Why so many starving bees?

It was a winter of bee starvation. In the past few weeks I’ve heard countless tales of beekeepers losing all or nearly all their hives to starvation. Many of these hives had not a drop of honey left. Others had full frames of honey remaining, but the bees starved anyway.

During cold weather, the bees cannot leave the cluster in order to find food. Oftentimes, honey stored just beyond the edge of the cluster is never touched. As the bees move upward, they consume the food the cluster encounters. The resulting pattern resembles a vertical tunnel through the stored food.

Warm periods during the winter allow the bees to move around and find more of the food. Sometimes the cluster may move toward one side of the box and eat the honey there. But after it becomes cold again, they are even further from the stores remaining on the other side of the box–which is why you sometimes see the dead cluster on one side or in one corner of the brood box.

A similar type of movement occurs in top-bar hives. Although the bees don’t move up, they may gradually move left or right. But if they eat their way to one end of the hive, they can’t turn around and traverse the empty combs to get to the other end. So they starve.

The cluster of bees won’t leave brood unattended, so even though there is very little brood in the winter months, it anchors the cluster to one spot. It seems like the bees would move freely inside their box, but instead, they are always attached to the nursery.

Placing feed–especially hard candy–just above the cluster is very effective because that is where the bees are most likely to find it. In addition, heat from the cluster keeps that area warmer than the surrounds, so bees can move onto the candy without freezing.

A lack of honey may be due to over-harvesting, but it may also be due to paltry nectar flows or particularly long winters. Whatever the cause, feeding sugar is a long, time-consuming, and expensive ordeal–but it may be the only way to keep your bees alive.

The photo below shows what typical starved bees look like. The bees–still in the shape of a cluster–all died head-down in a cell with their little butts sticking up in the air. Each is trying to survive by licking every last molecule of sugar from the bottom of a cell, but when that gives out, they die from lack of fuel or freezing to death. It is a very sad sight to see. The photo was kindly provided by Jared Watkins.

Rusty

A frame of bees that starved. Photo courtesy of Jared Watkins.
A frame of bees that starved. Photo courtesy of Jared Watkins.

Comments

Jim Withers
Reply

Bees go head first into cells like that in all winter clusters. It’s why you don’t move a full frame of honey into the center of a cluster in the middle of winter, but next to the cluster. They fill these cells in cluster for the sake of condensing it and being able to create more warmth. This year I had several weak hives which died in clusters with their heads down into cells in this fashion with honey filled cells immediately adjacent on both sides of the cluster. Literally, if these bees moved over one cell they were on capped honey. They didn’t starve. The clusters were just too small or weak to handle the extreme cold we had here in Michigan this winter. I agree that bees can and often do starve under the conditions you mentioned, i.e. because they can’t break out of cluster to move to the honey. I’ve heard it too many times however, that if you see bees head first in the cells like that it means they starved. It just isn’t necessarily so.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Jim,

I’m not sure I follow. You say the bees move honey closer to the cluster to keep the cluster compact? Is that right? The reason their heads are in the cells is because they are moving honey? Then they died of cold (small cluster) not starvation? Okay, I can see that, especially if there is honey near by. But in the photo and in other frames I’ve seen there was no honey anywhere.

But what I think you’re saying is that if the bees were head-first in the cells and there was honey directly adjacent to them, they most likely died of cold, not starvation. I can see that. The bees become immobilized from cold, so they can’t pull themselves out of the cell to go to the next one.

Here’s my question: Not all bees go into the cells. Bees within the cluster are fed by trophyllaxis by the perimeter bees that are collecting honey from cells. So if the honey-collecting bees die of the cold, won’t the cluster bees die of starvation if no one delivers food? Or does the cluster just become so small that all bees die of the cold?

Here’s another question: Have you ever pulled a “starved” bee out of a cell and found honey down there? Assuming your theory is correct, the bees died of the cold while moving honey around, so some of those cells should have honey in them.

I’ve never heard this argument before and it intrigues me. The next time I see “staved” bees right next to the honey cells, I’m going to pull them out and see what’s under there.

