No beekeeper wants to go out to feed a hive in late winter or open up a hive for their Spring cleaning only to discover that the colony has died, and for one reason or another hasn't made it through the Winter months. Doing your first hive checks of the year can be a little nerve-wracking since many beekeepers worried about their bees all winter.
When a hive dies, it can be a bit heartbreaking for even the newest of beekeepers, but it's important to figure out what went wrong so that you can do your best to avoid it next year. Do your best not to get discouraged, even the most experienced beekeepers have to go through losses, too.
Once you're finally suited up and out by the beeyard, take note of any activity at the entrance. If the weather's warm enough, are you noticing any bees coming and going from the hive? One way to tell that you might have lost a hive before you even get it open is the number of dead bees outside on the ground, or built up on the bottom board.
If there are hundreds of dead bees piled up, it could be an indication that something hasn't gone quite right. A slight knock on the side of the hive could let you know whether or not there's an active hive inside and what box the cluster is located. The noise will be low, but if there is a cluster of bees inside, you'll hear a hum after the knock.
If you've found that the colony inside of that hive has either perished or they have absconded and no bees remain, it's important to take note of what could have caused their demise. It won't be easy to do, and it will feel a bit invasive to pick apart their home & review the scene, but it's a necessary part of growing and learning as a beekeeper.
After finding a deadout hive, you now have the opportunity to ask yourself a few questions to determine what you can do better as a future beekeeper, and whether or not it's safe to re-use your beekeeping equipment.
A question that often isn't considered but should be, is: when did I last monitor and/or treat for Varroa Mites? Though mites are typically not visible on your bees, they are often present in most hives throughout the U.S. They are often the cause for weakness and loss of numbers within a hive, contributing to many hive deaths annually.
A good indication of a varroa problem in an active or dead hive can be "guano" aka mite feces built up inside cells. It is a white and thick substance, often coating the edges or bottom of previously used brood cells. If you think varroa mites contributed to your hive's loss, start working now to come up with a better plan of action for next year.
Though varroa mites are the most common cause of hive losses, there are many other diseases impacting honey bees that could be what caused their downfall. Pay special attention to the size, shape, and coloring of the brood cells and honey stores. Do you smell anything abnormal? Some serious diseases like AFB(American Foulbrood) or EFB(European Foulbrood) can cause cells to appear sunken and blackened at the edge, and emit a very foul smell as the name indicates.
Because it's both highly contagious and devastating effects on a colony, most states require equipment in hives that test positive for AFB or EFB to be burned. Check this link to learn more about the diseases that impact honeybees and what you can do to prevent or treat these diseases.
While inspecting your hive's remnants, it's helpful to take note of each section of the hive, and save photos. If you are a Colony member, don't forget to post to the Colony Forum (the Threats to Bees category is a good place for this type of post), where a PerfectBee ambassador or another member can take a look. You may also have a local beekeeping mentor. Sharing your findings with a more seasoned beekeeper, especially if you're uncertain exactly what you're looking at, can be a huge help in learning what to do next time.
Remember that you can also contact your state apiarist if you feel that your active hive might currently have, or may have collapsed from an infectious disease. Often times, they will have an apiarist come out and help you inspect the equipment for any signs of possible issues and determine the cause of your hive loss. Most states have a contact page for honeybees and the organizations set up to protect them.
The best thing that a beekeeper, newbee or otherwise, can do when facing a colony's death is to remain positive in the face of adversity. With a little planning and a lot of positivity, you can use this sad scenario to prepare for a better future within your apiary.