The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Colony collapse disorder in backyard bees

Colony collapse disorderOur two bee hives have been awfully quiet for the last few weeks.  No one out flying on warm sunny days.  No perceptible buzz when I leaned down to press my ear against the hive body.  But I didn't think anything could be wrong.  In November, the hives were well-stocked with honey and low enough on varroa mites that I didn't need to worry.  We haven't had any terribly cold spells yet.  I just figured I wasn't paying enough attention.

Unfortunately, my gut was right and my head was wrong.  I opened up the hives and found them...empty.  Chock full of honey, but no bees live or dead.

I usually poo-poo backyard beekeepers who swear their bees died of Colony Collapse Disorder.  I believed (and still do) that we tend to jump to that conclusion without checking the data.  Our two hives that died last winter, for example, showed clear signs of starvation --- bees dead on the comb with their heads stuck in empty cells.  It's easy to just write off anything as "Colony Collapse Disorder --- not my fault", but the truth is that a dead hive often is the beekeeper's fault.

Lighting a smokerWhich is not to say that Colony Collapse Disorder never comes to the backyard.  If your bees are simply gone and the honey is untouched (even by robber bees), you might be the unfortunate recipient of this difficult to diagnose disorder.  This week, I did start to see a few robber bees visiting my empty hives, but I suspect the honey-rich hives had been untouched for a few weeks before that.  All of the data points toward Colony Collapse Disorder being the culprit in this case.

I'm going to extract the honey and then put on my thinking cap.  When we started with bees, we got free Langstroth equipment, but I'd like to research whether top bar hives or Warre hives are more likely to keep our bees healthy.  We also bought package bees from afar, and I'd like to see if we can find a local person breeding bees well adapted to our area.  Alternatively, perhaps we should look into strains other than Italian if we have to buy in more bees from far-flung sources.  But whatever we change, we will be bringing bees back to the farm, and hopefully our next experiment with bees will do better than our last.

Our chicken waterer makes the backyard flock nearly as low maintenance as a bee hive.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Oh dear, I'm so sorry to hear that. Let's hope the next set of bees will do okay.
Comment by Heather Wed Dec 14 08:18:35 2011
Bad luck on the bees. This is my first year with 2 hives and going into the winter, one hive seemed strong and the full of honey and the 2nd hive was light on honey. Some small hive bettles but very few mites. I have worried about wheither i should have combined them in the fall and went into the winter with one strong hive. We shall see. I got my Italians from Georgia this past spring. This hobby has turned out to have a very steep learning curve with it.
Comment by tarheelcat Wed Dec 14 08:36:28 2011
One of the teachers in my beekeeping class said Russian queens were hardier. This was back when CC disorder was first being discovered.
Comment by Errol Wed Dec 14 08:47:58 2011

Heather --- Thanks! I'm still working my mind around the loss....

Tarheelcat --- I totally agree about the steep learning curve. I think bees are a lot like fruit trees --- it takes many years to become an expert because it's harder to see the results of your management choices. I hope both of your hives survive and thrive!

Comment by anna Wed Dec 14 08:48:46 2011

Sorry for your loss. It is always disappointing to lose a hive.

Another possible alternative is that your colonies absconded. But based on your pictures it looks like the bees left honey and brood behind which is inconsistent with absconding. Was there any sign of disturbance of the hives by raccoons or skunks?

Comment by RDG Wed Dec 14 09:22:23 2011
I'm so sorry for your loss. I know you'll overcome it, but it always sucks to get a kick in the stomach like this.
Comment by Danny Wed Dec 14 10:13:13 2011

Daddy --- Russian bees is one of the things I want to look into, unless I can find the more local bees. I had the same vague memory you have, but haven't researched it yet.

RDG --- From a quick search of the internet, it sounds like the bees would abscond if they were out of honey and desperate. They had plenty of honey left, which points to CCD. The hives are also right in the heart of our homestead where Lucy patrols constantly, so it's highly unlikely they were bothered by anything.

Danny --- Thanks!

Comment by anna Wed Dec 14 10:55:51 2011

I'm really sorry to hear that you lost your hives. I had no idea that the bees would just be gone if they suffered CCD, I figured you would find a bunch of dead bees.

I'm planning on trying my hand at bees this Spring. I really like the idea of top bar hives, so will go that route. I have not worked with my local beekeeping organization yet, but I do know that they have a couple people that use top bar hives.

