Two beekeepers watch their bees abscond

Oftentimes, what we describe as absconding is actually collapse from varroa mites. Some of the confusion is due to the speed at which the collapse occurs and the size of the affected colony, which may be huge. In addition, the act of absconding is rarely seen and the colony is seldom found.

But this week I heard from two beekeepers in Los Angeles who actually watched their colony leave the hive and disappear. The colony was known to have mites because varroa-bedecked dead bees had been recovered from their swimming pool. Other aspects of the hive also look like varroa collapse, including a small circle of shot brood and plenty of honey left behind.

John and Jen Petrovich did a thorough write-up of what they saw, and I thought it was fascinating. With their permission, I’m posting their story below along with some photos. The text was edited for clarity.

If you have any insight as to what happened, we would love to hear from you.

Honey Bee Suite

[Note: This post updated on 11/16/2017 with additional photos.]

Witnesses to an absconding colony

“My wife and I are backyard beekeepers and actually witnessed an absconding yesterday, November 12. We wanted to share what the experience was like and also give a few complicating factors. Here are the details:

We trapped a feral swarm in April by setting up an old hive body and supers in our backyard. The colony grew very fast. We had an exceedingly hot summer here in Los Angeles, so there was lots of bearding and apparent overcrowding in the hive. It was a two-box stack—both full size—with a queen excluder in the middle. In an attempt to give them more room, we put another small box under the queen excluder and a second full-size box above it.

Varroa mites were present

The bee traffic in and out of the hive was phenomenal all summer long and they were putting up lots of honey in the honey dome above the excluder. We have a swimming pool, and when inspecting the bees that fell into the pool, we noticed that some did have varroa mites on them, but by no means all. (No scientific sampling done, just looking at random dead bees). We decided not to treat (It’s hard to do in California anyway, without an applicator’s license).

By the middle of October, we noticed the in-and-out traffic was significantly lower. We weren’t disturbed by this because we know there is usually a drop off in the late summer/early fall. We saw the same foraging behavior, just not as heavy. This was the case even up to Saturday this past weekend: plenty of bees, plenty of activity in the hive working on the honey super, etc. The last hive we had survived for over 3 years and there never seemed to be any problem for them finding sources of nectar and pollen. There’s always something blooming year-round in LA, and we grow a lot of plants in our garden that provide a good source right near the hive.

A bee cloud forms and leaves

Yesterday morning, we noticed that a small “bee cloud” was forming in front of the hive. This was new behavior, so we watched it throughout the day. By about 4 pm (about an hour before sundown) the bee cloud expanded and the entire backyard (about a 50′ x 50′ area) was full of bees just flying around randomly, so many that you would not be comfortable anywhere in the backyard without being suited up (normally not the case).

As it got closer to sundown, the extended bee cloud in the entire backyard began to dissipate, but in looking at the hive continuing into the early evening after sundown, we witnessed a steady stream of bees leaving the hive. They would walk out the hive opening, up the face of the hive to the top of the stack of boxes, and then take off (even though it was quite dark in the early evening). By 9 pm there was very little activity in the hive, and the normal “hum” of the bees was all but gone.

Inside the empty hive

We opened the hive up this morning thinking that we might find that it was a varroa mite-induced colony collapse after reading this article and the other one you posted about varroa mites. What we found left us scratching our heads. Above the queen excluder there was a ton of honey left behind, probably about a gallon and a half of honey in the top box of the honey dome and none in the next one down, just some comb being built out. Only a few dozen bees left in the upper supers, apparently ones that didn’t get the memo on the evacuation. This is consistent with what you wrote about a varroa induced colony collapse.

When we got down below the queen excluder, though, the story was completely different. As we pulled out frames from the half super and the original full hive body box, every bit of comb was absolutely clean, no honey, no pollen, and very little brood left behind. All very clean and neatly uncapped, none of the evidence that the honey was cleaned out by parasites, no moths, no beetles (we found 3 or 4 beetles, but no evidence of an infestation or damage to the comb). No bees at all left in the hive body, and no dead bees in the bottom of the hive. If we looked just at the hive body, we would swear that it was a textbook absconding.

Anyway, that’s our story. We’d be interested in your thoughts. We decided to write when we read in your article that very few people actually have witnessed an absconding, so we wanted to contribute to the knowledge with what we saw.

John and Jen Petrovich

These frames came from the hive body, below the excluder. As you can see, all of the cells are picked clean with sharp, clean edges, definitely not done by parasites or invaders. These are half-high frames put in a full-size hive box, so the bees built their own comb hanging off the bottom. You can see a few brood cells left, but no pollen, no honey, no nectar. These 10 frames and the 10 half-high frames in the next box up (also below the excluder) are absolutely clean. © Jen Petrovich.

Shot brood. Did their bees abscond?

The curious thing about the frames from above the excluder is the presence of some brood. This means that the queen either got through the excluder, or (more likely) left the hive body and re-entered the hive through a secondary vent hole/entrance that I drilled in the hive box right above the excluder. I did this during the heat wave this summer to provide some air circulation and ventilation. The thought occurred to me that this might have been what contributed to the absconding and collapse of the colony, maybe the queen found her way into the upper honey dome and couldn’t find her way back to the hive body, which set off some sort of panic in the hive that the queen had been lost and that they had to move on. Hard to say, and I’m definitely not a bee psychologist! © Jen Petrovich.

The other photos are of the frames from the upper honey dome, above the queen excluder. Tons of honey. Probably close to a gallon and a half in all. © Jen Petrovich.

© Jen Petrovich.

© Jen Petrovich.

© Jen Petrovich.

Additional photos

After the first round of comments, John and Jen opened some of the remaining brood cells to see what they could find. The new photos are below.

Photo of white-eyed pupa, fairly normal.

To me, this looks like a fairly normal pupa, still in the white-eye stage. © Jen Petrovich.

Another photo of shot brood.

Another photo of shot brood. © Jen Petrovich.

A cropped view of the brood nest.

This photo is cropped from the photo above. © Jen Petrovich.

Liquidy young pupae.

These pupae are younger, but liquidy. It’s hard to say what got them. You can see mites on the board below. © Jen Petrovich.

