honey bee behavior

A reader’s questions answered

To a reader in central Florida,

I couldn’t get your e-mail address to work, so I’m putting the answers to your questions right here, front and center. I hope you find this.


I live in central Florida near Ocala forest on a ¾-acre lot that I’m allowing to revert to native growth and I’m planting many types of flowering shrubs and flowers. There is also a large abandoned citrus grove within twenty yards. Last year a honey bee colony took up residence under an old aluminum shed. I’m happy to have them but they disappeared for three or four months. This winter it was mild with no frost. They are now back happily going about their business.

Question 1: Where did they go? Question 2: I’ve been studying them and wonder why they sometimes seem to attack and carry away living bees?

Thanks for your site. I love bees (never been stung even with my face among flowers weeding or watching closely at the hive) and hope the hive stays.

My answers:

#1. If they really did disappear, then the bees there now are not the same colony that you saw three or four months ago. The original colony may have left or may have died for any number of reasons. But new swarms are incredibly attracted to old combs even if they are empty of honey. They can detect the scent for long distances and seek it out. Because they don’t have to build a new home from scratch, it gives them a head start.

The other possibility is that the colony was there the entire time, just holed up for the winter. Because you didn’t see any activity for month after month, you assumed they were gone. On the other hand, if it was as mild as you say, this probably was not the case because bees are usually active on warmish days even in the winter, and if they were active you would have noticed. Still, it’s hard to say for sure, especially with them living under a shed where it’s hard to see them or hear them.

#2. Honey bees are famous for what is called “hygienic behavior.” Healthy worker bees will cart away any bees that are ill, weak, or have deformities. It is their way of keeping the hive as strong as possible, preventing disease spread, and conserving food stores. It sounds cruel by human standards but it makes sense for them. Sometimes you will even see them carry away partially developed pupae because they can sense that something is wrong even before it hatches.

Thanks for writing; those are both excellent questions.



  • Hello Rusty,

    Could I ask you a couple of questions, please? I live in central Italy. This year we have had the worst heat remembered – four months without rain and temperatures in the upper 30’s – that’s 98F plus. The temps have now reduced sufficiently to apply the anti-varroa treatment (I was advised not to do it in the extreme heat because of extra stress to the bees.) On checking today I found two hives in bad shape, one with very reduced numbers and no queen present, the other suffering from was moth infestation, and also no queen that I could detect. The strange part of the sad story is that both these hives produced full honey frames in the supers, while those that produced none seem to be in excellent health. Is there some connection here? I wonder if they just worked themselves to exhaustion or if it is simply a coincidence. Would really like to know, Thank you.

    • Jasmine,

      I didn’t know you were in Italy. That’s a surprise to me!

      The connection is that the larger the colony, the faster they build up varroa populations. Usually, in the temperature regions, the crossover occurs sometime in August. What I mean by that is after the summer solstice in June, honey bee populations slowly start to decline. But varroa populations continue to increase. By August the number of mites per bee has skyrocketed and often those colonies fail. Larger colonies can grow more mites than smaller ones, which just exacerbates the problem.

      Read “August is a critical time for mite management.” By having to wait for cooler weather, the mites probably got ahead of you.

      So your large colonies that produced honey were probably mite factories, while your smaller colonies were able to hang on. It is the very reason that many of us have gone to smaller colonies. Personally, I reduced from triples, back down to doubles, and last year to singles. This year I had very few mites in comparison to prior years.

      • Thank you, Rusty. That all makes sense. I would imagine that your opinion of delaying the introduction of anti-varroa medication is that such advice is incorrect. Having read again the label of the Apisan, it definitely states not to use in temperatures above 25C. So caught between two rocks there. Ah well, there’s always more to learn. Thank you again!

        • Jasmine,

          As you said, I think you got caught between the rock and the hard place. It would be foolish to disregard the temperature parameters because you could seriously harm or kill your colony. I don’t know what you have available in Italy, but I tend to choose a method that works with the temperatures during the treatment window. That said, unusual weather patterns can foil your plans, no matter how thorough you were trying to be. It is one of those frustrating aspects of beekeeping. Don’t blame yourself too much.

  • Follow up! Would it be worth while to re-queen this late in the season or would I do better to cut my losses and unite the hive that suffered from wax moth infestation with another, smaller colony? I cleaned out the wax moth mess as best I could and there are still considerable numbers of bees in the hive, but of course without a queen they won’t flourish.

    I don’t know the importance of the queen’s presence during the winter, however. Obviously the brood season has finished. Would a small but viable colony survive without a queen into the spring?

    • Jasmine,

      I know people who re-queen late in the year, so it can be done as long as you can find a mated queen. Or you can combine. Either option could work.

      However, you can’t leave the colony queenless. Without a queen, the worker ovaries will begin to develop and you will get laying workers that will raise drones. Laying worker colonies are very difficult to requeen and usually die out fairly soon.

      • Thank you again, Rusty. I’ll try to obtain a mated queen and hope for the best. If that fails, then I’ll unite with one of the stronger colonies and take them into the spring. And thanks for the clarify on the lack of a queen in winter – it was as I suspected that the workers would take it into their heads to take over, but I have never had this problem so late in year. There have been terrible losses this summer because of the extreme heat. I wonder how your bee-keepers cope in New Mexico.

        • Jasmine,

          I find it interesting that you mention New Mexico. As you know I study native bees. It turns out that the highest bee diversity (the most species per unit area) in the states is in New Mexico. Most bees, it seems, evolved in the deserts of the world, even honey bees. So they are essentially desert creatures. But honey bees in the wild lived in much smaller colonies and many lived in open-air colonies. It is man-made hives that caused the temperature problems. I agree that southern beekeepers have their problems, absolutely. I just find the natural history of bees to be fascinating, and when I think of New Mexico I think of bee diversity!

  • Good day Rusty,

    On inspecting my hive today I found the queen immediately on the first frame that I pulled, No 10. She was moving around but then I noticed that there was an egg protruding from her abdomen. She deposited it on the edge of a cell and moved on. Then she did it again in a couple more locations, both times laying on the edge of a cell. The eggs “disappeared” very quickly; there were several nurse bees around her and I’m not sure if they dropped the eggs into cells or ate them (does that happen?). Then the queen buried her head in a cell and stayed there for some time surrounded by nurse bees who were all over her. After a couple of minutes or so she came back out and started moving around again. Did I spook her in the midst of laying and she was doing the “bury your head in the sand” trick to hide from me? The colony is strong with many eggs (at the bottom of cells!), lots of larvae, open brood, and sealed brood. Stores are plentiful, pollen and nectar but no capped honey. Would appreciate your comments.


    • Rikhi,

      My comments:

      1. A new queen is not as adept at positioning eggs as a more experienced one. If she’s new, that might account for the weird placement. To tell the truth, I don’t know how many misses a queen normally has. Maybe eggs that don’t stick to the bottom happen more frequently than we think? Not sure. The other possibility is this queen is a new daughter queen, not your original queen.

      2. Yes, workers will eat eggs that are in the wrong place.

      3. When the queen puts her head in a cell, she is measuring it with her antennae to make sure it is suitable. She wasn’t hiding from you.

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