Comment by Fritz Wed Dec 14 11:40:52 2011


Email me if you decide to go with a top bar system. I may be able to hook you up with a free one if you agree to help us test things out. I'm working with a friend to come up with a design that is shippable and easy to assemble for most people. Your microbusiness inspiration has been very helpful so far.


Comment by Everett Wed Dec 14 11:45:08 2011
With no dead bees in sight, doesn't this suggest an external predator or chemical? Parasites like mites or internal problems like a poor food supply will leave dead insects behind. Perhaps a neighbor spraying a new insecticide? A strong colony of wasps or wild bees nearby? I don't know enough about these risks to know what to look for, but I'm leery of attributing problems like this to colony collapse disorder as a broad, unknown umbrella set of problems without a solution to prevent this from happening again the next time.
Comment by David Wed Dec 14 12:20:55 2011

Fritz --- if you see lots of dead bees, that's a sign that something else has gone wrong.

You're very lucky to have local mentors using top bar hives! That's one of the reason I stuck with Langstroth at first --- local beekeepers are pretty old-fashioned.

Everett --- I may take you up on that, thanks for the offer! I'm going to wait to research it until I get to the beekeeping chapter of my book. (Two birds with one stone and all that... :-) ) So it might be a month or so from now before I get back to you. I'm excited that you decided to go ahead and try the microbusiness method rather than sticking to the affiliate method!

David --- No, the lack of dead bees is one of the biggest clues of CCD. One of the hypotheses some scientists have is that whatever causes CCD makes the bees get confused while out of the hive so they can't make it home. The only other real option if you don't see bees in your hive is that they absconded (as RDG suggested.) All of the other problems result in lots of dead bees in or in front of the hive.

I'm also leery of thinking that everything is CCD, as I mentioned in the post. But in this case, that's where the data seems to be pointing.

Comment by anna Wed Dec 14 13:38:08 2011
I'm so sorry about that! Whatever the cause, I hope you are able to somehow prevent it in the future...
Comment by Emily Wed Dec 14 14:27:07 2011
Oh sweetie, I'm so sorry. How sad.
Comment by Heather Wed Dec 14 14:35:43 2011
Emily and Heather --- Thanks for your sympathy! I hope that we can find a way to make chemical-free hives a reality if we keep plugging away at it.
Comment by anna Wed Dec 14 16:18:55 2011
I lost both my hives too this year, and I do top bar. But I know it was due to wasps--I designed a window into the side and could see them fighting in there. About Aug 15, the wasps start wanting sugar, and they attacked, like a tsunami. I tried to help, but there's only so much you can do. Really discouraging.
Comment by Post Carbon Thu Dec 15 01:59:58 2011
Post Carbon --- That's awful! Mark was talking about putting an observation window in whatever new kind of hive we choose, and that sounds like a good idea. What did your wasp-beaten hive look like when all was said and done? Dead bees inside or not?
Comment by anna Thu Dec 15 08:12:08 2011
I think the best way for a beekeeper to help a colony defend against wasps is to reduce the entrance. One top bar hive that I am familiar with used holes in the bottom for an entrance. These holes could be filled with cork to reduce the number of entrances that needed to be defended.
Comment by RDG Fri Dec 16 10:58:11 2011
RDG --- Good point about entrance reduction. I guess that's one of the flaws of the top bar design. I'm just starting to read up on top bar vs. langstroth vs. warre hives --- any tips on which you think are the easiest to use when raising chemical-free bees?
Comment by anna Fri Dec 16 11:32:15 2011
Social insects have always fascnated me. Ain't evolution a pip?.. In the history of medicine, when the cause of death was unknown, it was often attributd to Evil Spirits. As knowledge increased, the number of deaths requiring that diagnosis decreased. CCD may be the Evil Spirits of entymology. The math of population dynamics may explain CCD in and of itself, with no "cause" necessary other than the characteristics of the species (cf-the pop. cycle of the 17-yr locust)...Both the Roman poet Vergil and Sherlock Holmes retired to raise bees- a relaxing, fullfilling hobby, but, given that the honey bee is an invasive species in NA, I'm undecided if we should be raising them or not. Without them, the natural, indigenous pollinators would be more competitive. Of course, then you couldn't harvest the honey. There's always trade-offs to deal with.
Comment by doc Fri Dec 16 16:47:15 2011

Intriguing comment, doc. The comparison that came to mind for me is certain species of bamboo that reproduce vegetatively nearly all the time. Then, once every few decades, every single plant of that species blooms...and then dies. It's true that bees could be going through something like that, although I'm not sure I've seen any data to support that hypothesis.