Partially developed dead brood.

Another angle of the partially developed brood. © Jen Petrovich.

A final note

None of us are perfect beekeepers, but we strive to do our best based on our individual skills and knowledge. I greatly admire folks like John and Jen who are willing to share experiences so that we all may learn and develop our abilities. I especially appreciate the opportunity to see something I haven’t seen before, so thank you. —Rusty.


  • I am guessing you weren’t doing any regular hive inspections so your queen may have been gone quite a while. Did you see any evidence they tried hatching another queen? I have read it’s quite common for workers to lay eggs if a colony becomes queenless. Just my very inexperienced observations! How extremely interesting, but so sad for you to lose the colony. Thank you for sharing. Love this site!

    • Terri,

      Good questions, Terri. To me, the brood pattern doesn’t suggest laying workers because it is in a definite circle and the caps are flat, not mounded like drone brood. Laying workers only lay drone brood and they lay their eggs randomly throughout the frames. My guess, based on the scanty brood, is there was a queen, at least until three about weeks ago. Although, if the brood is dead under those cappings, it may have been longer.

      This leads me to think John and Jen should open the caps and see “how dead” the pupae are. Recently dead (because they got chilled) or longer dead. Also, they may see varroa in there, either alive or dead.

  • Ok, so if we are to have a guess:

    Due to some environmental factors, I’ll list them last, the bees immune systems were weakened.

    Eventually some of this nefarious substance, either caused queen failure or a significant drop in queen pheromone production. They had a supersedure, and the mated young queen flew in the hole created for ventilation, perhaps that is the hole she few out. Young just hatched queens often can get thru an excluder.

    In a frantic attempt at survival they tried to start another queen. However either she was a bad egg, or succumb to the nefarious substance, or perhaps had a mite on her. The new brood nest in the upper chamber was now failed as well, so not just queenless but hopelessly queenless. So alas they flew off in search of a queenright hive to join, and while away the cold winters eve.

    Environmental factors:

    A pool is mentioned, the bees need water, we are in LA so 1 or several pools could have been the water source, with chemicals in the water.

    I seen a website listing the products not to use near bees and it was the who’s who of the Walmart pesticides aisle, in a town or city I do not see how some of these pesticides do not get into the pollen.

    The virus vectored by mites, I think there are 6 or 7 now that the mite helps spread.

    And the ones I did not think of but you may.

    Combinations of the above, as more than one of these could have happened.


  • Looking @ the scattered brood cells in the second image with some brood, could that have been a laying worker? Would a queen not have laid in a more closed pattern? If so, would that provide a clue as to what might have happened?

    • Dieter,

      To me, this does not look like laying workers. I believe it was a solid brood pattern at one time, but the bees pulled out the dead or dying pupae, which gives the shot brood appearance. Also, as I think I mentioned earlier, this looks like worker brood, not drone brood.

  • Dear John & Jen

    The observation that many bees “seen in the swimming pool” had varroa on them is to me a sure sign that the colony was over run with an explosion of mites since we almost never see them (unless we test) until the colony is as good as dead. Also take a look inside of the empty brood cells. The mites should have left their “poop” on the sides of the cell walls. Look down from the top of the frame to see inside of the cells.

    It’s a hard lesson but one that all beekeepers need to take to heart, (test for mites, treat to control them or lose the colony). Nothing else really works at this point with mites!

    Your bees took a “bomb” of mites to their new home or home(s) since the mites are vary good at staying with their hosts as you saw at the swimming pool.


    • James,

      I agree with your assessment. In my opinion these bees absconded due to varroa mites. I was convinced of it when I got to the part about the mites in the swimming pool because, as you point out, once you actually see mites, you’re usually past being able to do anything about it. Normally, one doesn’t see mites, even with a fairly heavy infestation.

      One point, guanine deposits are left on the “roof” of cells, so to see them, you need to tip the top of the frame away from you. If you look down from the top you won’t see them. (It’s the opposite of looking for AFB scales.)

  • I wrote about this very similar occurrence last month. I was at work during the day and not able to see them off. I too had varroa in a very active hive, 4 boxes deep. Then during the end of August they were all gone, honey included. It happened all too fast. I accepted that it was varroa collapse, but it was not slow, but very quickly an empty box.

    I was treating the varroa the second week of August. I surmise that the instinct of the hive was the varroa was overwhelming in the brood and they decided to relocate.

    Unfortunately after all these years, I am never able to find a swarm that left the hive. I just can’t find them.

    • Harold,

      I recall you writing about this, but I still think collapse is much more likely than absconding. A huge hive can collapse in just a few days, and the bigger the hive the faster it seems to go down. And four deep boxes is huge. Remember, it’s the viruses, not the mites, that gets them. Once they all get sick, they go fast.

      We’ll never know, of course, but I think the absconding thing is rare.

  • Ha. I had a hive leave like that I did not see them go like u did. I got on the web and it said check the comb for white specks it looks like salt that is mite pee. The bees left because the mite load was too great for them; they could not stand it any longer. They did not know they were taking the mites with them when they left. I had not treated my bees I thought they had been and was treated before I got them from Pigeon Mountain Bee Farm, but they were not and I was a real newbee I did not know any different. so I lost both packages I got from them now I know to treat.

    I checked the comb with a magnifier and sure enough mite pee everywhere, I could not see it with out the magnifier. So when mine left it was mites.

  • Hmmm, wish I could see and smell those frames better…I think it might have been a two queen hive? or they could have swarmed due to the QE and maybe she came back to the upper entrance. It seems as if the bottom was not used in a while, they might have moved any stores above the excluder. I think it looks as though there might be some mold in a few places on the comb but can’t tell. I didn’t see any mite poop. The bigger holes in the brood capping I’m not sure if they didn’t finish capping it; the tiny holes in the bottom deeps brood capping could be something viral or bacterial like AFB. Some of melted looking brood reminds me of PMS or EFB.

