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My hives have no brood! What should I do?

It is October or perhaps November. You open your hives for a quick inspection only to find there is no brood. None!  Not a single cell, capped or otherwise. You panic, wondering whether you should replace your queens (tricky this time of year), combine your colonies, or just give up. You blame mites, mite treatments, predators, diseases, bad weather, weak queens, and yourself.

So what is wrong with these colonies? My first guess is “absolutely nothing.” Your colonies have little or no brood because it’s that time of year. Here in the northern hemisphere, brood rearing slows dramatically or stops altogether as the weather begins to cool.

The winter brood nest

Beekeeping in Western Canada, a thorough all-purpose beekeeping book published by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, explains it like this (p.6):

As fall progresses, egg-laying by the queen generally ceases, and there is a period of from one to three months during winter when there is little or no brood rearing.

The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture (p. 43) tells us that brood rearing begins anew after the winter solstice:

Brood rearing begins in mid-winter (end of December to January in temperate climates), accelerates in late winter and early spring, reaches a peak soon after the first forage becomes available, reduces later in the summer, and ceases entirely in autumn. (emphasis added)

Consider these two statements together and you can see that one to three months before the winter solstice puts you back in October. So basically, you may have no brood in the months of October, November, and December.

Variations due to temperature

The actual beginning of broodlessness will vary with local conditions, as will the length of time. Colonies further south where winter temperatures remain mild, may never be completely broodless. Still, even in the south, the amount of brood is lower in the winter.

My own observation is that the length of time (the one to three months) is not the same every year, but is dependent on local weather conditions. So maybe last year, for example, broodlessness started later. Maybe you didn’t notice it because your hives were already buttoned up for the winter. If broodlessness comes earlier in the year, you are more apt to notice it.

Advantages of a small or missing brood nest

All species evolve in ways that help them survive. A period of broodlessness may have a number of advantages:

  • Some researchers have suggested that a broodless stretch allows the queen a period of rejuvenation. She gets to rest and build her strength before the next onslaught of egg-laying.
  • The broodless period reduces the population of the hive by attrition. As bees die, fewer are left to feed. There is an optimum population level for any colony, one that is large enough to keep the colony warm but small enough that the food supply will last till spring. Colony size in winter varies, but it is highly dependent on sub-species. Carniolans, for example, overwinter with smaller colonies than Italians.
  • A broodless period also conserves energy in another way. When no brood is present, the cluster is maintained at a temperature of around 20°C (68°F) in the center. Conversely, a cluster with brood is maintained at about 34°C (93°F). To sustain this higher temperature, the bees must eat a much greater amount of food. So as you can see, a long broodless period is a significant energy-saving strategy.

The Hive and the Honey Bee (2014, p. 89) sums it all up:

There is little or no brood rearing during the coldest part of the winter and colonies reach their lowest population size as winter progresses. However, in late winter the queen begins to lay and brood rearing commences. This requires that workers elevate the temperature to 34-35 degrees C inside the cluster around the brood.

Colony size is not static

Colony size and the amount of brood rearing is in a constant state of flux—nothing about a honey bee colony is static. I’ve written this many times before, but there is a simple rule of thumb to help you remember what is happening inside your hive. Just divide the year into two parts, the growing part and the shrinking part.

Basically a honey bee colony increases in population from the winter solstice to the summer solstice and decreases from the summer solstice to the winter solstice. Adult populations are highest just before the downturn (late June) and lowest just before the upturn (late December).

This schedule is not intuitive, especially to a new beekeeper, so it takes some thinking. The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture states it like this:

The striking thing about this pattern is that it is so different from the pattern of when forage is available.

But when you think about it, a colony must build up before the major honey flow if the bees are to take advantage of it and store it for winter. Likewise, the colony needs to shrink before extreme cold sets in so food supplies are not rapidly consumed.

Think like a bee

When it comes to understanding your colony population dynamics, it helps to think like a bee. And a bee, it seems, is a good planner with the goal of protecting the future of the colony. My advice is to read a good book on bee biology and plot brood expansion and contraction on a calendar. You will then know what to expect before you open your hive.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

queen-bee-on-comb-pixabay
A nice long break sounds like a plan. Pixabay photo.

Comments

Mac
Reply

Extremely helpful and encouraging! Thanks Rusty.

Rich Kufske
Reply

This post couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. This is my first year BK’ing and I did one last hive inspection before wrapping the hives (fall has been quite long and warm in Ontario this year…although the Almanac is calling for a loooong, coooold winter…welcome to Canada). And I was in full blown panic mode when I saw very, very little brood. This article brought me back to earth. My wife thanks you too : )

Rusty
Reply

Rich,

Glad to help.

