At the local beekeepers association, one of the top questions on every one’s mind right now is the “How did your bees do over the winter?”  Comments from fellow beekeepers are indicating the winter was a hard one for many of them. I have heard about over winter losses ranging up to 80% of the keepers total colonies.  Touch wood, our hive did survive the winter and has begun the spring build up in anticipation of the coming nectar flow.

The reasons range from frozen colonies to starvation, an older non producing queen to animal attacks (both 2 legged and 4), nosema to “I’ve got no clue”. 

The large numbers from this very small sampling of beekeepers made me wonder if this is a local problem or are we seeing the winter losses higher across the board.  So, I created a survey to expand this inquiry to a larger audience.  If you are interested in participating, click here.

In the case of many “newbees” it’s difficult to determine why the colony that you have nurtured and pampered through the season wasn’t there to greet you in the spring. Without some guidance from an experience beekeeper, you may consider all different, and frightening reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the real reason.  Here are a couple of the reasons I have learned from my discussions.

Starvation – This is a common problem with hive losses, the colony just couldn’t find enough to eat to sustain them through the winter.  On opening the hive, the beekeeper will find the bees with their heads stuck into the comb looking to gather that last little bit of honey out of the cell.  You will notice that I said that the bees couldn’t find enough to eat, and that is often the case.  The beekeeper will find frames of honey untouched by the bees, sometimes just a couple frames away.  This usually occurs when the cluster moves up and around the hive and may have bypassed an area.  Because there is no honey path to take them back to the unused honey, it remains unused.

Nosema - Honey bees are one of the cleanest creatures around.  They take great pride in keeping the colony clean and will defecate outside the hive rather than inside.  Heck, the queens attendants even remove her feces from the hive.  When the beekeeper opens the hive, they will find the frames and inside walls streaked with bee dung, a sign that the bees were unable to leave the hive on a cleansing flight, or had dysentery which caused the downfall of the entire colony.

Frozen Colony – This occurs when a warm spell comes into the neighborhood and the bees believe they can break the cluster and spread 0ut.  They might go looking for additional stores of pollen or honey in the hive, or just want to see something a little different.  Unfortunately when the cold weather returns, the spread out bees may cluster into several smaller groups and without the combined effort of the colony, not be able to keep the queen and themselves from freezing.  The beekeeper will find several clusters of bees in different area when they open the hive to investigate. 

Animal Attack-   This one is pretty obvious.  The hive is knocked over and the hive bodies and frames are laying Willy nilly around the bee yard.  Because the bees have been exposed to the cold and can’t find a protected area to cluster, they expire.

Poor Laying Queen – This one shouldn’t hit new beekeepers, but it has this past year.  One of the reasons that many beekeepers replace their queens on a regular basis is to make sure that the queen remains active and continues laying eggs at an acceptable rate.  If the queen stops laying to early in the fall, especially with the “winter bees” the colony may not have a big enough population to  survive the winter.

“I’ve got no clue” -  I know there are other reasons for a winter loss, and some of the areas that I have heard talk of include to much humidity in the hive, tracheal mites, improper air circulation and others.  I’m not sure how to differentiate these types of issues and would ask for comments on how to identify these types of losses as well as other reasons for losses and how to identify them.

Thanks for your input.  I appreciate it.  Be sure to check back to see the results of the winter dead out survey.