Let’s Talk About Dead Bees

Find answers to why did you lose your hives?

Let’s Talk About Dead Bees

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Like many beekeepers, we’ve lost bees. Finding dead bees is never easy, and there can be many causes.

By Laura Tyler, Colorado My husband and I were out on the town not too long ago when we ran into a beekeeping acquaintance. “How are your bees?” came the inevitable question. So inevitable, that I almost don’t remember who asked it. (Well, for the record, it was me.)

“Oh, they’re doing great!” came the reply as it often does from people we are acquainted with, but not close. I hear a different story when I talk with closer beekeeping friends, people I trust, people I hope trust me.

“How are your bees?” I ask.

“Struggling,” they say.

Yeah, us, too.

Like many beekeepers, we lost bees this winter. New packages failed to build up in a normal way last summer and were unusually slow to build comb and put away stores into fall. In September, aggressive yellow jacket predation weakened them further leaving them unable to carry themselves through the cold. It was heartbreaking to watch and a cold comfort to know we are not alone. In May of 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture published the results of its new nationwide survey, Honey Bee Colony Health. Their tallies, as you may have guessed, were disheartening. Colony totals declined 8 percent from January 1, 2015, to January 1, 2016, among operations with five or more colonies. In other words, colonies are crashing at a higher rate than beekeepers can make them up by splitting, investing in new packages or collecting swarms. Honey production is also on the wane.

While bee decline is a widely discussed and reported phenomenon, it can feel difficult for individual beekeepers to speak openly about weakness and loss in their own apiaries. I think this is because bee losses are frustrating, sad, sometimes baffling, and can feel personal. You almost don’t know where to begin. To admit loss is to make yourself vulnerable to judgment by people who may not see beekeeping the way you do, and to invite unwanted speculation about how well or poorly you have done by your bees.

To complicate matters, the conversation about what causes bee decline has become political. On one end of the spectrum are beekeepers and environmentalists alarmed by mounting evidence showing a link between the use of systemic insecticides, most notably the neonicotinoids, and bee decline. On the other end are the neonic-skeptics, beekeepers who view bee decline as what happens when the varroa mite meets uninformed or otherwise lazy beekeeping. In the middle are people who believe it is a combination of forces: pesticides, infestation by varroa, habitat loss and questionable beekeeping practices that are working together to harm bees.


As a beekeeper, it is natural to look inward at the factors you control when your colonies fail to thrive, or don’t take off at all.

“What did I do wrong?” “Could I have done it differently?” “What signs did I miss?” It is important to be able to assess problems and adjust to changing conditions in your apiary as challenges arise. But sometimes there is an element of shame associated with problems, a feeling of embarrassment or injured pride, which can make it difficult to face the tragedy of dead bees head-on. It feels scary to admit my own losses to you here because I know I am opening myself to judgment. But having kept bees for a while now, 16 years and counting, I also have perspective. I know what the old normal looks like. I know what healthy bees look like, and what awesome feats of comb construction, honey making and reproduction they can perform when all is going well. So I am willing to take a risk.

Here are a few of the weird problems we have seen off-and-on in the last five years that you may have also seen. I have excluded the common plagues that result in dead bees: varroa, American foulbrood, chalkbrood, and nosema from this list.

Fertility issues: Weird, spotty laying patterns and an unusually high rate of self-requeening, brand new colonies rejecting their queens and raising new ones at odd times.

Idiopathic brood disease: This is a relatively new coinage that emerged a few years ago to describe sick-appearing brood that is not readily identifiable as American or European foulbrood.

Overall failure to thrive: Bees are building up themselves slower, building less comb and raising new bees less quickly than normal even when nectar and pollen are abundant. This is the symptom that prevailed for us this year, and combined with predation by some extraordinary yellow jackets, did many of our bees in.

“Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection,” says Brené Brown, Ph.D., in her bestselling book, The Gifts of Imperfection. While it may feel risky to talk about how your bees are doing when they are not doing well, I believe that it is important for two reasons.

One, talking with others is one way we get to learn from other beekeepers, both more and less experienced than we are, about what is working and not working well for our bees in an increasingly stressful beekeeping environment. And two, taking a risk and talking openly about dead bees can create a genuine opportunity to connect. Many of us who keep bees pride ourselves on our independence. We tend to value individual competence in the bee yard, and we respect our beekeeping elders. Yet we are united by our interest in one of the most social, cooperative organisms on the planet, the eusocial honeybee. And year after year, even in the bad years, she shows us what is possible when we work together.

How To Protect Against Robbing

Robbing by yellow jackets and other bees is an opportunistic behavior that can happen at any time of year, but happens most typically in the fall. A strong colony should be able to defend itself against garden variety robbing, but weak colonies are vulnerable and robbing will do them in.

  • Remove dead-outs from your apiary as soon as you discover them. Dead bees and colonies become targets for robbing. Robbing behavior is contagious and will spread to nearby colonies if not checked.
  • Avoid leaving wet honey supers and equipment out for the bees to “clean up” after you harvest your honey, especially if you harvest in the fall. The free honey buffet at a time when other resources are scant can trigger robbing mania.
  • Use an entrance reducer to restrict vulnerable colonies’ entry and exit points. It is easier for the bees to defend a small hole than a large entrance from marauding yellow jackets and wasps.
  • Use duct tape to seal any cracks between equipment. The more aggressive yellow jackets will attempt to exploit not just entrances but the cracks between supers as well as entrances.
  • You can knock down yellow jacket populations without harming other insects in your environment by using yellow jacket traps baited with pheromones. Put them out in early spring to catch yellow jacket queens before they have a chance to establish new colonies.
  • Pay attention! If a colony is at all viable your timely attention to it during robbing season can make the difference between its survival and collapse.

Laura Tyler is the director of Sister Bee, a documentary about the life of beekeepers, and lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she raises bees with her husband. If you have questions for her about raising bees, contact her at laura@sisterbee.com.

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