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Colony postmortem: a glistening pile of abdomens

A pile of abdomens. That’s about all I have left of this small honey bee colony. My first thought was to blame the shrews, but shrews don’t seem to fit the situation. On the other hand, maybe there is more to shrew-dom than I ever thought.

Colony background

This colony, on hive stand #1, was an April split from colony #3. Colony #3 had overwintered and was building up fast in early spring. Because I thought it might swarm, I decided to split proactively. At the time, I failed to find the queen anywhere, so I just made sure that both halves had lots of eggs and young larvae. I figured they could sort it out by themselves.

Note that the new split was housed in equipment that had been scraped, cleaned, and stored in the barn over winter. The frames were filled with drawn comb that was free of moths or any other visible wildlife.

A week following the split it was clear the queen had remained in the original hive. Hive #3 had even more eggs and #1 had none. I added another frame of brood to #1 and soon the new split was queenright with plenty of young larvae.

Early summer

Four to five weeks later, toward the end of May, I noticed reduced activity around the hive. On inspection I found brood, but not much. The queen, although present, was performing poorly. I re-queened the colony and tried again.

Within a week the queen was accepted and the colony seemed to rebound. The queen was laying and the foragers were hauling in pollen and nectar. In a few more weeks I was able to add a medium over the deep. I believed the problem was solved.

And then came August

Around the first of August, the colony once again seemed to fizzle. On inspection I found a cluster of adult bees spanning about five frames, no queen, no brood, no sign of laying workers, nor any obvious signs of disease.

At that point I decided to combine the colony with another. We were in a dearth, I was fresh out of available queens, and I figured this colony was not to be. I ended up putting the remaining bees back on hive #3.

The only evidence is a pile of abdomens

After combining the hive, I removed the equipment from the hive stand to store it for winter. It was then that I found the abdomens. The bottom board was amazingly clean. There was the usual hive debris under the cluster, but one back corner was empty except for a few dead bees and a pile of shiny abdomens. I was totally baffled.

The only thing I know of that leaves piles of abdomens is shrews. But from what I’ve read, shrews are a winter problem, not year-round residents. Since I put the hive together in April, I can’t figure out how shrews could show up. Or maybe shrews had nothing to do with it.

So there you have it: a postmortem with no answers. If anyone has seen this before or has any ideas, I’d love to hear from you.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Shiny-abdomens
Shiny abdomens in one corner of a bottom board. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Bill
Reply

Rusty,

Shrews are a problem anytime of year. Here in northern Minnesota, we have a really small shrew that does damage; the Pygmy Shrew. As with all shrews, they are carnivores and require lots of protein. The droppings are more irregular in shape verse the smooth droppings of mice. Mice, specially in winter, tend to do comb damage and building nest, whereas the shrew not.

I’m thinking a shrew moved in as the colony started to weaken.

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

Okay, I didn’t know that. We have quite a few shrews and I’ve seen shrews leave bee parts on the landing board in winter. But I had no idea they stayed around the hives in summer, too. My hives are just on the edge of the forest, so there is quite a bit of wildlife around most times of the year. This just really surprised me. Will a strong colony keep them out?

Bill
Reply

Rusty,

Typically, a strong hive can and will defend itself against all comers. However, weak colonies fall prey, as you know, to other colonies, wasps, ants, diseases, mice and shrews. Even a strong hive in winter is not considered strong, due to their lack of ability to move and defend. Pygmy Shrews like any hunter, will seize any opportunity for an easy meal. A few abdomens piled in a corner isn’t enough evidence that it is or was the cause of failure. It is evidence that a Shrew was there at one point. Pygmy shrews can pass through mighty small opening. It has be noted that even the 1/4 inch isn’t quite small enough. I couldn’t find evidence that Western Washington has any notable American Pygmy shrew populations, but Washington state does have 9 different varieties of shrews known to hunt within it’s borders.

