I Have a Problem!

    I havenít seen your hive.  I donít have any idea whatís actually going on.  This list is by no means a comprehensive encyclopedia of problems and solutions for what might be wrong with a colony of bees.  Itís a general guide toward to figuring out whatís actually wrong and how to fix it.  So donít blame me if things donít turn out well or how you think they should.  My advice on this matter is free (plus ads) and worth every penny.  It is my intention to help you learn how to keep bees effectively.  It is not my intention to hold your hand through every trial and tribulation.  They are your bees.  I trust that with enough education and effort and practice that you will be able to handle them yourself.  But if you are stumped or just need a clue as to where to go from where you are, Iím here to help.

Whatís your problem?

My hive is dead.

The first thing to do is relax.  Things canít get much worse.  The first thing we do is attempt to figure out why it died.  Some people call this process a Ďpost mortemí.  What youíre going to do is look closely at the hive with your powers of deduction figure out if there is something you could do in the future to give the bees the best possible chance of survival.  

Iím hoping to build a ĎPost Mortemí page at some point in the future, but this will have to do for the time being.

The first thing to do is look at the state of the dead cluster if there is one.  How big is this cluster?  Is there more than one cluster?  How close is the cluster to honey?  If there is a decent sized cluster, and no honey or if there is simply no honey left and itís the cold season, it could very likely be that the hive simply starved to death.  This may or may not be your fault.  Hopefully, you left enough honey for the bees to survive the winter.  However, sometimes you get a hive which continues brooding all winter and uses up all their stores.  You want hives that properly regulate the size of the cluster and donít continue making brood out of season.  Is there brood in the cluster?  Sometimes a cluster will have to stay on the brood and can starve to death inches from honey because they can't get to it during a cold snap.

Next, check the bottom board.  There will usually be some bees.  Look closely for mites.  Get a magnifying glass if you need to.  If there are obvious large numbers of mites, thatís probably your cause.  Focus on raising resistant stock.  Hopefully if youíve been following my advice, you have several other hives and you can make up splits or nucs later on.

Ultimately for me, the reason a hive dies or is about to die is not that important.  Thereís nothing Iím going to do with the hive other than requeening which canít be done once the hive is dead.  The focus instead is to keep enough hives that deaths are a benefit rather than a detriment.  Pests and diseases offer you the opportunity to eliminate weak stock naturally.  Success in beekeeping is not defined by how many or how few hives die every winter.  Success should be defined by achieving what you want, making a certain amount of honey or in my case learning how to keep bees completely treatment-free.

There are mites everywhere.

This one is simple.  You have mites.  But so does everyone.  Itís a symptom of modern beekeeping.  Itís nothing to worry about.  You have a couple choices.  If you keep nucs around to house spare queens, you can eliminate this queen and unite this colony with the nuc.  On the other hand, you have the opportunity to test out this stock to see just how many mites they can handle.

If you have enough mites to be seeing them all over the place, there is likely enough of an infestation to ultimately kill the hive.  It may be enough of an infestation to even kill off the resulting hive if you unite.   If you have other hives like I recommend, losing this one wonít be that big of a deal.  Make sure the hives has what it needs to survive and see how it plays out.

If youíre looking for a way to kill the mites outright and save the hive, you wonít find the solution in treatment-free methods.  If you must, you might consider doing things like powdered sugar or FGMO fogging.  But I donít do those, never have done those, and donít know how in truth.  If you do, you should just forget my site right now, because that's not what we do here.  I do beg you to not do anything to contaminate your comb or to throw off the microbiological balance in your hive.

I canít find the queen.

Thatís okay.  Letís look for signs of the queen.  Look for open brood.  Look for eggs.  Familiarize yourself with the progression of honeybee larvae.  If you see eggs, that means that there was a queen laying within the last three days.  If you see capped brood, that means there was a queen laying sometime within the last three weeks.  By gauging the ratio of open to capped brood and the approximate ages of the brood, you can figure out how long ago it was that the queen quit laying.  If you see eggs, donít worry about it, sheís probably in there somewhere, and if she isnít, the bees will still have plenty of chances to make their own new queen.

If you donít see eggs and maybe there is no young brood, itís time to look for queen cells.  Itís possible this hive has swarmed or is in the process of superseding their queen.  Queen cells along the bottom of the frames are likely swarm cells.  Cells hanging out of the middle areas of the frames are likely supersedure cells.  If there are queen cells, there is nothing to worry about; the bees are on the ball.  If you liked this hive and it had good traits, you might consider cutting out some of the cells and using them to start new hives.

If youíre now sure the hive is queenless, move on down to the next couple of topics.

I accidentally killed the queen.

How did you do it?  Donít do that again.  

