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Dead Hive: What do I do?

I found a dead hive:

Dead out―The mere words make a beekeeper's face instantly drop. Whether by nature or by beekeeper, losing a hive just stinks! The definition of a dead out is a dead hive. Go figure―that seems a little too simplistic, right? Not really. It implies more of a question than a definitive answer to a problem. Some conditions are seasonal, but so many of them could occur in any season throughout the year.

I Found: Dead bees head down in cells or a group of dead bees clustered around what was brood but has long since died.

Cause of Death: Starvation. The bees simply ran out of food. This can happen any time of year but primarily at the end of winter and early spring (March). Read more HERE

I Found: Dead bees with no evidence of old brood

Cause of Death: Failing queen in late fall or early winter. If your queen wasn’t laying sufficiently in the fall, you lacked the workforce to gather resources, feed larvae, and warm the hive during cold weather. In spring, summer, and fall, the colony will quickly die with a failing queen simply because of no eggs being laid. No eggs = no nurse bees = no foragers = no food! Read more HEREdead hive honey bee starvation

Another Possible Cause of Death: Varroa. High Varroa mite loads can and will cause your colony to die. Typically, your indicators were prior to death and are now long gone because of the decay of the colony. Testing and treating for Varroa is crucial for survival all year, every year!

sticky board test

A quick 24- hour sticky board test once a month can reveal issues before they get out of control like this.

Sticky board test photo credit: Annalisa Mazzarella

I Found: Few bees milling around; may or may not still have a queen present, along with an overwhelming bad fermented odor as well as little worms (look like maggots) crawling in and around the cells.

Cause of Death: Small hive beetle infestation has overtaken the hive. SHBs are a part of everyday beekeeping in warmer, moister climates, and when not controlled they can and will cause your colony to abscond (leave) or die a slow, miserable death. Staying on top of SHBs is truly one of the easiest tasks we face. It doesn’t require any testing, and all effective methods of control are mechanical and don’t require medication or pesticides to be placed in our hives. Read more about small hive beetles

I Found: Few bees or no bees; big worms and moths crawling around; cocoons and webbing built on the tops, sides, and faces of frames.

Cause of Death: Overrun with wax moths because of neglect. Yes, you heard it―neglect! Wax moths are the vultures of the bee world, meaning they will take over a weak, failing, or failed hive. Typically, they take over where the bees had been, completely destroying old comb and even eating into frames and the boxes―all completely preventable. When you have a colony in decline, address the problem immediately. If it’s obvious the colony isn’t going to make it, break the box down and store the equipment for future use. A dead out left in your bee yard will quickly turn into trash if not addressed. Read more about Wax moths

I Found: Some dead bees or no dead bees and no resources.

bee hive robbing dead hive

Cause of Death: Robbing. If the rims of the resource cells (honey/nectar) appear to be jagged or torn and you find a lot of wax debris on or below the bottom board, the colony probably didn’t die of starvation but instead was robbed of all of its resources. This doesn’t happen often to strong colonies but rather to colonies with reduced populations due to virus, diseases, or failing queens (causing decreased population).

Robbing can be stopped quickly by reducing the entrance, installing a robbing screen, and running a water sprinkler over the hive.

I Found: Some dead bees or no dead bees and no resources.

Another Possible Cause of Death: Failed queen. The queen was present but stopped laying; if left unnoticed, the colony was doomed. If you spot an excess of dead drone brood cells (capped or not), it is possible your queen became a “drone layer.” A drone-laying queen ran out of sperm at some point; either she wasn’t mated well, or she simply aged out. Either way when this happens the colony is hopeless. Recognizing they need to replace the queen, the workers will begin to lay eggs, trying desperately to save the colony to no avail. Having no “fertilized” eggs to make a supersedure or emergency cell at this most crucial time, the colony ultimately dies. Read more HERE

Do you have a drone layer? Should you try to save it? Let's ask Lauren Ward, Entomologist

Another Possible Cause of Death: Absconding. Often when colonies are sick and failing, are starving, or have high mite loads, they will just leave. Would you live where the conditions were so bad you couldn’t stand to stay? Odds are those bees didn’t survive long once they left, but they really didn’t have a choice―die if we stay, die if we go.

absconded bee hive

I Found: Some bees still milling around but queen long gone, no brood or bad/sick-looking (white, black, shriveled) dead brood, maybe an overabundance of nectar but no nurse bees present.

Cause of Death: Possible disease or virus present. When a colony dies from disease it can be very difficult to pinpoint the cause. Your evidence is most likely gone by the time you find the dead out. But it is very important to know the most common among those we experience. It would take a small novel for me to list the descriptions and explanations of the viruses and diseases honey bees are subjected to. For a very good reference guide CLICK HERE to learn more. Note: Most viruses and diseases are preventable by controlling Varroa mites. To learn more about Varroa mites and how to stay ahead of them Read more about Varroa destruction.

sacbrood virus honey beeSacbrood Virus
American Foulbrood dead hive
American Foulbrood



Another Possible Cause of Death: Swarming. Yes, swarming can cause the death of a colony! When a colony prepares to swarm, in theory they will create multiple viable queen cells. But what if the surviving daughter queen leaves to be mated and never returns, leaving the remainder of the colony that didn’t swarm to fend for themselves? This often has detrimental results.

I Found: Dead bees on the bottom board (moist and rotting)

Cause of Death: Moisture. If the colony doesn’t have sufficient ventilation in the winter, condensation can occur under the lid due to the temperature differential from outside to inside the hive. This water vapor can then chill or even freeze, causing the refrigeration outside to develop inside, resulting in the inability to warm the hive. Mold and mildew are also a problem with an overabundance of moisture; they are not likely to kill the bees but make for a very poor environment for your colony. They will often abscond if left unresolved.

I Found: Dead bees inside the box, on the bottom board, on the landing, and on the ground in front of the hive.

Cause of Death: Possible insecticide, herbicide, or pesticide poisoning. A good indicator that bees have been exposed to poison is a dead bee with her tongue sticking out. Sometimes a kill can occur over a period of time if the bees simply foraged in an area that was recently sprayed. In this case, the foragers may die off slowly and, over time, carry the poison into the colony, causing a rapid kill.

There are so many ifs, ands, and buts in the forensics of a hive. But truthfully, it all boils down to one big point: Do regular hive inspections and stay on top of the condition of your bees! When we do the biweekly checks and quarterly hive inspections on our bees, we are able to see if something needs to be addressed. The problem starts when we don't react to a situation, then a month later we are faced with the reality that our colony didn’t recover without our intervention.

Be proactive!

All is not lost! Your value is in your equipment and drawn comb. Listen as Blake tells us how to handle a dead out.