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

I don’t what kind they are, but we do have small shrews here. My cat brings them home occasionally. She leaves them whole on the front step. Most things she eats, but not the shrews. They must taste bad.

Nancy
Reply

No ideas, Rusty – just, how very sad!
Wishing you a good fall nectar flow and buildup.
Nan

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Nan. It was definitely the strangest thing I ever saw. It was just so uniform and neat. LOL.

Linda
Reply

Did this happen recently or in the past? Do you think we are in a summer dearth now or is that still coming?

Rusty
Reply

Linda,

Based on what I found, I think this happened sometime in August. As for dearth, we are definitely in one now. It started slower and later this year, due to all the rain we had in July. But I can tell by the way bees are acting that we are in it now. See “How to recognize a nectar dearth.”

paul st. john
Reply

Rusty, I have seen something like this outside the hive, it was preying mantis feeding on incoming bees, ate from the head back. Here in the midwest they are nearing full grown size and can easily feed on bees.

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

So you are saying they ate the whole thing except the head?

Leah
Reply

Maybe spiders?

Rusty
Reply

Leah,

I never thought of it, but there were large spiders around the outside of the hive. It’s possible.

Jennifer
Reply

Maybe yellow jackets or wasps did this? I found yellow jackets doing this to dead bees that were cleaned out of the hive and dropped on the ground. My beekeeper friend said the abdomens are very good for humans and to put in vodka or alcohol to soak. The enzymes in the belly of the bee are very good for humans! BUT, so sorry this happened to your colony 🙁

Rusty
Reply

Jennifer,

The times I’ve seen yellowjackets and wasps take bees, they often took the whole thing. Not saying it isn’t possible, though. However, I think I’ll pass on the marinated abdomens in favor of vodka straight up!

Judy Scher
Reply

Wow, these are too clean; it looks like abdomen preparations for dissection under the microscope! Don’t shrews leave the legs? What is really interesting is that yellow jackets didn’t clean up the abdomens.

Rusty
Reply

Judy,

Yes, I agree. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew the colony was weak so I had a robbing screen across the front. The screen probably kept the yellowjackets away, but it may have kept the shrew (or whatever) inside. The other thing, if I remember correctly, is that shrews suck out the insides of the abdomen. If they are empty, maybe the yellowjackets are not interested?

Jennifer
Reply

If it was yellow jackets, maybe they don’t eat the abdomens because they are sweet? Only a guess! I know yellow jackets will go for the honey in the fall….

Rusty
Reply

Jennifer,

I would love to catch something in the act. At I would understand.

Judy Scher
Reply

Rusty,

I would send the photo to Bee Culture or ABJ and see what the experts think. It’s fascinating!

Rusty
Reply

Judy,

Good idea. I kept everything as well, in case anyone wants a sample.

Pedro
Reply

Looks like an absent minded sort of colony… I feel sorry for the poor scorned dead bee whose head and thorax were not of the predator’s liking: 《There is nothing wrong with my head!》

I have seen a colony after yellowjacket rampage and it was the opposite, lots of heads, no abdomens. They would cut the head off and fly with the rest. Not a pretty sight.

James
Reply

Rusty, Just had a similar experience combining a weak hive. It looked like it got robbed and then I found the bee abdomens on the bottom. The stronger hive was fine. I’m thinking yellow jackets because I don’t think robbing bees do that.

Rusty
Reply

James,

That’s right. Robbing bees will fight, but they don’t eat each other. Yellowjackets, hornets, and other wasps will eat the bees. I may have put the robbing screen on too late to stop yellowjackets.

Linda Beehler
Reply

Can someone please fill me in as to evidence of robbing?

Linda
Reply

Since we are in a dearth do you think it would help to feed sugar water at this time?

Rusty
Reply

Linda,

It depends on the colony. If they are loaded with honey, you probably don’t need to. If they are short, you should. I’ve started to feed about half my colonies.