One thing that happens form time to time is that people will pull a box off a hive and set it right on the ground.  Thatís a bad idea.  Youíre gonna squish bees and one of those bees could be the queen.  I use an empty super or other box set crossways from the box youíre setting down.  That means that only four areas of ĺĒ square will be sitting on the box below and the chances of squishing anything will be greatly diminished.  Another thing to do is to not pull frames from the middle of the box while the box is full.  When you are wanting to get into a box, first pull out the frame on the near edge or maybe the second frame in where the queen is not likely to be.  Set that frame aside and then you can scoot the hives apart before you pull them out.  This way you wonít roll and squish as many bees.  A careful and conscientious hobby beekeeper should be able to manipulate the whole hive without killing more than a couple bees on average.

If you did kill the queen, the hive is now queenless.  Proceed to the next topic.

The hive is queenless.

Okay, with the above information, you have decided your hive is queenless.  First, do you have other hives?  If you do not, you need to get on the phone and find out if any of your friends have a queen available or maybe you have a local queen producer.   This is a problem, and I canít help you on this front if you havenít taken my advice and kept multiple hives.  Victory favors the prepared.  Youíre at the mercy of the availability of queens now.  Not having support hives leaves you with big gaps in your ability to keep bees sustainably.

Do you have a nuc with a solid queen?  Fantastic.  Simply merge the queenless hive with the nuc.  You can do a newspaper combine by placing a piece of newspaper with a couple slits in it between the boxes and allow the bees to get acquainted slowly.  Rarely will there be mass fighting.  Another way to do it is to place both hives in neutral boxes.  Bees know immediately that they are no longer on home territory and fighting is greatly reduced.

Do you have another hive or two?  Excellent.  Even if the queenless hive had progressed all the way to the laying worker stage, there is a simple solution.  Place a frame of open brood from one of your other hives in the queenless hive once a week for at least three weeks.  The pheromones in the brood will suppress the laying workers and eventually they will make a new queen from larvae on the frames you are adding.  Even if there is already a queen in there, youíll still be completely okay as adding brood will help if for no other reason than new brood means more bees.

One of the ways you can tell your hive is queenless is by finding laying workers.  You can't really tell them apart, but there are two telltale signs.  First, you may have multiple eggs in cells like this:

Multiple Eggs
Photo by Allen Newberry

Click on the picture to see the full resolution version.  Some cells have as many as six eggs, a pretty sure sign of laying workers.  Sometimes a new queen will lay a cell with an extra egg or two, but when it's this bad, it's a different situation.  The other sign is drone brood everywhere, even in worker cells.  Drone brood are capped with big dome cappings whereas worker brood are only slightly domed or flat.

The queen looks ill.

This happens.  Iíve seen several queens which didnít look well.  They can look greasy or the segments in their abdomen arenít straight.  As long as sheís doing fine, leave her alone.  The bees may be preparing to supersede her anyway.  There is always the option of requeening or combining with another colony.  Remember, doing nothing rarely makes the situation worse.

Itís almost winter and the bees donít have enough stores.

If this is your fault, you need to learn from your mistakes and take less honey.  Be less greedy.  However, sometimes a hive is simply not adept at collecting honey.  If itís the hives fault, the best thing to do with this hive is off the queen and combine it with another better performer.  You want hives that produce honey, and this one isnít working out.

However, there are sometimes other problems during the course of the year which result in hives with no honey.  Sometimes there is a failure of one or more honey flows.  At any rate, feeding may be necessary.

I only recommend feeding granulated sugar.  To do this, youíll need a space to put it in.  On my hives, I use a shim top entrance I call the Parker Shim©.  It creates a 7/8Ē space above the top bars on the top box.  Itís enough space for a few pounds of sugar.  I lay down a paper towel of the proper length on the top bars and then pour granulated sugar on it.  Some say to wet it a bit, but when I did that, it turned rock hard.  Perhaps I wetted too much.  Iíve found that as long as the bees arenít flying, the sugar will soon become moist with water evaporated from the cluster below.  If the bees are flying too much, theyíll jump right in and haul all that sugar out and dump it.  So donít put it on too soon.  In fact, the best time may be later in winter when the bees are actually out or just about out of honey.  They will be right at the top of the hive where you can get to them and you can place the sugar directly in contact with the cluster.

So the options are feeding or letting natural selection take its course.  Sometimes you can find queens whose hives are exceptional at overwintering on a very minimum amount of stores.  I find that my particular brand of indifference naturally breeds bees that are frugal and keep smaller clusters during winter.

I see swarm cells.

Congratulations.  Youíre about to witness one of the wonders of beekeeping, the swarm.  Many beekeepers see swarming as a bad thing and kept bees have been bred not to swarm.  But breeding bees not to swarm is like trying to breed the sex drive out of a dog.  Animals which donít reproduce go extinct.  Healthy hives swarm.

