bee stories

The night moves of a once dead bee


Last evening Dizzykin wanted to go out at 10 pm. His little sister, Minikin, followed fifteen minutes later. I was elated at the prospect of spending an entire night without cats lounging all over me, grooming incessantly, and leaving pieces of themselves all over the blankets. I looked forward to a stretch of tranquility.

But three hours later I was awakened by a weed whacker. It buzzed in short bursts interspersed with longer ones, the nylon filament whipping the air. In those hazy moments between being asleep and being awake, I decided it was rude to run a weed machine at one in the morning. But as I came more fully awake, I realized it was winter. Cold and dark. No weeds to whack. Weird.

Not a machine after all

When I sat up, I began to realize the buzz belonged not to a machine but to a bee. My first thought was a mason bee. Every year mason bees nest in the drain holes of my window frames and from there get inside the house. I keep a net handy for these frequent incursions and I sometimes catch upwards of 20 masons in and around my desk.

However, when I stood up, the frigid wooden floor reminded me it couldn’t be mason bees, not in January. Not with ice on the ground.

Eight hours earlier

Suddenly, I had a thought. Aha! Earlier in the day, at about 5 pm, I had opened the garage door. There, lying on the concrete just in front of the heavy door, was a dead honey bee. I snatched her up, curious.

She looked fine except all four wings were frozen in the “K” position and she was light as a feather. I concluded she had opted for a quick cleansing flight during the brief interlude when sunlight pierced the clouded sky. But the sun was deceiving—bright but not warm—and she didn’t make it back. Without any further thought, I carried her inside and dropped her into my tray of dead bees.

Okay, yes. I admit I share certain traits with preadolescent boys, one of which is keeping dead bugs on my bookshelf. I can’t kill bees, even for science, so I collect dead ones to dissect, gaze at through the microscope, and learn to identify. The trays contain mostly native bees, but also a few honey bees and a small assortment of wasps. My biggest fear is they will someday disappear into the vacuum cleaner.

Not dead, just cold

The trouble is, I reasoned, this particular dead bee wasn’t actually dead when I tossed her in there, and eight hours later she was ready to roll. I’ve seen this before: honey bees can appear dead when they’re not.

I peered into the tray and, sure enough, she was gone. I followed her buzz and soon found her crawling up the spine of Bees of the World. How àpropos. But she soon left Michener in favor of Garner’s Modern American Usage. A woman after my own heart. I considered putting her outside, but if I opened the door the cats would bolt in at the speed of light. So I left her to examine the books while I tried to sleep.

But sleep wouldn’t come. She kept buzzing. I took a blanket and tried the sofa for a while, but that didn’t work either, so I went back to the bedroom. A minute after I settled in, I heard her plop down on my pillow, a tiny muffled thud. Okay, enough is enough.

A sting in the night

With the light switched on, I put my finger right in front of her. I do this all the time, hundreds of times during the summer. The bees crawl onto my finger and I put them outside. Nothing to it. She too crawled up, then bam! She nailed me! The s-word wailed through the not-so-silent night.

I couldn’t believe it. Who gets stung by a bee in a pillow at two in the morning in the middle of winter? Looking at it from her perspective, though, I can see the problem. She went out for a potty break, got chilled to the core, dropped from the sky into a coma, and then woke up in the morgue. Sounds like a horror story. She probably freaked when she saw all the corpses, so I can’t blame her for being skittish.

However, it’s sad for me to report that she’s now back in the tray. Only this time, like the wicked witch of Oz, “she’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.” Her stinger hangs limply from behind, much like a toe tag. And me? I’m too tired to think. Right now, the prospect of sleeping with kneady cats seems like heaven.

Honey Bee Suite

A tray of dead bees where I placed the not-so-dead honey bee. © Rusty Burlew.


  • Rusty, I got an email from University of Montana announcing their 2017 beekeeping courses and announcing their 2016 Master Beekeepers…a joy to see you second on the list. Congratulations on your work and showing us the value of continuous learning. Kathleen

  • I fished one out of the horses’ trough yesterday when it was 45 here. Looked dead but then she grabbed my glove. Set her on a weed stalk in the sun, finished feeding and she was gone!

    I rescue them from water buckets and troughs all during warm weather. But I think this was a “record” for January.
    Sorry yours ended sadly.


  • I have done this innocent act the morning of one of my beginner classes I teach. Thankfully she was in a ziplock bag when she woke up. She was not impressed but safely returned home!

  • Hi Rusty,

    I often pick up ‘not quite dead yet’ bees when it’s too cold for them to make it back to the hive. I’ve always put the ones I can get to crawl onto my finger or even those I have to pick up into the hive. Do you think putting them into the hive is enough to save them? I don’t know if they just drop to the bottom or if the presence of other bees provides sufficient heat to warm them up. What do you think happens?

    If you don’t think returning cold bees to the hive gives them enough warmth to come back, then I might try putting the little waifs in a ventilated bucket and bringing them inside to warm up.

    Call me crazy, but if I can save those too chilly to fly, I want to. Even if it means bringing them in by the heater.

