THE FOLLOWING WAS LAST UPDATED ON FEB. 12, 2011.
It’s normal for a colony of honey bees to discard all the male drone bees before winter kicks in. Quoting myself: “Drones are male bees whose only purpose is to mate once with a queen. If they don’t mate, they just hang around the hive and get fed. All the drones are kicked out of the hive to freeze to death as winter kicks in because they’re useless over the winter.”
I knew I would eventually see a large number of dead drones outside the hive once the weather began to cool off. But I didn’t expect to see anything like this…
It’s been cold and wet for the past few days and I guess that was enough motivation for the queen in Hive #1 to say, “Clear out the drones!” I hope that’s all that’s happening. I hope they’re simply cleaning house and removing all the drone
larvae pupae before winter kicks in. I was expecting to see piles of dead drones outside the hive one of these days, but piles of dead larvae pupae? It’s a bit sickening, don’t you think?
It’s a bit frightening too. In all the research I’ve done, I’ve never ever heard of anything like this happening. I hope all I’m seeing here is the annual cleaning out of the drones. A disgusting, unnerving variation of it, but nothing to worry about. I hope.
I’m calling the one and only local beekeeper right now to ask about it.
UPDATE (a few minutes later): So I called Aubrey, our one and only local beekeeper, and he said it’s probably chalkbrood: “a fungal disease that infests the gut of the larva. The fungus will compete with the larva for food, ultimately causing it to starve. The fungus will then go on to consume the rest of the larva’s body, causing it to appear white and ‘chalky’. Chalkbrood is most commonly visible during wet springs. Hives with Chalkbrood can generally be recovered by increasing the ventilation through the hive.” Aubrey said he’s seen chalkbrood at various times of the year in all kinds of weather. The bees usually take care of it on their own without any problems, though he said he’s never seen it the way I described it with so many discarded
larvae pupae. As a precaution, he told me to drop some of them off at his place so he can take a closer look at them. So we’ll see. To be continued…
UPDATE (later that night): I haven’t heard any word yet, but, as I wrote in a comment, I have a theory — my best guess — about what happened: We’ve had heavy rain and wind for the past few days and rain probably got blown into the hive through a large crack just above the brood box. (Read the comment for details on how the crack got there.) The cold rain probably splashed onto one side of a frame full of brood, soaking and killing most of the brood on that frame… That’s the most hopeful scenario I can come up with. I’ve duct taped over the crack for now.
UPDATE (Sept. 16/10 – 9:55am): No word yet on whether or not the dead
larvae pupae are diseased. No news is good news for now. But man oh man, the rain we had last night was intense. Half the colony is likely to have drowned if any water got in. I found another twenty or so dead larvae pupae on the baseboard again this morning. The sun is out now, though, and it’s supposed to stay sunny most of the day. That’ll keep the bees active. We plan to do a full careful inspection this afternoon. If something bad is happening, we need to know pronto.
UPDATE (Sept. 16/10 – 9:00pm): See the next post for all the answers: Foundationless Frames Can Mean Lots of Drones. Further comments can be left on that post.
UPDATE (Dec. 23/10): I recently learned through a comment that our bees are a hybrid of Italians, Russians and Carniolans. Russian honey bees react faster — and more dramatically — to environmental changes. The cold snap we had at the time may have triggered a wintering response in the bees, which is natural for Russian bees because they stop rearing brood early in the fall anyway. Drones and drone pupae are discarded when the bees are preparing for winter. Everything I was freaked out about was probably natural behaviour for honey bees bred with Russian genes.
UPDATE (Feb. 12/11): From page 76 of The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum: “If, during the season, a dearth occurs and food income is limited or nonexistent, the colony will, in a sense, downsize its population. They preserve worker larvae the longest and remove the oldest drone larvae from the nest first. They simply pull them out and literally eat them outright, conserving the protein, or carry them outside. If the shortage continues, they remove younger and younger drone larva.” That makes sense. All these dead drone pupae were discarded during the fall dearth.