honey bee behavior

The mystery of the dead drones

I wasn’t going to write about this until I figured it out, but I’m coming up blank. On July 5, I checked my top-bar hive and saw a massive pile of dead bees on the ground just outside the entrance. My first thought: pesticide kill. I’ve seen pesticide kills before and it looked just the same.

But the hive was churning with bees. With my hive tool, I sifted through the mound of dead bodies and discovered it was all drones—thousands of them. Not drone pupae, but fully–formed adults. Heaps of dead drones are not unusual as fall approaches and drone eviction is well under way, but this was the beginning of July. What was going on?

A cold wet spring

Unlike the rest of the country, the Pacific Northwest coast had a cold and wet spring. In fact, now that July is more than half gone, I am still wearing a jacket on most days. Up through July 5 we were still having days in the 60s and nights in the 40s. The bees couldn’t possibly think it was summer, but did they think it was fall? Were they evicting drones prematurely based on the temperature?

There is no dearth as of yet, the forest and fields where I live are laden with wildflowers producing both nectar and pollen. And since the rainy season wasn’t over by July 5—and it still hasn’t quite given up—water was plentiful.

Someone suggested the hive might be queenless. I’m not sure I follow: Do queenless hives eject drones? I’ve never heard of that. But I checked anyway. Although I didn’t find the queen, I found young brood, sealed brood (including more drones) and scads of honey and pollen.

Now almost two weeks later, nothing has changed. The hive is abustle with bees that are bearding on the front and underside of their home every day even though the days are mild and the nights are chilly. They remained camped outside during several days of thunderstorms, and they were even festooning in long strings from the landing board. I didn’t see any evidence of swarming or swarm preparation.

As far as I can tell everything looks normal except the boneyard out front. I thoroughly checked my other hives—all Langstroths—and found no dead drones anywhere. So, I’m looking for theories. Does anyone have a thought?


dead drones under the top-bar hive

Dead drones under the top-bar hive. All the dark material you see laying around is composed of dried and crispy drones as well.

bearding on the top-bar hive

Bearding on the top-bar hive. You can barely see the three hive openings.

bearding under the top-bar hive

You can see bees bearding under the top-hive as well as in front. They have a screened bottom board that they are hanging from.

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  • Rocky,

    How are the honey stores for this hive? Maybe with the cool weather, they are not gathering enough nectar. So, drones are cheap and are no help to this hive surviving. So, out they go and many times are stung to death.

    Just a thought!


    • Bill,

      I saw lots of honey in there but not a lot if you consider the total population of the hive. Interesting idea.

  • I have no idea about the dead drones; I had a similar thing happen with one of my hives this year though. My thinking was that they were being ejected for hygienic reasons, or the drones were to weak to fly so they ended up dead in front of my hive in a stinking pile.

    When I had tbh’s I noticed a huge amount of bearding even on cold days, this is one reason I do not use tbh’s anymore since the comb is arranged across the length of the hive creating a space with the worst possible airflow. When I started using warres I had them “warm ways” with the comb across the entrance, I was getting a lot of bearding that would last all night, since turning them “cold ways” comb edge wise to the entrance they never stay out in the evening, plus it drastically cut down on cross combing (no foundation).

  • Rusty, I saw the same thing this year in my two most populous hives and concluded they were trying to conserve resources. The colonies built up something fierce during the early spring maple flow, but by June they were out of stores. And here, at least, the blackberries didn’t start flowering until right around July 4th.

    Looks like our timing is similar, so my vote is for Bill’s theory.

  • I know I’m in a different local but I have noticed a large reduction in the number of drones flying from just last month. No piles though just not many of them were before there were hundreds. Probably seasonal since swarming seems to have stopped in the area

  • Could the drones have been exposed to some pesticide or poison at a drone congregation site, away from the hive? I think I have read that one way to tell if a dead bee has been poisoned is if its tongue is sticking out.

    • Michael,

      That’s an original thought. Seems kind of crazy but the wind takes pesticide-laden soil and carries it for miles, so I suppose it could happen. Or they could get caught in an aerial spray or even a ground spray on a windy day. Interesting, thanks.

  • Rusty,

    The closest that I have gotten to July drone eviction was when I moved my hive from one location to another, 20 feet away. The field bees all moved to the old location where a nice nuc was waiting for them. So the hive remained with all of the young brood, the queen and the nurse bees. Foragers were gone, no incoming nectar. Two days later the first foragers were formed, next day the drones were all evicted. Three nurses at a time would chase them out. If the drone did not get the idea they’d start chewing off wings, legs etc. So a feeding load on a colony plus no incoming food got rid of drone in a hurry.

