Saturday, January 2, 2010

A moment of silence: Carrying away the dead...

For certain is death for the born
And certain is birth for the dead;
Therefore over the inevitable
Thou shouldst not grieve.
-The Bhagavad Gita

It was just in the past few days that I read an interesting post on Barbara's blog, The Bee Journal. It was 2010 resolutions for beekeepers, and the first resolution read, "I will not cry over each bee that dies. I accept the fact that it happens on occasion. However; I still reserve the right to raise them from the dead if they are willing."

I agree with Barbara 100% in her post...bees dies just like people and animals and plants. We all have to go sometime, sooner or later, although I think most of us opt for the later part. And even though I know that dying is all a part of living, its just a part of life, I'm still bothered by it in some way.

In the case of my bee colony, I'm bothered to see the dead in front of the hive..and the sight of them leaves me with questions I just can't answer. Maybe it is all first-year beekeeper jitters..but I find myself dwelling over why they're dying and then I start quizzing myself. Did I do something wrong? Could I have done something better? Should I be doing more? And at the rate they're dying, will they make it to the spring?

Today as I was checking around my hive to make sure everything was okay, this is what I found. The girls were removing the dead from the hive. As you can see, the landing board and edge of the hive stand are littered with the carcasses of bees that died inside the hive...that's because their sisters would drag them out and leave them. Within a short amount of time, other bees would come along, pick them up, and fly away with them. As always, you can click on the pictures to see them in their full size which gives better detail.

The ages of the bees varied. I found some older ones, much larger in size. Then I found some very small ones, they looked as if they were just days old. Of course, some bodies were heavier and required two bees to drag them out. In the case of the dead bee above, after the two got her outside, one of the stronger ones would pick up the carcass and fly it away from the hive. She went about six to eight feet away and dropped it on the ground. Then she returned for another body.

And yet, here's another. Here you see one bee as she drags the body of her sister out of the hive. It was amazing to watch. She climbed out of the hole, and while she was clutching the body of the dead bee, she finally got her bearings and flew away with the body. And like all the others, after she made her deposit away from the hive, she returned to start the task all over again. All while I was crouched down and watching all of this, not one bee offered to stop and see what I was doing. I suppose they were too busy with the task at hand.

Take a close look at this picture and you can see that this bee is depositing her sister's carcass on the ground not far from the hive. That is just one of many little bodies there..and there were plenty more in the immediate vicinity. As I took a good look at the dead bees, I kept my fingers crossed that none of them would have a green paint mark on her back. My queen, reared in 2009 and thus marked with a green dot, has the mark on her back. But as I examined the bees, I saw none with green markings, so I felt a little better about the situation. Not that much better really, but enough to figure that the matriarch of the hive is most likely still alive and protected by her charges.

This old leaf almost caresses the lifeless body of a dead bee who was newly removed from her hive. I watched closely as she was placed here. Her sister landed on the leaf with her cargo, deposited her, then just flew away. I tried to snap the picture quickly but I was too late to get them both. But as you can see, she's not the first dead bee to be brought here, and I don't think she'll be the last either. All I can hope for is that this is nature at work and not something out of the ordinary.

I'm most sure that my hive, with two deep supers, still has a pretty healthy population of bees inside. When I stick my ear to the side of the hive, I can hear a low, steady buzzing of activity inside. It sounds busy and alive. As many of you recall, late this past summer, there were so many bees in there that it was difficult to manipulate and manuever at times. And as I said in the beginning of this post, maybe it is just first-year beekeeper's jitters that's getting the best of me.

But seeing all those dead bees, those being brought out of the hive while I was there and those already deposited on the ground, it sort of un-nerved me just a little bit. I'm just hoping that this is what nature does to bees in the winter and its not something that I did...or something I didn't do. Truthfully, I'm perplexed. Some people say that dead bees on the ground in front of the hive is normal..then some say that you shouldn't have all that many on the ground at all. I didn't count them...but I can say I've never seen this many before.

As always, your thoughts and own experiences are more than welcome. Please share what you think is going on. I would love to hear from you!


  1. Great post Mark with wonderful pictures as always. I too have had this concern - and I also concluded that this is probably 1st year nerves although I don't have the 2 full deep boxes full of food that you have. I also believe that I exaggerate in my mind the number of DEAD bees compared to the number of living bees that you'd be used to seeing in the hive. Hopefully next season, hopefully I'll have a couple of hives side by side to compare.

  2. Hi Mark. I love the poem. I was trying to remember while reading your post what the expected "winter kill" rates would be. I think the norm (before all the pests and problems) was 15% to 25% but last year it was closer to 37% - but even that was better than 2006 which was when the collapse started. The 37% rate would not just be winter fatalities but would be the new diseases and pests increasing the death rate.

    I too hope it isn't error on my part. I think Cliff's comments are excellent and that is to think more of how many are still alive inside the hive than dead outside it.

    Now I'm wondering if the caretaker would ever carry away a sick or injured bee? Do they always wait for them to die before carrying them out?



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