At this point, weíre beyond the time where you prevent swarms so what do we do with this one which is about to happen or has already happened?  If they really are swarm cells and the hive has not yet swarmed and you donít want to lose the swarm, the best thing to do is a big multi-directional split.  Take the original queen and some bees and start a nuc with her.  You can use a mating nuc if you have one around.  Then leave one frame with a queen cell on it in the original hive.  Then separate the rest of the frames with queen cells on them into other nucs.  If there are multiple cells on a frame, you can cut them out and separate them in to even more nucs if you want.  At the very least, you now have a bunch of nucs with replacement queens for other hives.  At the most, you now have a bunch of new hives.   A little later on, you can recombine the failures or recombine just to have your one original hive again.
Do not simply cut out the swarm cells and call it good.  Itís not likely to work.  They want to swarm.  If they swarm leaving no cells behind, you now have a queenless hive.
To do this, naturally, you will need to be prepared.  Victory favors the prepared.  You should have a handful of nuc boxes already made up for such occurrences as these.

I think my hive swarmed.

Not much you can do at this point.  Try to catch the swarm.  Do your best to assure that the new queen is not hindered in mating.

I just got stung.

Unless youíre allergic, itís good for you.  Some say to chew up plantain and stick it on the sting for effective instant relief.  I havenít tried it.  I just deal with it for the few seconds that burning pain is there, and then go on working.  In fact, I recommend that you donít use gloves.  Knowing that stings are attracted to clumsy beekeepers will help you learn to handle the hive effectively and efficiently.  You can use gloves if you want.  Everyone gets stung.  Itís not a big deal.  The more you get stung, the less you will be affected by it.  However, it will always hurt.  Don't let any old beekeeper tell you otherwise.

My hive fell or was blown or was pushed over or the lid was blown off.

The first thing to do is to get it back upright and assembled and all in place.  Beware, the bees may be very angry.  This needs to be done as soon as possible because open hives means the bees are open to the weather and robbers.  Missing lids are very troublesome as the bees will be exposed to rain.  This is another reason why itís always good to have spare equipment on hand in case something has been destroyed or lost.  It's also a good idea to have gear available so if necessary a friend can fix it while you're gone.  I had this happen to me once and was very fortunate to have a friend who was not a beekeeper but who was also not scared who could stack things back up for me.  The best idea is prevention, but backup plans are also good.

My colony has American Foul Brood.

AFB is a bad nasty disease.  It is extremely virulent and may be impossible to get rid of without drugs.  The best course of action is the time honored tradition of burning infected hives.  This kills the spores and assures that susceptible bees will no longer be allowed to procreate.  Run your hive tool through a dish washer or boil it.  Wash your bee suit and clothes.

Fortunately it seems that treatment-free beekeepers have very little AFB.  In my nearly 11 years as of this writing, I have not seen a single case.  Other treatment-free beekeepers I know are similarly unaffected.  However, that is not to say that it doesnít happen.  We are fortunate in modern times to be able to take advantage of the many decades of burning affected hives that came before us.  But if we become lax in our enforcement of this policy, a time may return when AFB is a more consistent menace.  Just as a side note, beware of acquiring hives or nucs which have been treated with antibiotics to get rid of AFB.  Once treated with these substances, the resulting microbial imbalance and the persistence of the AFB spores virtually assures that the disease will rear its head again.  That goes the same even for hives treated prophylactically.  

Since treatment is out, it's time to pay the piper and do what is necessary not only to end this issue but to eliminate this highly communicable disease from spreading.  You're going to have to burn the hive.  You may be able to save the boxes and ends, but you're going to have to burn the frames and bees.  If you don't have a way to rehabilitate the boxes, burn the whole thing down.  If this hive is on a stand with other hives, you'll need to separate it.  One way to do it is to put each box in a big tough trash bag and then haul them to wherever the burn site is.  If the hive is standing by itself, you can stuff the entrances with rags or grass and torch the hive from there.

The options for rehabilitating the hive are a few.  One old common method was to take the empty boxes and scorch them thoroughly on the inside.  Another method is to have them gamma irradiated to kill all living things in them.  One method which is more common lately is doing a wax dip.  Many beekeepers are doing this these days as a method for preserving the wood.  But if the temperatures are high enough for a long enough period of time, the AFB spores will either be killed or encapsulated permanently rendering them inert.  So if you have any of those options, you can go that route.

However, the only other option is to burn the hive.  I know it's painful to do, but it must be done.  This disease cannot be allowed to have any quarter in any managed hive.  This technique has allowed AFB to be as rare as it is today.  The practice must be continued.

If you have any suggestions for other problems that need to be addressed, please email me via the contact page and I will do my best to make updates.