    Another idea, this type of hive is a drone breeding heaven. Could it be that a drone-unit is a lot more disposable than in a hive with a low drone count?

    • Aram,

      More interesting ideas. I’m wondering if the spell of rainy weather may have caused it. As in your situation, suddenly no nectar was coming in. So the bees may have evicted the drones to conserve resources. And you are right, a TBH is a drone-producing factory, so maybe they are considered highly expendable. Now that the rain has decreased, the drone eviction seems to have slowed as well.

  • Hi there!

    Although we are in different parts of the globe, this year I saw hives that had this behavior at a time which is not usual (March/April). I inspected these hives and noticed a great lack of reserves, particularly in the most populous hives, the frames and supers were very light. At some point I noticed an unusual lack of pollen in the hives, this year the weather was very strange . . .
    In my case I also had drone pupae expelled, and not only adult drones. In another apiary I also observed this behavior only in the TBH I have there, and not in the other hives.

    • Ricardo,

      This sounds very similar. Perhaps this behavior is more common than I thought. I’m going to open up my TBH today to have another look. We are still having strange weather, rainy and cold, which is very uncommon for late July.

  • Hey Rusty,

    I was checking one of my the colonies on the dairy farm and I noticed a load of drones on the bottom board. As I walked closer I noticed a load of dead drones on the rocks directly below the bottom board. This summer has been amazing in Newfoundland with record honey by local beekeepers and we had rain for the first time 2 days in a row all summer. So after two days of rain and being locked in for another half day there were loads of dead drones on the ground just from this one colony.

    There was no issue with the other 5 adjacent colonies. Also this queen is a dark queen, so that could be part of the reason.

    Funny how it goes.

  • Why are there a dozen worker bees, with pollen-laden baskets, dying in the grass in front of the hive? They acted like they were too tired to make it into the hive. Most bees were flying into the hive, but some were just falling into the grass in front of the hive and staying there. They are dying. It was the very end of the day. Maybe the grass was wet or the temperature suddenly got too cold.

  • So here is another possibility: I noticed this happening with my hive lately. Just drones, not workers, dead at the entrance. My hive recently swarmed about 3 weeks ago (caught the swarm!), and before this, I noticed a very high drone population (I have Langstroth hives). I did check and found my queen and that she wasn’t just laying drones. She does have the option to lay either a worker egg or drone egg in any given cell, and that could partly be decided by the size of the cell. My understanding is that different worker bees are delegated to different jobs based on their age. Perhaps either your queen and/or workers delegated to making comb produced a high percentage of drones in your hive, and then the workers delegated to hygienics (or some other category like drone patrol?) decided there were too many drones and started rolling heads.

  • I have been having the same problem with my bees recently, and just came across this post in a search to find out what is going on.

    We have had months of constant rain this summer, and I noticed the honey production in my hive slowing at the same time as the number of dead drones around the hive is increasing. I was concerned I had mites or some other invader, but the hive otherwise looks fine.

    I wonder now if Bill’s theory can explain everything I am seeing. Thanks for the help!

  • Hi all,

    Resurrecting this old post. I am seeing similar behavior in my new hive started from a package this year. Honey and pollen levels are very high (5 x 8 frame boxes with 2 of those boxes full of honey). At first I was thinking mites. Performed 2 sugar tests and show 1.33% infestation. Not high. I run all foundationless and let the bees decide what comb to build. There is still a very good drone population in the hive, but the young and possibly about-to-emerge drones are being evicted. I have seen about 10-20 out front a day, but the local wasps and ants are quick to haul them away when they are dropped in front of the hive so likely more.

    Any ideas?

    • Michael,

      Ten to twenty dead drones in a day is nothing, especially in a foundationless hive where drones are a much larger percentage of the total population. Remember, an average hive in summer loses about 1000 bees per day. If 20% are drones, that’s 200 dead drones per day. Also, a certain percentage of unhatched bees are evicted each day due to some type of defect. The colony is behaving normally; I wouldn’t worry about it.

  • It’s July 2015 and I’m in Campbell River. Today I noticed a similar occurrence. Lots of drones being kicked out and dying in front of my TBH.

    It has been incredibly hot until a few days ago when we had a couple of days of rain and then cooler temperatures. My girls have also been bearding every evening for weeks now.

    Everything seems good otherwise.

    • Sue,

      I wouldn’t worry about the drones. If the hive is hot and congested, the workers may have to decided to get rid of them. I usually start to see it in August, but that’s not far away.

