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It was a winter of starving bees. In that year, I heard countless tales of beekeepers losing all, or nearly all, their colonies to starvation. Many of the lifeless hives contained not a single drop of honey. Others had multiple frames of honey remaining, but the bees died anyway.
Why bees die with honey in the hive
During cold weather, honey bees cannot leave their cluster in search of food. Once they leave the warmth provided by the group of bee bodies, individuals become stiff and sluggish. If they become immobile–unable to go forward or move back–they simply die in place.
The danger of leaving the cluster means that honey bees may never eat honey that is stored just beyond the edges of the cluster. Instead, they eat what is directly above them. This happens because warm air rises. Outside of the cluster, the warmest place in the hive is the area directly above the knot of bees, so that’s where they go.
As the bees move upward into the warm area, they consume any food they encounter. The resulting pattern resembles a vertical tunnel through the stored food.
The bees’ movement within the hive
Warm periods during the winter allow the bees to move around inside the hive and find more of the stored food. Sometimes the cluster may move toward one side of the box and eat the honey there. But if it becomes cold again, they are even further from the honey remaining on the other side of the box. In that case, you may find the dead cluster on one side or in one corner of the brood box.
A similar type of movement occurs in top-bar hives. Although the cluster cannot move up, it may gradually move left or right. But if the bees eat their way to one end of the hive, they can’t turn around and traverse the empty combs to get to the other end. So they run out of food.
A cluster of honey bees won’t leave brood unattended, so even though there is very little brood in the winter months, it anchors the cluster to one spot. It seems like the bees would move freely inside their box, but instead, they always remain attached to the nursery. During broodless times, if any, the cluster will move further.
Take advantage of the warm areas
Placing feed—especially hard candy—just above the cluster is very effective because that is where the bees are most likely to find it. Because heat from the cluster keeps that area warmer than the surroundings, the bees can move onto the candy without freezing.
A lack of honey may be caused by over-harvesting, but it can also result from paltry nectar flows or particularly long winters. Whatever the cause, feeding sugar can be a long, time-consuming, and expensive ordeal, but it may be the only way to keep your bees alive.
The photo above shows what starved bees often look like. The bees—still in the shape of a cluster—all died head-down in a cell with their little butts sticking up in the air.
Bees that die head-down can be confusing
However, adult bees with their heads down and butts up is a typical wintertime configuration even for healthy bees, so it is not a sure sign of starvation. According to Thomas Seeley, “Worker bees deep in cells, with heads down, are a normal part of a winter cluster. This is what the bees do to keep the insulating mantle of the cluster continuous, even where a comb slices through it. When a colony starves, we find lots of bees deep in cells, but they are not a sign of starvation.”
Loosely translated, that means that even healthy bees spend time with their heads in the brood combs. But a healthy bee in that position is helping to keep the brood warm. Conversely, if a group of bees dies in that position, they probably starved. They did what they could to keep the nest warm, but died when they ran out of fuel.
To determine the ultimate cause of death, a beekeeper needs to evaluate the size of the remaining colony, the location of any remaining food stores, and the temperatures in the preceding weeks.
How to remove dead bees stuck head-down in the combs
If you need to remove bees that died head-down in their cells, here are some suggestions from my readers:
- If the bees are dry and crispy, you can turn the frames upside down and wrap them against a firm surface, such as a workbench. Rap repeatedly, but gently, so you don’t break the comb. Most will come out far enough to brush away.
- Lay strips of duct tape against the protruding abdomens and pull gently.
- If the bees are damp and moldy, they are harder to remove. You may have to use forceps to extract them one by one.
- Let the new colony of bees remove them. Dead bees and mold are things honey bees evolved with. If you give a strong colony the frames, nasty as they are, the bees will clean them up in no time.
Thanks to Jared Watkins for the great photo of bees head-down in a frame of honeycomb.
Honey Bee Suite