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I have a hive with viewing windows, and in the week leading up to May 10, I saw the bees accelerating their comb building. Three days later the bottom board and the ground outside was piled with dead bees. Did they starve?

The details:

I'm a first-year beekeeper in the Portland metro area. I installed a 5-frame nuc in a 10-frame deep on April 18th. The nuc came with plenty of honey and the weather was good. I put some dry sugar in top of the inner cover.

My first inspection was one week later (Apr 26), they seemed to be doing well. Still lots of honey, pollen, nectar, etc. I saw eggs and brood in all stages. Did not look like they were taking any of the dry sugar, so I removed it.

The next week, I could see the bees just starting to build comb on the foundationless frames--they build maybe a 1/4 of one frame on each side of the original nuc frames.

The week after that, they started building comb in earnest. They almost completely filled out one frame and were about 1/3 of the way on two others.

I opened the hive on May 10. During my inspection there were a lot of bees festooning. I saw many foragers coming back with pollen. I assumed all the comb building meant nectar was coming in in adequate amounts, so during the inspection I was more concerned with brood and looking for the queen. There was a lot of capped brood. I did not pay attention to the amount of honey/nectar stores in the hive (a rookie mistake, I know). I remember seeing at least one corner of one frame with freshly capped honey, but I cannot say whether there was more or less anywhere else because my attention was elsewhere. The hive population seemed high and healthy.

On May 13th, I walked out to check on the hive and there were dead bees everywhere. There were blanketing the ground in front of the hive, and there was a pile of dead bees on the bottom board. I emptied the bottom board and there was appx 6 cups of dead bees. The rest of bees near the hive seem slow and lethargic. I did not open the hive because it was too cold. It had rained the previous two days. I started feeding syrup.

I'm assuming the bees starved. I just had no idea they could go from actively building comb, to mass starvation three days later. Could it have been pesticide poisoning? I noticed some of the dead bees outside the hive were carrying pollen. Any thoughts on what happened would be appreciated. Thanks.
 

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Discussion Starter #4
are they heads down in the cells or on the ground?
I have not felt comfortable opening the hive because its been cold and rainy ever since I discovered the dead bees. I can only see in from the side observation windows, and I don't see any bees headfirst in the cells. All I know is that there was a large pile of dead bees on the bottom board and on the ground in front of the entrance.
 

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Discussion Starter #5
Thanks for the reply Greg. I don't really know which is worse. But at least poisoning would not be my fault. Still a lot of dead bees though
 

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There will be dead bees over the winter, They will be cleaned out as time permits by the colony. That is not necessarily proof of a dead colony. If it is above 50° F they should be flying at least a little. Open it up and take a peek. You won't know what you have until you see it. If there is a dead cluster heads down into the cells that's one thing. If the hive is flat out empty that is something else. Are you on BeeCheck or Driftwatch/Fieldwatch? You can know if any legitimate spraying pesticides or herbicides are being used near you.

If they are all dead or gone, you want to know sooner rather than later. If there are honey stores left the robbers will come. Otherwise, the SHB's will slime all your frames, and waxmoths will do all sorts of silkwork, and even damage your wood.

Get in there! :) If they are all gone, get your frames frozen and stored safely. Or extract any honey. If they died of disease or you suspect as much, you need to get the inspector out there. If poison, you may still want to get the inspector out there. But that is between you and your inspector.
 

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Discussion Starter #7
Thanks Absinthe, I guess I'll go in and check it out. I was just worried about making matters worse. I now there are definitely still bees in there. I still have foragers foraging. And I can see the bees working the comb through the side windows and through the hole on the inner lid. There are just operating at a drastically reduced number.
 

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Discussion Starter #9
What temperatures are we talking about? Are you seeing foragers flying and bringing stuff in?
Its about 58 degrees or so and rainy. Yeah, I've got foragers flying whenever the rain stops. But, where I had foragers coming in nonstop last week, I only have a few foragers returning every couple of minutes now. And since I emptied the bottom board of the dead, I haven't seen any more dead bees collecting. I have been feeding syrup since I discovered the dead bees yesterday evening.
 

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An inspection is required here, even if just a quick peak inside. 58F is plenty warm to look in when you get a less rainy window.
I would bet GregV has your answer above.
 