Sarah
Reply

Phew! What a relief to read this, and just in time! I checked my colonies this past weekend, and noticed my strongest colony had no brood. At all. But the queen was still hanging out and looked perfectly fine. I’ve woken up the past two nights worrying. But I’m planning to sleep through the night tonight! Thank you for this timely information.

Dana Bell
Reply

Hi I was wondering if you could answer a question. I this year have had two of my hives be robbed out. I open the hives and the honey is gone and they have killed the bees. What should I do to keep them from killing the other hives? I have not done anything different this year.

Kourosh BASSITI
Reply

Dear Rusty,

That was a very interesting and re-assuring article. One additional point that might be useful to mention is that during the no brood period the varroa mites have reduced in number and hopefully the bees can cope better.

Here where I live now – in South West France, near Bordeaux – the winters are on the whole mild. So mild in fact that my five colonies were not without brood last winter and hence I could not treat them with oxalic acid in winter. So I used other products that were recommended to keep the varroa count low. Luckily three of my hives are quite hygienic. I have observed that the bees regular groom each other and the natural varroa drop that I have measured at different times has been between zero and five.

Unluckily, my greatest headache is the Asian hornets. The poor girls get badly targeted and apart from hornet traps all over the garden, my wife and I stand by the hives regularly to catch the hornets with butterfly nets.

Thanks again for a wonderful regular and very useful blog.

Kourosh

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Kourosh. Good point on varroa. Judging from my mail, it sounds like France has really been battered by the Asian hornet. I like the butterfly net idea, though.

Don
Reply

Would you have a recommendation for a good bee biology book for someone with a strong biology background? Thank you for sharing your knowledge with the rest of us.

Rusty
Reply

Don,

1. The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism by Jürgen Tautz. Although the title sounds like a children’s book, it is excellent with outstanding photographs.
2. Honey-Maker: How the Honey Bee Worker Does What She Does by Rosanna Mattingly. Concentrates on workers, but that is where most of the action is.
3. The Biology of the Honey Bee by Mark L.Winston. Thorough and complete.

Don
Reply

Thank you

Dana Bell
Reply

Thank you Rusty for the information!

Susan
Reply

I wish I had read this earlier. I just requeened today since I had seen no signs for about a week. I last checked 10/11 and again on 10/17…nothing. I was also concerned about my increasing SHB population. I thought my hive was compromised, hence the queen addition. What will happen if I did have a queen?

Rusty
Reply

Susan,

If there is more than one queen, they usually fight until one dies. Worse case is when they kill each other. You should check later and make sure you still have one.

Jill
Reply

Hi Rusty –

I just wanted to say thank you so much! I’m a first-year beekeeper &, thankfully, was pretty successful over the spring/summer & have a strong hive going into winter in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC. Yes, I only have one hive, but plan to split it early 2017 if all goes well this winter. I have learned so much from your articles & am still working my way through them. Keep on teaching your readers – we appreciate all your hard work.
Jill

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Jill!

Shawn H.
Reply

Love your site.

What happens when you have no brood, but also no stores in the bottom brood box? They had some pollen and nectar in the second brood box. I had 2 hives look like this upon last weekend’s check. They had bees, some honey in a super and were calm, but the lack of stores was concerning.

Any thoughts?

Rusty
Reply

Shawn,

I can’t tell you much since I don’t know where you are. But if you are in the northern hemisphere, I would remove the lower brood box. If it contains any stores at all, I would combine them with the upper box. Then, I would feed like crazy. To me, it sounds like you will have to feed all winter, depending on where you are.

Loralei
Reply

This is such a great site; I attended a workshop this past weekend on overwintering bees, & a number of paticipants mentioned a complete lack of brood and eggs in their hives. We agreed that the bees know better about what they need than we do, & this article confirms that thought.

I did my final preparations for winter yesterday, after taking one last photo (I’m always so impressed to see them so calm & prolific, just doing their thing). Now, I will be adding your list of references to my winter reading list, to satiate my new obsession!

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Loralei. I love to hear the excitement from new beekeepers!

Peter
Reply

Dear Rusty. To start with thank you very much for useful blog. I do apologize for my grammar. I live in London, UK but I’m Polish.

Today (March 11th) it was very warm day (+17C) so I decided to look in to my only hive (I got only one). Bees were flying and bringing a lot of pollen. There was 4 frames covered with bees, a lot of capped honey and some uncapped too but no brood, no larvae, no eggs. I am bad with spotting the queen, seen her only once from the time I got them (from August last year). Do you think they’ve gone queenless? Sadly no queens are available to buy until April so if that is a case, I am going to lose my hive.

