10 Common Abnormal Beehive Conditions: (In Chronological Order)

So after researching many of the conditions a new beekeeper will encounter, I decided to figure out when these conditions would appear and what would be the next upcoming condition that would need the beekeeper’s attention.

This is what I have learned:

What is the sequence of 10 common abnormal beehive conditions?

  • Low Bee Population
  • Spotty Brood Pattern
  • Queen Laying Drone Brood
  • Queen Cell Building
  • Swarm Cell Building
  • Queenless Hive
  • Chalkbrood
  • Dead Outs/Wax Moths
  • Varroa Mites
  • Robber Bees

So the hive starts out at the winter solstice with a honeybee cluster and a Queen in the center of the cluster.

There are no drone bees in the cluster, they were all run out of the hive as the hive settled down into survival mode. No room for non-contributors to the over-wintering efforts, and the drones certainly did not participate! Guess 16 chromosomes are just not as insightful as 32 chromosomes.

By February the Queen bee, still inside the cluster to stay warm, begins to lay a few eggs while still maintaining the sanctity of the winter cluster.

As the winter cluster breaks up after the winter solstice, the first sign of activity should be the visible newly laid eggs, in worker bee size cells, standing on end.

First Hive Opening Of The Year

The first hive opening of the year ideally will happen on the first day the temperature reaches just over 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This should be warm enough not to set the hive back from a cold blast of winter air.

This first hive opening of the year will be the opportunity to spot the first six abnormal conditions, the other four abnormal hive conditions will be seen in subsequent inspections for the year.

First Abnormal Honey Bee Hive Condition Of The Year

A Population Of Bees That Is Less Than The Expected Normal

When the beekeeper removes the lid of the top brood boxes there should be honeybees all over the frames, including on top of the frames.

The beekeeper removes an individual frame (maybe a couple frames in from the end frame) and observes the density of bees covering the frame.

A strong hive will have honey bees covering the entirety of the frame.

The density of honey bees on less that a strong hive and will be assessed by the beekeeper as to hive strength. Weak hives will need some help.

The Solution A Population Of Bees That Is Less Than The Expected Normal

  • ReQueen the hive. Low bee population may be the result of an old or ineffective Queen bee not being able to lay as many eggs as she needs to.
  • Combine weak hives to increase the bee population.
  • Purchase “packaged” bees and simply shake them into the hive.

Second Abnormal Honey Bee Hive Condition Of The Year

Spotty Brood Pattern

When a beekeeper sees “spotty” capped worker bee birthing cells, it can be a sign the Queen is getting old, or perhaps she just isn’t a good Queen.

A good Queen will lay eggs in a tightly organized pattern for ease in keeping the larvae and pupae warm.

She will leave some cells open as a “Heater Bee” cell used by a “Heater Bee” to warm the larvae and pupae.
Learn more about “Heater Bees”…..

A normal hive will have about 70 capped brood cells for every open heater bee cell.
There will be many more open cells than normal with a laying worker bee or an old Queen unable to fertilize the egg.

Solution To A Spotty Brood Pattern In A Beehive

Re Queen the hive.

Third Abnormal Honey Bee Hive Condition Of The Year

Queen Bee Laying Drone Brood In Worker Bee Brood Cells

If the Queen is laying drone brood in worker bee birthing cells there’s a pretty good chance the Queen is getting old and running out of sperm to fertilize her egg.

The Queen bee tries to collect enough sperm on her virginal mating run to last her for each of the expected life span of 3-5 years. Thats a lot of sperm! A beekeeper can distinguish a mated Queen from a virgin Queen simply by looking at the abdominal areas size. The mated Queen is storing up to 6 million sperm in her spermatheca (sperm receptacle/storage gland).

The fertilization process is entirely under the control of the Queen bee.
She only lays fertilized eggs in the worker bee birthing cells (brood) area.
She will also leave some cells open throughout the worker bee brood area. These empty cells are there intentionally to allow “Heater Bees” to do there job, heat the pupae.

She can and does lay unfertilized eggs intentionally.
There seems to be some primal DNA survival mechanism at work with the Queen laying unfertilized eggs intentionally. She does not personally mate with them, she has already mated for life.

