No two words instill more fear or disappointment in a beekeeper than the words DEAD-OUT. A dead-out is when a bee colony dies. You go to your hive expecting to see a colony of honey bees, and instead you see nothing but dead bees.
The experience is heartbreaking. While dead-outs can occur at any time, they are more prevalent in the winter months when bee colony losses are greatest. The fact that you can’t look inside your hives when the weather is cold because it chills the bees adds to the fear. You simply have to wait for a break in the weather and look for signs of life around the hive. Some beekeepers resort to pressing stethoscopes against the hive or using infrared cameras to check for signs of life without opening the hive.
The number of different ways a honey bee can die is quite astounding. Too much moisture in the hive during the winter can lead to mold and fungal diseases that kill bees. Honey bees can starve even when there is still honey in the hive because bees like to go up and not down for food. Varroa mites are the beekeepers’ most threatening menace, and even beekeepers who diligently test and treat their bees may still fall victim to the mites and the host of diseases they can introduce. Temperature fluctuations can also kill. Bees may begin foraging too soon when it is warm, or they may not be able to cluster because they are trying to protect brood during an unexpected cold snap. Bees can survive cold, heat, snow and rain but not all four in the same week, which sometimes happens in Northern Kentucky. As one of the members of my local bee club said, “You shouldn’t become a beekeeper if you can’t handle death.”
If you read my previous posts, you may recall that we took three hives of bees into winter. Alpha colony was large and strong. Echo colony was small and strong. Bravo colony was medium-sized but never seemed to be particularly robust in spite of our many efforts to bolster it throughout the summer and fall. Last week the temperatures were warm enough for me to install more winter feeding patties. The feeding patties are gooey, flexible patties consisting mostly of high fructose corn syrup, pollen, and nutritional supplements. We have small doors on the Alpha and Bravo hives that allow us to slide in patties without opening the top of the hive. We have to open Echo hive’s top to place the patty. Everything looked good in Alpha and Echo hives, but I couldn’t see any bees when I opened the door to Bravo hive. I didn’t panic because I could see bees had been eating on the patty we installed two weeks earlier, so I knew the bees in Bravo hive had been active. Bravo hive has two deep boxes, so it was quite possible that the bees were clustered in the lower deep box, and I just couldn’t see the cluster through the little door in the top box.
About two days later, my husband checked on the hives. The temperature was below 50 degrees F, but it was still sunny. Bees were actively going in and out of Echo and Alpha hives on cleansing flights. He saw no activity from Bravo Hive. Doug thought we had a dead-out, and he couldn’t wait any longer to see. Without a smoker, gloves, veil, or bee jacket, he opened Bravo hive. He saw a few bees come to the top around the feeding patties. He re-positioned the patties, which had become squashed together. Because he saw a few live bees and saw evidence that they were eating patties, he decided not to go into the bottom deep box. The temperature was too cold, and he didn’t want to chill the bees if we did still have bees. Doug, who sometimes is more optimistic than me, is convinced that the colony in Bravo hive is still alive and the bees have simply clustered in the bottom deep box out of our view. I am not as optimistic. In the 2016-2017 beekeeping year (the last year for which I found data) about one-third of the honey bee colonies in the US were lost. We took three colonies into winter. If our bees follow the national statistics, we will lose one colony.
What will we do if Bravo hive has a dead-out? A good beekeeper performs a post-mortem investigation looking for clues as to what killed the bees. Is there mold inside the hive? Are honey stores present? The rule of thumb is that if you find dead bees with their heads inside cells, then the colony probably starved. If brood can be seen, does it look healthy? If capped brood is present, the capping should be inspected and then scraped away to reveal the brood inside. Are there signs of American Foul Brood or varroa mites? The American Bee Journal published an article entitled “Dealing with Dead-Outs” that is a good reference. (ABJ issue date February 1, 2015.)
There is something worse than sifting through a pile of dead bees and that is when you have no dead bees at all to examine. Sometimes bees abscond, which means they find the conditions in the hive to be so inhospitable that they go someplace else to try to make a home. The hive looks like the lost Roanoke colony, and beekeepers have fewer clues as to what went wrong. Bees usually die when the abscond. They just die someplace outside of your hive where you can’t see them. Bees swarm when they are prepared to divide the colony for the purpose of making more colonies and perpetuating life. Bees abscond because conditions are so bad they have no other options and they are trying to avoid death. It is a big difference.
For my husband and me, beekeeping is a hobby and a source of joy. We will be deeply disappointed if Bravo hive has a dead-out, but we will not go bankrupt. For professional beekeepers, dead-outs can be devastating. Just this week NPR ran a story about bee colony losses. The article describes how one professional beekeeper cried the year he lost 65% of his colonies.
Follow my blog if you want to know how the story with Bravo hive ends. I would also like to know how the story ends and will write about it as soon as I know. Until then, the words of my fellow beekeeper ring true, “Don’t become a beekeeper if you can’t handle death.”