It is October or perhaps November. You open your hives for a quick inspection only to find there is no brood. None! Not a single cell, capped or otherwise. You panic, wondering whether you should replace your queens (tricky this time of year), combine your colonies, or just give up. You blame mites, mite treatments, predators, diseases, bad weather, weak queens, and yourself.
So what is wrong with these colonies? My first guess is “absolutely nothing.” Your colonies have little or no brood because it’s that time of year. Here in the northern hemisphere, brood rearing slows dramatically or stops altogether as the weather begins to cool.
The winter brood nest
Beekeeping in Western Canada, a thorough all-purpose beekeeping book published by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, explains it like this (p.6):
As fall progresses, egg-laying by the queen generally ceases, and there is a period of from one to three months during winter when there is little or no brood rearing.
The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture (p. 43) tells us that brood rearing begins anew after the winter solstice:
Brood rearing begins in mid-winter (end of December to January in temperate climates), accelerates in late winter and early spring, reaches a peak soon after the first forage becomes available, reduces later in the summer, and ceases entirely in autumn. (emphasis added)
Consider these two statements together and you can see that one to three months before the winter solstice puts you back in October. So basically, you may have no brood in the months of October, November, and December.
Variations due to temperature
The actual beginning of broodlessness will vary with local conditions, as will the length of time. Colonies further south where winter temperatures remain mild, may never be completely broodless. Still, even in the south, the amount of brood is lower in the winter.
My own observation is that the length of time (the one to three months) is not the same every year, but is dependent on local weather conditions. So maybe last year, for example, broodlessness started later. Maybe you didn’t notice it because your hives were already buttoned up for the winter. If broodlessness comes earlier in the year, you are more apt to notice it.
Advantages of a small or missing brood nest
All species evolve in ways that help them survive. A period of broodlessness may have a number of advantages:
- Some researchers have suggested that a broodless stretch allows the queen a period of rejuvenation. She gets to rest and build her strength before the next onslaught of egg-laying.
- The broodless period reduces the population of the hive by attrition. As bees die, fewer are left to feed. There is an optimum population level for any colony, one that is large enough to keep the colony warm but small enough that the food supply will last till spring. Colony size in winter varies, but it is highly dependent on sub-species. Carniolans, for example, overwinter with smaller colonies than Italians.
- A broodless period also conserves energy in another way. When no brood is present, the cluster is maintained at a temperature of around 20°C (68°F) in the center. Conversely, a cluster with brood is maintained at about 34°C (93°F). To sustain this higher temperature, the bees must eat a much greater amount of food. So as you can see, a long broodless period is a significant energy-saving strategy.
The Hive and the Honey Bee (2014, p. 89) sums it all up:
There is little or no brood rearing during the coldest part of the winter and colonies reach their lowest population size as winter progresses. However, in late winter the queen begins to lay and brood rearing commences. This requires that workers elevate the temperature to 34-35 degrees C inside the cluster around the brood.
Colony size is not static
Colony size and the amount of brood rearing is in a constant state of flux—nothing about a honey bee colony is static. I’ve written this many times before, but there is a simple rule of thumb to help you remember what is happening inside your hive. Just divide the year into two parts, the growing part and the shrinking part.
Basically a honey bee colony increases in population from the winter solstice to the summer solstice and decreases from the summer solstice to the winter solstice. Adult populations are highest just before the downturn (late June) and lowest just before the upturn (late December).
This schedule is not intuitive, especially to a new beekeeper, so it takes some thinking. The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture states it like this:
The striking thing about this pattern is that it is so different from the pattern of when forage is available.
But when you think about it, a colony must build up before the major honey flow if the bees are to take advantage of it and store it for winter. Likewise, the colony needs to shrink before extreme cold sets in so food supplies are not rapidly consumed.
