How long can a colony stay alive without fresh air?
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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Sep 2010
    Location
    St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada
    Posts
    67

    Default How long can a colony stay alive without fresh air?

    I'm a backyard beekeeping on the island of Newfoundland where we just got hit with some heavy snow. Most of my hives were completely buried. They look like this:

    snownhives.jpg

    I've cleared the top entrances and I can hear them breathing and buzzing, so they're okay for now.

    But I have three other hives that I can't check on until later this week. If they're completely buried -- with no air getting in the hives -- does anyone have any idea how long they can stay alive?

    I've had hives buried for a day with no issues, but never for a full week.
    - Phillip
    @ Mud Songs

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  3. #2
    Join Date
    May 2011
    Location
    Algoma District Northern Ontario, Canada
    Posts
    5,051

    Default Re: How long can a colony stay alive without fresh air?

    I feel that I lost colonies last winter due to heavy drifting snow followed by rain then snow again. I did not have upper entrances (first and last time I will try that). As long as the upper entrances are open a bit you will be OK.

    Very often hives can be entirely burried and survive. Depends on how fluffy the snow is perhaps. If not well insulated they may melt an air channel around themselves too.

    There is not a lot of info and there has not been a lot of discussions on the forums about the problem. I would try to get to the other yard and clear the top entrances as soon as you can.
    Frank

  4. #3
    Join Date
    Feb 2015
    Location
    Salt Lake City, UT
    Posts
    1,183

    Default Re: How long can a colony stay alive without fresh air?

    I don't know how long it will take, but carbon dioxide build up will be what kills the bees, not lack of oxygen. Long before they run out of O2 they will have lethal levels of CO2. The question is how permeable is the snow to letting the CO2 escape. I don't know how long tht will take, and factors such as colony size and hive size and screened bottoms, etc. all will affect the answer. It do know its not something I would gamble on.
    Zone 6B

  5. #4

    Default Re: How long can a colony stay alive without fresh air?

    Depends on the quality of snow, if terribly wet and condensed it could cause troubles.
    If light and dry I would not worry about it. Great insulation and bees warmth smelt enough to keep air moving.

  6. #5
    Join Date
    Apr 2018
    Location
    Northern Colorado, USA
    Posts
    632

    Default Re: How long can a colony stay alive without fresh air?

    Any chance there is enough of a gap between the inner cover/top box and the lid for some air to get thru?

    I also second top entrances and/or quilt boxes.

  7. #6
    Join Date
    Oct 2016
    Location
    Albany NY
    Posts
    167

    Default

    My understanding from beeks who regularly get buried is that the snow allows for air exchange. For us sometimes the ice can build up so I have not explored small lower entrances only out of fears of suffocation. When you dug down to the colonies you dug out was there a gap by the entrance? Had some snow been melted already because of the bees?

  8. #7

    Default Re: How long can a colony stay alive without fresh air?

    I lost one of my best hives from snow burial of the entrance. Didnít have upper exit for heat buildup which would have kept this from being a problem...the bottom entrance got buried in a snow storm and the heat buildup created internal hive condensation/humidity/dripping water that killed the entire hive, and it was a strong one. The snow buildup lasted for about a week before I noticed it and cleared it. Opened it in the Spring, a huge pile of wet bees on the bottom. Confirmed by the bee group I attended at the time, there was plenty of food left in the hive.

  9. #8
    Join Date
    Sep 2018
    Location
    Northern Lower Michigan, USA
    Posts
    813

    Default Re: How long can a colony stay alive without fresh air?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mud Songs View Post
    I'm a backyard beekeeping on the island of Newfoundland where we just got hit with some heavy snow. Most of my hives were completely buried. They look like this:

    snownhives.jpg

    I've cleared the top entrances and I can hear them breathing and buzzing, so they're okay for now.

    But I have three other hives that I can't check on until later this week. If they're completely buried -- with no air getting in the hives -- does anyone have any idea how long they can stay alive?

    I've had hives buried for a day with no issues, but never for a full week.
    Well get out to check them as soon as you can, consider either a top entrance or a device that allows some open space near the entrance.
    Having no top entrance in a snowy area and not having time to check , may not be an optimal plan. If the snow is light and fluffy you should be fine. wet heavy then freezing not so much.
    GG

  10. #9
    Join Date
    Oct 2016
    Location
    Albany NY
    Posts
    167

    Default

    Cherry, I'd be interested in more details about the set up of that colony. When you cleared off the entrance was it a chunk of ice in the entrance or was there a gap? When was entrance blocked, early winter, late winter...? Overwinter here in upstate NY the bees exhale about 5 gallons of water. Without an upper vent or a lot of insulation on top that water condenses on the cover and drips down on the bees, in bad cases killing them. Also, we have capped brood in the boxes now (based on an indoor observation hive; about 1 week earlier than normal). It's a small patch of brood but it means the colonies are maintaining the center of the cluster at 95 degrees F. I don't think the lack of bottom ventilation would cause the bees to die from heat or moisture. If there is really no ventilation they could suffocate. Also dead bees on the bottom board, besides natural attrition, could indicate disease without flying days. (I have not seen a colony suffocate so I'm not sure if they would all break cluster and be scattered throughout the hive and on bottom board.) Also, when the bees die they are still wet inside. When they die of moisture issues (like no upper ventilation) the cluster is wet. When they cold starve (not close enough to stores to be able to reach them) and are left intact until it warms up, the bees in the cluster mold Even If No Condensation Dripped On them. So based on the description you gave the bees died of 1) disease (mites) with no flying days, 2) condensation issues due to inadeqate upper ventilation or insulation, 3) suffocation. If the entrance was blocked late in the winter and there was no sign of brood I think the colony was already dead. Of course, there is certainly more that you observed at the time that is not in your description above that may paint a totally different picture. I am writing this so someone reading it in the future will have a bit more to look for while doing a post mortem.... Happy beekeeping!

