That dreaded event in a beekeeper's world when an entire colony of bees dies in the hive.
It was a very sad day in mid-December when we found one of the colonies had died out. Every few weeks through winter, a warm enough day (50 degrees F) rolls around and there is an opportunity to check the hives. Typically we add candy boards during these checks as a supplemental food supply. Two of the three colonies were thriving but the third contained only dead bees. A sad day indeed.
After taking a moment to apologize to the queen, feel sorry for ourselves and the bees, I decided to learn from this unfortunate experience.
It seems this is a winter malady. It can be related to the cold weather or evidence that the colony was weak. The best way to find out is to take the entire hive somewhere that you can do a thorough post mortem examination. Here are some things to look for:
Varroa Mites or Tracheal Mites
Look for bees with deformed wings. A "k" shaped wing deformity may indicate tracheal mites. Pick through the layers of debris on the bottom board and watch for signs of Varroa mites.
Hive Beetles and Wax Moths
Hive beetles are small black hard shelled beetles that take up residence in the crevices of the hive. Cottony oval shaped cocoons or oval shaped depressions on frames is a sign of wax moths. An abundance of either is evidence of a weak colony. Strong colonies of honeybees are very hygienic and will keep these pests in control.
As you examine the frames, note the position of the dead bees. Are they head first in cells? Is the cluster mainly located a frame or so away from a supply of honey? Both of these conditions indicate starvation. If it becomes too cold for the bees to reach their food supply or they did not have adequate stores to get through winter, they will starve.
There are other potential causes for a dead out such as a weak queen, foulbrood or even a rodent infestation. Observe your dead colony for indicators of these conditions.
After you have identified a potential cause for the loss of the colony, there is hope to save the rest of your apiary. If you have found an unacceptable mite load, plan for a spring treatment of the other colonies. Starvation can be counter-acted with supplemental feedings or leaving more honey stores in the fall. Small hive beetle traps are effective at reducing that population. The condition you find will steer you to the correct solution. As a precaution, particularly if you discover foulbrood, burn the dead bees and any equipment that can not be adequately cleaned.
I will not let a dead-out deter me from keeping honeybees. I will learn from this experience and strive to be a better beekeeper.
Julia Miller is the co-owner of Five Feline Farm, a hobby farm in Central Illinois where honeybees, gardening and of course cats reign supreme. Check out the farm website and while you're there, get a free ebook!
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