How to Clean Out & Learn from a Dead Beehive (Here’s What to Do!)

There’s nothing quite like the hum from a hive for the beekeeper. Sometimes, you just can’t wait for the hive to awake and you prompt them into action with a little knock.

This time, however, your greeting is met with complete silence. Perhaps they decided to sleep in, so you knock a little louder. Still nothing. Time for a peek.

When you open the hive, there’s no welcoming party. Not a single representative flies up to recognize your presence. This, in the bee community, is known as a dead out.

Here how you can clean out your dead beehive and learn from this event.

5 Primary Causes of Death Among Hives

To better understand how you should handle a dead beehive, it is important to first consider the cause of death to fully comprehend why the bees died.

Colony deaths can occur at different times of the year, depending on the cause of death.

1. A Dead Beehive Caused by Harsh Winter Elements

Dead Bees in the Winter

The biggest worry for the beekeeper is getting their bees through the winter.

These below freezing temperatures are the most common natural cause of colony loss. In the wild, bees stock up in the fall in preparation for the hermit months.

During winter, depending on how far north the bees are located, there may be no natural food sources for many months so they rely solely on their stocks.

If the fall didn’t yield enough nectar, then they don’t have enough in the pantry to get them through the winter and they will starve to death.

If the size of the colony is too small they could still starve or die from exposure. Many beekeepers have found a cluster of bees just cells away from their honey stores or an untouched candy board.

As you know, bees don’t feed on syrup in the winter and rely on solid sugar like this which can be prepared in several ways.

Bees are designed to slurp up the sugar so they do need a little moisture and heat to liquefy their food a little at a time.

This heat and moisture are provided naturally by the cluster. As the bee-ball moves in the hive, they heat up the contents of the cells that are above them making it possible for the bees to dive in and share with the rest of the colony.

The larger the cluster, the higher the temperature around the cluster, and the more moisture it gives off.

If a colony goes into winter with a small number, they won’t be able to generate enough heat to stay alive or make their food edible.

It’s heartbreaking to open a hive and find a dead cluster with a frame of honey less than an inch away.

If the cluster was small, the next logical question is why did the colony lose such a significant portion of its workforce? These days, the most likely culprit is the varroa mite. Winter can be harsh on a healthy bee so you can imagine how devastating it is on a colony with a compromised immune system.

2. A Dead Beehive Caused by Varroa Mites

Dead Bees from Varroa Mites

Varroa has now been found to feed on the fat cells of adult bees where we previously thought that they only fed on the hemolymph (bee blood). If that wasn’t enough, they always leave the host with a parting gift in the form of viruses.

Most beekeepers prefer to treat for mites once a year and do it just before the onset of fall for the above reason. To give the colony the best chance at surviving the winter, they need to build up a crew of healthy heat generators and caregivers whose purpose is to make it through the harsh frozen period as well as bring up the next generation of foragers come spring.

That’s impossible for a colony riddled with disease. Once you open up the hive, check the debris on the bottom board for varroa.

Once the hosts die, so do they and if they are the culprits you will see a significant number of them at the bottom of the hive along with the dead bees.

3. A Dead Beehive Caused by a Poisoned Food Source

Dead Bees from Pesticides

Sometimes, we kill the bees by poisoning their food source. Depending on the poison, the symptoms will vary.

Some systemic pesticides are hardest on brood and are therefore likely to cause colony collapse.

In this case, there will be very few dead adult bees in or around the hive, but you may notice a lot of larva being expelled from the hive. As the foragers die naturally, the contaminated food source is fed to the brood.

Once the nurse bees detect disease or deformity in the brood, they clean them out causing a great decline in the workforce until finally, only a handful remain and they are not enough to care for both brood and queen causing the death of the colony. In this case, you will want to test your honeycomb for contamination.

Many of these pesticides are soluble in lipids and may not be detected in the honey. However, since the honeycomb can be used for years, the toxic substance can really build up in the wax and continue to affect both bees and brood.

