I’m not so worried about all the dead drone pupae I found outside one of my hives for the past two days. It was spooky and gross and unnerving, but it’s much less alarming now that I know what’s most likely going on.
I introduced some foundationless frames to my hives when I added the second deep. The results were fantastic. Fully-drawn comb full of honey. Beautiful. What I didn’t know is that bees that haven’t drawn natural comb before, will start off building drone comb, as shown in the above photo taken earlier today during a full hive inspection. I found two foundationless frames with large sections of drone cells, and on at least one frame, most of the drone cells appeared to be recently emptied.
Some info I got from beeuntoothers.com:
Bees will naturally raise about 10-15% drone brood. In a hive where only worker foundation is used, the bees are always squeezing some drone brood here and there… Given a totally empty frame, they will try to make up for the lack of drone comb all at once. If the beekeeper removes this comb and puts another empty frame in its place (in an attempt to keep the drone population down, and perhaps to remove varroa), they will again draw drone comb. Instead, if the drone comb is migrated towards the outside of the broodnest and an empty frame is added, they will eventually start to draw brood comb… and nothing is more beautiful than fresh, freely drawn comb.
So now I know that it’s normal for bees that have just been introduced to foundationless frames to start off drawing drone comb. I assume the drone population will eventually level out. They’re all going to be dead in a week or two, anyway, when they’re kicked out of the hive for the winter and their old cells are used for honey stores.
So that’s one mystery solved. But why would so many of the drone larvae pupae get discarded from the hive?
I looked around online and found part of my answer at beesource.com/forums (which I may sign up to soon). Someone on the forum noticed a large number of what appeared to be dead drone pupae outside the hive entrance, just like we’ve seen for the past couple days. Some of the responses were informative…
September 18th, 2010: I’ve rewritten the next two paragraphs.
Originally I thought the drone pupae got hit with some relatively harmless chalkbrood. Foundationless frames initially produce more drones than conventional frames. That means there’d be more drones around to be affected by the chalkbrood. Therefore, more drone pupae discarded in the clean up. Another possibility was water getting into the hive and chilling the brood. Hygienic worker bees will clean out any cells that have been damaged, whether the damage is from disease, cold or from a silly beekeeper banging the frames too hard. But none of the above explains why only drone brood would be affected. A possible explanation:
Sudden cold snaps — like the cold snap we had last week that lasted a few days — can trigger worker bees to chew out the drone pupae to make room for winter stores. Fall is the time of the year that drones are kicked out of the hive anyway, so what’s the point in the colony nursing more drones that will only get the boot as soon as they emerge from their cells? As mentioned in one of the comments for this post, bees are pragmatic. They don’t mess around when it comes to the survival of the colony. If for any reason cells need to be cleaned out, drones (and their pupae) are always the first to go because drones are not vital to the survival of the colony going into winter. I did a full inspection of the hive shortly after discovering the dead drone pupae, and as far as I could tell, there are more than enough drones around to mate with a late-season queen if need be, and the colony is in good shape. So there was really no need to keep most of the drone pupae around. It’s a cruel world, but the bees know what they’re doing. They’re just getting ready for winter.
The colony looked healthy during my inspection — the bees and the comb look great. I saw brood comb and honey all over the place. I noticed two frames still haven’t been drawn out (one with foundation, one without, both on the edges), so there’s still plenty of room for the population to grow. And there was so much honey, I’m seriously thinking about adding a honey super for a couple of weeks to prevent the queen from becoming honey bound. But I don’t know. I hope to have a conversation with Aubrey at Paradise Farms this weekend so I can sort out everything I need to do with our bees for the next six months. This beekeeping racket is tricky business.
P.S., Read the comments for further details on how all this played out.
December 23rd, 2010: 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.
January 24th, 2011: I found a well-informed article at Honey Bee Suite about this topic: Foundationless colonies raise more drones.