Our Beehive Fail

I have always promised to tell the truth.  The good, the bad and the ugly.  This one was both bad and ugly.

There is just no other way to say it…

top bar beehive failure

Our bees died this past winter.

We aren’t really certain what happened, but we have a few ideas.

First and foremost, we weren’t at the homestead to see the first of the dead bees piling up on the ground in front of the hive.  When we were able to get back up to the homestead, it top bar beehive death in winterwas already too late.  They were all dead.  When I saw all the bees piled up I had a feeling of dread, but I also knew that some bees die, even during winter, and it is normal for the dead bodies to get kicked “to the curb”.  I didn’t want to open the hive if I didn’t have to, because that would expose the bees (if they were alive) to the cold, so I put my ear to the hive to hear that comforting, reassuring hummmmmmm.  I didn’t hear it.


When we opened the hive we saw that there was a lot of capped honey, a lot of uncapped honey, and a lot of dead bees inside clinging to the comb, the walls and on the floor. Not much brood, but that’s normal.  Hmmm………

Although all the bees were dead, there was still lots of capped honey

Although all the bees were dead, there was still lots of capped honey.  There was also quite a bit of uncapped honey!

It wasn’t wet inside, although there was some mold growing on the outside, especially around the entrance and where the bees were piled up at the door, so apparently mold wasn’t the problem.

Then we found the queen.  She must have been one of the last of the bees to die, because she was at the top of the pile on the floor in the middle of the hive.  So, the problem wasn’t due to a queenless hive.

I circled in red some of the dead bees that were literally buried face first into the honeycomb!

I circled in red some of the dead bees that were literally buried face first into the honeycomb! You can also see with the circle on the left that there were brood, and I even found a few eggs, so the queen had still been laying.

What we did find was some of the bees head first into the comb, with their little bee butts sticking out.  In fact, there were at least two dozen that we found that way.  That was our first clue as to what may have gone wrong.  When I did some research on the internet about what will kill bees during the winter, bees head first into the comb reveals that they may have starved to death.  Starved to death?  With all that honey still in the comb?


Why?  Because they couldn’t get to the honey!  You see, the worker bees all cluster around the queen on cold days and flap their wings to warm up the small area around the queen, between two combs.  The bees will not leave their queen and the queen will not likely leave the area of the brood, and so if there is no honey to be had in that small area, the bees will starve.  Ones that do venture out of the small warming zone to find honey get too cold and die, right then and there head first in the comb!

But wait…

We live in an area of the country that rarely sees temperatures below 25 degrees Fahrenheit!  A lot of beehives survive temperatures much colder!  What happened?

Well…  I guess that was our fault, being beekeeper rookies.

top bar beehive

This was at a happier time, during the fall, when the weather was still warm and there was still lots of pollen and nectar to harvest.

When we first got our bees we did a lot of research and read several books about top bar beekeeping, and learned that if a colony of bees thinks their hive box is too small, they will swarm to find a bigger home.  That’s not good.  We read that to prevent bees from swarming a hive they might think is too small, you have to show them that there is a lot of room in the hive to keep the colony growing, by moving some of the top bars around. So, in early fall, during another small honey flow, we moved three of the combs full of honey toward the back of the hive and put three empty top bars in their place, not all in a row but spaced out within the hive.  Our mistake was not making sure that the center of the hive, where the brood comb usually is and where the queen usually stays, stayed clustered together.

We also neglected to pack the empty space at the back of the hive in preparation for winter. Why is this important?  So there is very little empty space within the hive during the winter and the bees don’t have to work so hard by flapping their wings to keep the queen and themselves warm.

Who knew?  Unfortunately, we didn’t.  Live and learn. I actually felt so guilty about killing our bees that I cried.

Getting ready to harvest what we could from the beehive.

Getting ready to harvest what we could from the beehive.

But, after the first shock of our disappointment, we realized there was still a lot of honey in the hive.  We knew the capped honey in the comb would be fine.  The problem was that there was still larvae (baby bees) in some of the comb, and although the weather had been pretty cold, they may have started to get moldy.  Eeeeeewwwwwww.

What we did was harvest most of the comb and separated it into comb with capped honey only and then comb with some brood along with the capped honey. We also saved four bars that had just comb with some capped honey and put it in the freezer, to help jump-start the next hive.

Honey harvested from our top bar beehive!

Honey harvested from our top bar beehive!  Isn’t it pretty?

I first extracted the capped honey and got almost four pints.  The honey extracted that had some brood in it (I cut out the comb with brood) gave us two quarts.  I have been using

This is my redneck, low tech way to extract honey from the comb. Hey - it works!

This is my redneck, low tech way to extract honey from the comb. Hey – it works!

this honey for baking and it is absolutely delicious!  We ended up wasting some of the honey because I was too squeemish to have dead bee pulp in my honey, and a lot of the uncapped honey was just washed out of the comb.  Later I found out that the uncapped honey is perfect for making mead. You learn something new every day!