Other pesticides work a lot faster and the effects are seen within days of exposure. You’ll find mounds of dead bees outside the hive, with a similar gruesome scene inside.

In one state, while spraying to control mosquitoes, they inadvertently caused the death of many colonies.

Sometimes we humans forget that the other creatures don’t subscribe to news alerts. So, despite a warning to stay indoors, the bees went about their business and the spray, delivered by air, poisoned them.

Elsewhere, some enthusiastic caretakers charged with caring for over 50 European Linden Trees, nuked the trees while trying to rid them of aphids.

As a result, over 50,000 bumblebees dropped dead right there. In this case, you may have to get rid of the foundation and drawn comb. Pesticide contamination, unlike natural substances, cannot be cleaned up by the bees.

4. A Dead Hive Caused by Predatory Insects

Wasp Attacking Honey Bee

Other criminals to watch out for are predatory insects. Yellow jackets and wasps can wipe out a colony, especially if the colony is weak.

Once they invade a hive, the survivors of the attack won’t stick around. They are the worst kind of bully. In the hive, they eat the brood, take the honey and kill countless adult bees.

5. A Dead Beehive Caused by American Foulbrood (AFB) and European Foulbrood (EFB)

American Foulbrood

Finally, there are diseases that can cause death such as American Foulbrood (AFB) and European Foulbrood (EFB).

This is caused by bacteria that target bee larvae and it has no cure. Without a viable brood, the colony collapses.

Bees have also been known to contract Nosema disease, which is a fungal parasite that affects the digestive tract and causes bee dysentery (diarrhea).

It also affects the bee’s ability to produce the royal jelly needed to care for the brood leading to colony loss.

What to do With the Dead Hive

Knowing how the bees died will guide you on how to deal with the hive in question.

In most cases, what kills the hive is no longer a threat once the colony is eliminated. The exceptions to this rule are bacteria that cause foulbrood and pesticide build-up in wax.

What to do With a Dead Hive Caused by American Foulbrood (AFB)

Beekeeping equipment in a fire

If you encounter a dead hive caused by American Foulbrood popularly known as AFB, the first thing that alerts you to the epidemic is the smell.

It has truly earned its name in that sense. You either have to sterilize the hive using irradiation or destroy it.

AFB is nothing to scoff at so the precautions needed to keep other colonies safe can appear quite drastic.

Many beekeepers will opt to destroy the equipment by fire in order to avoid the risk of contaminating other colonies.

What to do With a Dead Beehive Caused by Pesticide Poisoning

With pesticide poisoning, diagnosing the problem with absolute certainty would involve having samples of comb professionally tested. As modern agriculture spreads across the country, so does pesticide use.

Many beekeepers replace brood comb every few years because of the pesticide build-up. Sometimes, these compounds won’t be detected in the honey because of lipophilic, meaning they dissolve in oily substances including wax.

Some of these compounds affect bee larvae which affect the productivity of the colony long-term. Replacing comb and foundation will be essential if you are to reuse the hive.

What to do With a Dead Beehive Caused by Nosema Disease

In the case of Nosema disease, irradiation or fumigation can be used to clear the hive of spores. Destruction of equipment may not be necessary.

What to Do with A Dead Beehive That Died of Natural Causes

If the bees died of natural causes it’s a little easier to get the hive ready for new occupants.

For colonies that died during the winter due to starvation or exposure, you may find mold in the hive.

Ordinarily, mold spores are everywhere, waiting for the right conditions to grow.  The dead decaying bees create excess moisture in the hive.

Without bees to fan the moisture away and help with ventilation, the mold thrives. Fortunately, the bees are quite capable of cleaning up mold.

It is advised though that you spread the workaround to different well-established hives, rather than inserting all the moldy frames in one hive.

An additional advantage is that some types of mold inhibit the growth of bacteria so that would give the colony a health boost.

Ensure that you clean out all the dead bees from the bottom board and try and get those in the cells out as well with a good shake. What doesn’t fall out will likely be cleaned out by the bees of the new colony.