Think like a bee
When it comes to understanding your colony population dynamics, it helps to think like a bee. And a bee, it seems, is a good planner with the goal of protecting the future of the colony. My advice is to read a good book on bee biology and plot brood expansion and contraction on a calendar. You will then know what to expect before you open your hive.
Honey Bee Suite
Extremely helpful and encouraging! Thanks Rusty.
This post couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. This is my first year BK’ing and I did one last hive inspection before wrapping the hives (fall has been quite long and warm in Ontario this year…although the Almanac is calling for a loooong, coooold winter…welcome to Canada). And I was in full blown panic mode when I saw very, very little brood. This article brought me back to earth. My wife thanks you too : )
Glad to help.
Phew! What a relief to read this, and just in time! I checked my colonies this past weekend, and noticed my strongest colony had no brood. At all. But the queen was still hanging out and looked perfectly fine. I’ve woken up the past two nights worrying. But I’m planning to sleep through the night tonight! Thank you for this timely information.
Hi I was wondering if you could answer a question. I this year have had two of my hives be robbed out. I open the hives and the honey is gone and they have killed the bees. What should I do to keep them from killing the other hives? I have not done anything different this year.
Try this: How to stop robbing honey bees.
That was a very interesting and re-assuring article. One additional point that might be useful to mention is that during the no brood period the varroa mites have reduced in number and hopefully the bees can cope better.
Here where I live now – in South West France, near Bordeaux – the winters are on the whole mild. So mild in fact that my five colonies were not without brood last winter and hence I could not treat them with oxalic acid in winter. So I used other products that were recommended to keep the varroa count low. Luckily three of my hives are quite hygienic. I have observed that the bees regular groom each other and the natural varroa drop that I have measured at different times has been between zero and five.
Unluckily, my greatest headache is the Asian hornets. The poor girls get badly targeted and apart from hornet traps all over the garden, my wife and I stand by the hives regularly to catch the hornets with butterfly nets.
Thanks again for a wonderful regular and very useful blog.
Thank you, Kourosh. Good point on varroa. Judging from my mail, it sounds like France has really been battered by the Asian hornet. I like the butterfly net idea, though.
Would you have a recommendation for a good bee biology book for someone with a strong biology background? Thank you for sharing your knowledge with the rest of us.
1. The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism by Jürgen Tautz. Although the title sounds like a children’s book, it is excellent with outstanding photographs.
2. Honey-Maker: How the Honey Bee Worker Does What She Does by Rosanna Mattingly. Concentrates on workers, but that is where most of the action is.
3. The Biology of the Honey Bee by Mark L.Winston. Thorough and complete.
Thank you Rusty for the information!
I wish I had read this earlier. I just requeened today since I had seen no signs for about a week. I last checked 10/11 and again on 10/17…nothing. I was also concerned about my increasing SHB population. I thought my hive was compromised, hence the queen addition. What will happen if I did have a queen?
If there is more than one queen, they usually fight until one dies. Worse case is when they kill each other. You should check later and make sure you still have one.
Hi Rusty –
I just wanted to say thank you so much! I’m a first-year beekeeper &, thankfully, was pretty successful over the spring/summer & have a strong hive going into winter in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC. Yes, I only have one hive, but plan to split it early 2017 if all goes well this winter. I have learned so much from your articles & am still working my way through them. Keep on teaching your readers – we appreciate all your hard work.
Thank you, Jill!
Love your site.
What happens when you have no brood, but also no stores in the bottom brood box? They had some pollen and nectar in the second brood box. I had 2 hives look like this upon last weekend’s check. They had bees, some honey in a super and were calm, but the lack of stores was concerning.
I can’t tell you much since I don’t know where you are. But if you are in the northern hemisphere, I would remove the lower brood box. If it contains any stores at all, I would combine them with the upper box. Then, I would feed like crazy. To me, it sounds like you will have to feed all winter, depending on where you are.
This is such a great site; I attended a workshop this past weekend on overwintering bees, & a number of paticipants mentioned a complete lack of brood and eggs in their hives. We agreed that the bees know better about what they need than we do, & this article confirms that thought.
