Winter Solstice and The Death of Honey Bees

This is the time of year when I say to my bees, “I know things are looking grim, but just hang in there for another two months and you’ll be alright.”

The number of dead bees that fall to the bottom of a hive in the winter can be alarming. The bottom entrance of most of my hives look like this near the end of November:

The usual number of dead bees for late November in eastern Newfoundland.

The usual number of dead bees for late November in eastern Newfoundland.

But that’s just he beginning. Most of the bees alive inside the hive today — let’s say about 15,000 bees — will be dead before the weather warms up again in the spring. That pile of dead bees is gonna get big. Check out this bottom board from one of my hives last year:

Thick carpet of dead bees. (June 2014.)

Thick carpet of dead bees. (June 2014.)

The bottom entrance to that hive was clogged with dead bees by January and I wasn’t able to clear it out, so the photo might be a fair example of how many bees can safely die over the winter, at least in a large colony. That particular 3-deep colony was full of bees (living bees) by the end of June and gave me my first honey harvest before the end July.

So it’s not all doom and gloom.

The other good news is the Winter Solstice (usually December 21st or 22nd), the shortest, darkest day of the year. In theory, the queen begins to lay again, or increase her laying rate, once the days get longer. She won’t go wild with laying eggs right after the Solstice, but with longer stretches of daylight, at least new bees will begin to emerge to replace the winter die-offs.

That’s why I usually feel pretty good if my bees are alive and well by the end of January. They’ve gotten over the hump of Winter Solstice and baby bees are just beginning to emerge so the population is more or less stable. As long as they don’t starve to death or get eaten alive by shrews, I’m good. New bees should outnumber the dying bees sometime in April or May so that the population begins to go up and up until it peaks around June and stays there with about 50,000 bees until the end of July. Nice.

The next two months, though — that’s when I worry the most.

5 thoughts on “Winter Solstice and The Death of Honey Bees

  1. Perry, you are likely one of the few actually reads this blog. Most people these days watch only the videos on YouTube or skim these posts through Facebook and Twitter (which I’m fine with). But yeah, I’ll keep ’em coming. Not a problem.

  2. Phillip I was happy to see this blog, being a new beekeeper it’s good to know what to expect. I used a plumbing brush, a thin narrow brush for cleaning drains, to brush away the dead bees in my hives just the other day. It didn’t irritate the bees at all but I just wanted to see how many were there before I winterized my two hives. I guess in the spring I will have 10 times as many. Keep blogging.

  3. Speaking of cleaning out dead bees, this is the first year I’ve used quarter-inch mesh on my hives to keep shrews out and I’ve noticed the bees haven’t been able to pull out as many dead bees as they would if it I was using half-inch mesh.

    I don’t want to remove the mesh to clean out the dead bees because stapling it back on with a staple gun disturbs the bees. So I’ve decided I won’t clean out the dead bees unless the bottom entrance is blocked off completely with dead bees.

    I plan to use quarter-inch mesh for now on, because shrews are horrible, but I need to come up with something that’s easy to remove and put back in place.

  4. Fingers crossed for them. I use open mesh floors so don’t seem to get as many bees piling up on the floors.

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