Dec. 1, 2022

Managing Winter Colony Die-Offs (102)

Managing Winter Colony Die-Offs (102)

It’s winter time and sure as the sky is blue (or grey – as the case may be), there will be many dead colonies out there next spring. If not in as early as in the few weeks. Winter kills in the US are running something like 40+% right now. A winter...

It’s winter time and sure as the sky is blue (or grey – as the case may be), there will be many dead colonies out there next spring. If not in as early as in the few weeks.

Winter kills in the US are running something like 40+% right now. A winter killed colony is a time, financial and frustrating thief of bees and honey and equipment.

In today’s episode, Kim and Jim discuss Winter Die-Offs and how to inspect the colony remains to determine what may have gone wrong.  By finding out what went wrong and why, you can make plans on what to do next year so you have live colonies, move money, more honey, lots and lots of bees, and bragging rights for getting all your colonies through next winter.

We hope you enjoyed today's episode. Please follow or subscribe today and leave a comment. We'd love to hear from you!


Thanks to Betterbee for sponsoring today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2022 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 102 – Managing Winter Colony Die-Offs

Jim Flottum: Kim, last night for the first time it was 19 degrees out there. I was sitting inside all nice and warm and my bees were, I hope, warm in their own way. What's your situation?

Kim Tew: Basically the same. I've got the same late fall early winter weather. Looking at that raw of colonies out there and wondering what's going to be happening in the next week, month, couple three months. Hi, I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: I'm Jim Tew. Today I'd like to tell you that it's okay if you brace yourself so what's coming. It's wintertime, Kim.

Kim: Yes it is. A week from now, a month from now, two months from now, I'll be sitting in the same chair looking at the same royal colonies and I know that at least one of them will probably be dead.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping today Podcast each week on Honey Bee Obscura host Kim Flottum, and Kim Tew. Explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honey bees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long-timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honey bees.

Jim: I don't know what to say, Kim. I don't know how to make this a positive segment today. Because you do the best you can, and segments 50 and 68 of Honey Bee Obscura, we danced around this topic, but we didn't directly talk about it. You want everything about beekeeping to be bright and cheerful, big swarms. You capture great honey crops, beautiful brewed patterns. We have to admit this whole thing about winter kills. It's just ugly work. It's just a part of beekeeping that makes me personally appreciate the good parts of beekeeping.

Kim: Not only is it work, it's usually work in less than ideal conditions. It's usually cold, the winds blowing. It's winter out there. What do you do? You got to do something, you can't let-- Well, can you? Can you just let that dead colony sit there?

Jim: Be optimistic. You got to do something. I'm not sure what we can do because I should have, if I was a good beekeeper. I should have made preparation several weeks ago, several months ago. By now, I'm on automatic pilot. The fact remains that these things dying off is disappointingly common. What's the average winter die-off for right now? 35? 40%.

Kim: Yes, it's pushing that. In a lot of places is more.

Jim: It's too much. It's too high.

Kim: Here's the thing, you can't just let it sit there because you're going to need that equipment in 1, 2, 3, 4 months, and it's got to be ready. If you got a dead colony, depending on what do you do with the equipment. What do you do with equipment from a dead colony?

Jim: It depends. That's an odd answer, isn't it? Number one, how big was the colony that died? Has it got a four-pound, five-pound cluster in it? Do I have something the size of a raccoon in that beehive that died? That's one thing. Did it go queen lifts in the winter and it's now a piddling small colony with a few thousand bees left on a few frames, hypothetically dead?

That's a different cleanup project. Either way, once this thing happens, I've got this mass of dead bees. If you work on it in the winter, like you're talking about, they stay frozen. If I wait till spring, and the flowers are beginning to come out, and birds are singing, and they've thawed out, then they can turn into a petrifying mass with mold and wet slop. I'm back to where I started.

This is an ugly job, Kim. What are you going to do with these things? I'll bounce them, I'll bounce them out as much as I can. My dad, I loved him dearly. He would clean things up but he would frequently say, "The bees are better at this than we are. Let them finish this job up." That's a big job you're leaving them. They had to put a three-pound package on three or four or five frames of dead bees. I try to bounce them out, shake them out, bang the comb around. It's a primitive, not a very professional thing to do. You just get the job done somehow. Get those dead bees out of that box.

Kim: I approach it a little bit differently. The top of all of my frames or almost all of my frames has the date that it was new, the foundation was new in that frame. I'm a firm believer in not keeping foundation more than three years. If I got a dead colony in that frame is one year or two years old, I'm probably not going to worry about it too much, at least right away. If it's five or six years old it's history. I don't save the frame, I don't save the foundation, I don't save the wax. I get all of it out of the way, off the road so that it's not in my way. Now you may think that's expensive. What's your time worth? Ordering, reinstalling and hoping.

Jim: I guess I agree. Let me think about this. You're saying, for you, this is a window of opportunity to decide if this frame has any usable life beyond where it is right now.

Kim: Yes.