I did my final preparations for winter yesterday, after taking one last photo (I’m always so impressed to see them so calm & prolific, just doing their thing). Now, I will be adding your list of references to my winter reading list, to satiate my new obsession!
Thank you, Loralei. I love to hear the excitement from new beekeepers!
Dear Rusty. To start with thank you very much for useful blog. I do apologize for my grammar. I live in London, UK but I’m Polish.
Today (March 11th) it was very warm day (+17C) so I decided to look in to my only hive (I got only one). Bees were flying and bringing a lot of pollen. There was 4 frames covered with bees, a lot of capped honey and some uncapped too but no brood, no larvae, no eggs. I am bad with spotting the queen, seen her only once from the time I got them (from August last year). Do you think they’ve gone queenless? Sadly no queens are available to buy until April so if that is a case, I am going to lose my hive.
I hope to see your response if you find a bit of time.
It’s possible that the bees replaced their queen and you have a virgin or newly-mated queen that hasn’t started to lay. Have you seen any drones in your area? Is it possible that a new queen could get mated? Not knowing the climate there, it’s hard for me to say.
Otherwise, it is entirely possible the queen has died or stopped laying. Usually, pollen coming into a hive is a good sign, although not always. You may just have to wait and see.
Do you have any friends with hives? Perhaps you could get a frame containing eggs from someone? That way, your bees could try to raise a queen.
Hi. Thank you so much for your response. March in London is usually much colder than this years one and there should be no drones flying. I am not sure there would be any drones flying this early as I looked up for mated queen to buy and they are available from the middle of April (luck of flying drones being a reason for that). I sent message to on my local beekepers association, but British seems rather reluctant to reply;). I guess I need to wait and see. In worst case scenario I will try to use my hive as bite hive in swarm season;)
I still hope the queen is there as bees were bringing a lot of pollen and they were really gentle and seemed organized. Possibly I am just panicking as its my first spring. I will keep observing and making notes for the future.
I am a new beekeeper with one hive. I observed lot of robbing going on at the end of August and followed your post to curb the robbing. It seemed working and there were quite a lot of capped brood in the hive when I checked about 10 days ago. Yesterday (9/20/2017), I saw bearding under the hive. When I inspected the hive, there were no brood left. Most of honey were gone. There were quite a lot of bees including the ones under the hive, though. Does that mean that I don’t have queen? What do I do to save the hive?
The first thing to do is figure out if you have a queen. If you don’t see any eggs or larvae, you will actually have to look for her. If the outside bees are just bearding, that is not a problem. Just leave the bearders alone. If you don’t have a queen, you will have to find a mated queen to save the colony. And if they have no winter stores, you will have to feed them, probably all winter.
Rusty, bless you for being out there and keeping up this wonderful blog. I’ve come to lean on the information you post quite a bit over the past couple years. I was shocked by the contrast of my last inspection to this October, that there was not a brood cell in site. Everything appeared perfect other then that; honey damn [dam?], a prepared nesting area… Maybe I should be worried they had plans to abscond? I think I saw that posted somewhere as well? At any rate, I’m sure the girls are shocked by the new venting system they just moved into, I feel I can sense their pleasure!
One thing, my eyes are getting older and tired; I need glasses I think? I was not able to find my queen although body language and numbers made me feel she was present. Would you accept this or would you do another inspection? I don’t know where I’d get a queen so close to winter?
It is perfectly normal to be broodless or nearly so at this time of year. Did you read this post? “So basically, you may have no brood in the months of October, November, and December.”
I go whole seasons without seeing some of my queens. If you believe she is there, she most likely is. You may still be able to order a queen from the south, but I don’t think you need to.
Thanks for the clarity. I moved to a high altitude area with earlier winter and had never seen a broodless colony in October before having kept bees in the south. I thought I had lost the queen, until I saw her. Good to know broodlessness is normal seasonal behavior.
