honey bee behavior

Open-air colonies from coast to coast

Twice this week I received photos of open-air honey bee colonies. Open-air colonies in regions with cold winters are not common, so they tend to receive a lot of attention.

The first photo is of a colony I wrote about in the fall of 2014. If you recall, the colony was discovered in a cottonwood tree in the high desert community of Maupin, Oregon (45.1739° N). Deciding the colony was unlikely to survive an Oregon winter, a band of intrepid beekeepers designed and built a canvas tent with a bottom opening that would help protect the bees from the elements.

The colony thrived and spent their second year in the same place. Now, once again, the colony is wrapped up for winter. In the photo below, you can see where the honey bees reinforced their canvas cover with propolis. Naomi Price, one of the original tent designers, writes, “The girls love their bottom entrance as an exit. There is a bee space along the bark of the tree and the canvas (1/2″ gap total) they use as their entrance.” It is interesting to note that no other human interventions were applied to this colony.

Thanks, Naomi, for the photo and update.


In this photo you can see the protective layers of propolis on the tree bark and on the inside of the canvas cover, which was pulled up for the photo. © Naomi Price.

The other colony I learned about did not fare so well. These bees chose a shrub on a golf course in the town of Catskill, New York (42.2167° N). As you can see, the colony was large and completely exposed to the elements. Beekeeper Mite Riter sent the photos but says he did not get to see the colony himself.

Mike says the bees are rumored to have built a new nest on a nearby bush or tree every year for several years. I suspect that spring swarms are choosing the same location each year, attracted by the scent of the previous year’s colony. In any case, the combs are complex and fascinating, with irregularly sized cells, hidden passages, and few parallel combs.

Thanks, Mike, for sending the photos, and be sure to let us know what happens next year.


I don’t know the type of bush the combs are attached to, but it looks thorny. Photo provided by Mike Riter.


It appears that predators have been searching for food in the remaining comb. Photo provided by Mike Riter.


Both combs and cells have irregular shapes. Photo provided by Mike Riter.


  • I have an outside hive in my tree in WV. My bees swarmed this summer but I did not find them until the tree lost its leaves and it was cold. I don’t know if they died from the cold or had already moved on to a safer home.
    It is interesting to read about other outside hives. Thanks.

  • These are really interesting stories, especially about the colony being protected with a canvas tent. Nice that humans decided against cutting the colony down and re-locating. I get these jobs fairly often in Los Angeles, and one very interesting trait is they have always chosen to make their open air home in a evergreen tree—they seem to know what is deciduous and avoid those. You probably won’t allow this post, but with one job I did, the homeowner made a very nice photo file of the whole process so I could use it in presentations to groups and schools.

    Well, you can look at the pictures yourself, if you want—sending to your email

    You are invited to view Chet’s photo album: 2014BeeHive

    Aug 12, 2014
    by Chet
    A feral honey beehive is removed from a vulnerable sidewalk location for a better environment.
    View Album
    Play slideshow
    Message from Chet:
    Susan, we thought you might like to see our photos. Feel free to share with your classrooms, etc.

    Chet & Joan

  • Wow, they are such grand architects. Their comb design is so very interesting. Thank you for sharing this with us. I’m excited to this to my art students. I know bees are intriguing, but as an artist they offer me such great inspiration. Every time I learn something about them, my head starts spinning as to how I will transfer that knowledge to artwork. THANK YOU!!!!

  • The architecture just amazes and humbles me. So very beautiful, and interesting to me that left to their own devices, bees always seem to create a bit of an egg shape. And we put them in square boxes. Hmmmmm…

  • I wonder how hardy bees truly are. I’m only in my first winter of beekeeping. I started out my year with two late splits that I picked up locally (central Alberta). Thanks to being completely unprepared for what bees could truly throw at me, I found myself entering the winter with one hive that swarmed in late August, and was unable to rear a queen. The colony was small as the weather got colder, I discovered a laying worker, mass amounts of drones that weren’t kicked out, and to top it off, my “strong” colony wasn’t able to store enough honey.