Jim Withers
Reply

Hi Rusty, No I’m not saying the bees move honey closer. I’m saying the reason the bees are head first into the cells is because that is HOW they cluster. Empty comb is an integral part of a cluster. Indeed, without empty comb, there is no way the bees could create the warmth needed to endure severe cold. To say those bees were desperately trying lick the last drop of honey from the bottom of those cells is almost certainly incorrect. Rather, they were in those cells as a function of creating warmth. I suppose ‘technically’ they may have died of starvation, especially in the case of it being a large cluster. However, in smaller clusters, I believe the coroners report would find the cause of death to be hypothermia. In either case we have to determine which happened first. In the case of a large cluster more time would elapse between the inability to move the cluster due to cold and the death of the bees on the inside because of the larger insulating layer causing starvation. In a smaller cluster the cold can kill the bees long before they starve.

Regarding finding honey in the bottom of the cell of a “starved” bee. I think that question comes from a misinterpretation due to my poor phrasing. When I said in my original comment that the bees ‘fill the cells in order to condense the cluster’, I meant they fill the empty cells with themselves in order to condense the cluster.

In either case it is just semantics to me. Falling off a boat and inhaling water into your lungs causes a lack of oxygen to the brain causing death. Nobody says “he died because of lack of oxygen to his brain”. We say the cause of death was drowning. It’s an important distinction because lack of oxygen can occur in many ways e.g. drowning, strangulation, suffocation, hanging etc. Starvation also has different causes. So, while starvation may have occurred, the much more important issue is why? Did the beekeeper take too much honey, was there just not enough resources available to make honey, or was it too cold to break out of cluster and reach the honey? It is important because knowing the cause gives us the best chance to provide for a solution.

I guess it just boils down to the ‘starvation’ issue as a pet peeve of mine. I mean, really, how many times have you heard it said, “When you see bees head first into cells it means they starved”? One, it isn’t necessarily so and, B, it is completely useless as a diagnosis.

On a side note I love your blog Rusty and thanks for the great work you do here.

Jim

Rusty
Reply

Thanks. Your point is well-taken and the analogy to drowning helped me to understand.

By the way, Jim, do you listen to Car Talk?

Jim Withers
Reply

I do listen to Car Talk occasionally. Why I don’t make it a point to tune in more often, I don’t know. Click and Clack have wonderful personalities and are very funny. I bet there is a podcast for them. Now you’ve gone and piqued my interest.

Rusty
Reply

Jim,

It’s just that in your previous comment you mention part 1 and part B, which is so very Click and Clack. And, yes, they do have a podcast.

Sarah
Reply

So in your experiance do bees die off one by one, or do you go out one day and see a heap of dead bees at the bottom? I opened up an abandoned and inactive hive once and a bunch of decomposing bees were in a pile on the bottom.It was an awful thing to see, with all their combs that I imagine to have once been heavy and fragrent with honey to then be stripped of their beauty.

Rusty
Reply

In a normal healthy hive, bees die one by one. But in the winter when it’s too cold to fly, the dead bodies collect on the bottom board. That is why the opening on your entrance reducer should be on the top side instead of on the bottom. You don’t want the entrance to become clogged with dead bees. Sometimes in winter I push a small stick through there and sweep in back and forth to clear an opening for them.

Cathy
Reply

Husband & I are appalled by our severe losses after our winter started with 42 colonies & had only 7 survive until spring. We had 3 colonies, loved keeping them so much we decided to start a business last spring. Anyhow, we can’t seem to figure out what went wrong.

We left every colony at 100# to be extra sure they had enough of their own food. We strategically placed their capped honey throughout & left full supers or deeps above them. There were no signs of excess moisture, parasite, or other problems. We did have a couple hives that had capped honey but much of the wax had been eaten away. We understand that could be mites but we haven’t found excessive signs of mites on bees or any other of the usual symptoms.