Farmerbrown
Reply

I have a problem and need some suggestions. The first week of August I discovered a wild hive on our property while mowing. It was almost at ground level and about the size of a decent cantaloupe. We have always wanted to keep bees but never got around to it. We decided that this was a sign that now’s the time!

We bought our hive from the Amish down the road and ordered everything else online. We are going to catch them Monday. I went to check them today and they were greatly diminished in size.

I know it’s a long shot to attempt to get them through the winter but we are willing to try.

So what can I do? And why do you think the sudden change in colony size? Any and all help would be appreciated!

Rusty
Reply

Farmer,

Several things could make the cluster size decrease. It could be a queenless ball of bees, maybe a swarm where the queen was lost. If that is the case, the remaining bees will gradually drift away or die. If you collect the swarm, that will be the primary issue for you. If they don’t have a queen, you will have to get one asap.

Of if you’ve had some bad weather, many could die. Or if they’ve been there a long time, natural attrition will decrease the colony size. If they are just hanging there, and not comb-building, my guess is queenlessness. But that’s only a guess.

Bill
Reply

Farmerbrown,

Realistically, a swarm this time of year won’t make winter, even with your best efforts. Purchasing a queen for this swarm, the colony would perish before any new born/emerged bees could start providing nectar or pollen. There just enough time for the season, unless you are keeping bees down south. Now, if you had an existing hive, you could join them together.

Personally, I would suggest starting off in the spring with a nuc or package of bees.

Craig
Reply

I don’t know that shrews are the problem in this case but I do know that rodents are very opportunistic.

It might give you a clue to look at what shrews in your area normally eat and see if there’s been a shortage of their preferred food source.

My guess is that you normally only get shrew problems in winter because the rest of the year they have plenty of other food available. But this year maybe not so much.

Rusty
Reply

Craig,

Good advice. I’ll see what I can find out about them.

Jerry Dow
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I have this same situation as you show on your website in my TTBH. This is a hive that I started this year from a package last April. It is going strong. In the rear of this hive box on the screen floor is a pile of shiny black bee abdomens just like the ones in your photo. I was just ignoring this situation until I saw your recent post on your Honeybee Suite web page. In my case I have not yet had any Yellow Jacket, robbing, shrews, mice or spider problems inside this hive as far as I can tell? I can watch these bees thru my windows located on both sides of this hive box. I’ll be very interested in learning what the cause is for all of the black shiny abdomens?

I really enjoy and want to thank you for your website and the valuable info, insight and interesting comments you give us.

Thanks, Jerry
Sequim, WA

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Presumedly the bee abdomens are not eaten because a mouthful of venom is not a good thing. I have watched swallows catch flying ants and termites, eat only the ABDOMENS – the head / thorax / wings came fluttering down one after another. This is the reverse kinda.
Glen

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

I never thought about the venom sacs. What a fascinating idea . . .

yankeeclipper
Reply

August 21st. Had the same abdomens stuck above and in the queen excluder in one hive. Hive is doing great and has good temperment.

Rusty
Reply

Stuck in the queen excluder? Wow, that’s terrible.

Jerry Dow
Reply

I’m still wondering how the abdomens end up piled on rear of the hive floor away from the 3/8″ x 6″ entrance of my TTBH [Tanzanian Top Bar Hive] with a healthy hive population? I don’t see how any bird can get in the hive and eating any part of a bee, then leave? My hive entrance is about 20″ off the ground. It seems like the bees must carry the abdomens to the rear and drop them there instead of discarding them out the entrance?
Jerry

Rusty
Reply

Jerry,

If it’s a shrew, I think the shrew carries them into a corner to get away from most of the bees and then leaves the abdomens there. Your entrance is huge; plenty big enough for all kinds of wildlife. But I wouldn’t think a bird would try it.