Jim: I'm simply saying more along the line, that I'm assuming that the frame has a usable life, the comb, and I'm trying to get it back into a position that the bees could clean up with the least amount of effort start to get going again, and we'll try again next year to see if we can do better.

I want to quickly say, I don't disagree at all but tossing a frame with comb. A lot of drone, heavy black comb, old, that comb has fulfilled it's useful life. I agree with you on that, but I wasn't really using a winter kill as a window of opportunity to select frames and combs. I can show why you do that. You're right there.

Kim: Yes.

Jim: I see where you would do that.

Kim: The other thing is, the frames that I keep, more than likely are going to have dead bees in the comb, head first probably, or at least hanging onto the side in a small cluster between two or three or four of them. I got a pail with me when I go out there and all of those dead bees go in that pail, and that's off the frame. A box at a time, check the frames, check the date, check for dead bees. Dead bees go in the pail. Old combs go in that pile, right next to the pail. Right down to the bottom, into the bottom, I take a look, dead bees on the bottom? Of course, there's dead bees on the bottom.

Jim: On the bottom board, you mean?

Kim: Yes.

Jim: You're right.

Kim: Brush those into the box. I want to get into this more, but maybe right now is a good time to talk to our sponsor.


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Jim: Kim, back to the bucket business. Why are you doing that? Why are you capturing those dead bees in a bucket?

Kim: If they're loaded with American foulbrood, I don't want them laying on the ground next to the hive for bees next spring to find them, smell a colony, check out the bees, and pick up foulbrood. That's basically why I want to keep anything that could be a problem away from bees next spring.

Jim: I'm going to ask a question that maybe needs to be edited out. We'll see, depending on your answer. Have you ever caught American foulbrood that way?

Kim: No. I'm thinking that's why.

Jim: Okay. You remind me of one of those grade school jokes where bringing a bell on your tricycle keeps elephants away. It clearly weren't, because not one time there's an elephant showing up. I understand what you're saying. I understand explicitly, I have nothing but healthy respect for an old-fashioned, well-established, serious disease that doesn't get much glorification now, compared to all the pretty diseases of Varroa infestations and other types of virus infestations. I didn't think of the bucket thing. I scatter those things to the wind. They're composted within two weeks of me taking them out. After you get them in a bucket, what do you do then? You must compost them then.

Kim: No, they go into a fire, and--

Jim: Good heavens. You're serious about this.

Kim: Like I said, I've never had it so--

Kim: if it works, don't change. If it works don't change it.

Jim: I agree. It keeps the elephants away.


Kim: Once I get the bees cleaned out, the dead bees and I've gone through the comb, and I'm saving some comb, getting rid of some comb, then I take a look at what have I got left. That goes back to the garage in this corner and the garbage stuff goes into the garbage to be recycled, and the dead bees get burned. Then I know what equipment I've got exactly so that when I look at if I'm going to order packages next spring, do I have enough equipment for the number of packages I want, or am I going to need more frames, more boxes, more whatever?

Jim: Every answer you give just spawns more and more questions. While you're cleaning up this winter kill and making decisions on your comb and tossing some, and keeping some, that means you've got to be ordering replacement equipment that's got to be either assembled if you're using plastic frames dropped in the box. Without getting off the subject, what do you do about that? Are you hammering and nailing to make up the difference to get back to where you were? Because now you got an entirely separate subject going on? Ordering and replacing frames and combs.

Kim: Like you said a separate subject. I don't put boxes together, and I don't put frames together, and I don't put foundation in frames. Every year I sit back, I relax a little bit, I take a look at the pile, and say, "What's my time worth?" Every year my time's worth more and more and more of staying inside, being warm, and taking it easy as opposed to being out in the garage and pounding and nailing and whatever. I don't put a lot of boxes together.

Jim: You got to put frames together because you threw some away.

Kim: No, I don't. Frames with plastic foundation, they come in a box.

Jim: Oh, you order them?

Kim: Yes.

Jim: One last quick question off the subject. Are you using plastic frames or are you using wooden frames that come assembled?

Kim: I'm not going to say exclusively, but it's almost exclusively, wooden frames with plastic foundation.

Jim: That's where I am too. I still assemble mine when I do it and it's everything you say. It's tedious. Years ago I bought the pin nailer. I've got to quit this. This has nothing to do with winter kill, but I bought the pin nailer and I put these things together and I replaced them. You and I are in agreement. I toss cobs. You seem to toss more. I agree with you. American foulbrood is dire, and I will admit that in the past, at the job I had for various universities, most people know what those were.

I have dealt with American foulbrood. I have a healthy respect for it, but once I have a look at the comb and the smell and the appearance, and clearly, this was not related to American foulbrood, then I don't go to the extra step that you go to capture the bees. You are doing a better job than I am, but you say, what's your time worth? You're working more right there than I am. I guess I'm saying at that moment my time is worth more because it's cold, this is a stinking job, and I usually just put those bees right back on the ground somewhere in the area, and they're done.

Kim: What about varroa-killed colonies? Can you take a look at a cluster of dead bees or bees on a frame or whatever, something? A dead colony, and say, "Yes, varroa got these guys?"