    I wasn’t happy with myself for the idea, but I decided to let the small colony perish in the cold, and take the honey for the larger colony. The weather was dropping down around freezing, so I took off the top and bottom board, and left the hive open to the sky for the night. We had freezing rain overnight, the temperature got down to about 5 degrees below freezing, and I came back the next evening to find them all dead. At least, they were dead until I grabbed the first frame. Then the entire hive came alive.

    Long story short, I left them completely open for several weeks. In as much as -12 C, through rain and snow. I eventually I decided that their persistence was commendable, and I closed them up and made them some sugar cakes to last them as long as their natural lives would allow.

    A couple weeks ago we had some unseasonably warm weather… a few days were even slightly above freezing! Both hives did some hivekeeping, and the smaller hive appeared to have only a small fraction of dead bees kicked off the landing board, compared to the larger hive. I knocked on the side, and was greeted with a very content buzz.

  • We saved one here in Massachusetts it was a spectacular site. We cut it down from the tree and fit it into a Langstroth hive, they seem to be doing quite well so far.

      • Steven,

        It’s called reproduction! A queen, even if mated, cannot start a colony on her own, so colonies reproduce by dividing.

  • I found a large colony in my arborvitae hedge this fall. I think they must have swarmed in April while we were away. We figured they wouldn’t survive the winter unprotected, so a couple of fellow-beekeepers came and cut the whole thing out of my shrubs. Last I heard, they are doing well. I have pictures and video of the colony and removal I could email… Would need a little editing, though. Not at the top of my to-do list today… 🙂

  • What wonderful photos! It’s so fascinating to see these open air hives…so much of the workings of the bees are hidden from us generally, and of course we artificially force the design of the hive by using frames–so to see what they do on their own is fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

  • I Love seeing how the bees can become so inventive…My bees decided that it was way too hot to stay in my hive this summer…so…they built a huge comb on the outside just under the entrance of my new top-bar hive…I am not sure what I should do…build an enclosure around them to protect them this winter…we get lots of severe cold and snow…or do I try to put them back in the hive…I have taken plenty of pictures of them…
    Needing help,
    PJ Miller

    • Pamela,

      I think you probably need to cut the comb off and tie it to a top bar and let the bees connect it. You can wrap string around it several times as if you’re making a net or sling. The bees will connect it within a few days if you can keep the comb close to the bar. You may need help with this, someone to hold it while you tie it.

      • Thank you so much for helping me decide what I need to do…I will need to find a better spot for them this winter…I will get my son’s to help me with them…I will send you pictures of the process…I don’t know how to add pictures yet…but I will try to send you some of them now…
        PJ Miller

  • Hi Rusty…
    I found out that there is no way to move the hive inside…a new queen is laying a beautiful brood in the new open-air hive…I have tried to cut them and put them in my hive…and the first 2 went fine…but then I got too close to the brood and apparently the Queen…attack mode left me with some 13 to 15 stings…so needless to say…it wasn’t going to work…so…I have decided to just build a cover around the bottom of the hive…I will send more pictures later…I am will send pics…

  • I have an open-air colony in my catalpa tree in the Hudson Valley in New York. The hive is about 30 feet from the ground and not easily accessible for removal. I wasn’t able to find someone with a bee “vacuum” and some said it’s too late in the season to move them. The temps have dropped dramatically and were in the 20’s overnight. I placed a partially open styrofoam cooler under the hive with lemon, honey, and some lemongrass essential oil in hopes of enticing the bees to investigate. I don’t believe that any have. Is there any chance of buying a foundation hive drawer and trying to entice them with sugar cakes? It’s breaking my heart that they will be totally exposed to snow/hail/winds and will most likely all die.

  • Hi Rusty, I am wondering if you have Mike Riter’s details or if you would be able to give me permission to use one of these photographs for a small magazine I am making on beekeeping, the magazine will not be sold but given around to my local beekeeping volunteer group.

    Thank you 🙂

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