Winter. With its shorter days and cold weather, there isn’t much to do as beekeepers except to prepare for the following bee season. We hope all of the hard work the honey bees have done throughout the year will help them survive the winter months.
What if this isn’t what happens? What if our bees didn’t make it and succumbed to the harshness of winter? Unfortunately, winter losses, or deadouts, are another part of beekeeping we have to accept. For new beekeepers, it is definitely a huge disappointment. It may feel like a kick in the gut the first time it happens to you. But all beekeepers will experience this at some point.
Even in the wild, not all bees will survive winter. Sometimes it’s the cold temperatures coupled with a lack of resources. Perhaps they didn’t have enough honey stores. Or perhaps they didn’t find a sturdy enough tree and a brisk wind toppled it, exposing the hive to extreme weather.
As a hobbyist beekeeper, the important thing to do now is to assess the evidence to see if we need to make adjustments in our management to improve our overwintering success.
We also need to clean up and prep the equipment for our new bees. We are definitely getting more bees, right? Of course we are. Beekeepers dust themselves off and try again.
First, let’s understand how bees live through the winter.
How do Bees Survive the Winter?
The bees forage all year for resources to grow their colony and build up in anticipation of winter. That honey we pull from the supers? That’s part of their winter prep. It’s just that honey bees are so diligent and collect such a surplus that we are able to take some of their honey for our use. As the temperature drops, the honey bees will form a winter cluster, which looks like a ball of bees, to create heat to survive the cold.
They will eat their honey stores during the winter. The bees usually move upward during the winter, which is why they tend to store honey in the upper boxes. Sometimes we may find dead-outs with plenty of honey left over. If the cluster was unable to move together to find the honey, they can still starve to death.
On mild winter days, the bees will take cleansing flights so they can poo. However, if there is no break in the cold for these cleansing flights, then the hive will become littered with fecal matter and dysentery can become a problem for the bees.
Moisture is more detrimental to bees than the cold. If condensation forms from the heat they produce, and it drips down on them, they can weaken and die.
If you are not sure whether or not your bees are still alive, put your ear up to the box and tap it. If they are alive, you will hear them buzzing.
Or, if you are bee obsessed like me, you may want to invest in an infrared camera, which can tell you a lot from the outside. An infrared camera can pick up on a heat source. It shows me where the cluster is, about how big it is, and that it is still alive without opening and disturbing the bees on a really cold day.
If you do find that you have a dead colony, then you will need to look through it and clean it up before spring arrives.
How to Inspect a Dead Hive to Determine Why the Bee Colony Died
Okay, let’s grab a hive tool and take a look. There are a number of things you can look for to try to determine what happened to your honey bee colony. Let’s see if we can find out the cause of death. After removing the cover and inner cover, what do you see? Is there any mold? Where are the bees? Are they clustered on the top of the frames?
Before removing the frames, it’s a good idea to snap a picture with your phone so you can figure out how big the bee cluster was. Ideally, as we head into the winter, you’ll want a cluster the size of a basketball. If the cluster is small, is it the size of a golf ball or a softball? After removing the frames, are there lots of dead bees on the bottom of the hive?
What about resources? Is there capped honey still, or do the frames feel light? If you don’t have any frames of honey remaining, and you’re seeing frames of bees with their heads stuck in the cells, and their butts are sticking out, then it is very likely they may have starved.
Sometimes you may still find conflicting evidence. What if you find a lot of honey, but the small cluster still appears to have starved? This does happen if they can’t move over to the food stores or the cluster is just too small to generate enough heat to stay warm.
Do the bees look dry or do they look wet? While bees can cope with the cold, bees cannot cope with being cold and wet. This is why beekeepers in the north utilize added insulation under the top covers to mitigate the condensation dripping on the bees. Many beekeepers will prop up the rear of the hives slightly so that any condensation can run toward the front and drip out.
After inspecting the frames, remove the box and inspect the bottom board. Is there a large pile of dead bees collected here? Is the area just behind the hive entrance restricted? It is vital to keep the entrance open. It’s a good idea to occasionally sweep the entrance with a stick throughout the winter. If too many dead bees pile up during the course of winter, the dead bees can block off airflow to the entire colony. Some beekeepers believe it’s also a good idea to give your hive an upper entrance for the winter for ventilation. The usefulness of this could depend on your climate, but it is another technique to try if you think it will work for you.
What about pests? Are you seeing any evidence that the colony was overwhelmed with pests such as small hive beetles? Do you see any signs of mice having moved in? Mice can wreak havoc in a beehive and make a mess of the comb. You will likely see evidence of varroa mites depending on your mite infestation level. Does it look like your bees were overcome by the mites?
Taking the time to go through your dead colony will help you to learn and grow as a beekeeper. Lessons learned from this will give you ideas on things you can do in the future to help your bee colonies survive the winter season.
While it is sad to find a dead colony, the good news is you can now provide a great home to a new colony of bees. So let’s get this equipment ready for your new bees.
What to Do with Honey From the Deadout Hive?
A common question we often get is: Can the honey be salvaged from the dead-out beehive? Yes, possibly. Although first, you need to determine whether or not you were treating the colony with certain miticides when the honey was produced. Some mite treatments have clear warnings against having honey supers on for this very reason.
Secondly, you’ll have to determine whether that honey was derived from sugar syrup or nectar. If you were feeding your bees, that honey is likely adulterated. While it may not have any negative health implications, it wouldn’t be ethical to pass that on as real honey.
Personally, I think the best thing you can do is to give this honey to your new bees. It will be a valuable resource for a new hive.
How do You Clean a Deadout Hive?
You’ll want to clean out as many of the dead bees from your hive equipment as possible. Empty out the piles of dead bees. If there are bees lodged in the frames, just tap the frames lightly to dislodge them from the hives. There is no need to use tweezers to pull every last bee from each cell. Your new bees will be able to clean out the frames. Use your hive tool to scrape the bottom board to dislodge any pests and wax cappings.
Bees do contain some moisture. As they decompose, they could cause mold if left unattended. This is why you want to remove the majority of the dead bees.
After you’ve cleaned out the majority of your hive and frames, place the frames in the freezer for three days to kill or destroy any eggs which may have been laid by pests such as wax moths and hive beetles. If you live in an area, such as in the northern states, where it’s colder than the freezer outside, you can skip the freezer step and move right along to reassembly. Reassemble the hive, installing the frames. Using painter’s tape, block any entrances and gaps to prevent mice and pests from getting in.
New Season, New Bees
Now you are ready and waiting for warm weather and the arrival of your new bees. While you can buy a new nucleus colony of bees, your old hive could also become a great swarm trap. We’ve found that bees are attracted to places where other bees have previously been before. This cleaned hive provides a huge advantage for a swarm of bees who are looking for a new home.
Have your hive prepared for the early spring. Soon it will be that prime time of year for swarms. You can add some Swarm Commander to help attract interest. Do you see a few stray bees coming by and visiting? These are scout bees trying to scope out a potential new home. I like to call them “lookie-loos.” Just sit back and wait to see when a new colony of bees decides to move in. Hopefully, you’ll get to experience the swarm moving in. We will soon be adding more information about honey bee swarms and how to catch a swarm.
This is an amazing way to turn disappointment into a new and exciting opportunity! And you will be able to continue your beekeeping journey into next year with more knowledge and new ideas to try!
Dead outs can be a real disappointment. It is, however, an important part for us as beekeepers to take stock of what went wrong and to analyze how we can improve as a beekeeper. Did they starve? Was it moisture? Armed with that information, we can make adjustments to our management techniques to improve our overwintering success. Good luck, and see you in your apiary.