bee biology

Dead bees rising

Honey bees always surprise me. Two weeks ago, after my swarm in a tree moved into a bait hive, I noticed a grapefruit-size cluster beneath the hive stand. The vast majority of the swarm had gone inside, but this one ball of bees was hanging from the screened bottom board.

It was hard to get to, but I crawled under the stand and brushed them off the screen, hoping they would enter the hive. But instead, they flew around a bit and re-clustered in the same spot. Other things needed my attention, so I left them.

That night was cold, just above freezing. The next morning, I went to see if they had gone inside, but they were dead. The whole grapefruit had fallen from the screen and lay asplat on the ground beneath the hive stand. I was annoyed no end I hadn’t done more to help them.

With my hive tool, I scraped the pile out from under the stand and pulled it apart with my fingers. I was worried that the queen might be there. I thought it unlikely, but I sorted through the bodies anyway. The ball comprised mostly workers, although about forty percent of it was drones. Spread out in the grass, it was a big pile, but I saw no queen.

I walked away thinking I should probably clean up the mess. Maybe later. The sky was clear, and in a couple of hours the sun chased away the cold.

Armed with a feeder, I went back to the hive and nearly freaked. My dead bees were crawling in the grass! Some were leaving the pile and flying in great arcs, some were fanning and stretching. Nearly every last one of the dead bees was reincarnated as a live bee. I watched, mesmerized, until they disappeared into their hive.

Obviously, what I thought were dead bees were just cold bees. The cluster wasn’t large enough to keep itself warm, so the bees became chilled and immobile. When they could no longer grasp the screened bottom, they fell to the ground. Their apparently lifeless state was ultimately cured by the sunshine.

What bothered me most, though, was something else. Upon seeing the resurrection, I immediately recalled a hive that I had cleaned out about three weeks earlier. Bees that had been alive the day before died on an exceptionally cold night. It was a small colony, but it still had plenty of food. Nevertheless, when I saw the dead bees, I immediately cleaned out the hive and tossed everything.

Now I keep wondering, should I have waited? Should I have let them warm up before I tossed them? I will never know, but it is certainly a lesson for the future.


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  • Oh I did the same thing with a ‘dead’ hive, except I sealed mine up because I was too lazy to clean it out. Days later I realized the pile up at the entrance screen. I think a sure sign of death is their tongue sticking out – like a turkey thermometer telling me the bees are truly done. Not sure, though. Hope I don’t get fooled again.

  • Please notice this before two. Bees that are sort of standing on all six legs flat on the ground are the ones that come back to life. Often times the temperature drops by our hives sharply in the evening and many bees get caught outside on their way back to the hive,

    When we had an earthquake last year the bees spent most of the night out of their hives when they tipped over. I toss a blanket or a towel over the top of them and more survive the next morning. Sometimes at night they will come to the kitchen window and fall off on the ground when it gets cold. A little warmth, and off they go!

    I even picked up a whole bowl full of dead looking bees and brought them inside, warmed them up with the metal colander over-the-top, and put them back in the sun in the morning and they all flew away.

    It seems if their proboscis is out, hanging limp, then they may be truly dead.

    Recently, pulled a paralyzed bee off a toxic buckeye, hand fed honey on a tooth pick dipped in hot water, when she could stand, gave her a warm drop of honey to suck down. She revived in about 90 minutes and flew away.

  • I was reminded about the chill coma again this winter with a dead-out in my basement. Last winter we had the coldest February ever recorded in CT and I was pulling dead-outs as I found them. Everything was fine until I unknowingly pulled one in a chill coma and put it in my warm basement- honestly it looked dead and acted dead. Days later when I checked most of colony had revived but were dead all over the basement floor with a few hundred live ones just hopelessly attached to the basement windows. I rationalized by saying I think they would have died anyway.

    • Bill,

      I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one! I’ve never heard the term “chill coma” before, but I like it.

  • I had a similar experience this February in South Georgia as some of my bees decided to spend the night on the frosty front of the hive instead of the toasty group huddle on the inside. My first response upon noticing what looked like to me as the same group of bees in the exact same pattern was “what a bunch of dummies with not enough sense to get out of the cold!” Then I picked a few off and took a closer look in my hand and noticed the slightest of movement in one of them. I laid all of the dozen or more on the unpainted brown landing entrance that was warming nicely in the southern sun and started seeing more subtle movement in this Lazarus like group of [to be continued]

  • [Continued by accident, lol] . . . group of survivors. I forgot that I had warmed one in my left hand and still had her there but before I could release her she let me have a nasty sting right in the tender center of my hand. Ouch and I thought that’s the thanks I get for my tender oversight and out the way kindness! I didn’t enjoy the puncture but every morning that I sip coffee sweetened with our golden tupelo honey it encourages me more to try to help these amazing insects in anyway that I can! I learned two things 1) Every bee that looks dead isn’t. 2) Don’t hold on too long, learn when to let go! Or wear gloves when you resurrect bees in your palms!

