miscellaneous musings

Why did they die?

Why is this year so different? Every day I get messages that say basically the same thing: “I just checked my hive and all the bees are dead. They have plenty of honey and lots of pollen. What did I do wrong?” Some say their bees died in a small cluster; some say their bees were completely gone. Sure, some of this happens every year, but this year seems worse.

I’m just thinking at the keyboard here, so keep in mind this is merely my opinion. But basically, I think two things are converging to kill our bees: healthy mites and unhealthy queens.

Varroa mites first landed in North American in 1987, which is just 26 years ago. It took a number of years before they spread over the entire continent, but during that time they evolved to match North American bees in North American climates. During that period the viruses they carried also evolved to fit the conditions in North America. This is not a stretch; most viruses—as well as many invertebrates—adapt very quickly to changing conditions. Evolution can happen super fast in organisms that have multiple generations per year.

However, some organisms do not evolve quickly and honey bees happen to be one of those. Geneticists have discovered that honey bees have few of the genes that allow for quick adaptation to change. Scientists believe that honey bees use hygienic or defensive behavior—rather than genetic adaptation—to respond to most external threats. In short, you have stodgy adapters being assaulted by a cadre of quick adapters.

The lethal combination of mites and viruses quickly killed off most of the feral colonies in North America, removing a critical part of the honey bee gene pool. No longer able to find sufficient wild bees, beekeepers were forced to import bees from elsewhere. As a result, most of our managed colonies have been raised from production queens that, by definition, have a limited supply of genes. Although beekeepers don’t like to believe it, most of the so-called feral colonies that are discovered today have escaped from managed hives in the recent past. As such, they are only a generation away from their production-queen origins as well.

So while the depth of the gene pool has decreased rapidly due to parasites and pathogens, the need for queens has increased sharply. It makes sense: as more and more hives die, the need for replacement grows. The irony is that the “solution” makes the problem worse.

To meet the demand for replacement colonies, queens are produced in large quantities in the south and shipped all over the country. Through no fault of the producer, these bees have marginal genetics. Why? Because there just aren’t that many genes to pick from anymore. As a result, the exhausted gene pool was spread from sea to shining sea.

And it gets worse. You and fifty other beekeepers in your county have bees with nearly identical genetics simply because everyone in your local bee club bought bees from the same producer. They all arrived in one truck, so in addition to having the same genes, they have the same diseases. It means the drones hanging out in your local drone congregation area have the same genes as well. So if you are trying to raise your own queens to overcome a shallow gene pool, the odds are stacked against you from the start. It’s one heck of a mess.

Now, back to the original question: why is it worse this year? In short, I think it has taken a number of years for Varroa mites and their viruses to adapt and spread across the country. It has also taken a number of years for most of the feral bees to die off and for production queens to replace local queens. What we are seeing now is a crescendo of bad outcomes—a perfect storm. In other words, I think it will get worse before it gets better.

Beekeepers are a creative lot, and I truly believe that many of those colonies were lost in spite of the best beekeeping practices we know. If we are lucky, we will make a discovery that saves the honey bee. But for now, we are stuck with what we have and we don’t know from where the answer will come. Or when. Or if.


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  • Rusty, you describe our situation here in Pacific Northwest Canada perfectly…only we can’t access the USA honeybee pool either. Almost all local bees are imports of or descendants of bees from Australia and now New Zealand (most of our local package bees in the spring are from New Zealand). And so even if we get survivor-capable queens, their daughters only have freshly imported non-survivor drones to mate with. I have begun a low tech bee breeding operation not just out of interest but out of desperation. We need bees that can handle the pests, diseases and our local climate. Our only hope is to breed from and to survivors (we have some feral colonies here but as you say most are escapees from the same gene pool we already have). Note that in most of Canada where there are harsher winters than here on the coast there are no feral colonies left at all.

  • I’ve been at the beekeeping thing for 2 years and so far I am 0 for 4 at over-wintering. I just checked my last hive and it looks like they disappeared sometime in the early winter (that is, at least the upper chamber looks to be pretty well-stocked). I think you are exactly right about the problem of genetics. We’ve done everything imaginable to remove the ability of honey bees to adapt to changing conditions. And I’ll be buying a couple of packages from the Bee Association at least for this year. If they fail again, I’ll have to seek out a more exotic source, I guess.

  • It’s the same thing here in Michigan, Rusty. I do several beekeeping presentations around this area and have the opportunity to talk to a lot of beekeepers with a few hives to a few thousand hives. I am hearing of losses ranging from 50% to 80% from most of them. I have been very fortunate…so far. I went into winter with 123 colonies and have lost only 6 as of 3 weeks ago. Trust me, though, I ain’t-a countin’ my chickens just yet. Although 90% of them looked very strong then, who knows what has happened in the last 3 weeks!