Second year beekeeper here. I have 2 hives. Exactly what my inspection today revealed. Thank you.
I live in the Sacramento valley of northern California. I inspected my two hives yesterday and they couldn’t be more different. One hive is quite active and seems to be doing great with a good number of bees, pollen, honey, and brood. The other hive doesn’t have much activity and looks to be struggling with a much smaller number of bees and no brood although the queen is still alive. I wouldn’t expect a ton of brood but I would expect some. I’m now trying to figure out the best way to deal with this. My first thought was to feed a pollen patty to hopefully stimulate some brood production but then I also thought that it might be a good idea to reduce the hive into a nuc box because there may not be enough bees to keep the brood warm in the larger super they are currently in. What are your thoughts?
My thought would be to boost the population with a bit of brood from the other hive, if it’s feasible. I don’t think the size of the brood box is very important. After all, they don’t strive to keep the hive warm, just the cluster.
Hi Rusty, came upon this write up after a quick search. Thanks for the explanation! I’m having an issue though, I live in PA and before thanksgiving I checked on one of my hives, no brood, couldn’t find the queen. So I had another hive that failed because of being robbed, I was able to catch that queen and move her to the broodless colony. I just checked again today and there are a ton of bees but no brood! I didn’t have time to look for the queen but I’m stumped….thanks again
Hmm. It does sound like you may have lost the second queen. Even with the cold snaps, I would expect a brood nest at this time of year. If you can’t get a queen, you may have to combine.
I loved beekeeping. I had high hopes for beekeeping but others didn’t want me beekeeping. Lord do I believe in a 1″ ripe and a strong oak tree.
Looking over what that fella said about beekeeping. I think he may have a low to medium grade depression maybe reinforced by reality.
It wasn’t until the 80’s that notes came. The 90’s, give beetles, 2000’s, colony collapse disorder.
Which goals for DNA modified foods and import business may have a hand in these things. As the U.S. for hundreds of years had trade with Africa, Europe and China. No problem. But with all the sophisticated technology they couldn’t keep these problems out that suddenly arose.
Does something look fishy?
Love your bees. I worked mine in shorts and t-shirt. TLC goes a long ways. I’d smoke them heavy with cigarette butt tobacco. Only problem I had was the African beetle. Seriously, they’d make me draw tears. years got a solution for them, but others trashed my financial situation so I couldn’t pursue it. Then if anyone has trouble with beetles, talk to me.
I’d mix campho phenique which is part Catholic acid, with menthol running alcohol and out on thick paper towels that I’d put in the upper board after dark using a red flashlight lens. It seemed to have a positive affect. But you risk absconding bees too, so you want where it’d evaporate and flow through the hive maybe in an hour.
Good luck to all beekeepers and find out who’s undermining nature in the U.S.
It might be the Antichrist pushing for genetically modified foods and getting t t need works for that s.o.b.
I am a new first-year beekeeper in Eastern Ontario Canada. Had an eventful summer weathering two bear attacks ripping my 4 hives apart. Electrified fence solved that problem and reassembling with queen still present in two hives lead me to 3 combined hives going into winter and was able to harvest a little honey in July.
Followed every bit of advice with insulated cover/insulated wraps varroa treatment in spring and late August, lots of feeding and good windbreak.
Checked in early Feb and the two healthiest hives were quiet not touching the fondant. The third had a lot of bees up top taking the sugar. Came back with outer own virus concerns and found all 3 hives completely dead full of dead bees. Lots of capped honey. Lots of bees dead half in and out of honey frame cells. Very depressing – lost them all Will give it another go.
Questions most of my honey is capped – can I save it somehow and give it to my new nucs?
Can I do some type of autopsy on the dead bees to see if it was a mite problem?
The weather was very crazy – hot very cold then warm is then very cold – lots of yo-yo effect
Curious if this winter was bad for others with losses this season.