    • Deb,

      I, too, thought the lower box hadn’t been used in a while. I think a queen returned to the top box instead of the lower box after a supersedure, and then the lower bees just moved up with her. To me, the dead brood doesn’t look like AFB, and the cappings don’t look sunken. To me it looks more like PMS. But like you, I’d like a closer look.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I wrote to you sometime ago about acquiring a “FlowHive” unit. Well, set it up last spring on top of my one established hive, second year, at the end of the season went to harvest and to my dismay found I couldn’t open the cells to allow harvesting due to excessive propolis buildup. The folks at the HoneyFlow website in Aussie came to my rescue and told me to open one column of cells at a time. This took quite a lot of time but success in the end. I’m collaborating with the Aussies to try a different method of keying the cells to overcome my problem. They are quite a helpful mob.

    Second part, this spring I started a second hive using standard brood boxes and honey supers, I didn’t harvest from this hive this year as we had a pretty poor season so I left them all of the food they had collected. I’m a little worried about this hive having enough supplies and want to know if I should add a feeder to the top of the hive and will they access this through the winter if needed? Quite a few differing views about leaving feeders over the winter. Your advice?

    Third part, I have ordered a Warre hive, this will be arriving shortly (dismantled) which will be my winter project building it for the spring (on top of and apart from the honey do list). My question, how do I install a nuc in a Warre hive?

    I really enjoy your blog and find it a marvelous source of information and one that I trust.

    Thanks for listening,

    Ken A

    • Ken,

      You’re in Canada, eh? So, the thing with feeders is simple. If you are using liquid feed (syrup) the bees will not (or cannot) drink the syrup once it gets down around 10 C (50 F). Liquid that cold chills the bees and drops their body temperature until they are “frozen stiff,” barely able to move.

      On the other hand, they can eat solid food all winter long. Moisture from the hive condenses on the sugar forming a film of liquidy feed, which they then consume. So to feed in winter, try solid feed such as sugar bricks or candy boards.

      If your nuc is on standard-size frames, you are going to have to shake the bees into the Warre, I think. Then you can cut parts of the brood combs to fit and tie them onto the Warre bars. It will be a multi-stop process. Can you get package bees in Canada? That would be a lot easier.

      • Thanks Rusty,

        Will get onto the solid food ASAP, have a warm day coming tomorrow, 9C so if I’m fully prepared I can get some solid food into the top of the hive lickety split. Be a nice break from raking leaves, (item 1 on honeydo list).

        I can buy nucs from my local supplier in Port Hope, will check with them about bees for Warre hives, they sell top bar hives which is a similar proposition, thought about shaking the bees in but was wondering about the comb.


  • Is it possible that the hive re-queened itself and when the new queen returned from her last mating flight she reentered the hive above the excluder and found herself honey-bound?

    • Annie,

      I certainly think it’s possible a new queen returned to the entrance above the excluder. But being “honey bound” going into winter doesn’t seem likely, especially since little brood is being raised this time of year, even in LA. A honey barrier is more apt to cause a problem during times of expansion.

  • Did they look for guanine deposits on the upper walls of brood cells? How about signs of DWV in the bees as the summer wore on? The small amount of brood above the excluder, in combination with the totally cleaned-out combs below it suggest the queen had gotten above and the workers just moved everything they could “upstairs” where she now was. Or, the original queen that lived below the excluder died, and they raised a replacement that returned to the upper entrance from her mating flight. In any event, the queen was above the excluder, not below, so that’s where everything got moved to, since they didn’t need all that space. Then, it looks like the colony shrank from dwindling reproduction during the late summer, compounded by a rapidly increasing mite load, and perhaps a failing queen as well. At last, they gave up and left as their final and probably futile attempt to avoid the depredations of the mites. Seems like honey bees will abscond as a non-specific response to some factor they find intolerable. I had a small nuc take off in June this year due to ants that had set up shop in their box.

    • Cal,

      I had one abscond due to yellowjackets. Luckily, I was able to re-capture the colony, queen and all. But you’re right about it being a “non-specific” response to an intolerable problem. I would love to know how common absconding really is.

      • OH dear! I just now put out a yellowjacket trap. My local home improvement store didn’t have any so I had to order one online. Please, please let it work quickly! Every time I go out to the hive I get to see a ball of angry workers rolling around with a yellowjacket at its center! I have gone from three hives down to one this year and don’t think I’ll have the heart to start all over again if I lose it.

  • I am not certain why the burr comb on the bottom bars of picture 1 but evidently someone placed the wrong frames in the wrong box??? Picture 2 informs me that there was definitely NOT a laying worker in this hive. The small pen holes in the capped brood does suggest varroa but I am wondering why some brood in the same area appears dark dead and decayed black? With varroa the primary thing to look for is varroa poop (looks like small white bits of thread) inside the cells around that small area of brood. I should mention here that lower California does have africanized bees and I am GUESSING that any highly africanized queen can squeeze thru a queen excluder < ps and to make this question even more undecided all queen excluders are not created equal with the plastic version being imho pretty much worthless.

    • Gene,

      I had a queen ruin a comb honey super this year, but what she did (I think) was leave the hive as a supersedure virgin. When she returned, she came in through the entrance hole in my comb honey super. I have real good comb honey production with upper entrances, but I learned the downside when this happened. Can’t blame her, though!

  • Why we don’t use queen excluders for anything but candy boards. I saw a hive abscond this year, it took the whole hive, I estimated about 80,000 bees or more. Just started like a swarm, but then, poof, all was gone, no where in sight. When the hive was opened, here it was infested with mites and beetles. A ‘no treater’ hive, now infesting who knows how many hives. Mite detection requires diligence. They are getting more insidious and the viruses they carry are mounting.

    A few years back I witnessed a usurpation, and when it was all over, the outside of the defending hive was covered in mites from the bees that had been trying to get in and covered the entire hive. Needless to say, we treated the defending hive right away in order to avoid infestation.

    When I hear people telling me they don’t treat and the bees are ‘swarming’ at the wrong time of the year, I immediately think of the above scenario, as who knows where the mite infested bees go?, plus, they are not ‘swarming’, they are “absconding” because conditions are just awful in the hive. You also see this in late summer when conditions are sweltering and the hive is so hot and the mite load is overwhelming for the bees .. it’s just way too much for them to handle.

