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Feb. 1, 2023

Dealing with Winter Deadouts

Dealing with Winter Deadouts

Forgive me if I am oversharing, but I do not enjoy winter. Especially January gets to me. The holidays are over and I find the cold, grey days tiresome. Everything starts to take on the appearance of the landscape in an old black and white photo. 

On the afternoons when the sun does pop out and the air temp edges over 40 degrees or so, I get out to the bee yard to see which hives are flying. Watching the bees fly out and zip back in, I can almost hear them saying, “Geez, it is COLD out there!” as they scramble back to find the warmth of the cluster.

Then there are the hives that are not flying. They haven’t flown since late November. The landing board is littered with the rotten shells of fall bees long passed. It’s sad. I make a mental note of the probable deadouts and comeback on the next cold day when I need a job to feel like I am making progress… with something… anything. All the while trying to offset a sense of failure.

Dead Bee Cluster Around The QueenI personally prefer a cold day to clean dead colonies. Primarily for two reasons. First, it it’s less likely other bees will investigate the smell of free honey and broken wax. Second, cold wax and propolis is brittle and I find it easier and quicker to clean the boxes.

I also prefer to clean out what I can in January and February before the days warm up and the deadout starts to mold. Dead bees and pollen tend to mold quickly as it warms, so the sooner I get on it, the easier the job.

I start at the top, moving efficiently. I look for signs of what may have lead to the colony’s demise. I remove the lid, the inner cover and any insulation. If I added a winter patty in the fall, is it still there? Did they eat it? It will give me some indication how long ago the colony died. I remove the patty and any temperature sensors I have in place. I scrape off the top bars, then start pulling frames to determine the amount of honey the top brood chamber contains. I shake off the dead bees, scrape off wax and propolis from the end and bottom bars. If the main cluster of bees is in the top box, I search for the queen. If there is no cluster, then it might be in the lower box. 

I should mention here that I take care to scrape, clean and shake the boxes, frames and equipment off and away from the hive stand and other colonies. I don’t want to be stepping in the mess throughout the day. Also, if winter varmints show up, I don’t want them scrounging around next to the remaining colonies.

Once I have removed all the frames, I scrape out the box, including any brace comb and the frame rests. Then I reassemble the entire hive body, set it aside and repeat the process with the lower brood chamber. With these early season deadouts, I am typically finding the main cluster in the lower brood chamber, if there is a cluster. One hive this season did not have a ‘main cluster’.  I also found random attempts at starting emergency queen cells. I made a mental note… 

Fouled CombI prefer to find the dead queen, then I can blame varroa.

Once I am done with the brood boxes, I clean off the slatted racks. Yes, I like them. They are more a habit of mine, than anything I can back with scientific reason. I like having that additional separation from the outside world and the bottom brood chamber of the Langstroth. I also clean off the bottom board of all the fallen honey bees. 

Once all done and clean, I reassemble the hive, replace the entrance reducer, with only the smallest opening turned up and to the outside. If there is a screened bottom, I remove the tray so the air flows. The hive is just about all set for springtime splits, replacement packages or nucs.

I’ve rarely had any robbing problems in winter/spring when they’re closed up like this. Ultimately there enough spring flowers that neighborhood bees do not pay attention to the empty hive before I get it re-colonized.

I do this for every deadout. It is hard work and not very rewarding. To solve the ‘why’ is like performing a ‘post-mortem’ on the colony super organism. Why did it die? What evidence do I see? Just as important, what don’t I see?  I make a mental crime board with notes, strings of colored yarn stretched between points and scattered images of the crime scene. Then I draw some conclusion as to what caused the colony’s death. I feel I owe it to the bees to understand what happened. What could have killed the colony? Varroa? Starvation? Bad queen? Whatever it is, I ultimately blame myself. I hear that nagging voice taunt me with, “A better beekeeper would’ve…” and fill in whatever management mistake I made. If I suspect varroa… I should have treated sooner.

If the queen cannot be found… Did I kill her? Or, maybe I should’ve replaced her - what sign did I miss that she was failing?

Heaven forbid if they starved. Though that doesn’t happen until the February or March die-offs. THOSE are definitely within my control as a beekeeper. But if they DID starve in January, that was an avoidable tragedy.

Cleaning deadouts is one of the unglamorous jobs of beekeeping. Not one often mentioned in the literature. Definitely not the top discussion at “Bee Day” every spring.  The best thing to do, and one I try to tell myself, is to learn from my mistakes. If I can learn and NOT repeat the mistake next year, then this year’s bees did not die in vain.