Autopsy 3 – CarniW

This next hive that I will perform an autopsy on, is one of two Nuc hives that I purchased in the spring of 2015, from a local beekeeper. I went local since the queen would be from local stock and not brought in from down south or from CA. I was hoping that a local queen would result in a hardier colony.

3 - colony 3

During the summer, this hive had some problems with the queen and superseded her, but by fall, the colony was full of bees. At the start of winter, I was sure that out of all my hives this one would make it through the winter.

So let’s begin and start with the bottom box:

After looking at these pictures above I thought for sure I had the frames out of order.  The far left frame in the box is the frame at the top of the 1st picture, while the far right frame in the box is the frame at the bottom of the 2nd picture.  Looking back at my notes, when I added the second box I had moved up a few center frames to the 2nd deep to encourage the bees to start building out the 2nd box.  Looks like they didn’t ever focus 100% back on the empty frames in the bottom box.

A few of the frames are packed with bee bread (frame 1 on the left side and frame 9 on the right side), but most are empty of their honey stores.  The whitish sections are the only capped honey left in this 1st deep box.

The 2nd deep box:

Here it is evident that the bees did move up into the 2nd deep, but they didn’t venture much further than the gap between the 5-6th, 6-7th and 7-8th frame. All other frames were full of capped honey.

This colony was quite large, you can see their size from the “outline” they left on the 6th, 7th and 8th frames. So we must now look further up in the hive to see if they started to eat the sugar block provided them in March/Feb timeframe.

There is evidence that the cluster moved up to the sugar block and started to eat it.

We can also see from the bottom board below that this hive was very large, but not so large that they had eaten all of the food stores in the box.

3 - bees on bottomSo why didn’t they survive?  They were a large colony with a lot of honey around them, with sugar above and more to come if they had just lasted longer. Also from the bottom board we can see that there is no mouse infestation and with the screen bottom board no excessive moisture in the hive.

Perhaps it was due to diseases?

3 - closeup beesWe can see in the above picture that they looked healthy when they died, no deformed wing or K-wing virus.  We can also see from the picture below that there is no evidence of dysentery on the inside of the boxes.

3 - no dysentery.jpg

What I don’t have a picture of, is the number of dead varroa mites that I saw on the bottom board in January.  I saw evidence of the bees alive at the end of February and then we went through a week of very cold temperatures, after that the colony was still. I thought they were managing the varroa mites, and it looks like the size of the colony was doing ok, so what could have happened?

After I looked a little closer to the frames, here is what I saw:

Queen cells, telling me that the queen was not well or was not alive and they attempted to supersede her.

Autopsy results:

  1. Size of the cluster when it died – Large
  2. Evidence of moisture in the hive – None
  3. Evidence of Varroa mites – Dead ones on the bottom board corrugated plastic
  4. Evidence of Varroa feces in the cells – None
  5. Evidence of Dysentery – None
  6. Evidence of deformed wing virus – None
  7. The amount of honey stores remaining – Lots of food stores remaining in the 2nd deep and sugar block.
  8. Evidence of pests living in the hive – None
  9. Evidence of queen problem – many queen cells

Conclusion and other observations:

  1. They ate all the honey in the 1st deep and then worked their way up to the top of the 2nd deep, eating the sugar block that they were provided.
  2. Large amount of bees on the bottom of the hive.
  3. The outline of bees left on the frames of the 2nd box, indicate that this was a big colony.
  4. Multiple queen cells, which tells me the queen had either died or was doing poorly. With it being winter, the colony was doomed.

A few things to do/changes to consider in preparing for next winter:

  1. Not much I could have done about the bad queen. Last summer was wet and most of the queens that were hatched and mated failed.
  2. Puling a few frames from the bottom box to the top box is still a good idea. I now have a lot of drawn comb and never plan to use empty plasticell when performing this operation.
  3. Save a medium or deep full of honey for placing onto my large hives for the winter. (I know some of you would prefer the honey, but I would prefer to have my bees overwinter each year. I’m good with this plan, since I only need a couple of gallons of honey for eating, gifts and mead making.)

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Autopsy 2 – CarniE swarm cell

Aut2 - 1a

Last spring, I purchased 2 Carniolan Nucs from a local beekeeper and each Nuc consisted of a locally raised queen.  I named them CarniW and CarniE and of these 2 hives only my CarniE survived.

In early July, the CarniE hive went into swarm mode and I pulled the queen, a few frames and some bees into a deep box and then made another 3 hives using swarm cells from the swarming CarniE hive. The hive that I am performing an autopsy on is one of these offspring from the CarniE hive.

This Nuc consisted of 2 deeps, 1 medium full of honey, a sugar block added in Jan/Feb timeframe, an upper entrance and quilt box.

Since a colony normally starts in the lower box, in late fall, and works their way up to the top, we will first take a look at what the 1st deep box looked like this spring:

Aut2 - box1

We can see evidence that the cluster was very small when it died (right side of frame 2 and left side of frame 3), that it stripped most of the capped honey from the frames (right side of frame 1 and then all of frame 2-4) and that it remained in the bottom box. We can also see that the colony didn’t expand out into the sides of the box very well.

