My hive died this winter. What happened?

Lately we have been receiving several questions about dead hives. If your hive did not make it, we are sad. It is always a bummer when bees die! We are working tirelessly to find ways to keep bees healthier, but the beekeeping industry is not on top of bee diseases. . . yet!

While we can’t diagnose all hives with a blog post, we can tell about the most common trends. When bees die, about 90% of the time it is because of varroa mites (even if you don’t see mites on the bottom board of the hive).

A sad fact about beekeeping is that 1/3 of hives die every year nationally. We recommend that beekeepers plan for this by keeping more than one hive and splitting hives in the spring of the second year. (See “Divide to Maintain” model in Lesson 7.)

Beekeepers need to check bees for mites spring and fall. If it is a new package, you can usually skip the spring check, but can do one to see if bees are clean. It seems like all hives have mites these days, so our own goal is to keep mites below an economic threshold so they don’t overwhelm the colony. We plan to test for mites and experiment with oxalic acid vapor this year. It’s a more “natural” treatment option, and is an acid found in honey. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Our favorite mite testing method is a powdered sugar roll, as it tests mites without killing bees. Here are some blog posts about mites and instructions and video on how to do a sugar roll test.  All of the materials needed to do it are common household items except the hardware cloth screen for the mason jar. We sell those for $2 at our online shop.

We hope these techniques help prevent loss from mites in the future.
We encourage all beekeepers to buy and read Honeybee Diseases and Pests from the University of Minnesota Bee Lab online. It is sold with Beekeeping in Northern Climates and a DVD for $27 (as of this blog post). These books have the most sustainable, research-based options for treating for mites, if you end up needing to treat. The have a whole spectrum of treatment options, ranging from “Natural” to harsh chemicals and use integrated pest management (IPM) strategies.
Lastly, it is okay to use equipment and eat honey from hives killed by mites. Death of the colony also kills the mite parasites, which require live bees to survive. If you happen to smell an off smell, from mold, mice, or foulbrood, don’t reuse the comb.
If your bees DID make it, remember to check them often (in warm weather) to make sure they have enough to eat. Feed them as needed until there is a steady nectar flow.
Hope this helps!
If you are planning to try again, this video will help you decide how to clean up dead hives to prepare for new bees.

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