So, we need to do some more reading and research, consult with our favorite beekeeper Kim (she lost a few hives this past winter also) and carry on.

All was not lost.  Yes, we were upset we had lost (killed) our hive, but we learned more about beekeeping and we got some delicious honey.  It’s always good to look at the bright side.


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27 thoughts on “Our Beehive Fail

    • I know, we were very excited! Thank you for your sympathy. We were so sad when we found that the entire hive had died. But, we did trudge on and get more bees – that story to come soon!

    • Me too! This has been quite a learning process. I have really fallen in love with beekeeping, though I am still a bit of a nervous nelly when I’m around the hives. My husband, however, has taken to beekeeping quite well and, ignorance aside (we are learning), is very good at it!

  1. Oh, how sad!! I know how hard you worked on getting the beehive established, that’s so sad to have the bees die when you couldn’t be there over the winter. So sorry, sweet friend!

    • Thanks, Debbie. Unfortunately, because of why they died (at least why we Think they died), they probably would have succumbed whether we were there or not. Hopefully we will avoid this with our next batch of bees. Thanks for coming by!

  2. Hey Vickie! That is sad~~~The silver lining on this story is that you at least figured out what went wrong. I’m afraid when all is said and done, I wouldn’t have not known what caused it. Good for you~~This may help someone else. AND, the honey you got looks LOVELY!

    • Yeah – at least armed with books and Google, we think we have it figured out. At least we feel confident enough to try again. Are you guys thinking of beekeeping? I went over to your blog today and saw your house plans and I think your home is going to be beautiful! Can’t wait to see it completed!

      • Yep, don’t give up! I haven’t thought of beekeeping, HOWEVER, my daughter bought one of those flow hives from a kickstarter campaign, and she plans to do it. It will be a while before she gets started though~~ The house plans, yes, hoping our house comes together well! Thanks for your encouragement!

        • I have heard of those flow hives. I hope you post about her success or failure, it would be interesting to see if these things really work in the real world. Tell her good luck for me!

    • Thanks, Laurie! We won’t give up yet because it was just so much fun the first time ’round. I just hope we have better success with the next colony. Thanks for hosting the Snickerdoodle party – it was fun!

  3. I know it’s disappointing, but by sharing your experience, you have probably helped more people than you will ever know.

    • Aww thanks, Peggy. That’s one of the reasons I decided to keep a blog! I wanted to keep our friends and family up to date on our latest shennanigans, but also wanted to let others know how we are setting up our homestead, what works and what doesn’t. I promise not to sugar coat anything! Thank you for commenting. I hope you come back again!

  4. You live and learn that’s for sure. Almost everyone I know with bees has issues at some point or another. But that is nothing compared to the feeling when you get that awesome honey!! Hoping for success with the next hive!

    • Hello, Tina – good to hear from you! Yes. We have a friend who has been beekeeping for a looooonnnnngggg time, and he says it is so much different now. It used to be rare to lose a hive. Now, with pesticides, monoculture, varroa mites, etc., etc., etc., he is losing more hives than ever before! We figure all we can do is to continue on with a new colony and see if we get better results. I slipped over to your blog and saw that beautiful loaf of bread. I will be visiting your facebook page to get the recipe! Thanks!

    • Thanks, Charlotte! Yes, sometimes I hate to tell the truth, but it really must be told! I don’t want to paint a picture of butterflies and roses every day, because it certainly isn’t like that at all. Starting up a new homestead and learning all the stuff along the way is hard. But we just love it! thanks for your kind comment!

  5. Oh bless it, I had no idea bees could starve that way. So sorry to hear 🙁 But you learned from this and that is what is important, the next one will succeed!
    Thanks for sharing! I loved seeing the pictures because I can get up close to “study” without the worry of being stung :]

    • Thanks, Val! We are certainly learning a lot about beekeeping this year and hope that at least one of the hives makes it through this coming winter. Well…lets be honest, we hope both hives make it through winter. 😉

    • Yes, I have! Apparently Russian bees are very clean and pick the mites off of each other. I may be looking for some of those if we fail with our bees again. We’ll see. Thanks for the advice, Jeff.

      • You are welcome, Vickie. Please understand the relationship between the bee and mite are complex. It is not just the mites that are the problem, but the associated viruses that they carry, which is probably what the hives you had succumbed to. If you are interested in learning more on the matter, I’d invite you to visit this forum. http://forum.tfbees.net

        I am one of the moderators there, and I feel it could be of benefit to you if you are interested in learning more. I am also a treatment free beekeeper going into my fourth year and have had good luck. I started with 3 hives, up to 12 this year. Rooting for your bees. I also keep Top Bar Hives and find I like them much better than traditional langstroth hives, having tried my hand at them this year. Anyway, best of luck in everything.