Next we will inspect deep box #2 and see if we can figure out why the cluster did not move up from the bottom box:

Aut2 - box2

In the 2nd box it is very obvious that this hive was small going into the fall, for it only had filled in the equivalent of 3 frames with drawn comb and honey. It does appear that the colony may have ventured up into the second box and then perhaps back down again (as evident by the missing honey on the right side of frame 2 and on both sides of frame 3).  When bees only build within the middle of the box, it is called towering. There are tricks to fix this, but we won’t go into detail here, but leave it for another day.

We also can see that the frame directly above the bees (right side of frame 2 and left side of frame 3) did have honey stores, but there was a 3-4″ gap of empty drawn comb. There are times, because of this break in honey that the bees are not aware of the honey stores above and around them.

Finally, we see that the medium super that sat above the 2nd deep box and the sugar block above that was untouched.

Aut2 - box3

Finally, we need to check to see if there was any evidence of disease or pests.

In the top 2 pictures we can see that the wings of our bees look fine and that there is no evidence of deformed wing virus (passed from the Varroa mite) or K-wing virus (passed from the Tracheal mite).

The bottom left picture shows that 1) there wasn’t any moisture that accumulated on the bottom, 2) that there is no streaking of feces from a varroa sick hive and 3) that there wasn’t a huge number of bees to begin with.  The area cleaned off, is from us removing the dead bees with our hive tool to ensure that their entrance was not blocked.

The bottom right picture shows that the bees had been dead for quite a while, at least long enough to mold.

Autopsy results:

  1. Size of the cluster when it died – Very small
  2. Evidence of moisture in the hive – None
  3. Evidence of Varroa mites – None
  4. Evidence of Varroa feces in the cells – None
  5. Evidence of Dysentery – None
  6. Evidence of deformed wing virus – None
  7. The amount of honey stores remaining – Lots of food stores remaining in the 2nd deep, the full medium super and the added sugar block.
  8. Evidence of pests living in the hive – None

Conclusion and other observations:

  1. Colony too small to survive winter – This was not a very big cluster at the start of winter as shown by the fact that they hadn’t filled out the frames on the sides and that there weren’t a large amount of dead bees in the hive.
  2. Colony too small to survive winter -The colony was able to move around the deep box it was in, but perhaps due to its small size it was unable to cross the gap to the honey above. Either it was tightly clustered for warm and couldn’t move, or it didn’t realize there was honey above because of the small gap in the drawn comb.
  3. While performing this autopsy I realized that the original CarniE hive survived winter, while all hives made from CarniE swarm cells in early July did not make it through winter, even though most had built up nicely before winter began. Last year with it being so rainy, I don’t believe the queens ever mated well.

A few things to do/changes to consider in preparing for next winter:

  1. Seriously consider combining all small colonies with another to give the bees a better chance of surviving the winter.
  2. Take a look at my homemade Nuc boxes and see if the space between the frames in the lower box is too far from the bottom of the frames in the 2nd

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Autopsy 1 – Italian

My Italian hive had survived the winter of 2014-15, but didn’t make it through this last winter, dying late February. They had worked their way from the bottom box to the top of the top box and didn’t move from there, even though there was plenty of honey stores around them.  As you can see the cluster was about the size of a softball and they could have died due to their population size and their inability to keep the colony and queen warm.

Italian - frame

Just below them is capped brood and perhaps with our teeter-totter of a winter, where it went from warm to cold and back again, the Italians began brood rearing.  When this happens the cluster will not move from the brood for food.

Within this small cluster I found the queen, frozen in time.

As shown in the frame below, I found evidence of varroa mite feces. The white specs found lining the cells are from the mites. I treated this hive late in the fall with OAV, 2 times in August and 1 time in Sept, with one week intervals between. I find that even after treating, a very populous hive will struggle with mites.  I believe I might need more experience with using the OAV method.

Italian - Varroa feces


  1. The colony was unable to reach the honey around them
  2. They may have started brood rearing during late December/ early Jan, which would of caused them to not leave the brood area
  3. Varroa mites may have weakened the hive.
  4. It appears to me that they became small due to Varroa, they reached the top of the box and were unable to move to honey, thus ultimately starving to death.

My plan from this analysis is

  1. to research more on using the OAV method, and to figure out a good method for determining it’s effectiveness.
  2. consider adding a medium super of honey to each hive.

Have you had success with using OAV?  What process do you follow to determine if it is effective?  Do you retreat again in December or January?

Would love to hear from you!

~ May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places!

Overwinter Config

~ Wandering Creek Acres ~

Before you start your hive autopsies, you should first take some time to list how you prepared your hives in the fall for winter.  After each autopsy you can review that configuration and determine how you can make it better for the following year.

Here are my 8 hives that entered the new year alive.

