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Dealing With Dead Outs

One of the realities of keeping bees is losing the occasional hive. Through sound beekeeping practices we can minimize these losses—but we will never be able to eliminate them completely. The boxes, frames and foundation left behind are a valuable resource and should be treated as such. (Remember it takes about 8 pounds of nectar for the bees to produce 1 pound of wax). I have installed package bees regularly onto drawn comb and produced surplus honey the first year.

EXTOXNET- Extension Toxicology Network

The EXtension TOXicology NETwork, or EXTOXNET, is a Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, and University of California at Davis. Major support and funding was provided by the USDA/Extension Service/National Agricultural Pesticide Impact Assessment Program.
They state, “Bacillus thuringiensis (B.T.) is a naturally-occurring soil bacterium that produces poisons which cause disease in insects. A number of insecticides are based on these toxins. B.T. is considered ideal for pest management because of its specificity to pests and because of its lack of toxicity to humans or the natural enemies of many crop pests. There are different strains of B.T., each with specific toxicity to particular types of insects: B.T. aizawai (B.T.A.) is used against wax moth larvae in honeycombs … More than 150 insects, mostly lepidopterist larvae, are known to be susceptible in some way to B.T.”

I am not sure as to the specific labeling or uses in regards to honeybees however I do know that some are using this as a sprayed application on stored foundation and equipment and reporting good results.

When you first discover a dead hive you should act immediately to protect it from wax moths. Wax moths, if left unchecked, will not only ruin your foundation, but will also cause damage to your woodenware. A fact of the wax moth is that they do not like bright sunlight. By exposing the boxes and contents to the light you can go a long way to protect it. Sometimes however, if you have discovered a dead out late and infestation has already advanced, you will need to do more as the damage can continue for some time due to the sheer numbers of eggs, larvae, and adults present. Equipment may have to be placed in sealed bags and Paramoth added to kill the moth and its larvae.

Paramoth treatment

Sometimes a dead out will still have resources of pollen and honey left behind; this can also be beneficial to the other hives in your apiary. Upon discovering a dead out you should first determine the cause of death. This may be any number of things and possibly a combination of things but let’s first consider the time of year.

Early Spring

In many cases dead outs will be discovered in the early spring when the temperature is warm enough for us to be able to do inspections. It can be heartbreaking to approach a hive and see no activity at the entrance and upon opening it find piles of dead bees on our bottom boards. A pattern I have seen in the past on my frames will be a bunch of bee butts sticking out of the cells in a circular pattern. This can occur very close to capped honey. I have been told by my betters that this usually indicates starvation. I think to myself, how could they have starved when it seems a bounty was right there within their reach? One school of thought suggests that they were covering brood and refused to move. I have been told that their last act before dying is to cannibalize the brood. We know bees in winter cluster will face head down into a cell and vibrate their wing muscles to create heat.

I would have to think that the bees take turns doing this so everyone gets a chance to eat but I have never observed the activity of bees while clustered. I do know they form a ball and move around in mass utilizing their winter stores. It seems more likely to me that there were other forces at work here resulting in the die off. This may have been a failing queen in the fall and there not being enough young bees going into the winter. Or it could be an unchecked Varroa infestation resulting in poor numbers and the health of the fall bees. As the numbers of bees die and the cluster shrinks the comb around the cluster cools. I have read that the bees do not prefer to move onto cold comb and this may explain the patterns we see.

Is there any brood present?

If brood is present you should examine it for sunken or perforated cappings as this may indicate a brood disease. (This may only indicate chilled brood also.) Also examine any larvae under cap. If you see any anomalies you should investigate further by consulting any resources available to determine causes and effects. You would not want to introduce diseased equipment to otherwise healthy bees.

Is there extreme fecal matter on the inside or outside of equipment?

This could be an indication of Nosema disease. In this case I personally would not introduce this equipment to other bees unless the bees have been medicated with Fumagilin-B. Even then I would do my best to remove fecal matter from frames and boxes before introduction.

Okay so my hive is dead, I am pretty sure it’s from starving, bad queen or Varroa. There is no wax moth present. I also have a lot of honey left on the hive, what should I do?

I would remove the equipment from the immediate area of my apiary; 200 feet should be far enough. Then dump out dead bees. If bees are stuck in cells, lightly rap frame to dislodge and use your bee brush to remove most of them. Turn the boxes up on end resting on the short side so the frames stay separated. Try to protect from the rain somehow. Allow the bees to rob out the resources. Once dry and clean, store safely or use quickly.

Things to consider:

  • If using Paramoth during storage, air out your equipment for several days prior to introducing bees to it. I understand BT stored equipment can be used immediately.
  • If combs are moldy, expose to sunlight as this will kill most of the mold and the bees will remove it.
  • Turning frames upside down and shaking will get rid of most of the water trapped in cells.
  • The bees are experts at cleaning and repairing combs and do it rapidly—I have seen them clean up a really bad mess.
  • Try to remove most webbing if a wax moth has been present. If the infestation was recent you may want to freeze your frames for 48 hours and scorch the inside of your boxes with a propane torch. Use common sense and don’t turn it into charcoal.

Small Hive Beetle

If you have ever experienced the mess left by a dead out or absconding bees due to Small Hive Beetle (SHB) as I have, you will understand what a true mess is. The fermented honey, fecal matter and the larvae all combine to put on a pretty good horror show. This equipment is somewhat salvageable if you take some necessary steps. While I am still in the early stages of trying this I have found some good benefits to using salt. The salt that is available at co-ops for mixing with animal feed is relatively cheap and so far I have seen no adverse effects while using it. I will pull the frames from the slimed box and in the case of solid bottom boards scrape all loose material out and liberally salt the inside of the box.

The frames can be saved by scraping and cleaning but in severe cases the majority of drawn comb cannot be salvaged. If using one piece plastic frames or wooden frames with plastic inserts you may want to hit them with a pressure washer and then recoat them with wax. I have had hives that were under attack by SHB that I have successfully removed the frames from and put back in clean boxes with good results. We are also throwing a handful of salt into the entrances of hives with solid bottom boards. When the SHB larvae leave the hive to pupate in the ground they have to crawl through the salt and apparently this is desiccating them.

In summary, it’s a shame to lose bees but if you can at least put their life’s work to a benefit, they have not died in vain.