Bees Starving in a Hive Full of Honey

One of my colonies has been quiet for a some time now and today I found out why. The bees have been slowly starving to death. The cluster is not much larger than my fist and it’s probably queenless by now.

Tiny dying cluster (March 13, 2016.)

Tiny dying cluster (March 13, 2016.)

I took a quick peek under the hood and could tell the cluster was tiny. I also noticed poop on the frames near the cluster which usually means the queen is dead. Feces inside the hive is often a sign of nosema, but the bees also make a mess of the hive when the queen dies in the middle of the winter and can’t be replaced. I’ve seen it before. In this case the cluster got so small it wasn’t able to stay warm enough to keep the queen alive. That’s my best guess.

Some dead bees found in the middle of the hive, but not a massive die off. (March 13, 2016.)

Some dead bees found in the middle of the hive, but not a massive die off. (March 13, 2016.)

I moved the top deep with the tiny cluster to a new bottom board while I inspected the rest of the hive. I found some dead bees but nothing too usual for this time of year.

A normal number of dead bees on the bottom board. (March 13, 2016.)

A normal number of dead bees on the bottom board. (March 13, 2016.)

I found no signs of mice or shrews having been in the hive.

Moldy and untouched capped honey & syrup. (March 13, 2016.)

Moldy and untouched capped honey & syrup. (March 13, 2016.)

I found more than enough honey and frames of syrup to keep the bees alive.

Moisture droplets inside empty cells on a partially drawn out frame. (March 13, 2016.)

Moisture droplets inside empty cells on a partially drawn out frame. (March 13, 2016.)

I also found in the top deep some frames of partially drawn comb full of moisture. It looks like water but it could have been nectar.

A mix of capped and uncapped honey. (March 13, 2016.)

A mix of capped and uncapped honey. (March 13, 2016.)

I also found in the lower deeps many frames of opened or uncapped honey.

Empty frame found a few frames from the dying cluster. (March 13, 2016.)

Empty frame found a few frames from the dying cluster. (March 13, 2016.)

I found frames of fully capped honey (no photo) on the opposite side of the cluster in the top box. Then I came across some frames that barely had any drawn comb on them and I began to realize what I’d done.

A small number of bees with their heads stuck in the honey cells after having died from starvation. (March 13, 2013.)

A small number of bees with their heads stuck in the honey cells after having died from starvation. (March 13, 2013.)

The frames of basically bare foundation cut the bees off from the rest of the honey in the top deep — and from the honey in the rest of the hive it seems.

More starved bees closer to the tiny cluster. (March 13, 2016.)

More starved bees closer to the tiny cluster. (March 13, 2016.)

The empty frames got in there late in the summer when I thought I put a full deep of honey on top of the hive, but it looks like I forgot there were some empty frames in there — empty frames the bees didn’t have time to draw comb on. Which means they stayed down in the middle deep for a while, but when they naturally came upstairs, probably about a month ago, they got stuck on one side of the deep and starved to death. The empty frames acted as a barrier that they couldn’t or wouldn’t cross. The bees will follow the honey from frame to frame, but as soon as they hit a wall in the form of empty plastic foundation, they stop. If there was comb on the frame, not just plastic, they may have walked across to find the big fat honey frames on the other side, but I’m guessing the plastic felt like the end of the line to them, and just like that, they were contained to three side frames in the top deep. Had they been able to get back down to the middle deep, they may have found the honey down there. But the cold probably kept them clustered where they were — and they starved.

The loneliest hive in Newfoundland. (March 13, 2016.)

The loneliest hive in Newfoundland. (March 13, 2016.)

It’s possible the queen died from natural causes earlier in the winter and the cluster has been slowly dying off. It was a late-season supersedure queen that probably wasn’t well-mated and the cluster was never large. They may have gotten too cold to stay warm. But I’m pretty sure I killed them.

They even had sugar over the top bars they could have eaten, but I had most of the sugar concentrated in the middle frames, not off to the side where the cluster was trapped.

