honey bee behavior infrequently asked questions

Why so many wings and legs?

A beekeeper living on Vancouver Island is worried about the great number of honey bee wings and legs she is seeing on the Varroa drawer. She just finished treating her hive with formic acid pads and wondered if the accumulation of bee parts was a result of the mites or the mite treatment.

I too have noticed occasional accumulations of wings and legs on the bottom board, but it doesn’t happen every year nor does it happen to every hive. My theory is that it has nothing to do with mites but is related to the weather.

Bees die every day and we know from experiments that during the summer months the average hive loses 1000 bees per day. Most of those die in the field, but some die in the hive. The ones that die in the hive are quickly removed by the house bees. In very moist or humid times of the year those bees are removed all in one piece, with wings and legs still attached.

But in very dry times of year (like late summer and early fall) a dead bee quickly becomes desiccated—dry and crispy—and easily falls apart. Since bee bodies are so small, it doesn’t take much time for them to dry out. Also, at this time of year the combs are fat with honey and pollen, and bee space it at a minimum. My theory is that while the dead bees are being pulled from the hive during these dry periods, their brittle, flaky bodies are scraped against the combs and other bees, causing the wings and legs to get pulled off. The pieces fall through the screen and land on the Varroa drawer while the rest of the bee gets hauled outside.

Is this a crazy theory? Maybe. If someone has a better idea, I’d love to hear it.



  • Rusty: I have heard that bees will not draw comb above a queen excluder, is this true? Is it because they know the queen does not have access to lay eggs? This year I added a honey super above an excluder with undrawn foundation. I had a lot of bees in it but never was any comb drawn. How do you get drawn comb in a honey super with out getting brood in with the honey? Thanks in advance. Phil

    • Phil,

      It’s not so much that they won’t, but they have to be coaxed. One way is to leave the queen excluder out until they start drawing the comb, and then put it in. Or take a frame of honey, uncapped or partially capped is best, and put it in the new super above the excluder and right in the center. This “bait frame” will often encourage them to work up there. I’ve also heard that spraying the foundation with syrup helps, although I’ve never tried that myself. Other folks say that an upper entrance helps because they don’t have to go thru the excluder. I’ve had good results with a bait frame, so that’s my first recommendation.

  • Rusty, The wings and legs can also be caused by robbing yellowjackets. Also, if those legs are white (as in immature) it may be the result of brood burning. This can happen if the miticide being applied is too strong. In that case some of the pupae die and then the bees pull the immature pupae from their cells. As the pupae are removed many of the legs are disconnected from the thorax and fall to the bottom of the hive or collection board.

    • Morris,

      My first thought, of course, was that the wings and legs were the result of fighting with robber bees or an invasion by yellowjackets. However, fighting with robbers is more often seen outside the hive than in it. Once the robbers gain entry, they are pretty much free to do what they want.

      With yellowjacket invasions I always find large numbers of bee pieces—bees broken between head and thorax or between thorax and abdomen. These pieces are found on the screened bottom, under the hive, on the landing board, and on the ground around the hive. Brood cells and honeycombs are often ripped open as well. Yes, there are wings and legs, but there are all these other parts mixed in.

      So when I see lots wings and legs with no other body parts, no signs of invasion, no fighting, and no comb damage inside an otherwise healthy colony, I think something else is going on#$151;something more subtle. Hence my theory.

      I can’t comment on the miticide issue because I’ve never seen that happen, and the person who wrote didn’t say whether the legs were white or black. If you ever get a photo of the white legs, please send it along. Interesting.

  • Rusty,

    Wings and legs on collection board can be caused by yellowjackets attacking the hive. Can also be caused by miticide burning brood. In this later case the legs appear white. These immature legs are from pupae being pulled from cells.


  • Rusty, The writer indicates that formic acid was recently placed in the hive. Perhaps this caused brood burning. If not it’s quite a coincidence.

    I will look for my photo of immature legs on a collection board and send it along.

    Will you be attending the OSBA conference in November?


    • Morris,

      Great, I’m interested in learning about the brood burning issue.

      I was hoping to make the conference but it conflicts with another commitment. However, my “bee trip” is coming together. I will be visiting as many apiaries and beekeepers as I can in April and May—from here to Michigan, I hope.

  • Rusty,

    Well, I’ve been leaving the Varroa drawers out, except when I was sugar-dusting for mites. I thought the whole point of screened bottom boards was for ventilation?

    Now that we have cold weather on the way, of course, I’ll have them handy to put in at night. Apart from that, is there some guide to when we should have them in or out?

    • Nan,

      Screened bottoms were designed in order to keep varroa mites that had fallen off of bees from being able to crawl back up into the hive. With a solid board beneath, the mites could just walk back, no problem. It turns out that the screened bottoms have limited effectiveness in mite control, but they are great for ventilation. I leave my drawers out all year, except that if the temperature falls into the 20s or below for more than a day or two, I put them back in. It seldom does that around here, but that’s my philosophy. I had them in once last winter for about a week. The year before that, I put them in, and removed them again, about three times.

      There’s no rule. Different beekeepers do it differently. In my opinion bees that are wet are going to get much colder than bees that are dry, so ventilation is my highest priority.

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