Thanks, Love the site.
Hmm. I hate sad stories like that. The best thing to do is carefully look at the comb and the bees themselves to see if anything looks amiss. To check for mites, look for guanine deposits inside the brood cells. These are white, crystalline patches that adhere to the top of the cell. If there is capped brood, look for caps with holes punched in the top. Also, open some cells, pull out the pupae and look for varroa mites. Then sift through the debris on the bottom board and search for dead mites and/or bees with deformed wings. Keep an eye on for the queen.
If the combs don’t appear to have brood disease, by all means, use the honey for your new bees. Nothing gets a new colony started like a few frames of honey. In your nuc, just start with a frame on each side of the new colony. You can add more later.
It is the middle of the summer here and a beekeeping friend and I have no brood at all in our hives and no sign of a queen. My hive swarmed a few times this year and we couldn’t get the swarms to take up a new hive and also my brood boxes are completely filled with capped honey. His and my hives all looked strong in the spring any idea on what happened?
Most probably, the colonies were not able to raise replacement queens, or those queens did not successfully mate.
First-year beekeeper here with what appears(ed?) to be a healthy colony. Did one last check here in Seattle today and was a bit alarmed to see no capped brood, no larvae, no eggs. I could not find the (marked blue) queen, although blue is not the most visible color. Bees are still quite busy, bringing back bright yellow pollen.
Bottom deep is probably 1/2 filled with pollen in total across the 10 frames. The top deep has 9 full frames of honey. The medium super I put on a few months ago has probably 4-5 frames of honey. I feel better in reading your above post about the lack of brood. I have a question. How, if at all, should I try and determine whether I have a queen present given that it’s November and the temps are low and dropping? If I wait until spring, what would the minimum temp to open the hive up for an inspection. I’m assuming it would be 50F minimum based on what I’ve read.
It sounds to me like you have a healthy, normal colony. This is November, so colonies have little brood if any. This is the season the queen often takes a break from constant egg-laying.
For emergencies, it’s never too cold to open a hive, but I don’t see any compelling reason to check on her. Even if you found you had no queen, what would you do? It’s probably impossible to find a replacement right now. Your best bet, if queenless, would be to combine the colony with another.
I recommend that, before you check, you have a plan for fixing any problems you might find. Otherwise, you would be opening it needlessly.
Thanks for the reply. For the sake of the question I am about to ask, let’s assume that the hive is queenless as of now (I doubt it is). If that were the case, and everything else needed for successful overwintering were in place, would the gals do fine until the spring (or whenever it was most appropriate to obtain a new queen)?
The queen’s pheromones hold the colony together. The pheromones are constantly distributed throughout the colony, by touching and rubbing against the queen and then against each other. When a hive goes queenless, the entire colony knows it in a matter of minutes. Furthermore, when no pheromones are released from the queen or from worker brood, the workers’ ovaries begin to develop. Within several weeks you begin getting laying workers who lay nothing but drone eggs since they cannot mate.
A laying worker colony is one of the most difficult things to handle in all of beekeeping. The colony can’t survive because no worker brood can be raised, but the colony will not accept a new queen. They kill introduced queens because they “think” they already have it covered.
So no, a queenless colony is not able to make it from fall until spring, which is why combining it with another colony is often the best solution, as long as it’s done before the laying workers appear.
I’m have two nucs that I installed in early May. One swarmed and never fully recovered but seems to be surviving so far. My strongest hive just failed. I noticed no bee activity during warmer days. To my surprise, the bottom brood box was empty except for some spotty capped brood and a little bit of honey and pollen. The upper box was full of capped honey. The odd thing is that there were no dead bees inside or outside the hive? It was like a ghost town, where did they all go? I’m thinking CCD, any thoughts? No signs of mites and just a few hive beetles under the screened bottom board. I took the full box of honey and gave it to my weaker hive that seemed to be running low on supplies. Thanks. Fred