Winter Loss – What happened to my bees?

If you are reading this the chances are you have lost your bees over winter, you are feeling upset and saddened and you want to know why they have died and most beekeepers think “What did I do wrong?”

There are always winter losses and there are many reasons why colonies don’t make it through winter. It stands to reason that the more colonies of honeybees you have the more likely you are to suffer with winter losses and it may not be anything you have done so before you go blaming yourself see if you can see why the colony has died. It may be that you can’t work out what has happened, below I have given some examples of winter losses.

Starvation – there are two types of starvation, one is beekeeper error, you took too much honey off your bees and didn’t bother to check them through the winter and they have starved. The bees will be found with the heads in the cells because they are desperate for food. This is your fault entirely and yes you should blame yourself, this was completely avoidable and its because you were greedy – sorry but that is exactly what this is. The early spring is often when we see this, the bees become active, the beekeeper sees the bees flying and assumes they are collecting nectar. Well have a look around you, how much flower is there and is it warm enough for the nectar to flow. Yes they are bringing in pollen, but they need nectar and now they are active and the queen is laying they need more and more of it. They will be eating more than they can forage and so they starve.

The other starvation is “Isolation Starvation“. This happens when the winter cluster of bees moves away from food instead of with it. The result is the same, dead bees with heads in cells but you will also have frames of food in the brood box and even more sadder is that the food may only be a couple of inches away from the dead cluster. This is not your fault, do not blame yourself, there is nothing at all that you could have done to help these bees. Sadly nature has a weird way of working at times.

Queen issue – If your colony was queen-less going into winter they are not going to survive, even if there are still some alive in early spring they are not going to live long enough to support the colony until you can get a new mated queen to go in with them. If you are lucky enough to find mated queen early the bees will be too old to support her. It could be that you had a late supercedure happen and she didn’t manage to mate. A colony with a drone layer is not going to make it, again this may make it through winter but, sad as it is, the colony is doomed.

Varroa / Unhealthy colony – An unhealthy or stressed colony is unlikely to make it through winter. Varroa causes much stress on a honeybee colony, to avoid high varroa levels going into winter make sure you treat your bees at the end of the season. I have a post on Varroa which will give you much more information on this topic. Make sure you look at the brood throughout the season to see that it looks healthy. Also look at your bees, do they look healthy? Varroa damage can be seen at larvae stage and also at capped stage, your bees will detect infected cells, they will uncap them and remove the infected larvae, so look for chewed cell capping’s. You could take some blame for this if you didn’t treat your bees.

Unusual winter with temperature changes – With climate change we are seeing winters with more and more temperature fluctuations. The bees cluster in winter during the cold weather, if we have warm days they will break this cluster and maybe even go out to forage in the warmth of the sun. The winter days are short and the temperatures drop quickly, this can have a big affect on the bees, some won’t make it home because they get too cold and in the hive they may not make it back to the main cluster and they may die from the cold. A small weak colony will almost certainly die in a big hive as they won’t be able to generate enough heat. You definitely can’t blame yourself for this, no one can control the weather!

Predators – Mice are big winter predators to honeybees, the bees offer a lovely snug warm environment with lots food for them! If they get into the broodbox they will cause lots of stress to your bees. By fitting a mice guard or simply reducing the hive entrance to a single bee space you can stop mice getting into the brood chamber.

Moisture – moisture by way of condensation can cause detrimental effects at any time but especially during the cold winter months. Make sure your hives have appropriate ventilation, many beekeepers make the mistake of covering both holes in the crownboard, this stops the airflow and causes condensation. This may cause the demise of your colony. If you think your bees have died due to excess moisture have a look at the hive ventilation and also look at the location of the hive, does it very wet/damp where the hive is located?

Blocked entrance – Your bees need to be able to get out of the hive, even in winter they will take short cleansing flights if the sun is out. If the entrance is blocked by something they won’t be able to get out. It could be heavy snow fall causing the blockage or it could be early spring, there will have been natural bee deaths over the winter months and if the colony was big going in these numbers will also be big and could block a small entrance.

How much stores do my bees need for winter?

Depending on what strain of bee you have the amount of stores needed by your bees to get through winter will vary. We can apply an average rule that your bees will need somewhere around 18-22kg (40-50lb) to get them through winter, some large colonies headed with prolific queens may use more.

When we harvest the honey off our bees at the end of August we need to ensure we leave enough for our bees. If you run nationals, and you have strong colonies that you have removed all the honey supers from it is very unlikely your bees will have enough space in the brood box to cater for all the stores needed for winter. Remember that your colony will still have quite a bit of brood, especially if they are strong so there will be limited food in the brood box, although the brood nest will be reducing their may not be enough foraging time available for them to fill the hatching brood cells. For this reason it is common practice for those who run nationals to leave their bees a super of honey. The super is usually put under the brood box rather then left on top. The reason for putting it underneath is that when the queen starts to lay, she will most likely lay in the middle and work upwards and therefore when you do your first spring checks you may find that you have brood in your super. If you put the super underneath it is very unlikely that you will have any brood laid in it. When you do your first winter checks you simply rotate the boxes back around and reinstate the queen excluder between them (you will have removed the queen excluder to allow the cluster of bees to move freely around both boxes during the winter months) making of sure that the queen is in the brood box! It is said that a full national super of honey can hold anything between 25 – 40lb of honey. This will of course depend on how your bees have pulled the frames, how full the frames actually are and how many frames you have in your super e.g. are you using dummy boards in your super! But, in any case above if the super appears full and has a good weight to it you will have a substantial amount of honey stores, which in addition to the honey stores they can get into the national brood box, should equate to a good amount they will require for winter.