    • Valerie,

      I don’t really know. A certain number of bees die every day, some from age and some from disease. Bees near to dying often leave the hive to die, and researchers believe this is to help keep the hive free from dead bodies as well as free from the disease organisms that killed them, if that is the case. So putting bees back in the hive might not be the best thing. Sometimes I will put a bee on the landing board and let her work it out.

  • I love your story…not sad. Tragic I know, sorry to hear you lost some sleep, but funny…the absurdity. Thanks for sharing Rusty.

  • She had a second chance and missed it. Poor bee 🙁
    We bring a few bees inside every day. We brought our bees to overwinter on the balcony, so it’s easy to observe any activity. Most of them come back to life and we try to return them to their home the next day.

  • But Rusty, what a cheerful tray you have selected for your morgue. Discontent seems unreasonable. I hope she at least made it past your fingertip before offering her pointed opinion. Oooww.

    My collection is more haphazard, and some of the collection I recently tipped into our dirty laundry hamper where sad to say my retrieval effort was incomplete — I know that because of the lint filter contents of our dryer from shortly thereafter.

  • Happens all the time!! I did hives yesterday and then went to the have truck fixed. While I was waiting, I felt a vibration on my glove, and here was a bee vibrating against my hand, then there were two, then there were three! Here I sat with three bees on my hand waiting for the truck to be done. The service man asked me why I was holding my hand out, and I told him I had three little hitchhikers on my glove and he laughed. When truck was done, we walked out and drove them home, put them back into their hive and all was well with the world. Bees ….. such beautiful unusual little treasures!

  • Rusty, you are wonderful. The world needs people who care, even in the middle of the night, to counteract those who dont care at all. I am compelled to believe all life matters so I scoop up the cold ones I find after open feeding syrup on the warm days we’ve been having here on Long Island. I pick them up and put them in a plastic container with a lid and after 15 mins by the wood stove they are ready to fly! They head right home 200 feet from the patio. I know open feeding has many cons, but in winter I see only pros. Distant hives can’t make it here in the cold to rob or share diseases and there are no wasps. I think it boosts morale to have the foragers bringing something in. Anyway, they show up at the table every day above 45, bringing entertainment to the cats, joy to my heart and the promis of spring. Kindness never fails….

  • Not just cold, but dead.
    I am convinced that I caused the death of my new, but strong, hive. I had left several inches of the screened bottom board exposed to the strong winds of zero degree snowy weather. After the worst of two storms passed, I inspected the hive on a 45 degree day. I saw several bees lying on the inside top cover and could see a cluster of bees through the vent hole. They appeared to be lifeless, but my hopes were still up so I made a candy board according to your suggestions and installed it when the temperature was safe again. Unfortunately, the hive had already succumbed and no sugar was touched. Having said that, I am planning to utilize that hive for my spring package which will get me up and running again.

    I had treated for mites with Api Life var and notice the distinct odor (and taste) of thymol in the honey stores around the dead brood. Can I use these stores and brood comb for the spring arrivals to get them off to a good start? I would also like to hear your latest word concerning mite control with special emphasis on Hop-Guard. I had noticed many deformed wings on these first-year bees before I treated them with the thymol product. There was no capped brood in my bottom super which was empty of most bees since they fell to the screenboard. I transferred the hive to a freezer, with dead bees still clustered in the upper brood box which I only partially opened on the outer edge to inspect.

    Your comments are greatly appreciated.
    Ron German

    • Hey Ron,

      You say that you saw lots of deformed wings before you treated with thymol. I’m interested to know when that was because if you treated after the winter bees emerged, then those bees would already be infected with viruses and the treatments would have little effect on the health of the bees.

      As far as thymol goes, it works but I hate the smell. Worse, it really lingers. But those frames are fine for getting your new colony going in the spring. That’s what I would do with them.

      Hopguard works best with multiple treatments. So if you use it when brood is present, do three consecutive treatments. Hopguard smells too, but the odor dissipates quickly so it is not as offensive as thymol. I used Hopguard this past August with good results.

  • Some say entomologists aren’t all there. Some say they’re not right. Some say they’re eccentric. Some say they’re crazy. I don’t know what to say?

  • Hi Rusty –

    Know how you feel, say no more… I used to collect chilled corpses around the hives or floating in our pool, place them in a dish on our old O’Keefe & Merritt porcelain stove top oven vent warmed by the pilot to see who recovered. My wife and Leo, our yellow lab didn’t appreciate recovered bees flitting through our home; Leo (the lounge lizard) was particularly troubled by the buzzing having been stung last summer.

    Now I place the comatose girls in an abalone shell that I first warm up for 15 seconds in the microwave then add a couple drops of honey and place the shell outside on the covered patio. We’re always amazed at how many of the ladies recover.

  • Rusty
    I did the complete 21 day plus thymol treatment a little late in the season while the bees were still foraging and after collecting the honey supers. The colony was still very strong after treatment and the weather had not begun to cool down. When I pulled the lower super off the bottom screen-board, there were many, many dead bees lying on the screen and none of them had deformed wings.

    • Ron,

      I don’t know what “a little late” means exactly. Be sure to read “What are winter bees and what do they do? if you haven’t already. It may answer part of your question. If the winter bees were already infected with deformed wing virus before you killed the mites, killing the mites would not remove the virus.

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