Jerry Dow
Reply

Thanks Rusty,

My hives sit on top of and overhang concrete block pedestals. Can a shrew climb or hang upside down for a few inches? If so, then maybe a shrew is the culprit? We do have them here.
Jerry

Rusty
Reply

Jerry,

I don’t have specifics, but I’ve heard they are good climbers and jumpers. I’d love to catch one in the act, but I’m sure that will never happen.

Bill
Reply

Jerry,

Yes, shrews climb very well. I have 3/4 inches in the face of each my hive bodies.. I need to mesh them off in winter, as the shrew were able to access the hive through them. Cold and hunger is a great motivator.

Bill

Jerry Dow
Reply

I understand that a shrew may be the possible culprit? In my case this seems more plausible than ants, spiders and such. A shrew would have to be able to walk upside down for a few inches to reach the entrance to this TTBH. Then they would need to be able to march thru 20 – 30,000 plus bees, in and out. It is 40 inches to the rear of this hive. I definitely do not think that Yellow Jackets could be doing this as they would more likely haul the bees away not store the bodies in a hive, in my opinion. We are not experiencing cold weather at all at this time of year here and food seems plentiful. Yes, I understand that a shrew can easily crawl thru a 3/8″ opening. FWIW; My bees seem healthy. They are doing their normal behavior and are not alarmed at all, but they do have a nice pile of shiny abdomens laying on the rear of their hive at this time.
I don’t claim to have a definitive answer and I’m enjoying the exchange of ideas.
Jerry

Andrea
Reply

I had the same thing when I entered my top bar hive yesterday but it wasn’t just abdomens. I did have several wolf spiders in the lid of my hive and removed them…I suspected it was them.

James Peirce
Reply

Hi Rusty,

A little over a month ago I visited one of my colonies to find a similar but smaller collection of polished, shiny abdomens on a seemingly healthy colony’s screened bottom board. Also see a few deceased but not disembodied honey bees which were similarly polished (the whole bee—not just their abdomens).

This particular colony had, at the point, been under assault by a large population of yellowjackets (Dolichovespula arenaria or Vespula vulgaris—need to double-check some samples). At any given time some 15 might be hovering around and under the colony, snatching a bee from mid air, 4-5 disassembling a single live, felled honey bee. Previously I had given the colony a robber screen but left a small upper entrance (although the colony was no pushover it was near much larger colonies and the wasps were already pretty impressive in number), but on the follow-up inspection the colony had largely abandoned the lower entrance with activity most guard activity at the top.

Normally I don’t fuss much over yellowjackets—I just let them clean up and enjoy their occasional meal—but it seemed this colony was struggling, and as though the wasps preying on it with considerable preference over a few others nearby. I closed the upper entrance, removed the screen, reduced the lower entrance, and took some (mostly unsuccessful) measures to reduce the wasp population. When next I visited there were no more shiny abdomens and the bees were guarding their lone entrance quite effectively. Once the common ivy went into bloom the wasp assault eased up considerably as countless moved on to the ivy bloom along with the colonies’ honey bees and other pollinators.

Still no answer, but I wanted to share. I think the wasps were the culprit in my case, though when they attack a honey bee outside the colony the abdomen seems to be first part they disconnect and fly away with. One of my theories is that wasps were trying to recover dead bees through the screened bottom, successfully removing smaller parts like the head, but failing to remove larger abdomens through the small mesh opening (but tugging free any hairs, ‘polishing’ those abdomens in the process). Maybe the problem persists and I can’t see it because the bees are doing a better job of cleaning house.

I snapped a few photos but not sure how to share here. The colony seems to have improved considerably since that low point described above.

Rusty
Reply

James,

I like your theory about trying to get bee parts through the mesh. I agree that usually predators have a preference for abdomens over heads and legs, so the whole abdomen thing is confusing to me. I’ve wondered if different species of wasp behave differently as far as dismemberment and removal. I just don’t know.

If you want to post a photo, you have to email it to me: rusty[at]honeybeesuite[dot]com. Thanks.

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