“They’re all dead,” I thought. “I have killed my bees again. I quit. I am not beekeeping anymore.”
My beehives recently gave me the shock of a lifetime. On a routine check of my hive, I noticed there were bee pupae everywhere outside one of my beehives. What on earth had I not done this time? Had something gotten inside my hive and killed my bees? Why was this happening? Why was only one hive affected?
It worried me so much, that I committed a beekeeping sin – I opened the afflicted hive while it was raining. (GASP!) Working quickly, I opened the lid and peeked inside. It appeared to be business as usual. The bees were drawing comb and buzzing about. I saw no varroa mites, no malformities. WHAT. WAS. GOING. ON???
I did the only thing I knew to do at this point. I scooped up some of my little bee pupae and I carried them down to my beekeeping supply store, Werner’s Trading Company, to ask their resident guru, Rob Werner, what was going on.
“Oh, they’re drones,” Rob told me casually. “They usually don’t do that until fall.”
I was so stunned that nothing was wrong that I could hardly say “thanks” and walk out. After losing all of my hives last year, I was totally prepared for him to say “Sorry sister, better luck next year.” I couldn’t even form an intelligent question to ask, so I thought it would be better if I came home and just researched it myself. (You can read about my hive loss here.)
I grabbed my favorite resource “The Backyard Beekeeper” by Kim Flottum to see what he had to offer about this tragedy-turned-natural purging (see page 82 for his excellent explanation). What I found out was fascinating.
(PSA: If you are a beekeeper, beginning or expert, or if you are even remotely interested in beekeeping, I HIGHLY recommend you get Kim Flottum’s “The Backyard Beekeeper“. It is an excellent resource that has (so far) covered every issue I have had with my beehives in helpful and easy to understand detail.)
There are three different types of bees in a hive, and each has their specific duties. The Queen bee is the chief egg layer. She is responsible for the survival of the hive. She does not leave the hive, she just lays eggs. All day. Every day. Except through the winter, which that is okay. The Queen is tended to by the worker bees.
The worker bees are female bees. They tend to the queen, tend to the larvae, clean the hive, draw the comb, gather the pollen, make the honey, guard the hive entrance, (are you out of breath yet?) – basically they perform all duties necessary to keep the hive alive, other than lay eggs.
Then there are the drone bees. Drones are the male bees. They only have one job – to mate with the queen. And only one male gets that privilege. That’s right, drone bees do not make honey, they don’t forage for food, they don’t guard the hive or the queen, they don’t even have a stinger. So pretty much, a drone bee is a drag on the hive economy. Which brings me back to my aforementioned experience.
During the winter months, a beehive must operate at maximum efficiency. Therefore, it cannot afford to have a lot of “dead weight” on board, i.e. drone bees who don’t do anything to contribute to the survival of the hive, yet take full advantage of the hive’s resources (food, shelter, etc.). For a beehive to achieve reduction of the drone population, the worker bees literally open the capped cells where drone bee larvae have achieved the pupa stage, kill it, and remove the dead carcass from the hive. I seriously stood there in the rain and watched the worker bees hauling dead drone pupae across the hive landing pad and chucking it over board onto the black weed paper I have in front of the hives. Similarly, the worker bees will find and kill mature drone bees who they deem unworthy. (I will resist the urge to draw a comparison to human males, although in my mind I have about a thousand jokes at this point.)
I hope my experience helps any new beekeepers out there. It was truly a terrifying experience considering what I went through last year with losing my bees, but all is well that ends well. What about you? Did you have an experience with your hives that turned out to be just a natural part of a hive life cycle? I would love to hear about it! Leave a comment below!
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