But yet somehow, she has the instinct to rear drones to mate with newly hatched unmated Queens in some instinctive species survival mechanism.

She will lay intentionally unfertilized eggs is specialized drone birthing cells.
Drone birthing cells are about 30% larger than a worker bee birthing cell.

Drone cells are usually built by the worker bees in the two lower corner areas of a frame.
They are easy to spot by the beekeeper.
Drone cell build-up can be an early sign of a hive getting ready to swarm.
Learn more about swarming…

A beekeeper will see the typical muffin-top appearance of the drone birthing cell but the height of the muffin-top is elevated because the birthing cell is just too small for a drone. A drone is about 30% larger than a worker bee, the bee that the cell was designed for.

Solution To Queen Bee Laying Drone Brood In Worker Bee Brood Cells

Re Queen the hive

Fourth Abnormal Honey Bee Hive Condition Of The Year

Worker Bees Beginning To Build Queen Cells

Worker bees can sense the decline in the Queen’s viability. Perhaps it is the strength of her pheromone, perhaps it is pattern recognition, but for whatever reason, they sense her decline, and start building Queen cells in anticipation of her replacement.

Queen cells are built out from the face of the honeycomb (and called supersedure cells), much larger than a drone’s simple muffin-top, and they always hang down with the opening at the bottom before they are sealed.

The size of the Queen supersedure cells also tells the beekeeper about the strength of the hive.
The weaker the hive strength the smaller and more puny the Queen supersedure cells.

Queen bees take 16 days to develop, so when a beekeeper sees this activity, they know this hive has the potential to undergo changes that the beekeeper may wish to control with interventions of their own.

Solution To Worker Bees Beginning To Build Queen Cells

The easy answer is Re Queen and let the bees take care of the undesired Queen cells.

The solution here becomes a beekeeper’s choice, depending on certain philosophies and experiences of the beekeeper.

If the beekeeper really likes the current Queen’s traits and does not feel she is too old, the beekeeper may decide to just destroy the Queen cells, but be very careful not to leave the hive Queenless.

Confirmation of a Queen (by seeing her) and recent evidence of laying activity (eggs standing on end in the cell are three days old or less) is mandatory before destroying Queen supersedure cells.

Queen cells can also be harvested by just cutting that section out of the honeycomb and attaching it to the bottom side of an empty frame and raising their own Queens from stock they know. Plus, Queen bees sell for good money!

Fifth Abnormal Honey Bee Hive Condition Of The Year

Worker Bees Begin To Build Queen Cells On The Bottom Of The Brood Frame

In a healthy strong hive there can be an explosion of population in a very short period of time, causing the hive to be overcrowded.

As the spring nectar flow approaches the Queen bee has been busy laying lots of eggs to produce worker bees to gather that nectar and pollen.
A Queen can lay up to about 2,500 eggs daily.

So a hive of overwintering bees with a population of maybe 20,000 can explode to a population of 60,000 in about two weeks!

Overcrowding is the primary reason bees swarm.
One of the early signs of swarm activity is the building of Queen cells on the bottom of the frame.
Learn more about early swarming signs…..

Solution To Worker Bees Begin To Build Queen Cells On The Bottom Of The Brood Frame

Add a super to the hive immediately.
If a super is added to give the bees more room, they may abandon the idea of swarming.
But do it BEFORE there is a larva in the swarm cell!

Once the Queen cell on the bottom of the frame is occupied with a Royal Jelly encrusted larva, this configuration is now referred to as a swarm cell. Many seasoned beekeepers believe at this point it is too late to prevent swarming from happening. Prepare to lose 50% of the hive bees and 50% of the honey as the old Queen goes off in search of a new, less crowded hive area.

Their best advice is to set up swarm traps in hopes of capturing your own beehive swarm.

Sixth Abnormal Honey Bee Hive Condition Of The Year

The Hive Is Queenless

On this first opening of the hive for the year, the beekeeper needs to confirm the presence of a Queen by either seeing the Queen, or if unable to find the Queen, at least sees evidence of recent Queen laying activity by seeing eggs laid by the Queen standing on end, one egg to a cell.

This confirms the Queen has been active in the past three days because eggs curl over and lay on their side after three day and begin their metamorphosis to larvae.

