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House cleaning Behaviour in honey bee colonies

This behaviour is often lumped together with undertaking duties, hygienic behavior and mite damaging, but there are some subtle differences in these activities that deserve separate recognition.

In its simplest form... housecleaning (or house cleaning) is the removal of debris items from the nest area. Such items may be wax scales dropped by secreting bees or lost by bees transferring wax scales to point of usage. They may be fragments of cappings, or used wax, from comb being modified or repaired. They may be bees legs or wings or other body parts (including dead bees). They may be other insects or their larvae (alive or dead). Sugar crystals from crystalised honey may also be discarded and thrown out instead of being dissolved and ingested.

The smallest fragments are picked up by the worker bee concerned, using the mandibles and the offending item is carried to the entrance, where it may be dropped over the edge or if a reduced entrance is in use and there is much in and out activity, the debris may be deposited near the entrance for disposal when there is less activity. A prime example of this particular behaviour was observed in 1999 in John Groocock's full sized observation hive that was closed up and displayed at various shows. If the house cleaning bees could not get out they merely stacked the specks of dirt just inside the entrance and disposed of them the next time the entrance was opened.

Larger Items require the collusion of many bees and include pieces of newspaper from uniting, polythene bags from pollen patties and other alien items. I once left a large rubber band on the top bars of a brood box only to find it a couple of days later below the hive entrance. I have also found lengths of nylon mono filament in such positions that had come from frames that had been damaged. I have also heard of poly bags shredded into lace like patterns and removed from top bars through the hive to the entrance.

Worker bees have also been observed "posting" debris through the holes in open mesh floors and I have seen debris thrown out of some mesh covered side vents that I have in some of my swarm collecting boxes.

Undertaking duty is simply the removal of dead bee carcasses. Only a very small number of deaths, due to ageing, actually occur within the hive itself, but what few corpses there are may occur in any part of the hive and often require the collusion of two or more individual workers to physically "manhandle" the body to the entrance. Once the carcass is at the entrance, it may be just pushed over the edge, or it may be airlifted by one or two bees and dropped at a distance from the hive.

Polishing activity only occurs in a small percentage of cases, but when it does it is striking. I am not certain of its links with house cleaning, but I include it here because of the human linkage of polishing with cleaning. Some colonies deposit wax and propolis on interior hive surfaces and produce a smooth and shiny surface by swishing their tongues from side to side. I had one colony, some years ago, that turned a hive floor (made from hardwood) into a highly polished and spotlessly clean item that a furniture polisher would have been proud of. I have seen a few other examples over many years, but none have ever approached the spectacular degree of finish that that one colony achieved (the particular colony had another attribute in that it was a strong robber and had a prodigious work rate).

House cleaning has in the past been considered a trait that was worth propagating, The human association of "hygiene" with "cleaning" may have been the reason for this and it may be that we need to re-assess this and select more for the properties of killed brood removal rather than straightforward cleanliness.

Dave Cushman.

Page created 07/12/2001

Page updated 25/12/2022