  • I, too discovered this phenomenon last month when I did a split late in the day. There was a golf ball sized ball of bees on the ground after dark and I had completely forgotten to go back out there and scoop them up. The next morning I went out and was so frustrated with myself that I forgot to help them. They all appeared dead and not really in a ball anymore. I poked around with a stick and then had an incoming phone call and walked away. I came back a few hours later and they were all gone. I was shocked and happy at the same time. Always learning!

  • Sometimes I find bees like that in the spring, especially if they have landed on concrete or another cold surface. One of our local beekeepers taught me to pick them up, cup them in my hands and gently blow hot air on them. It works a treat to get bees going – not always, but a good number of times.

    I had your problem of a cluster underneath the hive last weekend, only with several thousand bees. It turned out there was a mated queen in there. Perhaps she had returned from her mating flight and accidentally gone under the entrance, or there was another queen already inside the hive and the bottom queen was gathering her forces before leaving to swarm. Not sure as I had two emerged queen cells in the hive.

  • I read somewhere to not declare them dead until they are warm and dead. Probably Michael Bush.

  • Wooooooow. What an awesome story. Makes me wonder if the bees from the earlier hive you dismantled may have joined other hives if it turned out that they were actually just chilled and not dead.

  • I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who has witnessed the resurrection of half frozen bees.

    Someone needs to invent a portable bee-warmer, a device that can warm a frozen cluster enough to get its bee blood pumping again.

    Thanks for posting this. Very interesting observations and comments.

  • The SAME thing (as your hive that you dismantled) happened to me on this past Saturday!

    My weaker hive of two hadn’t been doing much moving on the warmer days we’ve been having so I decided that on Saturday (when it was going to reach about 15C at mid day) I would get in there and make sure they could come out the bottom entrance.

    Saturday morning I lifted the lid to peek in… and no one was moving 🙁 I left the lid off (the morning temperature was about 10C in the shade!) while I went to do some other chores. When I came back a few hours later, no one had moved so I started cleaning the hive out, brushing the dead bees into a galvanized steel bucket. The comb in there is completely empty except some bees sitting in there with their butts sticking out. Starvation, as far as I could tell.

    As luck would have it, I found the queen! I decided to set her aside to take to my local beekeepers meeting to show (she’s a very light coloured queen compared to the rest of the bees in the hive!) when I was about half done I had to go to the house to get something and when I passed where I had placed the queen I saw that she had moved… she was alive! But barely!! I took her inside (yep, I was babying her a little), gave her some honey I still have leftover from my fall stock and brought her outside in a jar to sit in the warm sun. (I still have some EZNuc boxes from when I got my bees last spring so I figured maybe I could try and do an early split of my other, very strong hive and get the workers to adopt the orphaned queen).

    When I got back over to the hive I kept cleaning out the bees, no one was moving and the bees from the strong hive were checking out the bees with their heads in the combs in the frames I had taken out and left on the lawn… at least, that’s what I thought was happening!

    When I was done cleaning the boxes I grabbed the best frames that had the most comb and was going to clean the bees out that were hiding in the comb and realized that some of them were moving! I looked in the pail… and some of those bees were moving too! I reassembled my hive (in full sun this time!) and spread the bucketful of bees on a tarp in front. I put the queen back inside the hive, she was moving around really good now, and put a jar full of 2:1 sugar water on top.

    By the end of the day LOTS of bees had made their way back into the hive (and a good number went the wrong way and drowned in a puddle…) and they had eaten 1/4 of the half quart jar!

    I call it Beehive CPR 😉

  • I had an incident just this morning. Yesterday one of my hives swarmed over my privacy fence in the neighbor’s yard, 2 hours before I had to go to work. It was 1 small cluster and 1 large one. So I retrieved them both in a portable, but didn’t have time to wait till they all were in. I informed neighbors I’d be back at 8pm to get them. I prayed they stay. I was wondering if they were two separate swarms. So in the dark with my husbands (who’s not a beekeeper) help. I walked the box over to my yard which was a long walk! My husband had a work light and I shook the bees in the hive, propped box up to entrance because just a few were left in it. I figured I’d be out in morning to finish. It was around 45-49 here in Md. In Late April. It’s been warm during days. I went out this morning to finish and check the hive. I had to move it over about a foot. When I picked hive top up to shake a small cluster still in the box and put a baggie of sugar syrup in I noticed lots of dead bees. I left them on the bottom screen for them to clean up. I put top back on. I sat and watched a bit. I noticed on the front entrance board 3 bees looking like I thought carrying a dead one out. But they were just touching it and laying there little legs and antennas. Lol As I looked close it looked like a queen! She was kind of curled, I picked up a couple other so called dead bees. I brought them in the house so I could really look and make sure it was a queen. Well it was. Not five minutes later they all started moving, one came back to almost normal! The queen was moving all her legs. I pondered if it was a second queen or an old queen. So I said well what the heck she’s not dead! So I took them all back up to the hive opened the top and dropped them in the inner cover hole with all the hive bees. Said a prayer. Lol. Rust, sorry for the long comment but would you wait and check, in about a week to see if they’ve drawn comb and egg laying going on? Or get another queen? They are in a new 10 frame deep box with wax foundation and sugar syrup with HBH in the mixture. I feel so bad they were shaken, dropped and got cold last night. I work full time so have to do things when I’m free.


