What do you do When Your Honey Bees Die?

Did your honey bees die? What’s next? Do you start over? Can you find out what went wrong? Was it all your fault? Read on to find out how we coped with the loss of our first colony.

Keeping bees is like keeping sunbeams. They are amazing, beautiful, and fleeting. They are also, mostly, out of your control.

When we first started keeping bees, we thought we knew it all. We had spent years reading up on any and everything honey bee. We visited 6 different apiaries and interacted closely with dozens of beekeepers ranging in experience from 1 to 70 years. We had bought all new equipment and researched where to buy the bees.

We settled on buying an overwintered Minnesota nucleus colony of Russian honey bees. We made this decision because we wanted bees hardy to our area. A nucleus colony comes “ready made” and should build up quickly. Russians are known for their cold hardiness and they were less than 20 miles away. Local bees!

With years of beekeeping meetings, visits, discussions, books, and hands on training; we thought we were ready.

But things started to go wrong right away. Our bees were scheduled to be picked up at the end of May. This is later than most nucleus colonies, but Minnesota weather slows things down and we thought it wouldn’t ultimately matter.

A swarm in May is worth a load of haya swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly

That year, the rain just never seemed to quit. We got a message from the apiary saying the bees were delayed in the apple fields. What?? They never said the bees were farmed out for pollination? And apples? Apples are some of the mostly heavily spread food crops. This was unwelcome news.

We waited. It was June 18th by the time we picked up our bees; the first available date. But the rain didn’t stop. It was into mid July before we had a good sunny day.

Why does this matter? The bees couldn’t fly much during the rain and even when they got out, the pollen had been washed from the flowers. Rain can leave the flowers without nectar or pollen for about 3 days. It was a tough time.

Just before things turned south

But we are getting too far ahead. When we took the bees home, there was something wrong. The hive had a scent. A fermented scent. And the brood were dry. Dry brood generally means protein deficiency. There was a little bee bread in the frame. They were cramped in the nuc box but that seemed about right. There were 2 1/2 frames of capped brood so they seemed ready to explode. We figured they would sort themselves out as soon as they had a nice dry box to live in.

We put our 4 frame nuc into a deep brood box, complete with frame feeder. We checked the frame feeder weekly but only tore into the hive every other week to minimize disruption. The bees didn’t seem interested in the syrup. In fact, they just ignored it.

Pretty soon it became apparent that the workers were backfilling the old brood spaces with honey. We saw foragers come and go with pollen and nectar. But the brood were disappearing. The queen was still laying, but not in a regular pattern. And the brood were still dry…..until they started melting.

We weren’t great at taking photos while managing the bees. It’s a difficult thing to hold multiple bits and take a picture. Plus our hands were always sticky. But it’s important to explain what this looked like for anyone else that finds themselves with “melted brood.”

The brood still existed in every stage; eggs, larva, pupa, and capped. But the pupa were smooshed down – liquified in the sides of the cells. They didn’t rope. They weren’t brown. They were white and liquid. There was no visible varroa on the brood or in the cells.

We immediately thought the bees were starving. They did have honey, and the foragers were going out, but hey weren’t taking the syrup. They didn’t have ANY pollen stored in the frames. Were they cannibalizing their young in order to survive? We put out dry pollen. They ignored it. Eventually, bears stole it! We put dry pollen on top of the frames inside the hive. It was ignored.

Ignored pollen: chewed tissue paper – bees chilling by a feeder that never loses any volume…..

We made pollen patties. They were ignored until they turned rock hard and were tossed. Maybe the bees didn’t see the food? Well, they diligently removed the tissue paper underneath the pollen patties. They walked all over the hive and were seen near the feeders. We tried essential oil attractants.

What happened? Well….as we were trying another syrup feeding system with essential oil attractants…..bumblebees showed up and started attacking the feeders. Than another hive came robbing!!!!

Our bees sprung into action and an epic battle ensued. We saw them do what “bees are supposed to do” as they wrestled and tumbled on the front landing board. We reduced the entrances and took away the essential oil laden feeders.

We put new feeders inside the hive and waited. Every week, the number of bees decreased. Eventually the queen disappeared. Then the hive was a ghost town. No dead bees inside or around the hive. No bees period. They left a few frames of honey behind.

In case you were wondering, we did treat for mites. We treated with oxalic acid right away (that would be mid June when we got the hive). Then we tested in July in found our mite level to be 3/100 bees. We started treatment with Apivar. We would have used formic acid but it was apparent our hive was weak and we weren’t sure they would survive the formic acid treatment. Maybe that was a mistake.

Ghost bees being tested for mites

Either way, the hive numbers and brood dwindled. There were no signs of deformed wing virus but we did have crawlers – adult bees crawling and unable to fly near the entrance from the very beginning. Not a lot of crawlers, but enough that we saw them. They looked perfectly healthy, but could not/would not fly and wandered off “on foot” away from the hive to die.

In the end, we were left with 3 possibilities:

  • Parasitic Mite Syndrome
  • Starvation
  • Failure to thrive from starting too late and the endless rain?

It’s also possible that they were exposed to intense pesticide use in our rural farm area. But we think the previously mentioned possibilites are more likely.

It should be noted that these bees (RUSSIANS) were absolutely gentle. They never chased after us, got aggressive, or even tried to sting. Is that how Russians always behave? Or are sick bees super gentle? The queen hung on until the VERY end. The bees never tried to supercede her. She always had a retinue looking after her. She kept laying regularly. They never produced swarm cups. They stopped making drones almost right away. They also never drew any wax on the new frames.

They stopped storing pollen. They refused to drink sugar syrup. And no, we didn’t heat it, use brown sugar, corn syrup or anything weird. We just mixed sugar and water in a 1:1 and and a 2:1 ratio. Unheated. Unadulterated. Until we mixed in some anise syrup, that our bees ignored but triggered a bumblebee frenzy and robbing session from a nearby hive.

The bees would eat honey. We accidentally spilled some of their own honey and they went to it right away (you can see the bees eating their own spilled honey in one of the first photos on this page.) And they did defend when they were being robbed. Other than that, everything else was wrong.

So few bees, but lots of eggs were being laid

So what do you do after your bees die? We decided to go over everything that happened and to read, read, read. That’s why we think Parasitic mite syndrome is the most likely cause of our bees death. But it could have easily been pollen starvation. Or both. PMS is sort of a catch all of unknown causes, maybe caused by mites, maybe tracheal mites, maybe not. And there is no real treatment other than good nutrition and varroa mite treatment. It’s defining features are failure to take syrup, melting white non-roping brood, and hive death.

This is not what we wanted. We did all we knew to do – and consulted many experienced beekeepers who were speechless about what they saw. Maybe we were just unlucky? Our poor bees. And they were so nice and gentle too….

We chose to try again. This time with the usual “package bees” that come back from the pollinator circuit. Word on the street is that none of these bees make it through the winter, but our super late “Minnesota wintered” bees never made it to the fall. What’s the right thing to do? We don’t know, but the plan is to read more, listen more, ask more questions, and try again.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

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