Dismantling a Winter Loss

Bee colonies require a number of elements in their favour to overwinter successfully, and despite the go-to solution of copious feeding, this is only one part of what gives honey bees the gumption to get through the cold damp winter. The colony below has been in this hive for 5-6 years and the combs have not been changed, so I find that the bees will vacate the hive – that is to say, not requeen after swarming, or join another, stronger hive through ‘silent robbing’, or simply fizzle out due to poor viability. Of course, you can repeatedly change the combs to keep them fresh and clean, but that involves a lot of intervention and is more difficult if you’re not using foundation, and in any case, if the bees were inhabiting a tree cavity, it would be taken over periodically by birds or other insects and this cycling of a space is completely natural…although a hive doesn’t allow for those other species to benefit.

This is an old National which has a Happy Keeper floor, except I did not ensure the correct alignment of frames over the tubes (as I was not aware at the time that this was necessary!) so the bees have propolised between them and basically rendered the Varroa-reducing capabilities of said floor null and void. Oops.

There was no bad smell although a certain mustiness wafted up as I removed the lid, but that is to be expected. Scent is an important factor in beekeeping and being mindful of any off or funky odours when near an occupied or vacant hive is a good idea. Wax in the hive doesn’t smell like beeswax candles!

I have a full video of the hive being dismantled over on my Patreon, but when dealing with a winter loss, what can be salvaged?

I keep any decent store frames, so those on the edge of the hive which are unlikely to have held brood. If you don’t use queen excluders (and why would you?) then the bees will always have the end frames full of honey and pollen so as to be on hand for feeding. These are not going to have the same level of potential pathogens that the brood combs may have. Pathogens don’t need to be dangerous to be deleterious so it’s best to get rid of the middle nest area, and in any case, wax moth will target that part too as they prefer the rich pickings of old pupal cases and grub detritus to the cleaner cells that have only had stores.

The combs are very dark, and you can clearly see some queen cells on the sides of some of the frames:

I will remove all the combs from the frames, and scrape them clean. I will reinstate them along with some new frames to replace any broken or damaged ones, and get a new floor, but this will be a fantastic bait hive as bees love the aroma of propolis and old wax.

6 thoughts on “Dismantling a Winter Loss

  1. Have you ever purposely killed a colony? I ask b/c I’ve got one that’s been super mean for 2 years. Of course I’ve had the advice to requeen, but these bees are so mean I can’t get near them at all. I’ve considered keeping them and just leaving them alone as they are in a spot far from any potential of hurting anyone (except me!). Just weighing options and wondering your opinion. Thanks for any thoughts!

    1. I haven’t no, but I have got one who sounds similar to yours! They hate people and won’t let me check them, and even just going in to put on a super is pretty scary! I don’t really see the point in purposely killing them though as I just don’t do anything with them, or if I do, I have someone with me, suit up really *really* well and have my smoker going well. I have had colonies that calm down after a couple of years, and you’re right, suggesting requeening when the colony is too mean to get near or work effectively is just pointless!

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