In a Queenless hive, after a few days, there will be some worker bees that develop ovaries and start to lay eggs.

Don’t be fooled by a “laying worker bee” in a Queenless hive!

Worker bees can be fooled and start treating the eggs as fertilized eggs laid by the Queen and will start attending them as such, however, the only thing that will be produced are drone bees, not the desperately needed worker bees.

The beekeeper can further collaborate the hypothesis of a “laying worker bee” by the presence of two different sizes of drone bees. Those drones hatched in a drone cell will be larger than the drones laid by a laying worker bee in smaller birthing cells designed for a worker bee.

A laying worker will lay eggs in a very different pattern than a Queen will lay.
The worker bees eggs may be stuck to the side of the birthing cell instead of at the bottom of the cell. There frequently are more than one egg per cell. And the laying pattern is very arbitrary, not organized and compact as would be the egg pattern of a good Queen.

Another telling factor that there is a laying worker in the hive will be the presence of a LOT of drone bees compared to worker bees.

The beekeeper will also see dead drones that are only partially released from the birthing cell. Drones, unlike worker bees, cannot extricate themselves from their birthing cells by themselves, they need help from the worker bees to help chew them free.

And since there is a shortage of worker bees (because fertilized eggs are not being laid by the Queen), the drone bee finds themselves in the unenviable position of being struck in their birthing cells and dying only partially released.

And finally, the beekeeper may see eggs and brood cells in the honey super above the Queen excluder. A Queen bee cannot get past the Queen excluder, so when there is brood in a honey super above the Queen excluder, it is a sure sign there is a laying worker bee.

Once a new Queen is hatched or introduced, the worker bees will instantly recognize her as Queen, probably because of the Queen’s pheromone and scents of newly-laid fertilized eggs.

The most likely time to find a hive Queenless is after the over-wintering experience. Only 75% of captured swarms successfully over-winter, the Queen just doesn’t survive.

Solution To The Hive Is Queenless

  • Allow the hive to continue to rear a new Queen.
  • Re Queen the hive.

If the hive is weak and the new Queen supersedure cells are small, the beekeeper may want to Re-Queen the hive with a strong new Queen.

Take a look at the Queen supersedure cells.
If there is a Queen supersedure cell that is open on the bottom with a circular chewed-out hole, there has been a Queen born and is either somewhere in the hive as a virgin or out on a mating flight.

A new virgin Queen will be more difficult to spot because she will be small compared to when she returns from her maiden flight loaded down with 5 years worth of sperm.

If the Queen supersedure cell has been ripped open from the side, then that Queen pupae did not live. It was either destroyed by worker bees that felt the Queen supersedure cell pupae was either defective or no longer needed, or it was destroyed by a newly hatched and currently reigning Queen.

The Re Queen Controversy
Re Queen with already mated Queen or with a Queen cell transplant?

Of course, if the new Queen supersedure cells are large and well constructed in the Queenless hive, and the beekeeper is happy with the old Queens offspring temperament, just allow the bees to do what they do best, prepare for survival.

Some beekeepers in the southern states of America choose to purchase already mated Queen bees from northern states because of the potential for Africanization of Queens mated in the southern states.

On the other hand, hives are strongest when they are the offspring of Queen bees acclimated to the local climate.

A hive with weak Queen supersedure cells can be rectified by transplanting a Queen cell from a strong healthy hive into the weak Queen supersedure cell hive and destroying all the other Queen supersedure cells, then sit back and let nature take its course.

Later In The Spring

Seventh Abnormal Honey Bee Hive Condition Of The Year

Signs of Chalkbrood

Chalkboard fungal infections of the hive are usually the next early sign of abnormality after the initial opening inspection for the year.

It is next because chalkboard likes cool temperatures and disappears as the summer temperatures climb.

Chalkbrood is more dependent on climate for propagation than other hive pathogens.

When there is brood rearing build up, in anticipation of the first nectar flow, well underway and lots of new worker bee brood is being raised to go get and process the nectar and pollen necessary to have a strong healthy hive, there is a fungus that can rear its ugly head, attack and destroy the developing brood. It is Chalkbrood fungus!

