Beekeepers this time of year are excited to dive in for a first inspection of the spring. It’s common to find that some hives in your apiary didn’t survive the winter. Don’t be too discouraged by this because it’s statistically normal to lose some hives, even with the best of beekeeping practices. But, it’s helpful to try and understand WHY the hive died. Performing a necropsy (like an autopsy, but on an animal) is key to becoming a better beekeeper.

I shared the status of my hives this spring in my most recent blog. I had one of three die, likely due to a queen that failed in the late fall/early winter. One of the more common necropsy results I find is due to a high level of Varroa mites. This is a sad and unnecessary death for a hive. Varroa mites weaken the immune systems of bees, spread viruses, and make it incredibly hard for them to survive the winter. High levels of Varroa mites in a hive leave behind a telltale sign – their poop. It’s easy to spot because its white which contrasts easily with the dark wax from the brood frames. Their poop looks like little white flecks of dandruff on the bottom wall of many cells. This poop is a sad sign that the mites have conquered the hive, leaving behind only remnants that they were once there. The photos below, by my good friend and expert beekeeper Ellen Topitzhofer, show the carnage well.

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It’s tough to lose a hive, but it’s really tough to lose them to Varroa mites – a nasty parasite that lives in all our hives, but can quickly get the upper hand if we don’t intervene. This may be the culprit of your recent winter hive loss, but don’t fret! It’s a learning opportunity and it is avoidable moving forward. The best way to avoid hive loss due to Varroa mites is to:

  • Assess the level of Varroa in your hive during the warm months using an effective counting method like an alcohol wash.
  • Utilize a mite treatment if you find that your hive has a high level of Varroa mites (above ~4% in the spring/summer or above ~3% in the late summer/early fall).

Beekeeping is not a hobby for those who can’t deal with failure. Heck, I still make mistakes (or later find out that I made a mistake), but I learn something new and get better each year. I’m thankful I didn’t lose any hives to Varroa mites this year, but that’s only because it’s happened to me before and I adjusted my beekeeping practices accordingly!

Keep your bees buzzin’ y’all!