I could be completely wrong, but that’s my read of the situation at the moment.

I was going to leave the cluster exposed to the air so they’d die quickly instead of slowly dying over the next few days, but I put one of the solid frames of honey right next them on the off chance they can eat the honey and stay alive. Though I’m pretty sure they’ll be dead by this time next week.

Now I have to check the rest of my hives to see if any of those bees are cut off from their honey in the same way.

I also realize I need to be more aggressive with my winter beekeeping. Other than dropping in emergency sugar, my tendency is to leave the bees alone in the winter because it’s too cold to expose the brood to cold air. But if I see the bees clustering to one side of the hive again, I’ll move frames of honey next to the cluster to make sure they have access to honey, cold air be damned.

UPDATES: Read the comments for this post and then A Heated Nuc Box for updates on my attempt to save these bees.

P.S. (April 6, 2016): I mentioned that I saw feces on the frames near the cluster and that I’ve seen that in the past when the queen died in the middle of the winter. But I know now that’s always the case. Sometimes it’s just too cold for the bees to break cluster, especially if it’s a small cluster, and the bees are forced to poop inside the hive because they just can’t hold it in any longer. I’m pretty sure my bees were stuck in their hives for at least three months straight this winter.

7 thoughts on “Bees Starving in a Hive Full of Honey

  1. Sorry to hear this. It’s always easy to figure these things out in hindsight, but they’re not obvious while happening. There’s a lot of evidence that honey bees can survive very cold temperatures and that chilled brood tends to be the result of insufficient nurse bees rather than beekeeper inspections, so I think quickly opening up to move honey frames to the cluster could work for you.

  2. I’ve read plenty about bees being cut off from their honey in the winter, though this is the first time I’ve seen it happen in one of my hives. I knew that moving honey frames closer to the cluster was an option, but I’ve never seriously considered it until now. It always seemed like a last resort.

    I have absolutely changed my mind about that.

    Judging from what I found in the hive yesterday, it appears the cluster was split up by the bare frames of foundation. A portion of the cluster was confined to two or three side frames in the top box. Another portion was in the lower box in the centre frames, essentially creating two small clusters from an original cluster that was never large to begin with.

    My big concern now is with my remaining four colonies. Most of them did not have large clusters going into winter and I put what a thought was a full deep on honey on each of them as well, possibly creating a similar dire situation inside each of the hives. I need to check on them ASAP.

    It’s currently -17°C (zero degrees Fahrenheit) in the wind and will be for the next few days.

    Spring can’t come soon enough.

  3. I just got back from listening to all my hives with a stethoscope. All of them are buzzing loudly and a quick peek inside showed me most of the clusters are centered in their hives below the top bars with direct access to emergency dry sugar above them. I’m still concerned and I still plan to make sure honey frames are next to the clusters as soon as I can, but they seem to be hanging in there for now.

    I also took a look at Tiny thinking the fist-sized cluster would be dead by now. But the bees are alive and I see they’re already working the honey frame I put in yesterday. I’m not hopeful because I think the queen is already dead, but I’ll leave it alone until next weekend to make sure it doesn’t lose whatever heat it has, and we’ll see what I find.

    If the queen is still alive and I manage to bring this colony back to life, then I nominate me for best beekeeper of the year, after I accept my award for worst beekeeper of the year for causing all these problems in the first place.

    One of my colonies wasn’t much larger last spring after being nearly eaten to death by shrews — and I managed to bring it back to life. If I do that now with at least another month of solid Newfoundland winter ahead of me, I’ll need a vacation.

  4. What a bummer. So sorry to hear about your colony that starved. :-( Even though I’m resigned to the thought of losing a certain number of bees, it’s never easy to do. Glad to hear that your others are doing well. Spring has arrive here in my neck of the woods, so hopefully, it won’t be too far behind for you.

  5. Based on my thorough examination of the hive in question, I’ve drawn a map that illustrates what I think happened in the hive since the late fall.

