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"Bees Are People Too, Right?" The Bane of Honey Bees: Beekeepers Who Anthropomorphize Them.

I recently received an email from a honey bee steward in the UK.  He is using a hive that has a screened bottom, and a top entrance that he described as being 2/3 of the way up.  There is no bottom entrance on this hive.

He had noticed an accumulation of dead bees on the floor of the hive and made this statement about it: "...with the entrance being 2/3 of the way up the bees were finding it hard work to eject any dead bees..."  He then went on to describe a change he made to the hive cavity in response to this.

Here's what I wrote to him:

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First, I want you to know that I sincerely hope my reply encourages you.  Whenever I communicate with other bee keepers/stewards/shepherds, my goal is always to set a tone of mutual exploration and discovery.  I love this quote from A Book of Bees by Sue Hubbell:
“The only time I ever believed that I knew all there was to know about beekeeping was the first year I was keeping them.  Every year since I’ve known less and less…”
Regarding your experience with dead bees on the hive floor, and your statement "with the entrance being 2/3 of the way up the bees were finding it hard work to eject any dead bees," can I gently suggest that you may be anthropomorphizing?  We all do it; it's very natural for human beings to, without even realizing it, assign human traits to other living creatures.  We think, "Wow, it would be really difficult for me to carry a dead body up ten flights of stairs, so that must be a difficult thing for a honey bee to do as well."
Three thoughts:
One: I have many colonies in Bee Tree Hives (with an entrance in each hive body about an inch down from the top of the box) widely separated in my high mountain valley.  There is no bottom entrance in these hives.  I have never seen an accumulation of dead bees in the bottom of the hive.  (Not that there won't ever be; this only speaks to the assumption that an upper entrance causes an accumulation of dead bees.)  
Two: I recently spent a couple of weeks with a very renowned beekeeper here in the U.S.  He has an observation hive in his living room and he remarked that he sees house bees carry a dead bee up and down and all around the hive before finally carrying it out the bottom entrance. 
Three: Honey bee colonies living in the wild almost always have a small, top entrance to their hive cavity.  (See Dr. Thomas Seeley's article titled Darwinian Beekeeping in the March, 2017, issue of American Bee Journal.)
So, what's happening with your bees?  Well, in the absence of direct observation (which would likely still not answer the question), there may be many other possibilities to consider besides the assumption that they're finding it difficult to remove dead bees out of a top entrance.  Here's just one example that pops into my head: If this is a colony that has been living in that location for more than a year, and given this time of year in the northern hemisphere, they may know that the nectar flow season is about to end in their region.  And, perhaps they have found a nutrient-dense source of late blooms.  If so, they may have recruited more foragers to bring in those stores and are currently not so concerned with dead bees at the bottom of the hive.  Is this a guess on my part?  Absolutely.  My point is simply that we should be careful not to anthropomorphize and then make changes to a colony's hive cavity based on those kinds of assumptions.  I, personally, would hesitate to make a change to a colony's cavity this late in the season.  But that's me.
And so, Bee Tree Hives are designed to allow honey bees to live much more closely to how they're designed to live with very little invasion or intervention on the part of the bee steward.  My goal is to provide the bees with a cavity that is much more like what they would choose to occupy in the wild, and then trust that the bees know best what's best for the bees.  Just my 1.5 cents worth.
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To close this post, I just want to say that I really appreciate the heart of this honey bee steward that wrote to me.  From other things he wrote I can tell that he really cares about the long-term health, welfare, and vitality of honey bees.  Knowing how prone we all are, myself included, to anthropomorphize honey bees, I wanted to simply offer a little reminder to always ask ourselves "What is the colony really thinking, and what are the bees really doing?"  The answer, if we can discover it, will probably surprise us!

 


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