bee stories

The dead hive that isn’t

Saturday was a perfect day on the northwest coast. Rumor claims that all the elements come together only six days a year: warm enough to go coatless, clear enough to see the sky, dry enough you don’t dissolve. It was a perfect day to take apart my dead-outs and do some maintenance.

Late December, when I was assessing my losses, I closed up the dead hives to keep out local varmints. One loss that was particularly heart-wrenching was a hive I had built for a gorgeous swarm. I was out of equipment at the time, so I rigged a hive from miscellaneous parts and called it the drainfield hive, since that’s where it was.

Just before Christmas the cluster was the size of a baseball. I counted it as a dead-out because I knew it couldn’t possibly survive. But I didn’t seal the hive because even if they were doomed I wouldn’t deny their freedom. As the weeks went by, I totally forgot to go back and tape it shut.

January was cold and nasty. The ice storm dropped two sixty-foot trees within inches of that hive, one on either side of it. Snow piled on its roof and blocked the landing board but I did nothing. After all, the hive was dead.

Fast forward to last weekend. The sky was bright and cloudless. The occasional whiff of woodsmoke reminded me it was still cold, but the sun felt like warm toast on my cheek. Trillium and skunk cabbage sparkled beside the stream where a fingerling made a splish-splat in the riffles. A steller’s jay glinted blue and metallic in a nearby cedar. All around, things croaked and twittered and cawed.

As I approached the drainfield I saw honey bees coming and going with determination etched on their faces. I immediately chastised myself for not locking down the hive—no doubt these were robbers, looting for all they were worth.

I threw off the lid to have a look, muttering all the while about beekeeper incompetence. But, to my utter astonishment, I found not comb rent asunder by robber bees but a basketball-sized cluster covering four frames of brood! Whoa! How the heck did that happen? How could it happen?

Needless to say, I am elated but still a bit nonplussed. It seems impossible that a cup of bees could morph into a full-size cluster in spite of rain and snow and ice and wind and cold and falling trees and beekeeper abandonment. But it did. It proves we never know it all. It proves nature always has the last word. It proves we should never give up . . . or give in. It proves that honey bees rock.


The drainfield swarm.


  • “A steller’s jay glinted blue and metallic in a nearby cedar. All around, things croaked and twittered and cawed.”

    And somewhere in the distance, a dog barked.

    That is very cool news. I’m in awe seeing the bees come back to life every spring. It’s normal for them, but it’s still so new to me, I can’t get over it. But your story is even more awe-full. That is just so cool.

    • You are so funny I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted. I’ve never been told my writing is awe-full.

  • Thanks Rusty

    You obviously know birds and flora as well as you write. (Not many know how to spell Steller’s Jay!)

    Where are you located? I know BC well having vacationed by sailboat from Bellingham up to Queen Charlotte Straights most summers with the kids.


    • Tom,

      Thanks for the compliments! I’m about fifteen miles south of Olympia, WA . . . and a sailor also, by the way.

  • I found your site a month or so ago while trying to figure out what to do about my bee predicament of the moment. I was getting into beekeeping after being absent when the mites showed up early 90’s and seemed to be doing everything wrong – poor bees!

    I had allowed the rains to return, October 12th, 2012, without feeding two weak hives and was fearing chastisement when seeking advice about what to DO? Your easy going, understanding, humble, caring tone set me at ease immediately.

    It was a very happy surprise to discover our climates are so similar, as I too live about 15 miles south of Olympia, unless you’ve absconded.

    Thanks very much,


  • Makes one rethink things, doesn’t it? And Dana, we apparently followed the same path to end up here at HBS, if I may. 🙂 And I too was instantly enamoured with Rusty’s easy style and forthright writing. Thanks, Rusty!

  • Hi Rusty, also a person with sea water running in my veins!

    Question, can you please tell me what is inside of your most intriguing cardboard flower pot hive? And, how can I find out how to make one? That is just too, too awesome!

    Thank you in advance.

    • There is nothing inside the flower pot-shaped swarm traps; they are hollow. I purchased mine from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm and I don’t know how to make one. They seem to be formed from paper mache that has been infused with some type of waterproof material. Mine have been out in the rain for years and they are still holding up.

  • After a terrible bee breeding and honey season here in the UK Rusty, those of us who believe in rearing climate-adapted bees for our increasingly challenging weather are going to be rearing from survivor stocks. I’d be watching these ones if they were mine 🙂

  • I am a bit confused which is not unusual. However, isn’t your picture showing a swarm trap instead of a bee hive?

    • William,

      When a reader doesn’t understand something it means the writer screwed up. Plain and simple. The swarm trap shown is the trap where I captured the colony that is the subject of the post. As I read it again, I see that the nexus between the two in not at all obvious. I will try to fix it or change the photo. Thank you for pointing out the problem.

    • Anne,

      One lonely bumble bee is probably an overwintering queen. If you want, you can find her entrance hole and surround it with a little straw, wood chips, or loose mulch to help keep her warm, but don’t close off the hole and don’t make the covering too thick. They like the bare soil.

  • WOW, what a great story!! A great example of not over fussing in a hive!!! LOL Thank you for all the great information and stories!!!

  • Cool!!!

    It’s never wise to try to predict Mother Nature or Her creatures (of which we are one) which sometimes, in spite of heavy adversity, survive it all – and thrive!!!

  • I had a situation where my bees absconded due to shb. I could smell fermenting honey. I checked for a week but no bees. So I cleaned out the TBH. 2 days later the bee came back and now I am struggling to keep them alive. I had killed off any beetles and larvae I found while cleaning off the bars. I have put back a lot of the good combs albeit on the floor, for food, and have been feeding them sugar water. The average temperature was around 65 to 70 for a few weeks and I haven’t checked to see if they have built any new comb. But now its getting colder and I will have to see if I can babysit them through the cold yet to come.

    russ in baltimore

  • Hi Rusty,

    I found a bee hive in a dead tree, and it was in my backyard, and I just left it alone, I had no problem but after about 6 months, I realised it was dead. The hive was dead! I had no idea what to do. Then I found a piece of beeswax. Just hanging off the branch! What should I do to the tree? Should I cut it down or leave it? I think it may have been a disease or the queen moved.

    Thanks Kirsten

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