Each was prepared for winter as follows:

Excel - winter config

As an experiment (ok, I’m an engineer and engineers love experiments), I overwintered 3 Nucs to see if I would have greater success in overwintering smaller colonies.

The five hives marked in red died before we reached April; 3/5ths of the 10-frame hives and 2/3rds of the Nucs. (60% and 67%, respectively). So not much of a difference.

Now that I have listed how each hive was winterized, I can easily review the autopsy results as I perform each autopsy and determine how I can improve on my overwintering plan for the coming winter.

As you can see from my overwintering plan for this last year, I do not wrap, how about you?  Do you find that wrapping helps your hives survive the winter?

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Spring Hive Autopsy

Before you begin an autopsy, you first need to determine what to look for. The things that I look for are:

  1. Size of the cluster when it died
  2. Evidence of moisture in the hive
  3. Evidence of Varroa mites
  4. Evidence of Varroa feces in the cells
  5. Evidence of Dysentery
  6. Evidence of deformed wing virus
  7. The amount of honey stores remaining
  8. Evidence of pests living in the hive

Q1: What is the size of the cluster when it died?

As winter continues, the colony within a hive naturally declines in size. The smaller the colony gets, the more difficult it gets for the colony to keep warm, sometimes reaching the point that it can no longer survive.

In the pictures below, the clusters are too small to survive a cold spell.

Q2: Is there evidence of moisture in the hive?

Moisture in the hive causes bees to become chilled during the winter and chilled bees die.  Moisture in the hive can be caused by 1) the bees themselves, they are living creatures that generate heat and this warm moist air in the hive hits the top and condenses, raining water upon the bees. 2) water pooling up at the bottom, keeping the hive damp, and 3) snow and rain entering the hives.

In these pictures you can see that water has pooled in the bottom tray, that there is snow in with the dead bees and that the wax cappings have started to mold. All evidence that there is moisture in the hive and probably was throughout the winter.

Q3: Is there evidence of Varroa mites?

Excessive amounts of Varroa mites on the bottom board means that your bees had excessive amounts of mites on them. This would have weaken the bees and throughout the winter they sicken and die.

The brown specs in the first picture are the varroa mites that have fallen off the bees.  In 2 of the pictures, I magnified the picture and then circled every varroa mite that I found.  The bottom picture is a close up of varroa, unfortunately a little blurry.

Q4: Is there evidence of Varroa feces in the cells

If you are unable to inspect the fallout of your hive, you can look within the empty cells to see if there is varroa feces lining the walls.  This will appear as white specs on the insides of the cells.

4 varroa feces

Q5: Is there evidence of dysentery?

Dysentery is a sign that the bees are sick. During the winter months bees hold all waste within their bodies, they do not defecate within the hive. On a warm day, when the bees are able to take flight, they will leave the hive to relieve themselves and then return before they become too chilled. When they have dysentery it is evident through brown streaks and spots on the hive and snow.

Dysentery is a sign of a virus passed on from the Varroa mite. This virus makes the bees weak and die.

Q6: Are the bee’s wings deformed?

Deformed wings are caused by a virus that is transmitted to the honeybee by the Varroa mite.

I do not have a picture of this since I’ve only seen this one time during my first year as a beekeeper. Here’s a few pictures of what healthy wings on bees look like:

Q7: How much honey remains?

A warmer than normal winter can cause bees to go through their honey stores quicker than the beekeeper plans.  Also, cold can cause the tight cluster to be unable to move to reach more honey stores.

During inspection of the honey stores, I also take note of where the final cluster was found in relation to these stores.  The 2 frames that are stacked on top of each other, were position in the hive in this way, one on top of the other.  As you can see the small cluster was just below a frame of honey, but there was a small gap between the bees and the honey. The bees did not realize there was honey above. The picture on the right and the bottom shows that the bees had made it to the top of the honey stores, even placing a sugar block above them didn’t help them survive.

Q8: Did pests take up residence and eat the honey and bees? 

Mice is the one pest that I worry about entering my hives in the fall and then living off of the bees and honey frames during the winter. I do not have pictures of this, since I’ve never had mice in my  hives.  I take care to add a mouse guard in the fall to keep them out.

Autopsy conclusion:

Once I have determined the answered for the questions above and take into account the state of the colony/hive when it entered winter, only then can I determine which of the following may have caused the demise of the hive:

  1. Starved bees….. lack of winter stores due to being too cold to move around OR too mild of a winter and the bees ran out of stores.
  2. Moisture in the hive.. may have caused the bees to die.
  3. Varroa mites… possibly sickening and weakening the bees.
  4. Pests….  eating the bees honey stores and causing a decline in bees.
  5. Fall colony too small to survive winter.

What’s Next:

Using this information I can create a plan for the fall, which will hopefully give my colonies a better chance of surviving this coming winter.

I hope this helps you with your hive autopsies. Over the next few weeks I will post the autopsies from 5 of my dead outs and finish with a post detailing my plan for winterizing my hives this coming fall.

Would love to hear how your bees did this winter… please share.

~ May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places!

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