What to do With Honey From a Dead Hive

Saving Honey from a Dead Beehive

Once again, the cause of death will be your guide.

If the issue was exposure, the honey can be frozen and used to feed the new colony.

If the cause of death is bacterial, destroy the honey.

Moving that honey to another colony could spread the disease with devastating effects.

It’s better to lose the honey and keep the bees than lose both.

3 Additional Tips for Cleaning and Dealing with a Dead Hive

Below are three additional things that you should take into consideration on how to deal with and clean out a dead beehive.

1. Where possible keep the brood comb

Reused Brood Comb

Unless the comb is likely to kill a new colony, keeping the brood comb is a great way to attract swarms.

Although most beekeepers purchase packaged bees, swarms are a great way for a hobbyist to restock, and it’s cheap.

It seems that the old brood comb gives the hive that lived-in feeling, making it cozy and inviting.

When spring comes about, swarms in search of a new home will send out scout bees, who have ‘presence of brood comb’ on their bonus column on the new home checklist.

You can place the brood comb in your swarm traps or bait hives to make it easier for you to capture the swarm.

2. Document it

The Beekeeper's Journal: An Illustrated Register for Your Beekeeping Adventures

It is important to keep good records of the behavior of your bees. It will prove to be instrumental in the necropsy (animal autopsy) as well as ensure that the mistakes made are not repeated. To do this, use a journal like this.

This is particularly important when it comes to overwintering. Good record keeping ensures you can look back on the weeks before you discovered that the hive was dead and learn from that experience.

3. Enlist the help of an expert to diagnose the dead hive

Beekeepers Lending a Hand to Clean out a Dead Beehive

As mentioned, knowing the why will provide the options on how to deal with it.

If it is varroa, then the equipment will be sound. But, you will need to alter your treatment regimen to get the vector under control.

If it’s AFB, it’s probably time for a hive fuelled bonfire. If not, you risk spreading the disease to other colonies within your apiary and beyond.

What You Can Learn From a Dead Hive

Learning from your mistakes is like getting a tattoo on your brain. You always remember when things go wrong.

What to Learn from a Hive That Died of Natural Causes

When your colonies don’t make it through the winter, you will make changes the next time the season comes about. If they starved, then you know to provide more food either by harvesting less or supplementing more.

If they died of exposure, you will remember to combine a small colony with a larger one to ensure that you don’t lose as many bees. You can make a split when the season changes and get your colony numbers up again.

What to Learn from a Hive That Died of Varroa Mites

If the culprit is the Varroa mite, you will dedicate lots of time and energy learning how to monitor and control mite numbers and the multiple treatment options available and suitable for use.

What to Learn from a Hive that Died of AFB

If your colony’s downfall was brought about by AFB, then you need to do more to prevent the bacteria from taking over other colonies in your apiary.

These lessons will stay with you for the rest of your beekeeping days.

How to Repopulate a Dead Beehive

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you to ensure that the equipment you aim to repurpose is safe.

Once you have done so, all you need to do is scrape away the dead bees, burr comb, and propolis, and it’s ready for a new colony.

If you aim to purchase package bees, you will need to order them early to ensure that they arrive in good time. Alternatively, you can use your local beekeeper’s association to locate a split colony for sale.

In that case, you may have to organize the pick-up yourself because a split has the benefit of coming with brood. This means that their numbers will pick up much faster than a package colony.

Finally, nature could smile upon you and deliver a swarm. The only problem is that sometimes they decide to rest in an inaccessible area making it difficult to collect.

If you can capture the swarm, it will be the most affordable way to restock your beehive. You will want to keep an eye on them though to ensure that they haven’t brought some uninvited guests such as mites and bacterial spores.

Conclusion

Although dead outs can be discouraging, they happen to everyone at one point or another. It doesn’t need to be the end of your beekeeping activities.

They are a very effective learning tool even for the experienced beekeeper. Just think of them as an opportunity for a brand new start.

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