A British Standard Brood frame full of honey contains around 2.2kg (5lb) of stores. A 14×12 brood frame holds around 3.25kg (7lb). Both Commercial Brood and Langstroth Brood Frames holds around 3kg (6.5lb), the commercial holds just a little more than the langstroth. Using these figures you can assess the amount of stores in your colony and if they are short of stores you can offer you bees some syrup to top them up.

Most beekeepers would offer them a syrup feed, this can be a pre-made bee feed or you can mix your own sugar feed. Syrup can be offered to the bees in various different feeders; rapid feeder – these are placed on the crown board and the bees have access from below by means of hole or slot and a barrier which prevents them from drowning. There are many varieties of rapid feeders, some only take small amounts of feed and others can take large volumes and they are known by different names but all function in the same way – Ashforth, Miller, English, these all take larger volumes of syrup. Contact feeders are plastic buckets with a gauze cover hole in the lid. You need to invert these to create vacuum so you do need a bucket or something to catch the syrup that will come out before the vacuum holds it, the bucket is then positioned, with the gauze directly over the hole of the crownboard. Frame feeders are another type of feeder however you will need to remove at least one frame to make space for the feeder so I would suggest that a frame feeder would not be a good choice if you were trying to get the maximum amount of stores into your bees as the season is drawing to a close, these would perhaps be better used during the season if you find you need to feed during a dearth.

I do know of a few beekeepers who say they only ever offer their bees fondant no matter the time of the year. There is some question as to whether the bees do take fondant down into the brood nest and store it or if they only use it when they need it so do bare this in mind if you are feeding your bees to encourage them to take down stores. We have always only fed fondant over the winter months and syrup at any other times. Certainly if you came across a colony that was on the verge of starvation you would need to offer them syrup. We do cover what to feed bees and when in another post.

How do we check if our bees still have food in the middle of winter?

As we go through winter it is simply not good enough to think your bees will have enough stores, you must check them, if you don’t and they run out of food they will die of starvation. “But we don’t open our hives in the winter so how do we check?” I hear you ask. How we check for stores is by hefting. You heft your hive on three sides and see how heavy it is. We check on three sides because if the food was all stored to one side and we only hefted from the back we would not feel the weight so by checking three sides we will get a better estimate of whether they need extra feed or not.

I always suggest to new beekeepers that they heft their hives during the season after an inspection so they can get a feel for the weight. You will know how many frames you have filled with food, so if you heft it once you have put the roof back on and you will start to get an idea of what weight relates to what food stores they have so when winter comes you will be better prepared.

If you find your hives are feeling light then you can offer them fondant. You cut a hole in the underside of the fondant pack, peel back the wrapper to expose it and place this directly over the hole of the crownboard, your bees only have to come to the underside of the hole to get the feed. The wrapper is see through so to check if they need more all you need to do is remove the hive roof, which can be done quietly and quickly thus not disturbing the bees.

Fondant and Candi on bees February

If you have done all of the above then you can feel assured you have done all you could for you bees. Unfortunately there will always be winter losses and even if your bees do have food stores either in the frames or fondant on the crownboard they may fall victim of starvation. Winter starvation where they have food stores is usually down the bees, when in cluster during very cold periods, moving away from the food and not with it. The diagnosis for death in this case is called isolation starvation and there if nothing you or anyone could have done to foresee this happening or indeed to help.

I’ve spotted a swarm of bees, who do I contact to collect it?

If you are a not a bee keeper and you are reading this, the answer to your question will be to search on the internet for your local beekeeping association. On their website you will find details of who to call for swarm collection in your area.

If you find bees living in the structure of your property this is a very different situation to swarm collection. A hobbyist beekeeper will not be able to help with colony removal like this as they will not have adequate insurance. There are profession companies that can help with the removal of these feral colonies, do check they have adequate public liability insurance. They will ensure the all the comb, honey and all of the bees are removed. This can be very costly so before you begin down this road do consider if the bees really are a nuisance. If you look on the BBKA website you will find links to such companies that can give you advise and provide you with quotes for the removal.

If, however, you are a beekeeper and you are reading this the answer is of course that you should collect the swarm yourself! Your bees are your responsibility and if they swarm you should try to see where the swarm goes and deal with it yourself so that it does not become a nuisance to the public or your neighbours. If you are a new beekeeping and don’t know how to collect swarms speak to your mentor if you have one or seek help and guidance from your local beekeeping association. Once you have seen how to collect swarms you will have confident the next time to do so on your own.