    Live n learn ! If you don’t take care of the mites, they will take care of your bees !!

    • Debbie,

      I would love to hear more about your usurpation. I saw my first one this year, but I haven’t written about it yet. Perhaps you could email some additional information? Usurpations are fairly common where Africanized bees are common, but they are far less likely up here in the north. Thanks!

  • The BIP webpage is very useful when looking to figure out what may be going wrong (or went wrong) in a colony. This looks like PMS and then collapse to me (I’ve seen both early and late stages). You can use the test kit if you want more information: https://beeinformed.org/programs/emergency-response-kits-2/

    Interesting to note is the difference in the coalescing of the bees- I’ve seen my colonies swarm and it is FAST, less than 10 minutes and the bees have exited the hive and settled. Jen and John describe the bee evacuation occurring over hours. Wonder if all absconsions occur like this?

  • I am puzzled by this statement: “We decided not to treat (It’s hard to do in California anyway, without an applicator’s license).”

    A feral swarm is very likely to bring a high varroa load with it and should always be treated IMHO.
    You could alternatively wait for the first frame of brood to be sealed, (containing most of the mites that came with the swarm), then remove and destroy it. That will set back colony development by no more than a couple of days.

    • MerryBee,

      Maybe someone from California can answer your question. It is my understanding that California has especially strict regulations for pesticide use, including in-hive mite treatments. I wouldn’t be surprised if those restrictions are discouraging mite treatment in many cases.

      • Dieter,

        I don’t know, which is why I hope someone from California will chime in. I tried to find the regulations on the web, but so far, I haven’t succeeded. I know that Brushy Mountain Bee Farm cannot ship their oxalic acid varroa kit to residents of California.

  • I was wondering what all the larger black spots in the cells were. Some sort of brood disease? Small hive beetles? Blackened, dead larvae? Resolution of pics is too small for me to tell.

  • The pictures of the ‘liquidy’ brood looks like it could be sac brood. I lost a hive from that at the beginning of the season.

  • Rusty,

    I had 3, yes, three usurpation attempts on one hive … huge Italian hive. I will go back and look at my notes and write you what I can. It started at 6 a.m. and lasted most of the day … the hive had to be closed up. Then they came back two more times to try to gain access to the hive. My belief was that it was a feral hive, but I am not positive about that. I have tried to figure it out for a long time now. When it first happened no one believed me, they said ‘bees don’t fly at 6 a.m.”, but they do!

    I do think more needs to be written on this, since it happens so fast sometimes that one w/not notice until they opened and hive and saw a different queen, and then one w/just think supersedure or replacement. I had asked so many bee keepers what happened and no one had an answer, then I saw an article by Mr.Magnum and it all fell into place for me.

    Bees … if it isn’t one thing, it’s another! They sure keep you on your toes!

    • Debbie,

      I look forward to what you write. I believe usurpation happens more often than we realize, partly because it happens so fast, as you say.

  • Rusty, I am gathering my notes and going through my computer files. It will take me a while, but I will get the information to you hopefully before the holidays. It happened back in 2015, so I have a lot of notes to find. Also, please email me your address, I have something to send to you that I would like to see you discuss and write about for your followers. Thanks!

  • First of all, I absolutely love this website. It is the most informative site I have found to date. That being said; I’ve been following the absconding/varroa blog since 12/16/17. This date is significant as it is the day I found one of my most productive honey-producing hives empty of bees, robbed of two medium supers full of beautiful light-colored honey. On August 25th, they were absolutely over-run with honey bees. Checked several times for heaviness by tipping the backside of the hive, gave me no reason to look inside during late fall & early winter.

    After deciding to place a candy board and quilted moisture box (first time for either) on all my hives, I made the discovery of the missing bees. Here in Southeast Missouri, we are once again experiencing a very (warm) late season. Honey bees are flying almost daily and bringing in bright colors of pollen. Strangely, the pictures posted by the Petrovich couple mirror my lost double hive to a tee. Full frames of sealed honey in the top chamber and completely empty frames in the bottom with a handful of sealed brood. Under the screen on the sliding floor I found many dead bodies of mites which had not been seen before.

    So Rusty, I believe you speak the truth when it comes to the debate about absconding vs death by varroa. My bees are gone due to varroa mites. As I said I’ve been following your many responses to this problem and I now have some questions: 1) Can the sealed honey frames from the upper chamber be fed to another colony this spring or is it too dangerous to try to re-use this as a food source 2) Where is the best website to learn more about the life cycle (biology) of the varroa. More specifically where & how are the mites picked up by the bees to start with 3) My lost hive was one of five sitting in an out-yard approx. 8-feet apart. The other four are still loaded with bees. Should they be moved away from that location so they do not experience the same outcome or can they be left in place? I certainly will appreciate hearing from you and will value your response. Consider me one more of a long list of frustrated beekeepers losing sleep over my very prized possessions.

    • David,

      Honey frames from a colony that collapsed due to varroa are absolutely perfect to use for feeding other colonies or starting new ones. Varroa mites cannot live without live honey bees, so the honey cannot infect another colony with mites.

      Have you treated your other hives for mites? I’m just thinking if one crashed from mites, the others may not be far behind. It can happen quickly.

      Randy Oliver’s site, scientificbeekeeping.com has a wealth of information about varroa mites. You can probably find anything you need to know about them there. However, for a quick overview of how mites get into a hive in the first place, see “7 methods of varroa mite transmission” on this site.

      Truthfully, moving the hives to another location won’t protect them from mites. The mites are everywhere, and probably a large number of them have already moved over from the failing colony. Keeping hives spread apart may reduce drifting bees to some extent, but it’s not an absolute protection.

  • Thank you Rusty. I visited the website you mentioned and found it a great source of information about the varroa. I also purchased a vaporizer and oxalic acid. Guess I’ll treat the bees this winter during cluster with my new equipment when it arrives. I’ve maintained bee colonies for many years and always refused to use any type of chemical in the hives. Times change and so do beekeeping techniques. I’m now a firm believer in scheduled treatments in the hives for varroa. Wish me luck in my first attempt to vaporize honey bees.

