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 hivea 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.