    One of the things I did differently from most of the others is to treat for varroa mites with formic acid via MAQS. I did it later than is called for, mid September, and when I did the mite drop was considerable in most cases. I also wrap my hives with roofing paper for solar gain on sunny days and push them together against a piece of 2″ styrofoam to give them one side of the hive that is insulated from the elements. I did the same last year and had 87 of 88 colonies survive.

    Last year was a really mild winter here in Michigan so most of us had good survival rates. However, it may be that my colonies had an advantage coming into spring last year with a much lower mite count. Whether this helped with this winter I don’t know and, frankly, have a hard time making a case for. Who knows. Maybe I’m the proverbial ‘lucky monkey’. You know, if you put 1,000 monkeys on 1,000 type-writers for 1,000 years, one of them is bound to type a cogent thought. Maybe I should get a t-shirt printed up….’The Lucky Monkey!’.

    Tomorrow starts the Michigan Beekeepers Association’s spring conference. I’m doing a presentation there during one of the break-out sessions that I’ve titled ‘Conversational Honey Bee Biology’. I intend to do an informal survey on this year’s winter survival rates and what they did in preparation for the winter. I’ll let you know the results if you’re interested.


  • I’ve been at this as a hobbyist for 48 years and the last 10-12 years have been worse for winter losses and of course I started to experience summer losses about six years ago. This past weekend I checked one yard that went into the winter strong as of mid-NOV and now is 80% lost. I used to estimate 30% winter losses but now am pleased or satisfied with 50%.

    Your post re the diminishing gene pool is thoughtful and right on. Couple that with GMO crops and it’s a mess. Beekeeping seems to have huge public interest with many newcomers; hopefully good will come of that.

    As an FYI, my neighborhood geneticist tells me that genetic markers set in fruit flies will appear on the other side of the planet in six months. Fruit flies live three days, I believe. Varroa mites live somewhere between a month and a few months and have changed their host over the past 50-100 years so have evolved quickly and can be essentially invisible to honeybees. If the honeybees are slow adapters (I’ve not thought about that before) it is a collision course. Thanks for the post.

    • John,

      The following quote is from a paper on the honey bee genome:

      “Genome deficiencies and risk.

      Relative to the fruit fly and mosquito, honeybees show a remarkable reduction in the size of gene families associated with the detoxification of harmful chemicals encountered in the environment. Honeybees also show a similar reduction in the size of gene families that encode components of the immune system. Why this is so is a mystery, especially since life in a densely populated beehive would seem to put bees at special risk for environmental toxins, pathogens, and parasites. Perhaps this is why honeybees are extremely vulnerable to many types of insecticides and have suffered major population losses in some agricultural regions of the world, including the recent reports of devastating losses due to Colony Collapse Disorder. On the other hand, it appears that bee social evolution has also led to novel behavioral mechanisms of protection, such as the ability of some “nurse bees” to detect and remove diseased larvae from the hive, and the collection by foragers of plant-produced resins with antimicrobial activity that are used to coat the walls of the beehive.”

    • Dear John and Rusty, please visit my nonprofit’s (farmXchange) blog and contact me ASAP (farmXchange at gmail dot com). We could really use your expertise and observations in the field. I used to have tons of bees swarming my veggies (never been stung once btw), now I rarely see ANY. And the ones I see look drunk! I know GMOs and these new fertilizers are the reason. I need solid evidence from the field to motivate people to start growing their own food using aquaponics. I think widescale adoption of home vertical gardening kits coupled with rare “heirloom” seed kits can really help save the bees and feed cities. I invite you to write a guest post or offer data for publication. We get about 2000 hits a day and growing and will link back of course. Thank you!

      • Maria,

        If we knew that GMOs and new fertilizers were the reason for bee loss, we would be in a lot less trouble than we are. The only papers I’ve read about GMOs and bees were inconclusive. Personally, I think they are a part of the bee-loss puzzle, and I think they are a bad thing for any life form, including humans. Nevertheless, I don’t have proof of it so I can’t write a post saying so. I believe it hurts our cause to make statements we can’t back with scientific evidence.

        By the way, what are the bees going to eat if we grow all our veggies inside? And how does the additional use of water as a growing substrate affect the already critically low aquifers? Did you know New York City gets 90% of its water from upstate? That doesn’t seem natural or sustainable, but hey, let’s take more. To every decision there are unforeseen consequences.

        You profess feeding the cities with hydroponics yet your landing page photos show bananas, avocados, and a pomegranate. Did you grow those in a pot of water as well?

        Thanks for asking, but I will pass on the guest post.

  • I’m really sorry to hear of everyone’s losses this year. It sounds a lot like the events several years ago which lead to the concern for CCD.

    In speaking of ferals, we have feral bees abounding here in Los Angeles, and most of them are not escapees from recent breeder stock. I simply don’t worry about varroa ever, and I haven’t had any problems with colonies dying out. Of course, we don’t really have winters here in the same way as others.

