Why Honey Bees Dying in the Hive Should Be Investigated
Get the Facts About Honey Bees and Why They Don't Always Survive in the Hive
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Honey bees dying while you learn to care for the colony and hive is disappointing. It is important to look into the cause of honey bees dying to avoid it happening again. Last year was our first year with a honey bee hive. Things were going very well until late fall. Even though we took precautions and performed all the right winter care steps, our honey bees died. This is disheartening. We have talked to experienced beekeepers, and members of the local association about why our bees didn’t survive. In reading more about the loss of hives, we realized it isn’t as cut and dry as you might think. Here are some of the reasons for honey bees dying in the hive.
Reasons for Honey Bees Dying
Any beekeeper who loses a hive of honeybees should look into the reason. What can I do to stop this from happening again? These are just a couple of questions that may enter your mind upon finding that your hive has failed. In order to become a good beekeeper, we should learn all we can about the species and provide the best care for the honey bees. The reasons behind honey bees dying seem to fall within three major categories, illness, predators, and weather. While we cannot control the weather, we can control how we react to the changes and that may help the hive survive extremes.
Fungus, viruses, and poison are three illness-causing conditions that the little honey bee has to fight. These are often the first thought when we notice honey bees dying.
Nosema – A common fungal disease of the gut in honeybees. The honey bees can contract nosema by feeding each other or by cleaning the fecal deposits in the hive. It commonly affects the older bees in the colony first. Sending a sample of bees in alcohol to the local extension agent for a diagnosis is the way to be certain you have nosema present.
Mites and the Viruses Mites Transmit
Varroa mites and Tracheal mites are the commonly found mites in honey bee colonies. Both species of mites transmit viruses and other diseases while infecting and feeding off the bees. Varroa cannot live without the presence of honey bees. Mites are ectopic, meaning that they live on the surface of the host. In the case of mites and honey bees, the mite sucks the hemolymph (bee blood) from the bee. Many people think the Varroa mite is the most likely answer to what causes colony collapse disorder. Not only causing destruction and weakness in the colony, Varroa mites weaken the bees and leave them susceptible to secondary viral infections. Mites seem to prefer infecting the drones as they develop. Drone trapping and using a screened bottom board instead of a solid wood bottom board are two mechanical methods of controlling mites. Biopesticides are available that may control the mites to some degree. There is also evidence that the Varroa mite is becoming somewhat immune to many of the biopesticides on the market. Research was conducted on essential oil treatments in treating Varroa mites. Lemon, mint, and thyme essential oils seem to be the most effective. Other means of control include powdered sugar, Formic acid, and mineral oil in vapor form.
The tracheal mite attacks the breathing tubes of honey bees. This mite lays eggs in the trachea of the honey bee, causing obstruction and lack of oxygen. In addition, if it doesn’t completely block the airway, it will leave scar tissue from attaching to the walls of the trachea.
Both form of mites are deadly to the colony. The first sign of mite infestation may be visually seeing bees wandering on the ground in front of the hive.
A fast-moving destructive invader that opens up the honey caps and spills honey, wax moths live in the cracks and crevices of the hive. The wax moth moves in destroying all the honeybee’s work and ruining the comb. While there, the moths eat the pollen too. A complete cleaning of the hive is necessary after a wax moth infestation.
Probably needing the least clarification, pesticides used on or near bees will lead to illness and death in the colony. Spraying the hive with pesticides not approved for use on honey bees is against the law. Additionally, why would you want to spray insect spray near the insects that have so many benefits to our ecosystem and food production?
Predators & Pests
From the smallest to the largest, predators are trying to break into the hive. Yellow Jacket wasps, Robber bees from other hives, ants, skunks, rats, mice and bears all enjoy a tasty snack of fresh honey. It seems honey is a healthy, sought after food by many species. It is often a weak hive that is attacked by other insects. When a hive is without a queen bee, it is vulnerable and weak. This is when you should be watching for insect invasions. In a strong colony, the honey bees will defend their hive, and protect the queen. Larger predators may need physical barriers around the hive itself.
Poor Hive Management
The honey bee hive requires maintenance and management. Raising honey bees is not extremely time consuming but does require a commitment to certain tasks. After installing the bees in the hive, wait a week or two before opening the hive to check on the bees. The honey bees will need time to get acquainted with the surroundings and get to work. We prepare some sugar syrup, attach the feeder jar, and make sure water is available to drink. They need to collect pollen, make sure the queen is healthy, feed the new brood, fight off robber bees, and cap honey and brood cells. Not to mention building new comb! When you do go into the hive, wear protective clothing and use the smoker. The smoke actually keeps the bees calmer and less likely to become agitated.
Some people mistakenly think that because bee colonies survive in the wild, there is really nothing to do for the backyard hive. The truth is, depending on weather, management of the hive may be necessary. Early season feeding will get your honey bees off to a strong start. Making water available near the hive lets the bees spend energy looking for pollen and not searching for water. During drought, water will be an essential nutrient to have near the coop. Check and replenish with fresh water as needed.
Last year we had a variable weather pattern on the central East coast. It was extremely warm, followed by early cold. The bees were confused. Many beekeepers were confused. I closed the ventilation between the supers before a cold snap. There was still honey present. Then it warmed up again. And it stayed warm for quite a while. But the bees decided to go out foraging because of the spring-like temperatures. Bees would return to the hive famished from foraging all day and finding nothing. Soon the colony had eaten through all the honey they had for winter. Although bee candy was added to help sustain the bees through the winter, our efforts were not enough. When the hive was opened in the spring, the bees had died.
Another management issue I did not realize I was doing incorrectly involves the hive ventilation. During the hot summer, bees were bearding on the outside of the hive. I consulted a member of the local beekeeping association. He patiently walked me through adding small sticks in between the super boxes to allow air flow. These are the type of management practices that can be learned from joining a local association, finding a mentor, and reading all you can about beginner hive management.
Managing your bee hive helps you get to know the bees. Learn what you need to about feeding bees in winter so they survive in the hive. Ventilation is important to the hive wellness. Watching an experienced beekeeper ventilate their hive would be very helpful. Should you feed bees in the spring if the colony is strong? What if the honey bees dying off is the first sign something is wrong?
When our new colony arrives this spring, there are a few things I will pay more attention to this time.
- Check the health and presence of the queen bee every time I do a health check. A queen must be present to lay the eggs and continue populating the hive.
- Look for eggs being laid by the queen. These are small but you can see the eggs on the brood cells.
- Feed the new colony to stimulate comb building.
- Don’t harvest the honey from the hive the first year. The new colony will need the honey for food during the first winter.
- Look for the causes of honey bees dying as I perform the hive checks. Take quick action if mites or other insect pests are evident.
Are you raising a backyard colony of bees? What pitfalls have you encountered while raising honey bees? Have you experienced honey bees dying?
Originally published in 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.