    • Hi Rusty,

      The last note I saw was a beek stating he was going to use oxalic when the bees were in winter cluster. Is this recommended? I have noticed a lot of dead bees around the entrance of my older hive, this was treated with Oxalic and Formic in the fall. I’m a natural worrier so how many dead bees is too many dead bees? Is there an answer or is it one of those “it depends”?

      By the way, I managed to get the solid food into my hives during the warm spell (it lasted all of 24 hours then back to freezing or just above).

      Well Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year to you and your kin,

      Ken A (Ontario, The Great White North)

      • Ken,

        Yup, it’s a “it depends.” You can figure in summer you lose at least 1000 bees per day, but you don’t notice them because they die in the field. In winter, you’re more likely to lose a few dozens in a day, but they tend to pile up where you can see them.

        How many dead is also dependant on how many are alive. A big colony with lots of bees will have more dead than a small colony.

        I’m not a fan of vaporization, so I’m not sure about that in winter. But many times I’ve used oxalic acid dribble in the dead of winter. That is when it’s most effective because there isn’t much brood.

      • Ken,

        Yup, it’s a “it depends.” You can figure in summer you lose at least 1000 bees per day, but you don’t notice them because they die in the field. In winter, you’re more likely to lose a few dozens in a day, but they tend to pile up where you can see them.

        How many dead is also dependant on how many are alive. A big colony with lots of bees will have more dead than a small colony.

        I’m not a fan of vaporization, so I’m not sure about that in winter. But many times I’ve used oxalic acid dribble in the dead of winter. That is when it’s most effective because there isn’t much brood.

        • Rusty:

          Why are you not a fan of vapourizing? Since I discontinued Apivar the only treatment I am using with at times bumper crops of dead mites, is Oxalic Vapour i.e. it works. Aside from potential Apivar resistence, it is expensive, you have to be on your toes to remove it in time for the honey flow and residues may still be in the wax.


          I would not vapourize when its cold and bees are clustering. The vapour does not reach the bees in the centre. The vapour may also cause the bees to dissolve the cluster which is not good either. I re-treated when we had some warm days and some bees were even venturing flying around outside, or at least they were crawling around inside.


          Do you agree?

          • Well, Dieter, it’s a personal thing. I don’t hold it against anyone who uses the method, but it collides with my more pastoral view of beekeeping. Gassing living things seems more like industrial agriculture, which is not what I’m in beekeeping for. Plus I don’t want to buy, store, or use the equipment for the same reason. If I had to vaporize oxalic acid, if there were no other choice, I would quit beekeeping. No question.

            As far as vaporizing the cluster, I don’t know. Like I said, I’ve used the dribble method on the winter cluster and it worked, but the vapor is different and I don’t know enough to say.

  • You are so funny ! That’s the first thing I thought of when I read his post ! One has to bee careful when using oxalic vaporizers. If the hive is severely infested with varroa, the best treatment to use is the Apivar strip (amitraz). It takes a while, but it is so effective. It doesn’t kill the queen or drones like the other chemicals (formic/thymol) do. If caught in time, you can pull a hive back from the mites and the virus it produces. I have used it hundreds of times in hives that have been neglected. Just make sure with the oxalic that you are careful and you let the vapors sit in the hive for a while. Sometimes, with severe infestations, one has to oxalic every week for three weeks, which is hard on the bees. If you are not in winter, it’s always a good idea to feed them during these times of stress and maybe add some probiotics. Remember when doing mite treatments to alternate so you don’t build resistance. Good luck to you.

    • Unfortunately, many areas in the US are reporting varroa resistance to Apivar. I’ve heard it called “useless” in places like Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but I don’t know first hand.

  • Thank you, I have heard that as well. So far it has worked well for us, but only on severe hives and use it as a teaching tool. We alternate treatments, depends on where the hives are and what hives they are. I hate to use the oxalic vaporization when the bees are clustered and it’s cold. Sometimes, here, the oxalic just doesn’t work. We had a hard time with it not working this year and had to do treatment after treatment. I figure, if I have to keep going back to do the oxalic, I might as well put the strip in. As you are aware, each hive is a learning experience and different in every way from the other. Fortunately, we take care of mites before the winter cold sets in and I don’t have to mess with it. You have a very Merry Christmas and enjoy the holidays ! Great article in the ABJ. You write with such humor ! Enjoyable article. You will add a lot to the ABJ, something they haven’t had .. humor !

  • Hello Rusty,

    Thanks for your reply, it’s been snowing like crazy here so all the dead bodies are covered. Out of sight out of mind. I did treat the hives in the fall with oxalic and formic and in the spring I’ll treat again. I use Apivar every second year in rotation.

    I’m still using my electronic cooking thermometer and the hives are still producing heat so Fingers Crossed. See you in the spring. No need to answer this email. I’ll write again to be sure but not on this topic.


  • Hi, Rusty.

    I have been following your posts for several years now, but this is my first comment. I am writing from Huger, SC, which is near Charleston. I have two hives, one that was going on three years old, the other which was established this past spring (March 2017). The older hive has been doing very well, expanding nicely through the summer. The smaller hive has been slow to grow, but I have been checking it regularly (maybe once every 6 weeks or so), and the queen is alive and laying well. I did a sugar roll test on both hives at the end of October 2017. The large hive had approximately 9 mites per 100 bees and the small hive only 2 mites per 100 bees. I used the University of MN method you recommended. Looking back at my notes, however, I’m not sure of the calculated mite count for the larger hive. My note says that even though the count was 9, I should “probably treat in November”. I did NOT, however, treat the hive. I treated that hive last fall (2016) with oxalic acid when the sugar roll test indicated a mite load of 16 per 100 bees (greater than the 10-12 limit specified by the MN procedure).