  11. #10

    Default Re: How long can a colony stay alive without fresh air?

    Hi Amibusiness - that particular winter I had three hives. The affected hive was the strongest one, and to your question I did a mite treatment in the Fall as normal and the hive had lots of food and very strong going into the winter. As mentioned, I did not provide upper ventilation - beginner beekeeper, mistakenly thought the bees would freeze with a separate opening as I'm also upstate New York and it gets pretty cold here. No insulation on top except for the hive top and top board. The storm came in late-January if I recall (was several years ago), covered the front of all three hives but the middle entrance was completely covered and the other two I believe melted out. Very possible we had ice as part of that storm and so the entrance was covered with several inches of snow and potentially some ice too.

    My mistake was waiting for the snow to melt instead of clearing it, again junior mistake. When it finally did melt about a week or possibly a bit longer later, and we had a warm day, I noticed no activity. Popped the top - tons of dead bees in the bottom, and quite a few in a big cluster on the honey supers (so no issue of lack of access to food as near as I can tell) and they were all soaked. I had seen activity on warm days prior to this storm, so I know the hive was alive into the mid-winter although I didn't go into it until the aforementioned February check.

    x Dick Huey

    Quote Originally Posted by Amibusiness View Post
    Cherry, I'd be interested in more details about the set up of that colony. When you cleared off the entrance was it a chunk of ice in the entrance or was there a gap? When was entrance blocked, early winter, late winter...? Overwinter here in upstate NY the bees exhale about 5 gallons of water. Without an upper vent or a lot of insulation on top that water condenses on the cover and drips down on the bees, in bad cases killing them. Also, we have capped brood in the boxes now (based on an indoor observation hive; about 1 week earlier than normal). It's a small patch of brood but it means the colonies are maintaining the center of the cluster at 95 degrees F. I don't think the lack of bottom ventilation would cause the bees to die from heat or moisture. If there is really no ventilation they could suffocate. Also dead bees on the bottom board, besides natural attrition, could indicate disease without flying days. (I have not seen a colony suffocate so I'm not sure if they would all break cluster and be scattered throughout the hive and on bottom board.) Also, when the bees die they are still wet inside. When they die of moisture issues (like no upper ventilation) the cluster is wet. When they cold starve (not close enough to stores to be able to reach them) and are left intact until it warms up, the bees in the cluster mold Even If No Condensation Dripped On them. So based on the description you gave the bees died of 1) disease (mites) with no flying days, 2) condensation issues due to inadeqate upper ventilation or insulation, 3) suffocation. If the entrance was blocked late in the winter and there was no sign of brood I think the colony was already dead. Of course, there is certainly more that you observed at the time that is not in your description above that may paint a totally different picture. I am writing this so someone reading it in the future will have a bit more to look for while doing a post mortem.... Happy beekeeping!

  12. #11
    Join Date
    Jun 2019
    Location
    Cerrillos, New Mexico, USA
    Posts
    1

    Smile Re: How long can a colony stay alive without fresh air?

    Mud Songs, Great pic. May I copy it? Good luck up there. Say hello to George Street.

  13. #12
    Join Date
    Oct 2016
    Location
    Albany NY
    Posts
    167

    Default

    K thanks. The fall treatment could have been too late, however: a big cluster here in late January indicates that disease/mites is probably not a major factor. The cluster indicates that it was cold enough for them to need to huddle, so probably not overheating. The moisture is part of normal hive metabolism, though often in large clusters the heat rises to warm the top enough that it does not condense directly above the cluster and so causes no dripping threat to the bees. The outer colonies having an opening on the edge and the middle one being covered and dying, I'm left assuming suffocation. It's too bad to lose a good one like that! And often it is the good ones: I had a young bear go through the fence last fall (tested at 8kv but I guess the strands were too far apart so he was already halfway through when he got zapped. There was snow on the ground so we saw tracks....) He tipped 4 out of 40 colonies at the home yard. I put them together in the morning. 1 is still alive. 2 dead were potential breeder queens from 2018....

  14. #13
    Join Date
    May 2011
    Location
    Algoma District Northern Ontario, Canada
    Posts
    5,051

    Default Re: How long can a colony stay alive without fresh air?

    I have not seen a postmortem described for suffocation so I will describe what I saw.

    First; mite counts in october were zero drop on sticky boards. Alcohol wash on dead bees was negative. Also no mite poop in cells. Bees had not started to brood up yet, so they did not get locked on brood. Double deeps were 125 lbs going into winter so there was lots of honey. Hives well insulated with 4 " foam on top. There were no bees with heads in cells and no circle of bees like where they had made a last stand! They were all down on bottom board and between bottoms of frames in lower box. I had raked out bees several times earlier so there was not previously an accumulation of bees.

    The absence of a circle of bees, head in cells or clustered in the upper boxes was not something I had seen before. One hive that survived but very weak was queenless. One survived Ok and strong had not had as much snow around it or for as long.
    Frank

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