How Do I Prepare a Dead Hive for New Bees?

Ask the Expert!

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Stephen Green of Massachusetts asks:

I have two hives. One made it through the winter and appears to be strong. The second did not survive the winter. Both hives are composed of three medium brood chambers.

How do I prepare the dead hive for the new bees? Besides removing the dead bees, debris and burr comb what other tasks need to be completed? After installing the new package, how many of the medium brood chambers should be installed. If not installing all three brood chambers immediately, when do I add the additional chambers? Are there any other steps that need to be taken?

When do I add the honey supers to the hive that made it through the winter?

Josh Vaisman of Colorado responds: 

First off, I’m so sorry for your loss. I feel like it’s never easy to lose a colony and my heart goes out to you.

First, the good news. Unless the colony died because of a nasty disease like American Foulbrood, you can definitely re-use the equipment. AFB would present as a horrible smelling hive with rotting, brown, slimy brood. You don’t want to re-use equipment if the colony had AFB because it will pass on the new bees. 

Chances are your colony did not die from AFB so let’s get to your next question —how do you prepare the dead out for new bees? The truth is, the new bees will do most of the work. Cleaning out the burr comb is a good idea and removing as many dead bees as you can helps too. That said, even if a few dead bees remain the new bees will clean them out.  They will also rebuild comb as needed. You could use this opportunity to replace any broken frames or worn down foundation. Finally, you might consider freezing the equipment overnight to kill off any wax moth eggs/larva that might have snuck into the deadout.

With a 3-medium setup, I’d install a new, healthy 3 lb. package using two of the medium boxes. Once you see a good 5-6 frames of brood in each of those boxes you can consider adding the 3rd box. But keep in mind, with a new package it’s better to wait a little too long to add a box than to add a box too soon. Why? Because it’ll be 21 days from install before the colony starts growing….and even then it takes some time for the population to really start booming to the point they can manage 3 boxes.

Oh, also, unless the deadout has a lot of honey in it already I’d consider feeding the new package sugar water until you get a strong nectar flow locally or you’re ready to add honey supers. Which leads to the next question — when to add super to the colony that survived?

Similar to your new package, they are in the process of increasing the population right now (assuming you aren’t in the southern hemisphere!). To justify adding honey supers you need some factors in place — at the very least, you want lots of bees and lots of natural nectar coming in. That means plenty of nectar-providing flowers blooming. Where I live in Colorado, it’s pretty rare for me to add a honey super on over-wintered hives before the end of May or beginning of June. Once again, I’d err on the side of waiting a little too long than doing it too early.

I hope this helps! And congrats on the overwintered hive! You got this.

Followup with Stephen:

I was able to do a deeper dive into the “dead” hive and found the results confusing. The bottom medium brood chamber contained both empty cells and capped brood cells. The middle medium brood chamber also contained both empty cells and capped brood cells. The outer frames (frame #1 and #10) contained a significant amount of honey.  The top medium brood chamber was almost all honey; the bees apparently did not perish due to lack of food.

I did not observe any sign of disease. Additionally, there were no signs of drone or queen cells.

Since the top brood chamber is almost all honey, should I place it back on the hive when installing the new package? And if yes, do I need to feed sugar syrup to the newly installed package? I assume that I should not install the honey super until the brood chambers contain a significant amount of brood. Is this correct?

Josh’s thoughts:

Good for you for taking a deeper dive into the hive! I think it’s always valuable to do a solid ‘post-mortem’ and see what we can learn.

So what it sounds like to me is you have 2 medium boxes full of built out brood comb and one medium box full of fresh honey. In that case, I think what I would do is install the new package into one of the brood boxes and then put the honey super on top. So you’ll start with two boxes total. If you go this route, you do not need to feed the bees though it wouldn’t hurt anything if you did.

I’d probably keep that setup for at least 4 weeks, if not longer. What will happen is they will clean out the brood frames and the queen will start laying eggs. Eventually, they will use up some of the honey from the top box and clear some space in the middle for her to lay more eggs. You’ll want to wait for two things to happen before you add another box — (1) a nice natural nectar flow, and, (2) the population of adult bees to be increasing.  

 All the best!

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