honey bee management wintering

Dead queen on the landing board

About twice a week during the winter months, I walk around to all the hives just to make sure they haven’t been tipped over by a bear or some other hairy creature. While I’m making these rounds I flick the dead bees off the landing board and clean away any snow or soggy leaves.

I pay fairly close attention to the number of dead bees. Usually there is the equivalent of two or three dead bees per day per colony and that is a number I’m comfortable with. A lot more may mean something is wrong. None may also mean something is wrong. For example, if the bees are unable to remove the dead bodies, it may signal the hive is too weak for house cleaning. They could be low on food or have a disease. So I figure a happy medium is a good thing.

I’ve been doing this body count for years, but yesterday something took me aback. I hadn’t checked on them for about a week and I was seeing about 15 or 20 dead bees per hive. So far, so good. One hive had a particularly large pile, so I opened that hive but found nothing amiss. But at the next to last hive I did a double take—I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, amid a little pile of about ten bees was the queen—deader than a door nail with all six feet in the air. Darn!

I turned her over a few times. She was really long, light colored like an Italian, and she looked old. Of course, maybe that was because she was dead. Whatever . . . she had that “worn out” look. But she was all of a piece and I couldn’t see anything obviously wrong with her. I flicked the other dead bees away, carried the queen around for a minute, then flicked her away as well. Afterall, what could I do?

Today, I took one of the nucs up the hill and, using a piece of newspaper, combined it with the queenless hive. Before I added the nuc, I checked the frames from the queenless hive. Sure enough, the remaining bees were diligently tending supersedure cells in a misguided effort to produce a new queen. I say misguided because there are no drones to mate with in the dead of winter. Why they go through the motions is one of those “bee things” I haven’t quite figured out.

Needless to say, whenever I saw a dead bee today, I was sure it was another queen. In truth, that will probably never happen to me again; but for now, I can’t help but expect it. Really, though, it was just one of those lucky moments that makes beekeeping so endlessly fascinating. If I hadn’t noticed her, I would never have known the hive was queenless until it was too late to do anything about it.



  • This is my second year of beekeeping. Thing were looking good during the long hash winter in New England. After the snow started to melt, I noticed activity was slim to non. Checked and all my bees were dead. What did I do wrong? I covered the hives in a shed and wraped them with tarpaper as I was told only to find mold in my hives and dead bees stuck to frames.

    Speak to me please I do not want to hurt these needed creatures.


    • Errol,

      Questions: Did they still have honey left? Did you treat for mites in the fall? Did you have ventilation ports through the tar paper or at the top and bottom of the hive? Were they able to get outside on warm days? You say they were covered in a shed. Did they get sun? The tar paper acts like a solar collector to keep the bees warm, but they need sunlight to do that.

  • Something similar happened to me today. I went to water some plants, and when passing by my hive, I noticed a cluster of bees on the landing board. In the middle was my dead queen. I knew it was her because she had distinctive marks (like moles or freckles) on her abdomen. I think she was superseded (six queens were developing last time I inspected — 12 days ago). Here I was thinking they were preparing to swarm, but maybe their plan was to replace the queen, which would make some sense, as she mated last October, so maybe she didn’t mate with enough drones to make her viable for much longer. I cried a little (I always do when I lost a queen — I only have one hive, so get to know my colonies well), and then was able to retrieve her body later after the workers had tossed her body to the ground… I think the colony will be okay, but I’ll inspect in a few days to see what’s happening then.

    • Trina,

      That’s an interesting story. It is always so cool to see something unusual like that, and it gives you a better picture of things that actually go on inside a hive. Let me know how it turns out.

  • Hello. My husband and I are very beginner beekeepers. This is our second year. We fed our two hives sugar waters during the first winter, and they were doing OK. We noticed one is very active and seems the bees are ready to swarm. The other stop drinking water last week, and all of sudden the hive was empty. We think it was destroyed by mites infestation. All the frames were black. My husband removed all the affected frames, put new ones, got a new queen from a store, then split the active hive and moved 1/3 bees to the lost hive to start up again. This morning I checked the hives and at the entrance of the stronger hive found a large dead bee among the other smaller bees. Could it be the queen?! This have was the stronger one and now without the queen! What could we do? Please help us.

    • Keiko,

      First, the black combs are normal and natural. They are the result of the build-up of cocoons. They are great for starting a new colony because they are very attractive to the bees. That said, combs should be changed after four or five years to prevent the accumulation of disease organisms.

      Are you sure the large dead bee wasn’t a drone? Beginners sometimes confuse drones with queens, although they look very different. I would check the hive for a queen before doing anything drastic.

  • This is exactly what happened to us this past Sunday! I did the same thing too, carrying her around for awhile trying to think what to do (and maybe part of me hoping she’d spring back to life). Very lucky to find her, otherwise I doubt we’d have known until who knows when.

    She was from a swarm and we had no idea her age. She’d been moved to a nuc as backup from a requeening this summer. She’d been laying a poor pattern but once she was in the nuc and moved to a new location (our house from my mother in law’s – the original beekeeper) she began laying a lovely pattern. So, we opted to keep her through this winter.

    She clearly had other plans…

    We were able to find a new queen (on discount, who knew that happens?!) and introduced her yesterday – two days after finding the dead queen. Removed 6 queen cups. Good initial signs, bees looked like they were trying to feed her almost immediately. We’ll check back in a few days.

    Fingers crossed!

  • Why do you have to remove the queen cups? They were raising a new queen. Or is it too much time without a queen? Did she remove all the queen cups or only a few?

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