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
House cleaning Behaviour in honey bee colonies
In its simplest form... house cleaning (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
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 monofiliament
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.
This 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 (future link)).
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 straight forward cleanliness.
Written... 07 December 2001, Revised... 11 December 2001
Revised... 11 November 2002