DRONE BEEIt’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…

WARNING: The rest of the photos in this post are not pretty. They’re kind of gross.


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.

10 Responses to “Piles of Dead Pupae”

  1. Jeff says:

    Read up and look for comparisons. If the expelled brood is while then luck may eb on your side.

    I remember you mentioning that you feed teh bees some honey you purcahsed. Spores can live in teh honey and if injected by teh nurse bees/larve coudl potentially casue problems.

  2. Phillip says:

    I remember you mentioning that you feed teh bees some honey you purchased. Spores can live in the honey…

    I know. That’s my big concern right now.

    The other hive, which wasn’t fed as much honey at the beginning, seems fine. Damn. We’ll see.

  3. Phillip says:

    The bees have been shut-in for the past few days of cold, wet and miserable weather. It’s 4pm and the sun came out about an hour ago. The bees in both hives, but especially Hive #1, are virtually swarming around the entrances. We often see this when they’ve been cooped up for a while. Lots of new baby bees stretching their wings for the first time.

    If I were to judge from what I see now, I’d say the colony in Hive #1 is still in tip-top shape. I hope this clearing of dead drone larvae was a one-time thing.

    I’ll see what Aubrey says about the larvae I dropped off at his place.

  4. Phillip says:

    Okay, I have another theory now. I was just out checking out the hive and noticed a large crack between the inner cover and the top brood box. Normally that crack is protected from the weather by the telescoping outer cover. But for the past week, I’ve had a medium super on top of the inner cover so I can put two Boardman feeders inside the super. The top cover is now on top of that super. Blah, blah, blah… cut to the chase:

    During the crazy rain and wind we’ve had for the past four days, rain very likely got blown through the crack and right into the top brood box. I saw the crack. It’s a thick crack. Rain falling at an angle in the wind could easily get through the crack and soak a portion of the hive.

    My guess is, the cold rain got in and soaked one side of a frame full of brood. The dead larvae look like drones to me, but who knows, soak them in water and they might puff up and look like fat drone larvae.

    Anyway, that’s my best guess for now. The cold rain inside the hive soaked some brood cells and killed a bunch of brood.

    I’ll mention this to Aubrey if he calls back tonight. I’ll mention the fact that I fed the bees store-bought honey at one time too. We’ll see what he says.

    I’m not working tomorrow afternoon, so I’ve decided to do a full inspection, weather permitting, to see if my theory holds up. If cold rain got in the hive, then the frame next to the leak should have some water damage — and lots of dead brood cells.

    I hope that’s all it is.

    I’ve since duct taped over the big crack on the side of the hive.

  5. Jamie Krasnoo says:

    Brood when they’re young look all white. These look like they were in the red eye phase. If it was chalk brood the brood would have been really white with black grime on them (looks like black coffee grounds) as the fungus fruited. I see no fungus or fruiting bodies. I think this brood got waterlogged and chilled. I see water pooling at the front around the bodies. Make sure you have the back of the hive propped up about an inch so the water runs out of the entrance.

    • Phillip says:

      Jamie, your comment didn’t show up right away. I don’t know why, but it was held for moderation. Anyway, you’re probably right. Add possible water damage to the possibilities.

      I do have the hive propped up so the water drains out. But I’m thinking I might prop it up an extra half inch just to be safe.

  6. Jeff says:

    Sunday is calling for good weather too. My bees were out in force again today. I can smell teh nectar evaporting.

  7. Phillip says:

    I just added an update to this post. It confirms what I was thinking, that the drones and their pupae are the first to get the boot when food becomes scarce. I’m surprised none of the beekeepers I asked about this had heard of it before. Anyway, I’m not going to worry about it if I see it again. The bees know what they’re doing.

  8. DEB says:

    Love your website. Your bees are beautiful. We got some bee hives on the roof top of my dad’s restaurant. Two, I think.

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