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Diagnosing the Cause of Death
This is not a very uplifting topic for sure, but one of the most important skills in beekeeping is to learn from our mistakes, of which we all make many! The average annual hive loss rate is up to 44%. We all lose bees, especially in the first few years of beekeeping. There is tremendous value in what you’ve learned, in your equipment and drawn honeycomb. This gives you a tremendous boost next year! Your first year in beekeeping should be viewed as a learning experience.
There are a variety of reasons hives can die. In most cases, they do not die quickly, but something happens weeks or months earlier that causes them to dwindle in strength over time, and eventually die. As you try to understand why your hive died, it is important to think through the history of your hive over the past 6 months.
Here are some common causes of hive death, and what it looks like in a hive:
- Mites. The number one question I ask when someone's hive dies is: Did you treat for mites? What were your mite counts after treatment? Are you sure it worked? Did you continue testing every 6 weeks or so over the summer and fall? If mite counts rise above 2 per 100, they begin damaging the hive and spreading viruses. If you did not treat, or didn't treat until you had 10+ mites per hundred, or never tested later in the year, I usually blame the death on mites. You can also look on the bottom board of a dead hive. At times there is a layer of dead bees, and you can often see mites on the bees & all over the bottom board if you look very closely.
- Starvation. Hives need lots of stored honey or syrup to survive the winter. If your dead hive does not have any honey stores, or you did not ensure they had adequate food stores in the fall, starvation is a probable cause of death. Bees dead with their heads inside cells is a classic symptom of starvation. A bit less common in the south, but if there are a few weeks with sub-freezing temperatures, bees can starve if they can't break the cluster and move to other areas in the hive that have honey stores.
- Poor summer nutrition. This one is a bit more subtle, but if the hive did not have proper pollen and nectar resources in the 2 months leading up to the first freeze, they most likely were not able to raise healthy "winter bees" that live for several months over the winter. If that's the case, your hive will dwindle in population & eventually die over the winter as the worker bees reach the end of their shortened lifespan.
- Queenless hive or failing queen. If your hive became queenless , or had a failing queen late in the year, and the bees were not able to raise a new queen, the population will dwindle over the fall & die as the hive is not able to go into the winter with the proper population. A healthy queen, laying large amounts of brood in late summer and early fall is important to ensure a healthy hive going into the winter.