  • I had a hive that appeared to be a dead-out back on a warm day in January. There was what looked like a dead cluster in the top box. I did not do anything more than open the lid and look. I closed it back and left it for another day to clean.

    Every warm day since, the other hives have been flying, but nothing from this one.

    It is now early March. Two days ago, temp 58F, the other hives coming and going like mad, this “dead-out” had a very small amount of activity. I thought it was just neighbor hives cleaning left over stores until I noticed dead bees being carried out and pollen carried in. Go figure.

  • I just at this moment found this website and am really glad I did. I recently saved a carpenter bee, I don’t have hives but I need answers I’m not getting from anywhere else. He was found walking away from a main road but struggling. He seemed to have been missing a leg and his wings look a little beat up but he was standing up and walking around even though he was very imbalanced. He was drinking honey water until I could buy pure cane sugar and as soon as I bought the pure cane sugar I came home to him not moving, his legs are curled and his little red tongue is out. Ive read they can go into some sort of hibernation when they need to heal? But I’m not sure if it’s true. I keep having hope and just dropping some sugar water under his tongue with an eye dropper just in case. Please I’m hoping someone can answer me, I don’t want to feel like I didn’t anything wrong to make this happen. I’ve had him inside my home, I let him have sunshine yesterday. But it’s been very hot and low air quality so I’ve kept him inside with fans blowing in my living room. A lot of people said I should have put him on a flower but, he wasn’t only exhausted he was a little beat up and needed help. I don’t want him to be dead, I’ll probably cry for days.

    Oh also I did give him a stigma from a flower around my condos so he’d get nectar, so I don’t know if he could have been poisoned? I know it was someone’s personal flowers so I don’t think they would have gotten sprayed by the maintenance.

    Sorry for the long message, I’m just so worried and don’t want to give up on him until I know for sure he’s dead and not trying to “heal up.”

    • Megan,

      Please understand that adult bees live only about 4 weeks. After that, there is nothing you can do to save them. Ragged wings are a sign of old age in a bee, and often the wings are so bad they can no longer fly. They usually just die or something comes along and eats them.

      Even if your bee got into some insecticide, the fact it has worn wings suggests that he or she led a good strong life and probably accomplished what nature intended.

      I’m always very happy to hear about people who care about our native bees. Let this one go and, if possible, plant some flowers for the rest. Non-treated flowers are the best thing we can provide for our bees.

  • Thank you for the reply Rusty. You are right, rather than an injured wing they are both most definitely worn. He also never attempted to fly. I didn’t know they lived only 4 weeks, that’s a bit sad to think about but good to know. I’m happy he at least lived his life to the fullest.

    I’m also glad that everyone here cares for our bees too! It has given me hope. The town I live in, in Connecticut, not many people care for them and can be cruel towards them. I plan on planting some butterfly bush asap. I read that’s one of their favorites and that they love the color purple. But first i must call my condo association to make sure they will not be sprayed whatsoever.

    Thank you again. ?❤

  • I keep my bees indoor because of freezing outdoor, but daytime I am opening tubes so bees could fly out. 99% bees are freezing, not returning to hive. So I am picking up hundreds of bees from snow or all around, and keeping inside jar, then after an hour I see 80-90% of so-called dead bees start crawling, and I am putting them back in hive. Is that correct? One opinion is that old or sick bees are going to die themselves. But most of them seems younger who flies out for cleansing, but can’t return because of freezing? Should I continue collecting them? Or bees are not returning in hive consciously, intentionally, naturally just to die?

    • Your bees are freezing because you are keeping them indoors. The air temperature feels warm to them, so they fly out and die. It’s best to keep them outside so they know how cold it is or keep them them inside and don’t allow them to go out.

  • Queens playing possum:

    So yesterday we checked on 3 newly raised/mated queens. I was able to mark the first one successfully, albeit with shaky, adrenaline stoked hands. The next one seemed to go more smoothly, using a queen marking device. But when I released her, she looked paralyzed. Dead. As in a door nail. For 30 minutes I watched her and an entourage of 15-20 bees trying to revive her. I’ve been here before, though. A few years ago I had the same experience, and at the time I panicked, tossing the queen into the bushes. This time I dripped a few drops of honey on her and her surrounding bees and carefully deposited her on the frames, said a quick prayer for forgiveness and closed up. Today my wife and I discussed how to requeen the colony and developed a plan. She insisted that I check today to be sure the hive was queenless before introducing one of the queens from our mating nucs. A queenless colony will soon realize its dire situation will start raising emergency queens immediately. Today’s inspection revealed no queen cells being constructed. On the 5th frame, lo and behold, there she was, marked in blue and walking as if she owned the place. It seems like the only defense a queen has, playing possum.

    • David,

      That’s a great story, and it contains a lesson I’ve learned over and over: never trust a queen. They have their own agenda, and it doesn’t include the beekeeper.