But elsewhere you advise entrance reducers and mouse guards for winter. Should we remove those to brush the dead bees out? What about all the bodies on the screens? Leave them there till warmer weather?

Adding a note of my own advice: before setting up with bees, contact your county extension office, the best way to find a local bee club. Not only information but hands-on help may be available. I now have the luxury of a young couple, currently without bees of their own, to help pop lids off to replace sugar, pollen & grease patties. It makes a big difference to working quickly in marginal weather. If all goes well, I’ll “pay” them with some splits from mine in spring.

And a note to clubs: we’re considering a “Friends” level membership, to get some learners involved without having to commit to hives.

It’s all about community!

Nan

Rusty
Reply

Nan,

Once or twice during the winter, I take out the reducers and mouse guards and then reach in as far as possible with a stick or hive tool and sweep out as many dead as I can. In thirty seconds or so I can pull out a thick pile and then I put the hive back together. It is especially important that their path to the entrance is not blocked by dead bees. You want them to be able to take cleansing flights on warm days and you want them to have fresh air and good ventilation.

John Perdue
Reply

Rusty,

Very timely posting. Thanks a bunch.

I have a new hive (1st winter) and it has been so cold I can’t open the hive to gauge their health. I find several dead bees on the landing board each day when I look the hive over. They started the winter (southeast Texas) with one full mid-depth super full, but I would like to know how much has been consumed. I have installed an entrance reducer and have been feeding 1 cup water to 2 cups sugar which lasts about two weeks.

Jper….

Olof
Reply

Thank you for your post. I was starting to worry as a first year beekeeper in my backyard. I did feed them today and they finished 2 cups sugar to 1 cup water in less than a day. I thought that since they had 2 deeps full before winter that I wouldn’t need to feed, but man did that go fast. Should I keep feeding in the winter? I’m worried about it raising the moisture levels in the hive.

Rusty
Reply

Olof,

Well, if they need the feed then you have to feed them. Excess moisture is not good, but dry and dead is not good either. If you get a warmish day, you can open the hive and try to put the remaining frames of honey closer to the cluster. But if they are near the top of their hive and there is no honey nearby, you’ll have to feed them to save them.

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