Bee deaths and preloved comb

All the bees in our Warre have sadly died. The warre had an established colony – this year would have been its third full year. There is no sign of disease, and there is honey left inside, in the top box -about 2kg. We think they swarmed last year – they are on an allotment site and as we are not there all the time we are not 100% sure. The colony only ever occupied the top two boxes. Any suggestions? There were no signs of emergency queen cells or any queen cells at all.

My other question is, one of the Warre boxes is full of combe of a mid brown colour. This combe was in the second box down and is 95% empty of honey – there is a bit at the top of some of the combe. Presuming we can find a swarm this year, would they re-use this combe (as it represents such an energy saving ), or am I better to empty the hive and let them start afresh?

I am based in Bristol, UK

Many thanks.


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9 Responses to Bee deaths and preloved comb

  1. Lynne says:

    Unless/until you know why the bees died, I’d clear the hive and disinfect it with fire before letting it be occupied again.

    Poisoning from collecting contaminated pollen/nectar maybe an issue – perhaps.

    Can you say more about what state the bees you found dead were in? In the hive? Outside the hive? Was there brood present? And how long ago when you last saw them flying?

  2. alitee says:

    Sorry to hear your news Steve. We have had a long winter and a virtually non-existent spring with forage only becoming available in the last week or two – all at once! Maybe your bees starved because it was too cold for them to reach the upper stores of honey? Were their bums sticking out of cells?

  3. salp111 says:

    You say they died? Does that mean you found bees in the hive that were dead or you found the hive empty? If the former, as Alitee says, were they bums up, heads down into the comb, trying to get the last lick of sustenance? Were they on the floor of the hive? Were there a lot of dead bees outside the hive? If the latter, I guess you would be saying they absconded?
    Without further info, it’s hard to know why they died.

  4. salp111 says:

    oops. Hadn’t quite finished. It’s hard to know why they died & thus whether or not you could reuse the comb.
    There seem to be 2 distinct schools of thought about reusing comb. One seems to be that the bees are less vigorous in the house building when the comb is already there & the other thinking is that it takes less energy for them to reuse. Personally, I will take the comb & melt it down to use for a bit of crack filling etc as the smell of the bees remains in the hive to attract other bees anyway.
    I guess the first thing is to try to establish what happened to your girls first.

  5. itsonlyausername says:

    As has been said above the first issue to resolve is the status of the bees demise. No one at home suggests CCD. Stores and no sign of bees is classic. The stores could very easily be contaminated and it has been reported by some sources in the US that the bees appeared to be placing contaminated pollen in desperate cells and capping them. The absence of bees suggest the hive may be contaminated with whatever caused the colony to disappear. In that case a total clear out is essential and fire the internal surfaces of the hive before reoccupying it. If the dead bees are present but not appearing to be struggling for food then something poisoned them or killed them outright. Either way I would do as with CCD, clear the hive totally. Small parasites may be to blame and they could well be present so burning out is necessary. The same for infections. Personally I would forgo the fact that the hive has some stores and comb and clean it totally. No point in takinga any chances. If they were struggling to reach food then maybe it is worth considering the thickness of the walls of the Warre hive. Les than an inch thick with the winter we have just had and then maybe the cold made it impossible to move far. Also consider how the stores are aligned with each level. Is it straight up and down with no obstructions? If you think about it heat rises so if the colony is low down and the comb in the next box is some distance away then during the cold spell the bees may not have been able to bridge the gap between boxes. I recall seeing someone who didn’t have bars in the individual boxes except the top one and just let the bees build one continuous comb right the way down. The only other structure was some cross dowelling diagonally placed to act as additional support but not in any way a form of obstruction or division. The bees then work their way right the way back up again during the winter. No gaps between boxes. To extract honey required the use of a wire drawn between the top and second box (like slicing cheese) to separate the boxes.
    Would be interested to know what e outcome was/is. Would also be worth checking the comb for odd looking cells of pollen. I know one of our group in Oxfordshire is looking at neonicotinoids in pollen so might be worth mentioning it to him.

  6. johnmkubwa says:

    Steve, Your colony may have succumbed to varroa. But if it dwindled away during spring it could have contracted nosema which infects the gut; sometimes symptoms are splashes of yellow dysentery evident, in winter/spring at the hive entrance and on comb when bees cannot get out to defecate. But not all dysentery contains nosema.

    The real confirmation of nosema is to sample 30 bees, kill them by freezing, making a ‘soup’ out of crushed abdomens and a cc of water; use a x 400 microscope and look for rice shaped spores. The problem with reusing brood comb is the cocoons will likely hold spores which can re-infect a new colony. Honey will also contain viable spores for a time… An infected colony may well be OK over summer in warmer temperatures but will dwindle again the following spring.

    In nature an old nest may well be destroyed by mice, wax moth and the detritus eating micro-organisms which can be found in cavity sumps. Some infected nests may not…..

    My FERA inspector who showed me the spores on his microscope, advises scorching the hive box and top-bars and rendering the comb with heat to recover wax; he advises against re-using any ‘iffy’ brood comb.
    For further information I would recommend “Infectious Diseases of the Honeybee” by Leslie Bailey 1963.

    As others have posted, we need to be clear as to why a colony has died before reusing its comb.
    John H, Stockbridge, Hants

  7. soapydogbath says:

    Many thanks for your responses.
    I think the safest course is indeed to scorch out the hive and start again.

    Just for extra information, many bees died in the hive and fell to the bottom. I knew something was wrong but I hoped they still had a healthy queen, that she would start to lay and that they would pull through naturally. However on our rare sunny days there were very few bees flying and we had our doubts but still hoped (bee buddy Kay and myself). There was a bit of brown streaking outside, but that is surely no sure sign of anything definite?

    When I finally opened the Warre up ( at this time there was only one or two bees flying on a sunny day), there were no bees with their bums sticking out of combe, but there were maybe thirty that had just died in situ, and their legs still hung on to the combe as they had been when they were walking over it. They were not in any form of cluster.

    I felt bad about the whole thing and for the remaining two or three bees, who were now on the bits of runny honey I had exposed.

    I think it is possible that they starved. As has been suggested, even though honey was present, maybe it was too cold for them to get to it. Or that they had been somewhere where they had been using insecticides. Or any combination of these with a varroa factor thrown in.

    Any further thoughts?

    Again, many thanks for your replies.


  8. simplebees says:

    Just to add to the above, queen failure could also be involved. As winter bees die off, new bees are needed to replace them. If the queen has failed for any reason, these new bees are not present and the colony slowly dwindles. I have seen such colonies die out in February, but others struggle on into March or even April. The weakened colony is far more susceptible to other stress factors, microbial imbalances etc., so all of the factors mentioned by others above may have played a part in the demise and it can be very difficult to give a single cause for the ultimate death of the hive. A bit like humans in old age, really. What is written on the certificate many be only the tip of the iceberg.

    As has been said, unless one is certain that disease is not present, it is wise – I would say even mandatory- to play safe and sterilise.

    Gareth, Cotswolds

  9. soapydogbath says:

    Many thanks for your response, Gareth.

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