    Urban environments are great places to pick up feral colonies, perhaps you should look there.

  • WoW! Thanks for a very cogent explanation of a pretty complicated issue. I don’t think we have many feral hives in SoCal, either. The warm winters and plentiful irrigated landscaping make for a swarm season that begins in Feb and ends in Sept or Oct. It’s hard to control unless you’re in your hives every week. I do, however, have an owl box hive that has been continuously active for 8 years. I see it and shake my head every time I walk out my front door.

  • Dear Rusty,

    My name is Lucy Padula and I am a student in FIU’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication. I am currently taking a Communication Research course in which I work with my peers on a research project focused on environmental/green communication in the blogosphere.

    I would greatly appreciate your sharing with me and my classmates your opinions on various topics related to your blogging experience by filling out an online survey. As we want to learn about blog readers too, I would ask you to kindly distribute the survey link to your automated mailing list and/or post it on your blog.

    The survey will take you no longer than 15 minutes to complete and you can access it through the link below:


    This survey is anonymous and does not require any identifying information.

    I see you were recently a student yourself, so I am sure you know the importance of research for assignments.

    I really appreciate your cooperation and efforts and look forward to get your insights and ideas.

    Lucy Padula

    School of Journalism & Mass Communication
    Florida International University


  • I am surprised to see not one single mention of the effects of systemic pesticides on bees and other pollinators. A nerve toxin that is found in ALL tissues of the plant certainly is a questionable chemical to be exposing these organisms to. There is significant information in the news and many research studies. Why is this factor so carefully edited from this discussion?

    • Bea,

      Thanks for the update, but let me point out that I have written about systemic pesticides dozens, or maybe hundreds, of time on this site. I constantly teach classes and give lectures on the subject of systemic pesticides and their effect on pollinators. Systemic pesticides were the subject of my master’s thesis (which you can find under the “Papers” tab). There are only so many ways you can say the same thing over and over and over.

      Furthermore, not all winter losses are caused by pesticides. Although I am a zealot against systemics, I am not blind-sided by them. There are other factors involved in winter losses.

  • I’m a new beekeeper with 4 hives in Tennessee. I have been feeding fondant to them the past month. The hives that still had fondant were acting normal, but the hive without any fondant appeared dead when I opened it on a 60 degree day around 1pm a week ago. The cluster of bees were not moving in that hive. I removed the super above the cluster and brushed the bees stuck on the bottom of the frames (that had been over the cluster) onto the ground. Some of the bees clung together, even though they weren’t moving. Then – I saw a wing move a little bit on a bee in the cluster, so I added fondant to the brood chamber and closed the hive – thinking that maybe I had gotten to them just in time. To my surprise, I started to see bees going in and out of that hive the next day and the activity has increased daily. What happened? Did I get to them just in time, or is it normal behavior for the bees to not move and cling together? Thanks!

    • Carol,

      I can only speculate, but it sounds like the ones without any fondant left were slowly dying of starvation and they didn’t have enough energy left to move. When you gave the remaining ones some food, they perked up. So, yes, I’d say you caught them just in time.

  • An owl box is bit larger than a large super and it has a large door on one side. We hang them in trees or perch them on poles 15 or 20 feet up. We, in rodent ridden suburbia, have embraced them as a less toxic approach to rats and mice. Many of us (like me!) have never heard the hooting of an owl at night, or heard the clatter or a nest full of hungry babies. Now I’ve seen the broad wings of a twilight glider and found masses of owl pellets at the base of the owl tree (they really gross out city kids!). If we get babies that survive to late summer we get to watch “flight school”. Who knew owl parents have to teach the kids to fly! I get 10 to 20 requests a year to remove bees from boxes and I’ve even heard of people putting their nesting boxes on pulleys so they can let them down to clean out the bees every spring. A bad idea that endures.

    • Lori,

      Thanks. I wonder if you could sell owl boxes as swarm lures? I never heard of an owl box, but then I live next to a state forest and owls are all over the place. I have to lock up my chickens at night because the owls will come down and swoop them away. I leave my window open at night so I can hear them; I love owl sounds.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I’m sure you’ve answered this one before, but I can’t locate it right now. We seem to have 6 colonies surviving out of 7. We’ve had weather extremes, sun and 60 one day, solid rain for two, below freezing and down as low as 5 other times.

    The lost colony had plenty of honey, close by. The cluster was small, and had a small amount of sealed brood that looked sunken, if that makes sense. I think they might have just been too small to keep themselves and the brood warm on one of the bitter cold nights. They were alive in January.

    Anyway, they had a lot of honey, both capped and uncapped. If I get it out and freeze it, will it be safe to use to feed splits in spring?