This condition is usually seen in late spring because its transmission is by spores on infected flower pollen. Spores can also be introduced to the hive by non hive resident bees as they visit other hives by drifting or robbing.

The signs of chalkbrood fungal infestation will usually be seen first in front of the hive where the beekeeper will see specks of white and black remnants of the fungus mummified larva being excavated and removed from the hive by the “undertaker bees” of the hive.

Chalkboard is most happy in cool, moist areas, therefore weak hives with not enough worker bees to keep the larvae/pupae warm, or to regulate hive moisture, are more susceptible to chalkbrood

Solution To Chalkboard Infestation

Keep the infected hive well ventilated to decrease moisture in the hive.
Learn more about hive temperature and moisture…

Increase larvae/pupae cell temperatures by combining weak hives. Combining weak hives can provide enough worker bees to keep the worker brood warm and resistant to chalkbrood infestation.

Get rid of old brood comb, it likely contains spores of Chalkbrood spores ready to strike when the conditions are right.

Unfortunately, Chalkbrood, being a spore, can lie dormant for years. So ridding a hive of chalkbrood fungus can be very difficult to eradicate.

Eighth Abnormal Honey Bee Hive Condition Of The Year

The “Dead Out”/Wax Moths

A “Dead Out” is what a beekeeper calls a beehive, that when opened, all the bees are dead or gone.

A Dead Out could be the first thing a beekeeper finds on the first opening of the hive for the year. When this happens the beekeeper often thinks the bees got so cold over the winter they simpl froze to death.

Some beekeepers claim a beehive never “freezes to death, they starve to death”.

If the over-wintering bees are dead at first hive opening, the beekeeper, on closer inspection, may determine the bees simply ran out of stored honey intended to carry them through the winter.

The second, and more confusing dead out to the beekeeper, usually happens in late spring after the the nectar flow has already begun. This is the result of a hive entering the over-wintering phase of survival with a hive of old summer bees that simply run out of life foraging the new spring nectar flow. They just don’t live long enough to allow the new hatching summer beers to develop into adults.

This phenomena can be a complete collapse of a colony of bees in just a week or two. It can go from a reasonably healthy hive to a completely empty hive very quickly.

In either circumstance, enter the dreaded Wax Moth.

When the beekeeper pulls a frame from a dead out hive and sees a silky, webbing kind of cover over the surface of the honeycomb cells, this is the work of the Wax Moth larvae as they chew their way through the wax comb and destroy it.

There may also be seen wax months in their white cocoons with dark clumps clinging to the cocoon, the wax moth larvae excrement.

Wax moths usually infect honeycomb that has been used as honey bee brood comb much more often than infecting honeycomb that has only contained honey.

Solution To Wax Moth Infestation Of A Dead Out

The best solution is to just burn the frames then scrape the box thoroughly!

Some say the infected frames can be salvaged by freezing the frames for an extended period of time but most beekeepers simply burn the frames and replace them with new frames.
Wax moths are readily handled by bee in an occupied hive, but once the hive is empty the wax moths are relentless.

The solution for saving the hive box is, after the hive box has been thoroughly scraped, place it on top of a healthy hive using a Queen excluder (because wax moths prefer brood comb to honeycomb) and allow the hive bees to go up into that scraped, salvaged dead-out box. They will clean it completely rid that dead-out box of any wax moth residuals.

There is no acceptable chemical solution for getting rid of wax moths!

Ninth Abnormal Honey Bee Hive Condition Of The Year

Varroa Mite Build Up

Varroa mite population expands in synchronicity with hive population growth.
It “waxes” in times of hive groth, the spring and fall nectar flows, and “wanes” in times of hive population decrease, during the deaths and winter.

Beekeepers use two kinds of “mite census” techniques:

  • Alcohol wash
  • Powdered Sugar wash

Using an alcohol wash on a cup full of bees (about 300 bees) will dislodge the varroa mite from the bees but it also, unfortunately, kills the 300 bees.

After the alcohol wash, the number of varroa mites at the bottom of the wash need to be identified and counted.

A varroa mite count above 6 mites is the metric a lot of beekeepers use to decide if they are going to control the mite population with chemicals.