I agree with you about the ambivalence about focusing so much of our energy on honeybees vs. native pollinators. I have to admit that the native pollinator population on our farm is extremely healthy, so I don't worry about pollination. I do miss homegrown honey, though....

Comment by anna Fri Dec 16 19:40:14 2011


I thought I might pipe in regarding top bar hives (TBHs). I'm a beginning beekeeper, and I decided last year that my first hive would be a TBH. A year later now, I have built a TBH, but there are no bees in it--and not for a lack of trying.

I thought I might share some lessons I learned along the way. First, the top bars need to be made to be almost interchangable with the frames in a Langstroth hive. That way, splits can be made easier between the two hives: just put top bars in a Langstroth, let the bees build comb and fill it with brood, then place those bars in an empty TBH and feed like crazy until they can get established. Of course, unlike frames, top bars will rest nearly flush against each other, making it more difficult for you to grab onto them and for the bees to move above them. This will also make it possible for you to accept nuc's from local beekeepers working on Langstroth hives. My second lesson was that I needed an easy means of feeding the bees. While simple holes might make the most sense for an entrance, such entrances make it difficult (impossible) to use an entrance feeder--you know, the one where you can tell how much food the bees have gone through without opening the hive? Third, I made the bottom of the top bar hive out of 1/4" hardware cloth--this was a mistake as it offered the bees no protection, and they could enter or leave the hardware cloth barrier as they saw fit. I've been told that 1/8" hardware cloth is better, but all I've found in the hardware store so far is regular window screen. The final lesson I learned was that while a shingled roof looks very pretty, and I'll likely try another one, the shingles can quickly make the roof heavy and more difficult to handle.

What happened in my case was that my package bees left due to the improperly sized hardware cloth. At that time, it was too late to order more package bees, so I needed to figure out how to use a nuc that I could buy from a local club member. Since my TBH's were incompatible with the nuc, I needed to procure Langstroth equipment quickly to house the nucs. I plan on splitting them this spring, hopefully into a TBH, but I was unable to do so last summer since I had yet to figure out how.

I hope these mistakes will help you out if you desire to look into TBH's. I still like the idea, even without a working TBH, so I'm going to try again next year. Yes, I have had to explain to the local bee club many, many times why I am so pigheaded about wanting to have a TBH when no one in the club has experience with them: 1) There's no significant lifting involved--so inspections become easier, 2) removing a single top bar or two exposes less of the hive, so it is less intrusive to the bees, 3) by forcing the bees to rebuild comb often, they are less prone to disease, 4) no expensive extraction equipment is necessary, 5) by building my own I can put windows in the sides to teach the kids with, 6) I was looking for a low maintenance approach whereby I could keep bees with less medication, and 7) I am a hobbyist, willing to produce a reasonable amount of honey for personal uses, so I am not concerned about those beekeepers who would state that top bar hives don't produce as much honey.

A long letter, but perhaps it will stir up some thoughts. I can provide the plans I used for both my first TBH as well as a second one I am building based upon the experience I had with the first if you would like.

Comment by Dan Sat Dec 17 17:28:46 2011

Anna, Sorry about your bees. I started beekeeping this year with two Top Bar Hives; one with a local swarm and one with a package. The package hive got very weak, so I put in a couple of frames of brood and stores from the swarm hive. Now both are very strong going into their first winter. You can see a video of hives at . Good luck. david from Alabama

Comment by David Sat Dec 17 18:12:41 2011

Dan --- Thanks so much for sharing your firsthand experience! I need to read up on several kinds of hives before I decide which direction to go in, but I think you've got an excellent point about making top bar hives have the same dimensions as Langstroth hives so that you can can work with people who have traditional equipment. In addition, your comment was a good reminder that I need to hook up with more local beekeepers, even if none of them are trying the chemical-free approach.

David --- Catching swarms does seem like a good way to get localized bees. Another thing to look into!

Comment by anna Sun Dec 18 09:37:14 2011

Only after a little research, anyone can see that the bees are being over-exploited, that is the reason for their decline.

Before you talk about the varroa mite, even top people at the NBU (National Bee Unit UK) agree, that when left alone, bees would become resistant to the mite and other diseases, they would probably also be stronger and more resistant against insecticides. This has been shown in other countries.