    Now that’s all background information. During December, I walked by the hives several times each week just to check on things, and all seemed normal. Winter arrived with a vengeance here last week with snow and very cold temperatures. I went out yesterday, 1-11-18 to check the hives. The smaller hive buzzed when tapped, but the larger hive was silent. I had noticed that there was very little activity around the larger hive in late December, but discounted that as nothing to worry about. The weather yesterday had warmed to near 70 F, so I opened the larger hive for a look. To my dismay, there was nobody home. Not a single bee. I am using Rose hives with two boxes on each hive for wintering. The top box was probably half full of honey and nectar and a scattering of brood cells, some shot with small holes. There were a few larvae in cells, but I expect they were quite dead. The frames in the bottom box were cleaned out and neat, with no honey, pollen or nectar. I do not use a queen excluder. There were no dead bees around the hives or on the screened bottom board. They just vanished.

    Now in your opinion, which I value more than you can know, did my bees just abscond or did my failure to treat for mites do in my best hive? The smaller hive seems to have grown substantially since I last looked inside during the sugar roll test. The two hives sit close together, so I wonder if the bees just left one hive and moved next door. After reading all the posts above, it sounds like the hive collapsed due to a mite infestation, and if that is the case, I will need to treat the remaining hive immediately.

    I greatly appreciate any insight you may have to offer.

    Ed Jessen

    • Ed,

      I’m going to assume you’ve read “Absconding bees or death by varroa?

      Everything you say points to varroa and the viruses they carry. Treatment thresholds have changed in recent years because it seems the viruses have become more virulent in some way. Many beekeepers now treat at 2 mites per 100 bees. Five mites per 100 bees, especially in the fall, seems to be a death sentence. There is some variability in different parts of the country, but as a general rule, treatment thresholds are dropping.

      Other things that point to varroa, especially in combination, are:

        no bees lift in the hive
        holes in brood cappings
        the larger hive was first to collapse
        plenty of honey remaining

      Many of the bees leave the hive to die, but others will drift to other hives. If substantial drifting occurred (and I’m sure it did), your smaller hive is probably loaded with mites.

      As a postmortem, you should take some of the empty brood frames, tip the top bar away from you, and see if you see any white guanine deposits on the roof of the cells. If so, that is pretty good confirmation.

      I’m sorry to hear about this, but I don’t doubt it was mites.

  • I would immediately treat that smaller hive, winter or not. Put a few Apivar strips in and hope for the best. (because it would be the easiest to do). It’s a 50/50 crap shoot at this point. Considering the queen will start laying and all the mites will rush into the new brood cells, the new bees will be infected anyway, Or oxalic them if the weather permits. Regardless, them mites need to go NOW. It takes time to bring them back from oblivion, but it can be done if the hive is still strong enough. I had one this year that was just overrun with mites and in bad shape. I did the above, they pulled through before winter. Some of the bees looked bad and I really thought the hive would perish, but it didn’t, it came back in full force and made enough honey for overwintering. Bees are resilient, but one has to be on their toes. This is a great post for mite discussions. It was amazing how many deformed, sick bees the bees discarded, but within a few months that hive was so clean it was amazing. Mites are sneaky, they take over pretty fast. Diligence.

  • Rusty/Debbie:

    My sincere thanks for both replies. It seems that bee keeping is anything but simple. Just throw a couple hives in the back yard and collect your honey. Yeah, right. In two years I’ve lost 3 hives out of 4. I don’t know why it is so hard to accept that my hives could have mites, but they clearly do. The misconception about when to treat based on mite population should be more widely disseminated. Rusty, I have read a lot of your posts concerning mites, but it still is unclear to me when to do what. It may seem obvious to you, but the engineer in me wants a schedule. I am learning the hard way. Waiting until there are 10-12 per 100 is clearly a disaster. I have some Apilife VAR and will use that to treat right away, regardless of the weather. What have I got to lose? It will warm up some in a day or two, and I will start the treatment process then. I already treated with Oxalic acid, but made the concentration too weak (used a quart instead of a pint to mix the Oxalic I had on hand).

    Thanks again for all you help and information.



    • Ed,

      I get the engineer thing. After all, I’m married to one and the mother of another. I wrote your request in my “to write” book and will take a stab at it.

  • Good luck on writing that one Rusty, since there appears to be no routine to mites. What might help you, Ed, in the future, keep your white boards clean, every three days to a week, check them, count your mites and see what’s on that bottom board. Then wash off that bottom board and reinsert. If you have a lot of mites on that bottom board, then you know you have tons in that hive. What falls is minuscule to what is in the hive. Compare the drop to the size of the hive and try to estimate it out. If you take your boards out during summer, just put them in for a few days to check the mite load every week. I never take my white boards out because they offer me so much information about the hive. If one learns to ‘read’ the white board, you stay ahead of the game since everything is on that white board. Another topic Rusty can write about for us. Start drone trapping early. If you are checking drone brood every thirty days, you are too late, read Rusty’s post on drone trapping. Start your drone trapping early, in Feb. or March, weather permitting, so that hive is clean before the bees start brood rearing. Let the bees get thru the main flow, (May/June) and then treat in July, after flow. Every month at least do your varroa check via alcohol or sugar wash. Rusty has an article on that was well. The dire months are August, September, October, when the bees are dying in other hives and the robbing starts in earnst. Read Rusty’s post on entrance reducing and robbing. August, September, and October are the months to be diligent because this is when the mite bombs hit the hives and one should have the hive cleaned out and ready for winter by November/December. Of course, you will always have mites in the hive, that’s a given, but if you can reduce the numbers enough for overwintering, you can catch the remainder in the early spring, Feb/March. Hope this helps. It’s hard to have a routine on mite care because they can show up any time, they are spontaneous creatures and follow no set plan or planet movement. Rusty has tons of posts on this topic of varroa and its control.

  • Debbie/Rusty:

    OK, I’ve started treating the remaining hive with Apilife VAR. It’s a three week process, so I hope the bees don’t die of the fumes. This hive has a reduced entrance, and I added a white plastic bottom board over the screened bottom board. I will monitor the accumulation of debris on the white board and continue treatment.

    I have a question about the drone traps. If I take out a large portion of the drone cells, how will any future queens ever get mated? It’s a wonder any queens ever get mated naturally, and I only have the one hive now. I don’t know of any other hives in my immediate neighborhood. It may be a moot point, however, since I may not have anything to split this spring/summer. I plan to buy two nucs this spring anyway and try again.