If you are a known beekeeper in your village or town you will probably find that you will be called for every swarm that shows up in your area and they will all believe they are from your bees even if they aren’t! I would say that all beekeepers have the responsibility to do what they can to assist anyone that calls about swarms. If you are unable to collect the swarm yourself then put them in touch with someone who can help them.

Happy Beekeeping!

I’ve spotted a swarm of bees, who do I contact to remove it?

If you see a swarm of bees hanging on a tree, clustered on a shed or wall or even on a parked car then you should be able to find a swarm collector through your local beekeeping association. Once you make contact with they will most likely ask you a few questions in order to gather all the information they need so they have the appropriate equipment to remove the swarm.

  • Where are you – address, postcode, phone number, other location details
  • Where are the bees -easy to get at; height from ground, in tree, bush, in building
  • Description of bees – round and furry (they may be Bumble Bees not Honeybees), do they have a waist, estimate of number etc
  • You may be asked to send a photo of the bees from your phone
  • How long have they been there – just arrived, an hour, several hours, longer
  • What are they doing – fly in a cloud, with a purpose or just milling around, have they settled and are gathered in a ball?
  • Can we have access at dusk or similar?

Some examples of swarms of honey bee below. Click here to find your local swarm collector by postcode

Once you have made contact with the local collector he or she will come out and deal with the swarm. They will most likely shake or brush the bees into a box or nucleus hive. There will still be some bees that are flying around so ideally they will leave the box with an entrance open close to where the cluster to attract any flying bees. Once the sun has gone down all the bees should be in the box and the beekeeper can simply return, close the entrance and remove the bees safely.

It is worth noting that bees don’t always stay in the box that the swarm collector shakes them into. If the swarm has already decided on its new home, or simply does not like the box/nuc hive that the swarm collector has shaken them into, they can go again! They may even move back out to where they originally clustered. The swarm collector could try again but I often find if they go once they go again and they end up being the swarm that got away.

How do I unite two colonies?

There are many reasons why we may need to unite two colonies together. It may be that during the season our colonies numbers have increased due to taking in swarms or doing splits/ artificial swarms for swarm prevention or control and now as we head towards winter we want to reduce our colony numbers. It may be that we have a colony that is healthy but very small and the likelihood of it getting through winter is slim so we want to unite it with a stronger colony. It may be that there is shortage of queens at the end of season and you have a queenless colony. You may have performed an artificial swarm and don’t want to leave the bees to raise a new queen due to poor weather. There will be many other reasons why you may want to unite two colonies.

Uniting is a relatively quick and easy process and the only extra equipment you need is newspaper. I have read may blogs that make the process seem quite complicated; it really isn’t.

If the bees you want to unite are in the same apiary but a good distance apart the first thing you will need to do is to move one of the hives a little bit each day until they are within a few feet of each other so the flying bees find the their new home. If you are uniting 2 colonies from different sites then simply site the colony you have moved in to the new apiary next to the one you are going to unite it with.

If both your colonies have queens it is not necessary to remove one of the queens before uniting unless of course you favour one of the queens over the other. If you leave it for the bees to decide they will usually keep the younger queen. Decide which hive you are going to use for the bottom half of the uniting and remove the roof and crown board. Place a couple of sheets of newspaper so that it completely covers the brood box and pierce a few small small holes in it, do not use a hive tool as this will create too big a hole, some say you don’t even need to make any holes. Now place the brood box of the other colony directly onto of the newspaper, put the crown board and roof on and do not disturb them again for a week. The bees, top and bottom will start to nibble through the newspaper, during which their scents will mix. It will take around 24 hours for the bees to nibble through the newspaper, when you return in a week you may see evidence of the newspaper but the majority will have gone.

If one of your colonies is stronger than the other we suggest you leave this at the bottom and put the smaller colony on the top. If you have a honey super on the bees you can leave this in place and put the newspaper on this rather than the brood box and then put your other brood box on top.

It is said that uniting should be done in the evening but we unite during the day with no problems.

If you feel you are not happy with letting your bees decide which queen they want to head their colony or if you are concerned that your queen may get damaged as she fights it out with the other then you can find and remove one of the queens yourself. Some say it’s more natural to let the bees decide however in the wild colonies would not unite so it cannot be a natural process for them. You must go with what you are more comfortable and happiest doing. Obviously if one of the colonies is displaying traits you don’t like then this is the one you will remove the queen from before you unite them. If you do remove a queen it would be normal practice for the queenless colony to be put on top of the queen right colony and not the other way around.

Always go through both colonies and check all is well before you unite them. If you are removing a queen yourself then I would make that my first job so that the pheromones can start to disperse a little before I lifted the brood box onto the newspaper.

If you are uniting a colony because it has struggled all year make sure you check that it is disease free which may be the cause of it struggling. Do not unite any colonies if they have any health concerns, you may be inadvertently spreading disease through your other colonies.

If you decided on your last inspection that you are going to unite two colonies next time you visit your bees, do make sure you go through both colonies and double check they are both queen right, before you start the uniting, just to make sure nothing has changed since you last inspected them.

Happy beekeeping!