I hope to see your response if you find a bit of time.
Regards,
Peter

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

It’s possible that the bees replaced their queen and you have a virgin or newly-mated queen that hasn’t started to lay. Have you seen any drones in your area? Is it possible that a new queen could get mated? Not knowing the climate there, it’s hard for me to say.

Otherwise, it is entirely possible the queen has died or stopped laying. Usually, pollen coming into a hive is a good sign, although not always. You may just have to wait and see.

Do you have any friends with hives? Perhaps you could get a frame containing eggs from someone? That way, your bees could try to raise a queen.

Peter
Reply

Hi. Thank you so much for your response. March in London is usually much colder than this years one and there should be no drones flying. I am not sure there would be any drones flying this early as I looked up for mated queen to buy and they are available from the middle of April (luck of flying drones being a reason for that). I sent message to on my local beekepers association, but British seems rather reluctant to reply;). I guess I need to wait and see. In worst case scenario I will try to use my hive as bite hive in swarm season;)
I still hope the queen is there as bees were bringing a lot of pollen and they were really gentle and seemed organized. Possibly I am just panicking as its my first spring. I will keep observing and making notes for the future.
Peter

MK
Reply

Hi,
I am a new beekeeper with one hive. I observed lot of robbing going on at the end of August and followed your post to curb the robbing. It seemed working and there were quite a lot of capped brood in the hive when I checked about 10 days ago. Yesterday (9/20/2017), I saw bearding under the hive. When I inspected the hive, there were no brood left. Most of honey were gone. There were quite a lot of bees including the ones under the hive, though. Does that mean that I don’t have queen? What do I do to save the hive?

Rusty
Reply

MK,

The first thing to do is figure out if you have a queen. If you don’t see any eggs or larvae, you will actually have to look for her. If the outside bees are just bearding, that is not a problem. Just leave the bearders alone. If you don’t have a queen, you will have to find a mated queen to save the colony. And if they have no winter stores, you will have to feed them, probably all winter.

Nichol Ruth Piniak
Reply

Rusty, bless you for being out there and keeping up this wonderful blog. I’ve come to lean on the information you post quite a bit over the past couple years. I was shocked by the contrast of my last inspection to this October, that there was not a brood cell in site. Everything appeared perfect other then that; honey damn [dam?], a prepared nesting area… Maybe I should be worried they had plans to abscond? I think I saw that posted somewhere as well? At any rate, I’m sure the girls are shocked by the new venting system they just moved into, I feel I can sense their pleasure!

One thing, my eyes are getting older and tired; I need glasses I think? I was not able to find my queen although body language and numbers made me feel she was present. Would you accept this or would you do another inspection? I don’t know where I’d get a queen so close to winter?

Thanks,

Nichol

Rusty
Reply

Nichol,

It is perfectly normal to be broodless or nearly so at this time of year. Did you read this post? “So basically, you may have no brood in the months of October, November, and December.”

I go whole seasons without seeing some of my queens. If you believe she is there, she most likely is. You may still be able to order a queen from the south, but I don’t think you need to.

amy
Reply

Thanks for the clarity. I moved to a high altitude area with earlier winter and had never seen a broodless colony in October before having kept bees in the south. I thought I had lost the queen, until I saw her. Good to know broodlessness is normal seasonal behavior.

Fran
Reply

Second year beekeeper here. I have 2 hives. Exactly what my inspection today revealed. Thank you.

Paul
Reply

Rusty,
I live in the Sacramento valley of northern California. I inspected my two hives yesterday and they couldn’t be more different. One hive is quite active and seems to be doing great with a good number of bees, pollen, honey, and brood. The other hive doesn’t have much activity and looks to be struggling with a much smaller number of bees and no brood although the queen is still alive. I wouldn’t expect a ton of brood but I would expect some. I’m now trying to figure out the best way to deal with this. My first thought was to feed a pollen patty to hopefully stimulate some brood production but then I also thought that it might be a good idea to reduce the hive into a nuc box because there may not be enough bees to keep the brood warm in the larger super they are currently in. What are your thoughts?

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

My thought would be to boost the population with a bit of brood from the other hive, if it’s feasible. I don’t think the size of the brood box is very important. After all, they don’t strive to keep the hive warm, just the cluster.

Evan
Reply

Hi Rusty, came upon this write up after a quick search. Thanks for the explanation! I’m having an issue though, I live in PA and before thanksgiving I checked on one of my hives, no brood, couldn’t find the queen. So I had another hive that failed because of being robbed, I was able to catch that queen and move her to the broodless colony. I just checked again today and there are a ton of bees but no brood! I didn’t have time to look for the queen but I’m stumped….thanks again

Rusty
Reply

Evan,

Hmm. It does sound like you may have lost the second queen. Even with the cold snaps, I would expect a brood nest at this time of year. If you can’t get a queen, you may have to combine.

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