    Thanks again for your helpful comments and insights.


    • Ed,

      You have nothing to worry about because drones don’t mate with their sisters. And even though it sometimes happens, the offspring of that cross usually die. Inbreeding produces a lot of diploid drones, which usually get exterminated by the workers. You should read about DCAs and diploid drones.

  • The white board goes ‘under’ the screened bottom board, the bottom board s/have a slit to insert the white board, if you have it set on top of the screened bottom board where the bees walk all over it, you might get a skewed reading. I have never used Apilife Var, so I cannot comment on that. Those kinds of treatments bother the bees and are temp sensitive, I believe you said S.C., so your weather is quite different than our Ohio winters, it might work. Up to the bees.

    I found two dead hives yesterday, I think the protein patties were bad, as it looked like they got dysentery from them, the poop was the same color as the patties, and when I went to purchase the regular patties in the fall, they didn’t have them, so I had to use the other ones, now, I will have to go through all of the hives, pull them old patties and replace with new, as I don’t want them all dying out on me.

    This winter has been extremely hard on the bees, and next month will be even worse, if one believes the weather people.

    At least you will have more knowledge under your belt come Spring and you won’t make the same mistakes, that is what beekeeping is all about, learning !

    • Debbie,

      When you use Apilife Var, you are supposed to seal up the hive to keep the fumes inside. I thought perhaps he was putting the white board on top of the screen to better seal the hive. I don’t know for sure, but that’s how it sounded to me. I know sealing up is always an issue because if the hive isn’t tight, the stuff doesn’t work.

    • Rusty/Debbie:

      I did put the plastic on top to help seal the hive up. But to be honest, I did not make provisions under the screen floor for white boards, mostly because I did not plan to use the white boards (didn’t really know what they were for). I thought about modifying one of my other hive bottoms with slots or something to accept the bottom board, but putting it on top seemed the best immediate solution. Now I have only the reduced entrance to allow the fumes to escape. I’ll check the white board this Saturday when I go into the hive to replace the Apilife VAR strips.

      Rusty – Thanks for the information about the drones. I’ll start cleaning them out as soon as they begin to appear on the frames. I will put several frames with starter strips on the outside of the brood nest and let the bees decide how many drone cells they want to produce. I use plastic foundation everywhere else.



  • Varroa is a big problem with one hive I was not able to control the infestation last summer.

    Doing some winter reading, I read that some beekeepers in the north east will insert varroa prevention strips into their hives in January. I usually do not disturb the boxes in winter, but decided to try it.

    The logic is that the varroa will be in the box during winter months even though the queen is not laying eggs. Neither is reproducing at this time. Eliminating as much varroa as possible will allow the queen to lay eggs in the early spring with out breeding more varroa.

    I tried this approach this January on a day the temps hit 50 degrees on Long Island. Generally in winter the bottom board is free of varroa falling on to the board. After the treatment the next day I found three varroa mites on the board. Day two there were none and day three was one. I am continuing to check every day. Doing this treatment for eight weeks will do no harm to the bees, no brood is being layed and the honey is not produced, but being consumed.

    I will remove the strips in March before egg laying with the hope of curtailing the mite till after the honey is removed, then the middle of July treat again.

    I hope this may help others beekeepers that were not aware of this practice and save the bees.

  • I had a package of apivar strips left over. I thought it was worth a try. I have two strong hives left and lost my strongest producer the end of August.

    After reading about reproduction that stops in mid winter and varroa may still be alive in the hive, it might be worth trying eradicating them now before they get a foot hold later in the spring.

    The few that dropped off so far can multiply into hundreds months later when the queen starts reproducing and the mites get into the cells. If this works well and reduces mite populations and keeps hives strong, we all can benefit. Mites also give the honeybee virus infections.

    I alone, am not a genius. I am sharing information from various sources from reading, combining thoughts of others and thinking of ways to reduce honeybee stress. I was also looking for a predator for the mite that is not a danger to the honey bee. As an example, I have bat houses to lure bats into the area with free room and board. It works well in taking out pesty mosquitos.

    I am looking for a similar situation to take out the mites letting nature fix the problem. I have read that opossums eat 6 thousand ticks a year. Not sure if the opossum in my area would be any help in the controlling gardens with varroa mites lingering looking for honeybees and bumble bees to hop on.

    • Five or eight minutes is enough to get the flavour. The rest is repeat.

      Book Scorpions https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoscorpion have been described as early as 1891 by Alois Alfons of Austria in a bee journal.

      The co-existence of bees and book scorpions has been described repeatedly as symbiotic, for one in 1951, by Dr. Max Beier, the world leading expert on false scorpions – whatever the Latin name is – at the time. Google him in English. The book scorpions do not pose any threat to neither bees nor their brood. To the contrary. They are reported to not only feed on varroa mites, which may not have been around 100 years ago in Europe, but also on all the other pests and their larvae, like the wax moth, hive beetle, bee louse, etc. The book scorpions may be called the hygienic appendix of a bee colony.

      In one of the publications they report of 20 or more of the book scorpions having clung to the feet of the bees of a swarm. Amazing in itself that the scorpions appear to have sensed the imminent swarming !!! A research field all in itself. The bees were taking their janitorial crew along. Their “Servpro” or “MollyMaid” if that means anything in your neck of the woods.

      Dr. Beier also reports that the book scorpions likely groom the bees for mites. What more could the bees hope for! And us!!!

      Oxalic acid kills mites by attacking their nerve system. Now, mites and book scorpions both belong to the spider class or family or whatever its called. That’s likely why you can not have the one w/o the other. Either – or, it seems. When beekeepers started to treat for varroa mites they likely and unknowingly killed the book scorpions as well. Considering that there was an Austrian who described in the 1950s that book scorpions appeared to be “grooming” bees for varroa mites, why did all such knowledge get lost !?!

      I am not up to date but it is my understanding that the laboratory in Hamburg, Germany is now selling packages of book scorpions, 5 male and 5 female. Search the web for it.