Most of the colonies were very strong going into winter – interesting, a couple of the weakest that we were sure would die are doing great right now. Some hives had some (like a handful) bees head down in the cell with capped honey literally all around them. Most of the hives just had small-ish clusters (5-15) of bees in random areas throughout the hive or a couple larger clusters around or at the bottom. It was a bizarre winter with crazy high temps immediately followed by drastic freezing. Could that be the bulk of the problem or are we missing something completely? We feel terribly about our poor bees! :(

Rusty
Reply

Cathy,

Of course it is impossible to say from here, but whenever I hear of hives with just a few bees and lots of honey, I think of Varroa mites. Usually, the hives were not treated for mites, or the treatment occurred too late in the fall, meaning the winter bees were infected with mite-borne diseases before the mites were killed and ended up dying of the diseases instead of the mites.

It’s not a sure thing, like I say. Perhaps you did all your mite management correctly and something else went wrong. The questions I would ask are 1) how and when did you treat for mites? and 2) have you looked for guanine deposits in the cells? Guanine is a sure sign of mites, but even with no guanine deposits, the bees could have died of mite diseases if, as I said, the treatments came too late.

For more on diagnosing mite infestation, see Did mites kill by bees?

Ravyn
Reply

Since today was so warm, I had the chance to open up my top bar to check it. I’d had a suspicion that I’d lost the whole hive, but hope springs eternal. Unfortunately, I was right; not a single live bee in the entire hive. Hundreds of dead on the bottom, and while checking the comb, I found three distinct smaller clusters throughout the comb. There wasn’t a single drop of honey in the entire hive, and all throughout the combs, I found places where bees had climbed into their cells head first, some in the clusters, and some just in isolated groups by themselves with just a few dead bees hanging on to the comb outside of the occupied cells.

This was my first year with my first hive, so I didn’t harvest anything at all. I left them all of their bars for themselves. That was 8 full good bars that were drawn out nicely, with perfect bee space, and no attachment to the sides of the bar, and another six combs that had been drawn out all cattywompus across about eight bars, diagonal.

First question is this: any ideas why they would have been drawing out classic, almost textbook perfect top-bar comb for those first eight bars, and then, suddenly, start drawing comb just any which way for the next six combs?

Second question: I’m going to be getting more bees this spring to try again (if there is any available! if *everyone* had such an awful winter, it could be hard to find them!) Should I take out all the drawn-out comb before placing the new bees? Or leave them the good, straight comb as a head start? I already removed all the cattywompus comb – most of which hadn’t even been used, yet! The rest of the comb has a lot of bees still head first in the cells, but I can pull those bees out if it would help the new bees by giving them a head start.

I really wish I’d listened to my instincts and made a hard candy bar for them, but everyone around here said that they would be fine if I just left them everything that first year. One year wiser, now, I hope, but still with so much to learn.

Rusty
Reply

Rayvn,

You’ve described a classic case of a starved hive, but you already know that. Just because you left them everything doesn’t mean it was enough. Depending on where you live, a colony needs between 60 and 90 pounds of honey to get through a winter. If there are a lot of warm days in mid-winter, they require even more food because they become active. Bees head down in a cell indicate they were scraping the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, cleaning up every particle they could find.

There are a number of reasons the bees may have gone off course in their comb building, and you don’t say too much about your bars, so I can’t say for sure. But if you are using starter strips or a bead of wax, it helps if the bead goes all the way to the end of the bar. Another thing that helps is to alternate new un-touched bars with combs that are straight. That way, the new ones will also be straight.

Cutting out the burr comb was a good idea and you can melt it and use it for starter beads. If it were me, I would now alternate the straight combs with these bars that you cleaned up. Remove all the wax you can, especially where they went off track, so they don’t follow in the same direction again.

There is no need to remove the dead bees from the cells, your new bees will do all that much more quickly and efficiently than you can, and they will destroy less comb.

Since your new bees will not have to build as much comb as last year’s bees, they can get to the chore of collecting honey sooner. With any luck, they will collect enough for the winter. First year colonies in brand new hives frequently have trouble storing enough honey because comb building is both time consuming and energy expensive, which is why used comb is so valuable to beekeepers.

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