Beekeeping / Health and Disease / Maintenance and How-To

Dysentery in the Hive

I was thinking of writing a post about all the things that can kill off a hive in the winter. Then, yesterday, my husband was able to get out and check the hives (it was 45 degrees!) and discovered that two of them have died. So this post is suddenly very timely.  One of the hives was our original hive and, by far, the strongest of the four. We lost a nuc early on, so now we are down to only one small hive and it seems to be struggling.

I’m actually quite sad about the loss of the main hive, and not just because it means we have to shell out more money for nucs in the spring. That was our first hive ever and one we’ve been working for two years.  The queen seemed strong, and the hive’s disposition was very gentle. We were happy to be splitting this one and hoping to pass on the hive’s disposition and general hardiness.

Here’s a nostalgic look at the day we brought that first nuc home. It was five frames that, over the course of two years, we turned into 3 hives and one nuc.  We also raise chickens for eggs and food and I have to admit I’m quite sad over the loss of these hives, whereas, the loss of a chicken feels kind of par for the course.

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Thus, I present to you (read in loud, booming voice): Things That Can Kill Your Hives – Dysentery Edition

We are fairly sure dysentery is what killed our two large hives, so I’ll start with this. Dysentery isn’t so much a disease, but a condition that develops. The short version is that bees need some warmish days (45 degrees or warmer) to leave the hive and defecate. If they can’t leave, they hold it in. You don’t need a biology degree to know that holding in your poo for too long is unhealthy. In fact, it’s a concept I’ve been discussing with my 4-year-old quite a bit lately. Bees can only hold about 30 to 40% of their body weight in fecal matter, so if the weather doesn’t cooperate, they are forced to defecate inside the hive.

When I look back at the weather for the month of January, I see two days only where the projected high was 40, but the low for the day was 32. There was also rain/snow mix these days, so not an ideal day to be flying. December was worse. I found one day with a projected high of 38. The worst part about all of this is that, as a beekeeper, there’s really nothing you can do. We kept the entrance clear so that the bees could get out if they were feeling brave and also so they could deposit any dead bees, but mostly we just had to wait.

On one of those mild January days, my husband was able to peek inside and the smell immediately clued him in as to what was going on. He said the inside of the hives looked like they had been splattered with mud (it was bee poo). So now you have a scenario where your bees’ immune systems are compromised from being sick, they are living in unsanitary conditions, and also the food supply is splattered with fecal matter. It’s pretty easy to see how this can cause the quality of the hive to deteriorate quickly.

Dysentery can also affect a hive if the bees eat old or fermenting honey, or if they eat a lot of honey that is darker in color (like buckwheat honey, for example). This type of honey contains harder to digest particles and too much of this can cause dysentery, but this is not a condition of our hives either.

I’m hoping to get some pictures of our hive and the aftermath of this incident up soon, so be sure to check back!

Some Additional Resources

Edinburgh and Midlothian Beekeepers’ Association, “Bee Diseases and their Management”

HoneyBeeSuite.com, “A great day for honey bees: down with dysentery”

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6 thoughts on “Dysentery in the Hive

  1. I’m sorry to hear about your hives. I am preparing to put together my first hive and reading everything I can, but, this was the first I’d heard of Bee Dysentery! I hope the weather turns around for you soon and your girls can get out to stretch their wings and to relieve themselves!

    • It’s exciting to hear you are about to embark on a bee adventure! They certainly are addicting. The most frustrating thing about the dysentery is there’s really nothing you can do. I did read that feeding sugar water throughout the winter may help to prevent it, but the reviews on that are mixed. I’m in the process of moving some posts from my old blog to this one. If you want to read my post (with pictures!) from when we originally installed our nucs it’s here: http://locaverb.blogspot.com/2012/06/adventures-in-beekeeping-installing-nuc.html I will be moving it to this blog at some point. Thanks for reading! 🙂

    • Hi Laurie – thanks for stopping by! Today at our area beekeepers conference we learned we were not alone, which is sad for bees in general, but made me feel a little better. I’m excited to follow your blog as I’m also very much into food hoarding – ahem – storage 🙂 and canning!

  2. we just lost our last hive (of the original 5) to dysentery-so disappointing. So the disappointment of losing the bees is offset by having had the bees draw out comb. So as we start again this spring, at least we don’t have to wait on then to spend resources on building comb. this season we will begin with one 10 frame hive, that we hope to split and then have two 5 frame nuc essentually. one with a queen, one without. We hope to be able to create a queenless hive that will want to do a supersedure. Hope springs eternal.
    USA

    • Thanks for reading! We were thinking the same thing, the one upside is that we have all that drawn out comb and a little bit of honey to get our packages started! Our new packages are coming on Monday and it’s supposed to rain Monday and Tuesday, so I’m glad there will be some honey to hold them over until the sun comes out again! I’m hoping to get some pictures of the package install up by next week Tuesday or Wednesday.

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