Death of a colony – a beekeepers loss

The cold spell that has dominated the last couple of weeks has finally broken this weekend and I was keen to get down to my apiary to see how the bees were faring. The hives were last opened and checked at the end of December, about 3 1/2 weeks ago, when I applied the oxalic acid and fed large blocks of home-made bee candy to each.

My new apiary assistant to help with the bees

My new apiary assistant ready to help with the bees

We had five national hives and a poly nuc to check on this visit as the Warre hives are being left to their own devices over winter and we were only checking to see how the bees were doing with the candy feed and replenishing if needed. The first hive that we checked had a late swarm, collected in August and headed by a buckfast cross breed queen. At the end of last year they seemed to be doing quite well, the queen was a good layer, and although the colony was smaller than the others it seemed to be building at a steady rate and the bees were very chilled, beautiful to handle and I assumed they would be one of my success stories of 2013.

A dead colony clusters on the frames

A dead bee colony clusters on the frames

Dead bees clustering on the frame and covering the floor

Dead clustering on the frame and covering the floor

When we opened the hive I realised pretty quickly that there wasn’t the normal activity I would expect to see at this time of year, especially as the ambient temperature was around 9 degrees Celsius when bees would normally have broken from their winter cluster around the queen and resumed normal hive activities during the day. On closer inspection we found that the colony was completely dead with the bees clustering on the frames as they would have done in life.

It was a sad moment for me as this is the first colony I have lost to starvation in five years of keeping bees.

This hive had a reasonable level of stores when checked in December and a 400g block of bee candy was placed over the feed hole in the centre of the crown board but frustratingly this had not been touched despite the bee cluster being directly below it.

The starving bees had filled the cells in the frames head first, I assume looking for food, and many had died in this position.

Dead bees in the frames

Dead bees searching for food fill the frames

The other hives were checked and all appeared normal, three had finished their candy feeds but the fourth hive, with a similar size colony but different type of queen, had only just started to use it.

I have now doubled up the feed on each of the hives to take them up to the warmer weather when I can give a thin sugar syrup as a spring feed to help the colonies build strength again.

Candy feed on crown board just being started

Candy feed on crown board just being started

Doubled up blocks of candy on a hive

Doubled up blocks of candy on a hive

I am left wondering if I had used a small eke (spacer) to raise the crown board and put the candy direct on the frames would they have taken it, but then again they had full access to the candy and were right below it and hadn’t touched it so maybe not. Should I have moved them into a nuc for over-wintering or culled the new queen and consolidated them with a stronger colony? There is no point dwelling on the loss to much but their demise seems harsher than a colony losing a queen or having laying workers as you end up feeling responsible for their fate to some extent.

As a beekeeper it is lovely to have the opportunity to visit your bees during the long winter months, to see them flying again with the promise of another spring arriving and as the new plants are just beginning to appear through the receding snowline.

Bee in a poly nuc

Bee in a poly nuc

The bees in the poly nuc appear to be doing quite well. This a bit of an experiment this year as Paul only obtained the nuc in 2012 and populated it with a swarm he collected. The greater insulation should be keeping the bees warm and require less use of their precious stores but the downfall with this type of ‘housing’ is when it comes to feeding as the ‘crown board’ is a flexible sheet of clear plastic, with no feed hole, and no room under the roof for candy. Does anyone know if you can get a poly nuc eke to raise the roof, or if syrup feed is used in the built-in feeder (bottom of the picture) does it freeze or will the bees even take it during the winter months? Be good to hear of your experiences of using these new hives.

Dead frames, the comb will be removed for candles and the boxes sterilised with a blowtorch

Dead frames, the comb will be removed for candles and the boxes sterilised with a blowtorch

I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog,  feel free to contact me with comments, suggestions or general feedback, click on the right column to subscribe and receive updates when I next have the time between chasing the bees to write again.

I can also be found at @danieljmarsh on twitter or British Beekeepers page on Facebook.


N.B. clicking on the images opens a higher resolution image in a new window.

The apiary - January 2013

The apiary – January 2013


14 responses to this post.

  1. How sad to see all the bees with their heads in the cells. I’m sure you did all you could.

    Interesting to hear about your experiences with the poly nucs. Generally syrup is too cold for the bees to drink in water, so I imagine even with the greater insulation provided by the poly hive that would still be the case. Maybe you could try sticking a slab of fondant in the feeder hole, with the top opened?