Jim: If I can say that, they really got them good. They've got twisted wings or no wings, they're undersized, there's body parts laying around, there's dead adult varroa everywhere. Those clear situations are not as common for me. Is that good? I guess that's good. No, I usually can't say with a high degree of confidence that this is a varroa-kill colony. I can usually say within reason, there's no American foulbrood here. Secondly, there's no honey here. I screwed up, and these bees stirred. That's the things I can tell. Can I specifically say that varroa or a virus related to varroa caused this? No, I can't say that.

Kim: If you got a colony that's got 50 pounds of honey on it, you got bees mostly in a cluster in the half to two-thirds of the way up in the stack of boxes, they got food, they got a queen, they got bees, and they're all dead, is varroa a good guess?

Jim: Yes. Varroa would be my go-to guess. Varroa is my boogeyman. Anything I can't explain somehow must be related to varroa. That's my universal expectation right away.

Kim: Then I know that my varroa control didn't work.

Jim: Didn't work well enough. You touched this briefly, and I want to go back to it. When you see a small cluster, something went wrong, bad queen, bad beekeeper, low honey crop, I feel terrible about it, but I feel even worse, much worse, when it's a big nice well-formed cluster that died there. A winter kill is not necessarily a winter kill. A winter kill is a lot like a big swarm compared to a small swarm. A small winter kill is fretful and annoying and frustrating but those big colonies, Kim.

If they could have just hung on another month, they would've been swarming potential. There could have been colony splits, there could have been so much beekeeping and that colony died. I guess the main point of what I'm thinking about right now before this all starts, is that this is not a pleasant aspect of beekeeping, dealing with this cleanup, this decision-makings. It's a common aspect of beekeeping, though. Help me feel better about it.

Kim: I wish I could because killed colony in the middle of the winter is, how do I put it? It's a financial burden. It's a time burden, and it is a challenge to my skill at what I'm doing out here burden. All three of those things are tied up. When I got a colony out there dead right now, I've done probably four or five things wrong already.

Jim: Which brings up the next point I'd like to make. What have you learned? What will you do differently next year? That was a long pause, Kim. That was a long pause

Kim: Actually. It's easy to begin to answer that question. The first part of that question is, what did it die of? If it starved to death, that's one thing. If it doesn't have a queen and there's no brood, that's another thing. If you got a lot of virus-bent wings and all of those things, that's another. The first question is, why did it die? That tells me what I didn't do right earlier in the season.

Jim: I like that. Good solid common sense beekeeping. I can say this listeners, every year I do try and to a greater or lesser extent, every year I have a varying degree of success. Some years I'm just blind lucky and colonies, I think, "You don't have a chance in the world at surviving," will survive. Then other years you go out and thinking that my number two, my number one best colony has been dead for a month already and it's just like you say, "Why?" Then next year, next season, which isn't that far away, believe it or not, Kim, it's just a year away. I'll leave more honey. I will change my control programs. I will do something. Then next year, hopefully, you and I will have this conversation, and we'll be talking about what? Winter kills. It'll happen again.

Kim: Maybe. Winter kill is a learning experience. Sometimes you learn things and learn them and learn them and they don't stick around long enough but, right now, I'm looking out there and what I can see is-- I haven't been out there in two weeks for reasons you and I know a lot about. Two weeks ago, I had three live colonies out of three.

Jim: Right now I've got about 12, but I know all mine are alive. What? Are we good beekeepers? No, I can't say that about either one of us. I try to be a good beekeeper. I want to say this, Kim. This is a stretch to try to feel okay to some extent about some of my colonies dying in the winter. This happens in nature. All of those wild swarms that take off, they're not successful either. It's not an unusual aspect of bee life for them not to make it. It's always a whack-a-mole

Jim: kind of process. Those that make it, those that don't. All we can do is select from those that do make it and keep trying to improve our numbers.

Kim: I was just going to say there's some good in that if most of our bees make it and a few don't, the few that don't, probably have got a gene pool that we don't want to keep around anyway.

Jim: Yes.

Kim: They can't do much about getting enough food in November if you forgot to feed them.

Jim: Yes. These segments are always short. I always want to keep going, but I have to watch the clock because we didn't discuss equipment. Something wrong with my equipment that I need to insulate more or less. It's going to be the big thing, beekeepers, most of the time. Bees don't freeze, they starve. People love saying that. I've got to do something better with honey. I've got to do something better with my control. Then after you do that, then worry about the lesser things. "Should I have insulated more?", "Do I need a better wind break?" All those things.

Kim: Yes.

Jim: Put your money on the big things first.

Kim: Yes, and hope for the best, I guess.

Jim: Well, I've done the best I can. I have braced myself. I know what's coming, you know what's coming.

Kim: [laughs]

Jim: We did the best we could several months ago. If it didn't work, we'll try again next year.

Kim: Actually, what's coming right now is supper, so I'm have to head out here. I'll catch you next time.

Jim: I'll be there.

Kim: Okay.

Jim: Thank you.

[00:21:40] [END OF AUDIO]