  • Possum Power ! I have used the above referenced Apivar in January on hives that needed it. Apivar can be used two times per year, safely. One cannot rely on the Apivar strips alone, you have to have various sources of mite control because mites can show up at any time and build immunity to what you are using, plus each hive is a different situation and one tries to balance the treatment to the hive’s nuances. Thank you for the information on the Apilife Var, it is probably why he left the white board on top of the screened bottom board.. good idea. I like Apivar, but I use it according to what the mite load is and how the hive needs to be cleaned up. One good thing about the Apivar is, according to the studies, I don’t personally know if it is true or not because I am not that smart, but the manufacturer states it does not hurt the queen nor the drones, workers or brood, so that is always a plus, but being a nerve agent, it probably does do something to the bees, albeit small ? This is a great post for learning different ways and means, so many answers to the same problem .. varroa and it’s viruses. Everyone has to remember when treating the bees and having varroa, if you have varroa, you have virus, there’s no way out of it, and once you get all OCD’d about treating, the damage has already been done, you are just trying to ‘reverse’ the damage according to how far it’s gotten. Kapeesh?

  • I have to look into the book scorpions. I like predators and not having to use chemicals. I have to get more information on reproduction and care and maintenance. From the video, they eat slowly so many may be needed.

    Update to the winter apivar strip install, day 4 no mites found on board.

  • Well, I guess you didn’t have as many mites as you suspected you had, or, the bees are clustered and not moving around much. That’s good to have a low drop in a big hive. The weather will be warming this weekend, if you don’t get a big drop then you lucked out. That would bee good news! Pretty neat about the book scorps.

  • I will follow the progress of this method till February. Then the queen will start laying and the hive should have a good start with healthy brood.

    I was viewing videos on the book scorpion. Very excited about a predator for the varroa. I am going to try to get them and place some into the hive and try that method. I am very excited to have this as another weapon in the fight against the varroa mite. Its a more natural way of control with a symbiotic relationship. WIN WIN

    The only drawback is how many is needed and how fast can this scorpion eat when the hive has an active infestation.

    Still excited and can’t wait to report data and hear from others.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Think I’ll be relying the formic and oxalic for the time bring. Great news if it works but little skeptical. How are the scorpions affected by sub zero weather etcetera?

    Ken A

    • Ken,

      I don’t know, but I remain skeptical. Their life cycle doesn’t seem to be compatible with a honey bee hive. It seems they will attack the mites while they are in there, but keeping them in there is proving difficult. They sort of sift down and out of the hive, and then they are content to live in the soil which also contains plenty of food. At least, this is what I’ve read. Different folks have been working with them for a long time and haven’t been able to address many of the logistical problems. Certainly, if they effectively controlled varroa, I would use them. But I don’t think they’re ready for prime time.

      • Some points:
        1. The book scorpion kills a lot more than V-Mites. It has killed a lot of my time, a whole afternoon and going, reading, watching videos and searching, and no end in sight. It has become too interesting.
        2. The b-scorpion has made it on the red list of endangered species, at least in parts of Europe.
        3. @ Rusty: The b-scorpion does not travel down the frames and disappears into the soil. It naturally lives under the bark of dead trees, exactly where bees build their nests. Hence, a close symbiosis has emerged over a long time.
        4. @ Harold, a computer simulation from New Zealand has established that it takes (theoretically) 25 b-scorpions to keep mite levels below the threshold.
        5. One b-scorpion consumes 3 – 6 and up to nine mites a day, i.e. ca. 150 or more mites / day based on the computer model.
        6. DNA identification has confirmed that b-scorpions in hives do feed on mites. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303853450_Ingestion_of_Varroa_destructor_by_pseudoscorpions_in_honey_bee_hives_confirmed_by_PCR_analysis
        7. The bee research establishment suggests to not hold your breath because the b-scorpion does not enter into the brood cells. My point, neither does, for example, oxalic acid and upwards from 150 dead mites a day it is quite a drain on the mite population.
        8. B-scorpions are living world wide in symbiosis with wild bee colonies.
        9. B-scorpion checking out a bee https://chelifer.de/book-scorpion-checks-up-bee-on-parasits/
        10. B-scorpions may not get the upper hand on heavily invested hives but appear to be capable to keep the mite population below a threshold level.
        11. The good news b-scorpions do not appear to be killed by oxalic acid other than formic acid which reportedly kills them w/in seconds. Oxalic acid appears to be suitable for a transition.
        12. Aside from all this, did you know that bees take a nap? From 5 minutes to ½ hr.? Who would blame them! https://chelifer.de/sleeping-bees/

        • Some other points:

          2. I searched the European red list and can’t find it listed. Please direct me to your reference.

          3. Modern beekeepers don’t keep bees in trees. To be useful, it would need to work in a Langstroth or similar type hive.

          4. “A computer simulation from New Zealand has established that it takes (theoretically) 25 b-scorpions to keep mite levels below the threshold.” That has to be a bogus number. Colonies have a huge range in size and have wildly different infestation levels. It’s got to require more scorpions for a three-deep colony than a one-deep colony.

          12. Also see, “Do honey bees sleep?.”

  • Toads in Australia; African bees in S. America; the Ash Borer; the Birch Borer; I forget what they put on the Hawaiian Islands that is destroying their natural habitat; why not scorps in beehives … ya … sounds all right … human intervention always works out so well. NOT. What next?

    • Debbie,

      Don’t forget kudzu, Asian carp, Scotch broom, zebra mussels, water hyacynths, Japanese beetles, Argentine ants, European starlings and that other famous runaway invader, the European honey bee.

  • That little European Honey Bee is the worst invader … of people’s hearts anyway! I find that B-scorpion information pretty interesting. It would be nice if we could find something that works besides chemicals all the time. But them little Honey Bees ……

  • Rusty/Debbie:

    I changed out the Apilife VAR strips this Saturday. Still have plenty of bees, and they were particularly active since the temperature had risen to the 60’s. There were only 3 or 4 mites on the white board. Don’t know if this is good or bad. Perhaps the oxalic acid treatment that was done several weeks ago has knocked down the mite population so the Apilife strips are just cleaning out the rest. I’ll continue the treatment, of course, and trust that the queen will start laying soon.

    Best regards,


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