The real reason is the greedy bee keeper. After the bees work their guts out getting their food for winter, the greedy bee keeper takes it all, just before winter. The bees are then fed on supplement, sugar water, with none of the nutrients and goodies that are in the honey.

There are hardly any wild colonies of bees, they are reported by the concerned public then rounded up by a greedy bee keeper who then puts them into his concentration camp, with hundreds of other colonies usually within a couple of metres of each other. Naturally colonies would be over 100 metres from each other.

No research in this country is being done to see whether free wild colonies of bees will thrive. It is not in the interest of the greedy bee keeper for the truth to be outed, honey is big bucks, they don't care about the bees.

In the U.S. where they have already worked the bees to death, they transport them about and give them monocultures (single crops), against nature. The greedy bee keeper does this because it has become more profitable to cart bees around the country, than to sell the honey.

Soooo..... the UK greedy bee keeper has no incentive to protect the bees, let them have a bit of a rest, natural hives, leave them with honey for winter, because the greedy bee keeper will make more money when they have declined.

Even the literature of the NBU says nothing about leaving the bees with honey for winter! What are they there for, another quango with fat cats supporting the greedy bee keeper.

Think of bees as Auschwitz inmates who are working to survive with no nutrients over winter, then you will understand why they are declining. Just do a bit of research for yourself on how the bees in this country are kept, then tell me I'm wrong. Just about every aspect of bee keeping is un-natural for the bee.

The greedy bee keeper will say that butterflies and other insects are also in decline, that has nothing to do with greedy bee keepers they will state. If you check-out the reasons for butterfly and insect decline, you will discover it is change or destruction of their habitat. Bees have been intensively exploited for 200 years, most haven't lived in their natural habitat since then. Although, of course, wild bees are declining due to habitat change.

Crops and flowers are available for honey bees, but think about, say, 100 Auschwitz inmates fed on bread and water over winter and 100 well fed people. Give them all the flu, which group will have the most survivors?

Bees are the concentration camp inmates of the insect world, everyone defending that exploitation of the bees, will make up all the excuses under the Sun to make people believe that it is a mite or pesticides, not the greedy bee keeper sapping their strength and will to survive.

Typical Bee Concentration Camp:

Comment by Mark Jordan Sat Feb 11 13:00:31 2012

Mark Jordan --- I agree that greedy beekeepers are a big part of the problem, but I suspect they're not the only aspect. We only take honey in the spring (whatever's left after the bees live on it through the winter), and we still saw losses.

You might be interested in reading PJ Chandler's and Michael Bush's analyses of the problems with modern beekeeping.

Comment by anna Sat Feb 11 16:44:21 2012

Hi, I just stumbled upon your blog for the first time and love what you're doing. My husband's a permaculture designer so we're also very into homesteading. I know it's been a few months, but I want to send you my condolences about your bees. I keep bees and they are so precious to me, so I understand it must have been hard for you guys. The system I use is the Perone system, which is a type of vertical top-bar hive. One of the special things about this hive is that the brood space is bigger than other hives so that the bees can create a larger population. When bees have a larger population, they have an easier time heating the hive and completing all the tasks necessary for their survival, so the hive is stronger and more resilient. It's pretty easy/cheap to make one and once you have it set up, you really don't have to do much. My friends also have had good experiences with Perone hives. In fact, I have a friend who has Langstroth hives and last year he put in a Perone hive. At the end of the season, all his Langstroths died, but the Perone is still alive and flourishing. You can see what the hive looks and how it works in this youtube video and also there's a lot of info about it on the natural beekeeping site (and lots of other forms/suggestions for beekeeping as well)

I look forward to following your blog, now that I know it exists. :)

Comment by Claire Tue May 29 20:49:34 2012

Claire --- And here I thought I'd researched all of the sustainable beekeeping options! (We're trying a Warre hive this year.)

I wish there was more information on the Perone hive on the internet or in a book. The video was very well done, but didn't really answer my questions about how the Perone hive differs from the Warre hive except in the obvious larger size and different comb guides. The literature for the Warre hive says that a small hive body is much better for overwintering, and I'd love to hear the Perone take on that.

I guess I'll have to keep my eyes open and see what other information about the Perone hive turns up. Or maybe you're the Claire who made the video and can answer all my questions?

Comment by anna Wed May 30 06:37:10 2012

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