For the more compassionate beekeeper, there is an alternative to the alcohol wash that kills the washed bees. This technique takes the same number of bees, puts them in a jar with powdered sugar, completely coates the bees with white powdered sugar, then shakes the powdered sugar through a screened top a specific number of times into a second Mason jar.

Along with the powdered sugar comes the varroa mites.
Water is added to the jar with powdered sugar and mites.
This dissolves the powdered sugar and the mites can be counted.

Varroa mites are considered an ongoing pandemic in the American beekeeping world.

Many highly educated bee scientists feel the trend in treating for varroa mites to save infected colonies is a disservice to the honeybee because it does not allow the honeybee to eliminate varroa mite infection by evolutionary adaptation and producing mite resistant strains of bees.

The flip side of the coin is they also feel the backyard natural beekeeper is contributing to the spread of varroa mites through their untreated, varroa -infested bees infecting other beekeeper’s bees that are being protected through chemical control of varroa mites.

Apparently the beekeepers in Africa are not experiencing this varroa epidemic, speculatively because they allow evolution to produce varroa mite resistant bees.

Varroa mites are considered by most beekeepers to be a hive killer. At minimum, they will certainly weaken the hive and make it difficult for the hive to become strong and assure a successful over-wintering into a new year.

Solution To Varroa Mite Control

There are many varroa mite control protocols.

Different beekeepers choose different solutions from full-on chemical attack of varroa mites to doing nothing at all.

There is no silver bullet for the Varroa mite, and the range of options is deserving of its own separate article.

Suffice it to say, if the varroa mite count is more than 6 in a varroa mite wash, the beekeeper will need to decide which path of treatment (or non treatment) they will pursue.

A non decision is a decision!

Mid/Late Summer

Tenth Abnormal Honey Bee Hive Condition Of The Year

Robber Bees

Robbing is one of the last of the conditions of the year that a beekeeper may have to address.
Once the nectar flow shuts down (after the spring nectar flow has ceased, AKA the dearth, and once again after the fall nectar flow) foraging bees may turn to robbing other hives of their honey if they perceive that hive’s strength to be less of a challenge that to find nectar in flowers.

It is the weaker, smaller hives that are vulnerable to robbing. There are just not enough bees to protect the hive.

The entrance to the hive is difficult for a weak hive to defend against robber bees, let alone should they have any unsealed cracks in the hive that robbers can use to access the honey stores.

Solution To Robber Bees

The beekeeper must make sure there are no cracks in the hive created by such things as a bent Queen excluder allowing one corner of the hive on top to incompletely seal with the box below.

The beekeeper can use an entrance reducer to make the front entrance easier to defend, but caution must be used to make sure the bees can still ventilate their hive adequately.

The beekeeper can also combine two weak hives to make it one strong hive. Some have even combined two Queened brood boxes using a Queen excluder between the brood box to separate the Queen bees while allowing the worker bees to join forces in defending the hive.
Learn more about Robber Bees…..

So these are the usual abnormal conditions a beekeeper must be on the alert to see when inspecting their beehive.

It is not an exhaustive list of conditions, but it is enough to give the new beekeeper a fighting chance against the 10 most common conditions that can thwart a beekeeper’s efforts.

There can be other battles to fight throughout the beekeeping season, such as ants, hive beetles, tracheal mites, nosema disease, American foulbrood, European foulbrood, stonebrood, sacbrood virus, deformed wing virus, and dysentery.

All of these additional hive conditions are deserving of their own article and are not addressed here.

Final thoughts on ReQueening

Many beekeepers advocate for requeening at the start of every year to assure the new Queen will be laying strong new worker bees upon which the hive depends to collect enough reserves over the summer to make it through another winter.

Many beekeepers advocate for Requeening every year in the fall to make sure the new bees that are being produced by the new Queen are “winter bees”. That eliminates the risk of a hive collapse in March if the hive has tried to over-winter with old “summer bees”.

Happy Beekeeping

Paying It Forward

Robert Donaldson

I am Elizabeth's father, a physical therapist, and someone who has completely landscaped our family home's nearly 1/2 acre lot after losing our home and landscape to the Thomas wildfire in 2017. All landscaping was done to accommodate our wildlife friends, especially the birds and bees.

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