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Discussion Starter #12
I just inspected the hive. Bees were very calm. No dead bees headfirst in the cells. Just four or five dead bees on the bottom board. There was about a 1 frame of uncapped nectar (a little hard to estimate because, with the exception of one side of one frame, it was scattered about). But there was no capped honey--the freshly capped honey I saw on Sunday was gone. Just a little bit of pollen. Since I put out a syrup feeder on Wed evening, they have taken about six cups of syrup.

House bees were covering about 7 out of 10 frames. The five frames that came with the original Nuc were pretty full of capped brood. The pattern was uniform. There was about 30 cells of capped drone brood on the foundationless frames that they recently drew out. Other than that, the newly drawn comb was empty. I saw about 5 eggs, but it was really hard to see into the cells with the cloudy skies--so there could have been more. I saw just a bit of uncapped larva. Again, hard to see. I will definitely bring a headlamp with me next time.

My overall impression was that the frames were nearly full of capped brood. The four frames on which they have been drawing new comb have not been used yet except for raising some drones. But there was a pretty drastic drop in foragers compared to before. Its about 63 degrees and dry outside.

So does that fit starvation or poisoning?

I put an entrance reducer on yesterday morning and plan to keep feeding syrup since we have a week of rainy weather ahead. Any other suggestions?

Thanks so much for your time.
 

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Sounds like they are doing fine. Bees die off during the cluster. Not all the bees you go into cluster with are winter bees. They hang out towards the outside of the cluster as insulation. They die and fall to the bottom board. Others have enough body fat and eat the stores and survive into the spring. But if you have brood and nectar your queen is laying and your foragers are bring stuff in or you are feeding and they are storing that. Remember if a queen lays 1000 eggs a day that means something happens to 1000 bees every day, many days that means 1000 of them die. I think you are fine.
 

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Since it was a NUC you installed the winter bee thing is not IMO a valid answer.
I place my chips with Greg on Poison. Hopefully it is gone.
A trail cam is often helpful to determine if is is direct applied or discovered somewhere.
Feeding is good they do not need to forage then perhaps if the poison is still out there they avoid it.

GG
 

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Strong hives can easily starve during the early spring. Here's why.
During the winter, bees can survive at very low frame temps - in the 50's. But brood has to be kept at 95 degs. F. This takes a lot of calories. With a few cold and wet days, and limited stored nectar, a hive can easily run out of food to heat the frames.
 

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Discussion Starter #16
Thanks for the replies everyone. It was disheartening to come out to a hive that seemed to be going strong and see all the dead bees piled on the ground. But just researching this issue has taught me a lot. I'm hopeful that the hive will be okay, since there still seems to be enough house bees to raise the brood that is currently in the hive. I'll keep a close eye on their food stores.
 

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3 weeks ago I went out to my yard and there were literally thousands of bees on the ground, mostly dead but some still wobbling around. My stomach dropped to my toes--oh no, a varroa vector virus?? I didn't even open the hive because if a virus it just has to run its course and there isn't a thing in the world I can do about it :eek:. Fast forward 7 days....got into the hive and the thing was cram packed with healthy busy bees! So, I am assuming that ALL the winter bees decided to die on the same day. In the 5 years of doing this it is the only time I have experienced literal mass extinction in one day like that. Usually done a handful at a time. Live and learn ;)
 

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More likely they got pesticide from some source they had thought was 'just nectar' or 'just pollen'.

Sorry for your loss.
 

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In fact, now is a common time frame to apply the pesticides in fruit orchards (location dependent).
Just before the bloom or just after the bloom - something of sort.
 

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I’m in portland, too. In April we had fine weather and lots of nectar coming in from the maple blossom. I took honey off the first week of May.
If you had enough bees to take care of the brood AND forage, you would have had no problem with starvation. This recent couple of weeks of rainy weather hasn’t been cold enough to keep my bees from flying except for a day or 2, not consecutive days.
Right now, with the maples and Hawthorne finished and the blackberries not started yet, the main forage around that I see is ceanothus, tulip tree, the native dewberries, thimbleberries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and misc. garden flowers. Maybe some lindens, depending on your location. But I’m in the west side, so we have lots of forest and not as much horticulture as the east side.
I vote for old bees dying off all at once or poison from one of your neighbors spraying god knows what for god knows why, illegally on flowers when pollinators are present. Anyone with 10 bucks can go down to Fred Meyers and get enough pesticide to wreck a lot of bees, and civilians never read or follow the label (a.k.a. The Law)
Don’t get me started.
Have fun with your bees.
Megan
 
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