miscellaneous musings

Essence of dead drone

If you detect a reeking, putrefying, gagging odor near your beehives this time of year, it could be the aroma of dead drones. Phillip at Mudsongs.org and I both detected it yesterday, and we both went through moments of self-doubt when we wondered what was happening to our hives.

Having forgotten the lessons of the past, I scurried to open the “offending” hive only to be met with the intoxicating scent of honey and wax, and that wonderful, indescribable odor of busy beehive. Then, confident the smell was coming from outside the hive, I searched until I found a dead mouse.

For a while I blamed the mouse, but then I realized he was too dead to be causing the problem. Too dead, meaning desiccated and crispy. At that moment I visualized the scent—dead drones.

It makes sense (scents) when you realize this is the season when adult drones and drone pupae are evicted from the hives. Although the workers make an effort to carry off the corpses, they often drop them only a few feet from the hive. In large colonies this turns into a big pile—a mound that rots in the summer heat and reeks to high heaven. Nothing smells more dead than dead pupae.

All of this reminds of an incident several years ago. At that time I was taking advice from another beekeeper about culling drones for mite control. I took frames of drone pupae from my hives, froze them over night and then, using a garden hose at an oblique angle, flushed the pupae from the cells. Naively, I did this near the back patio of our home five days before having guests for the July 4 holiday.

After about three days, I was met with a gut-writhing stench every time I entered the backyard. It took me a while to figure it what it was, but eventually I realized it was the drone pupae. Meanwhile, my husband was trying to get the place spruced up for the holiday. He kept asking, “What is that smell?” And I would shrug and say, “What smell?”

“It must be a dead deer,” he said, thrashing through the bushes looking for the offending carcass. “It could be a raccoon,” he added, “but it smells big, like a deer . . . or maybe a coyote.”

“You’re right,” I concurred, not wanting a lecture on my choice of drone burial grounds. Not that he probably ever thought about it.

Every time he was out of sight for an instant I flooded the area with more water, trying to hose the effluvium into the ground. It was strange because the pupae had fallen down into the grass where you couldn’t see a single one, but there was no doubt about their presence.

In the end, it took about two weeks for the smell to dissipate. My husband apologized to the guests for the dead animal smell and explained that since we live next to a state forest, all kinds of animal things happen here. I smiled politely and agreed.

That was years ago and I never said a word about it. I no longer hose out drones, I just feed them to the chickens. Now there’s just one problem remaining. Since my husband reads my blog every day . . .



  • I live in the high desert of southern California. About a week ago we noticed a small (100-200) group of bees collecting on one of the Mexican bird of paradise in the back yard. At that time we thought they were trying to form a hive, we contemplated trying to move them, or having them relocated, but decided to let them “bee”. The group did not appear to be growing. I do believe they are honey bees.

    We have had a dramatic shift in the weather from last week including high winds, and 10-20 degree drop in temperature. I noticed the bee activity slowing down with the cooler temps. When I checked in on them yesterday morning there was some movement in the group, but as of last night there were about 10 dead on the ground. This morning all of them appear dead, no movement on the outside of the group, more dead on the ground . . . Just wanted some input on this. I understand this may be “normal”.

    This is the first honey bee activity we have seen here in awhile, we have had to have hives relocated in the past, but not for a few years. I commend and support all beekeepers. I have been following the pollinator situation for some years now, and this concerns me greatly! We want to do everything possible to preserve these special creatures. We also have bats and butterflies on our 11 acres, along with several fruit trees, flowers and Joshua trees. Thank you for your help and support.

    • Hi Carrie,

      It’s really hard to tell what is going on. It is possible the bees absconded from a hive that was out of food. But a unit that small has no chance of surviving on its own even if it weren’t winter.

      Another possibility is the group was split from the parent hive in some way. Maybe the parent hive was moved and these few were left behind. Maybe the parent hive was a wild colony that got blown out of its home . . . or burned out . . . or the hive was demolished, perhaps by an animal, and these few bees collected together and tried to start anew. There’s any number of possibilities.

      There is really nothing you could do for so few, so don’t feel bad. I’m always glad to hear from folks who are looking out for our bees, whether they be wild or managed, because it shows people are becoming aware. Thanks for looking after them and thanks for writing.

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