  • Hi Rusty.
    I’m a second year beekeeper in northern Virginia. Your site has been a great resource as I’ve embarked on this adventure, so I wanted to thank you for all you’ve done to keep it updated and interesting.

    I don’t think it’s related to your dead drone mystery, but I noticed the top photo you put here that shows the clumps of crispy bee parts looks a lot like the few clumps of bee parts in front of a couple of my own hives recently. I’m told those clumps of bee parts are what’s left when a skunk has munched on a bunch of bees. My hives are elevated on 2 ft high stands, but the bees were clustered on the front entrance during a hot, humid night, making them an easy meal.

  • Hi Folks, I just want to share an experience I’m having with drones. One of my established hives seems to have heaps of them and on nice days I can see dozens of them flying in and out of the hive. All good. This morning I relocated a feral hive in a possum box (that’s Australian possums!) to my backyard. Soon after the ‘landing board’ in front of the hive had a few dead or dying drones on it. I watched the goings on and saw how one drone was being dragged out and had its wing chewed off. I should add that it has been a cold spring day with showers, wind and even hail. The showers in the morning probably helped facilitate the hive relocation. But now I’m thinking that the worker bees are trying to preserve their food and are evicting the drones to that effect. It’s quite a sight to see a worker bee aggressively attacking the larger drone!

    • Steven,

      I find it fascinating to watch the drones struggle against some determined workers. The workers won’t take “no” for an answer.

  • hey!

    I’m having the same problem its May and I found about 10-20 still living drones outside the hive most of them were mutilated but some looked healthy. They all acted disoriented and just crawled around in the grass. Do you have any suggestions? The rest of the hive looks very happy and healthy.

    • Savanah,

      They may have been thrown out. If they were sick or not functioning normally, they would get tossed by the workers. I wouldn’t worry about it.

  • Rusty,

    2 of my 9 hive have the dead and dying drones on the landing board. I noticed one hive bearding for 2 days here in the Pacific NW. The other one did not. It seems that some of the drones are attacked as they come home in the afternoon. I use no foundation for the most part, so I get a lot of drone comb, which I cut out hoping for worker comb when they rebuild. The weather is changing to colder/wetter for a few days. All the hives have ample space in brood nests and supers. It sure is a puzzle.

    • Kathy,

      Remember that drones aren’t loyal to particular hives. They tend to go to any hive they feel like, and usually they are allowed in. Why? Because they’re male (and needy) I think. Anyway, it wouldn’t surprise me if some colonies just don’t want them and just say no.

  • Hi Rusty. Sorry not related to your drone problem. Just didn’t know which category to post this under. Without getting into advanced math, my son and I were watching a video on how the Golden number and the fibbinaci sequence relates to honey bees. The golden number exists throughout nature. From the spirals on a snails shell to our own DNA. The part that fascinated me me was that bees constantly keep the drone ratio in the hive to 6.184. The Golden number. Amazing how we are all connected.

    • Sandy,

      I don’t see how that would work. The population of drones changes throughout the year, and is also dependent on climate. In northern areas, there are no drones at all from about October though March. Then they begin to increase and maximize during swarm season, roughly May and June. By August the workers are expelling all the drones and few remain past that point. I would say there is never, ever a constant drone ratio. On a month-to-month basis, there is less change in warmer climates, but there is still change.

      Measurements in feral colonies have shown that drone populations in healthy colonies max out at about 17%, which is way above your 6.1 number.

  • Rusty,

    A common thread in this blog was bad weather, IE rained for 2 days. with your theory of 1000 bees “could” die per day, and 15-17 percent Drones, you would have 300 drones die in 2 days. MAYBE the drones do not fly out to die they just “Hang” out and slowly get weaker. When a nice day comes along the workers clean out the dead and dying drones and the “pile” is just 2 or 3 days of dead drones that did not die in flight and fall to the ground more spread out. I know worker bees typically drop on the way home with a load. once unloaded they are light enough to go out again. So they would not typically die in the hive. Drones do not load up so they may just expire in the hive during poor weather.

    Just a Hunch

  • Hi Rusty I love your website & I have learned a lot from it. Thank you. I live in Ireland & today in late afternoon I saw hundreds of drones fly into one of my hives. There must be a bee dance on! There was a great loud buzzing as there is from drones which was why this hive caught my attention. There is still a bit of flow on & there are still supers on this hive. Hopefully they re not after my honey. I didn’t have a queen excluder on this hive. Do you think this is the case or is it a virgin queen returning? Some information on this please would be great or maybe from your followers. I can send you a very short video if this happening if you wish. Thanks again.