    • Hi Emily,

      It was very sad to lose the colony, I know it happens but felt I had taken sufficient precautions and the photos were put up as I don’t write my blog to only celebrate success and hide failings, hopefully these will help convince those that don’t feed at all to give it a go, although there are no guarantees on whether the bees will actually take it as like I said in the blog there was a whole untouched block of candy on the hive right above the colony on the crown board.

      The poly nuc does have a candy block placed in the built in feeder but the bees have not touched it as it is at the side of the colony, not above it, and they have to pass through a smaller opening to reach it so effectively it is ‘outside the hive’. I was just wondering how other people using these nucs were getting around the winter feeding issue. It has a small entrance hole with ‘closure disk’ on the front so you cannot use an entrance feeder but guess the bees will take liquid feed from the side in the spring so this is not a problem.


  2. I remember losing my first colony after winter to nosema, no matter what the cause and preparations you have made, you always feel somehow responsible and it is very sad. Perhaps the colony had gotten to small and weak to both feed itself and keep warm and so perished from cold as individuals went in search of food. Thanks for posting this, it’s a good reminder of keeping watch on bees over winter and in the months coming up to spring.


  3. So sorry to hear about your bees. The photo of them in the cells is indeed quite sad. It is true that there is usually no obvious explanation for this happening. I have had a winter where I provided them with nothing extra, where at least one of the hives was weak going into winter and everything turned out fine. Just no telliin’.


  4. […] may also be interested to read this bittersweet post by Daniel J Marsh on Death of a colony – a beekeepers loss. A stark reminder that January to March is when colony losses are often reported. You can also […]


  5. Posted by Sarah on February 5, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    Hi – Paynes sell the poly nuc in a 14 x 12 version also – the only difference being that this comes with an eke. I bought a few spare plastic crown boards for my nuc and cut a small hole in one of them. This allows you to place a large chunk of candy over the hole. Put the eke around it, a bit of insulation, then the lid, and you’re away.

    I like these nucs – however one drawback is that if the bees don’t take down all the syrup from the integral feeder – the only way of getting it out is by tipping the whole box upside down which upsets the bees (or leave it ferment!)


    • Hi Sarah, thanks for your comments. Perhaps what is needed is a drop-in plastic liner for the feeder area that can be easily removed for emptying and cleaning if any mould develops, this may be a good feedback suggestion for Paynes/Thrones etc


  6. Posted by Linda Qui on March 7, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    Hi…my friend also treated with oxalic acid….then found the bees all dead….could this be the reason for the hive loss? Hear that it is really toxic to bees as well as humans?

    Is there much or any information on using oxalic acid and dieback? the blog


    • Hi Linda, glad you have been enjoying the blog 🙂 I don’t think that the loss of my bees was down to the use of oxalic acid nor poisoning, we treated several hives on the same day using a pre-mixed solution of 3% oxalic acid in sugar syrup and there were no adverse reactions in any of the other hives. I am pretty certain that these bees starved, they were a smaller colony going into winter and it may simply be that they choose to retain heat and not break their cluster to look for food until it was too late. Unfortunately there will never be a definitive answer only speculation but I welcome any comments with suggestions, we are all still learning!



  7. […] the  media many of these bees were simply lost to starvation and the cold weather. I sadly also lost a colony as I reported earlier in the year despite there being fresh bee candy in the hive literally millimeters above the […]


  8. On past experience I found out that if the bees don’t know the candy is there they will not move up, so I always make sure that I put the candy directly on top of the frames and since then have had no losses. Hope this helps tremendously. Wee hint for poly nucs cut a stick to length of feeder and about 1cm thick attached to a piece of fishing line with a pin, stick pin in the side of the feeder and the stick into the feeder thus doing so the bees will not drown as they have a platform to stand on and feed from, the line is only there to pull the stick up and down if it is stuck to the bottom after the feed is finished. Hope this helps. Happy Bee Keeping for future years


  9. […] affected how much of their stores of honey and syrup that the bees have used in the hives and I lost a colony last year to isolation starvation despite having fed them in the Autumn and given fondant over […]


  10. Posted by John on July 29, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Yes, I think they should have a removable plastic liner for that internal feeder to make it easier to clean. Had a lot of drowning even when using the wooden float and roughened walls of feeder so any tips to prevent this would be appreciated. 🙂


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