    First of all, the colony was started from a supersedure queen in August with a frame or two or brood from another colony to keep it alive. The cluster was medium sized at best going into the fall.

    The bottom deep had a fair bit of honey and room for the bees. The second deep was pretty close to full of honey and pollen. No empty frames. The third deep had what I thought were full frames of honey on all 10 frames, but as it turns out, two of those frames (5 and 6 in the diagram below) were mostly bare foundation. Here’s my fancy diagram:

    The medium sized cluster went into the winter in the bottom deep and gradually worked its way up to the top of the hive. It probably didn’t take the bees long to eat through the honey in the bottom deep. (Most of those frames are empty now.)

    The middle deep had most of the honey eaten from the centre frames, but the side frames, even today, are heavy with honey. Much of the honey (or sugar syrup) is uncapped, which makes me think it may have never been capped. The cappings don’t have the appearance of being chewed open.

    My guess is the now-small cluster began to move into the top deep sometime in January. I have a photo from January 30th that shows a small cluster of dead bees beneath the top bars in the top box in the centre frames — the frames that I know now were only bare foundation. Again, my guess is they went up for food and froze to death on the bare foundation.

    Meanwhile, the rest of the small cluster continued to rise up in the hive and moved to the right of the bare foundation and had only a few frames of honey to it them alive. It’s also possible what was left of the cluster got split up at this point, the queen moving up to the top right and the rest left behind in the centre frames of the middle deep (I’m not sure). Those remaining bees up top living off 3, maybe 4 frames of honey since February, gradually starved to death as can be seen in some of the photos in the original post.

    The bees had dry sugar above the top bars all winter, but it was concentrated in the middle where the bees off to the side couldn’t get at it. Nice touch.

    What I don’t get is why the bees left behind all the honey and syrup in the middle deep. Perhaps the open cells of syrup were too cold. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, the cluster seems to have gone up to the top deep where it was trapped with only a few frames of honey and gradually starved (though the tiny cluster isn’t dead yet).

    I’ve since checked on my other 4 colonies and two of them seem okay. The cluster of one is way down in the hive, in the middle deep, where it has been all winter, but it sounds loud (though my stethoscope) like a good healthy cluster of bees should be. The cluster in the remaining hive is off to one side in the top deep (not good), but it’s also consuming sugar I keep sliding in over the cluster. So it’s alive for now. But I plan to open it and move some frames of honey close to the cluster as soon as I can.

    With any luck, I’ll do it tomorrow because the temperature is going UP to a whopping 0 degrees Celsius (or 32°F) with no wind. I’m taking the day off work so I can stay home and get it done because the temperatures for the next week or two are supposed to be bone chilling cold.

    I’m optimistic that I can keep the remaining colonies alive until spring, though it could be another no-honey summer for me.

  6. The temperature went up to slight above freezing today. I checked all of my hives and I think I can get through the rest of the winter, but it won’t be easy.

    I also took a quick peek at the tiny cluster which I assumed would be dead by now. Some of the bees have indeed died. So to put them out of their misery, I began to remove the two frames of the bees were on — and they were the most pitiful, dirty, ragged looking bees I’ve ever seen. At most, there’s two or three hundred bees in the cluster. It’s so small it’s difficult to call it a cluster. And then look what I found:

    Look closer:

    Cropped in closer look of the raggedly looking queen in a micro cluster. (March 16, 2016.)

    Yup, that’s the queen. Holy moly.

    There is zero chance of that cluster surviving the winter. We have another snow storm coming our way in a day or two and the temperatures are likely to be well below freezing at least until April.

    So what do I do, let them die? Nope.

    I’ll write a whole new post about this if I can pull it off — because it’s crazy. I’ve found a way to warm up the bees and at least keep them from freezing to death. It’s an extremely long shot, but if I can keep the queen alive and well for another two months, there’s a chance I can save the colony (if you can call it a colony). This is barely worth the effort, but it won’t take much effort and it’ll be interesting to see if I can pull it off.

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