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.

Winter Die-Off Post Mortem: The Video

One of my honey bee colonies died over the winter. (See A Winter Die-Off, A Winter Die-Off Post Portem: The Photos.) It starved to death because: (1) I thought it had enough honey of its own and didn’t need to be fed extra honey or sugar syrup in the fall. I was wrong. I’ll feed my colonies in the fall for now if I have any doubts about their honey stores. (2) I wrapped all my hives for winter on December 1st and didn’t check on them for two months, not until February 3rd. I waited too long. I should have checked on them first thing in the new year and given any starving colonies some sugar.

Starved out bees on a frame. (March 10, 2013.)

But now I know and I’m not discouraged by it. I had to lose a colony sooner or later. I went into the 2011 winter with two colonies, 2012 with four and 2013 with seven. So now I have six instead of seven. That’s not a catastrophic loss and it’s a pretty good survival rate for three winters of beekeeping. I also now have an extra twenty frames of drawn comb to work with this year. That’s a luxury I’ve never had.

A Winter Die-Off Post Mortem: The Photos

I discovered one of my honey bee colonies dead about a month ago. (See A Winter-Die Off and this video for the details.) My guess was the colony starved to death because it didn’t have enough honey. Judging from what I saw during the post mortem examination I did today, I was right.

Starved out bees in cells. (March 10, 2013.)

Starved out bees in cells. (March 10, 2013.)

Here are some more photos of what I found:
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A Winter Die-off

It seems as if one of my honey bee colonies starved to death sometime over the past two months. At a glance it may look like a normal colony. But trust me, those bees are dead.

My first starved out colony. Yup, they’re all dead. (Feb. 03, 2013.)

I didn’t have time for a close inspection, so I can’t confirm that starvation is the cause of death, but I’d say it’s a pretty good guess. I didn’t top up any of my hives with sugar syrup before winter. I let the bees take honey from their own honey supers instead. Unfortunately, these bees didn’t get enough. And so it goes.
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Natural Honey Comb

I harvested two medium supers of honey from two hives last year. The weather last summer was the pits. This year I harvested about four medium supers of honey from maybe four hives. This summer’s weather was incredible. I could have had truck loads of honey, but three colonies swarmed on me, two queens failed and so on. T’was a difficult year. A year that made me realize what I like about beekeeping and what kind of beekeeper I want to be. Here’s a hint: I like bees, not beekeeping. For instance, I like seeing this kind of thing when I pull out a frame:

Partially drawn, partially capped comb. (Oct. 02, 2012.)

That’s a partially drawn frame of honey comb I saw while harvesting the last bit of honey from my hives today. I only took about five medium frames in all. Most of the honey, like the capped honey in this frame, was left behind for the bees.

Foundationless honey comb. (Oct. 02, 2012.)

For each of my seven hives, I moved the honey super above the inner cover (with a queen excluder underneath), so the bees will move the remaining honey down into the brood chamber. That way they should have enough honey to get through the winter and I won’t have to feed them syrup before winter kicks in.

The beginnings of honey comb. (Oct. 02. 2012.)

April 2019 Postscript: As it turns out, the decision to give my bees only honey instead of topping up the hives with sugar syrup was a bad call. It resulted in one of my giant colonies starving to death over the winter. A death of a colony will happen to every backyard beekeeper sooner or later. I take it in stride when something bad happens these days, but the first one was the hardest. Thankfully, I’ve haven’t had a healthy colony die on me over the winter since.