    A separate question: I was also looking for your post about the longer-lived “winter bees” (still getting used to new format) and couldn’t remember what they are called. Thanks!

    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, KY

    • Nan,

      Before you do anything else, you need to test that dead hive for American Foulbrood. Sunken cappings are a warning sign. Sunken cappings don’t always mean you have AFB, but they should never be ignored. Here’s a paragraph from Wikipedia:

      Lab testing is necessary for definitive diagnosis, but a good field test is to touch a dead larva with a toothpick or twig. It will be sticky and “ropey” (drawn out). Foulbrood also has a characteristic odor, and experienced beekeepers with a good sense of smell can often detect the disease upon opening a hive. In the photo at right, some larvae are healthy while others are diseased. Capped cells with decomposing larvae are sunken, as can be seen at lower right. Some caps may be torn, as well. Compare with healthy brood. The most reliable disease diagnosis is done by sending in some possibly affected brood comb to a laboratory specialized in identifying honey bee diseases.[8]

      And here’s one from Dyce Laboratory:

      As the disease progresses, the cappings become discolored and sunken, and the brood pattern becomes peppered with uncapped cells and cells with perforated cappings, all mixed in with healthy cells.

      So I would not give the honey to any other colony until you can confirm the colony did not die of AFB. A positive diagnosis would require that everything be burned.

      Next question: As far as I know, winter bees are called “winter bees.”

  • Rusty –

    Wup, sorry, forgot – what about uncapped pollen from the dead colony? Also safe to use or not? Thanks,

    • Nan,

      Same thing. Pollen is never capped, but in any case, check that dead hive for AFB before giving the pollen to another colony.

  • Rusty, I wonder how much of this could also be related to bad management? I do know that occasionally I do not tend certain colonies in a consistent manner and that leads to some serious problem months later. If it weren’t for my record keeping, I would have no idea where I or the bees went astray. Unfortunately, our ecosystem is trying to prove to us that it is severely damaged and we must stop and acknowledge this quickly. Now we have conclusive evidence that even monarch butterflies are in serious peril. Could it be that humans have actually not evolved as quickly as we think since we don’t seem to have the capacity as a society to recognize our current situation and take corrective action?

    • Bill,

      You hit on a pet peeve of mine. Why is it we look around, say “Yup, the environment is screwed up,” and then continue to do what we always have done? Until more people are willing to make a personal commitment to change, it isn’t going to happen.

  • Rusty,

    I have a hive that has had a tumultuous year. Somehow I have managed to keep it going with my limited experience, but now it appears as though my queen has stopped laying. I live just south of Atlanta, so our weather is still rather warm. Temperatures are down in the 50s at night, warming up to the 70s and 80s during the day.

    The bee population has declined and I had previously chalked that up to the annual preparations for winter. I have been trying to feed, but the bees are not taking the syrup, while my other hive is scarfing it down. When I opened it up there was hardly any brood at all and what there was, was relatively old and sporadically spaced.

    I found the queen with her head in a cell which I don’t know if that is normal behavior. My question…is it normal for the queen to not be laying at all this time of year, or do I have other issues? I am getting a nuc today that a friend of mine doesn’t want. I don’t know if I should combine the two as I am slightly concerned that my resident hive may be sick. Any advice would be appreciated.

    • David,

      As part of New Year good behavior, I’m trying to clean up my website and delete junk. But look what I found! This is embarrassing. Since this e-mail is dated October 14, I’ll just tell you what I should have told you.

      Queens greatly decrease their egg laying in the fall, and it drops to nearly zero in late November or December. But in this case, there are many signs of a failing queen. Scattered brood, disinterest by the workers, a queen with her head in a cell, all indicate queen problems.

      My guess is that the colony was okay from a health standpoint, but with a failing queen in the fall, they more or less lose the will to live. The queen pheromones and the open brood pheromones keep them performing properly, but without those things the workers lose direction.

      I hope it worked out for you with the nuc. Please tell me what happened.

      • Rusty,

        It didn’t turn out too well. My strong hive (Italians) began to rob very heavily about the time I wrote the comment. What was left of the small hive was quickly decimated. The nuc too was robbed heavily, which I tried to discourage by means of a robbing screen. What the other hive didn’t take, the ants moved in and finished off in both the nuc and the small hive. The good news is my good hive was still strong as of a week ago. But they are aggressive and did not like me peeking in. Got a sting to the neck as a “Thanks for Caring.”

        Don’t worry about the late reply. You answered my questions in a post shortly after. Thanks for all the advice!


        • David,

          Whenever I read a story like this I’m reminded that beekeeping is really difficult. You can do everything right and still have problems. You take care of mites and moths and diseases and feeding and robbers and neighbors and skunks and birds and vandals and wind and rain and freezing temperatures . . . you think you got it all covered and then the ants move in! Then, to top it all off, you get stung. There’s probably a better hobby out there.