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Why Are My Honey Bees On The Ground?

Walking out to the bee yard and seeing a clump of honey bees on the ground is never a good feeling. We beekeepers do our best to do a good job with our hives. But, we sometimes make mistakes as I soon realized one day in my bee yard.  When we notice a bee behavior we do not understand – it is common to consider if our actions caused the behavior. Sometimes is it our actions that cause a reaction by the colony.

Finding Honey Bees on the Ground

Group of honey bees clustered on the ground near hive image.

We expect to find honey bees on the garden flowers and buzzing here and there. However, there are some times when you may find some on the ground. Perhaps, it is a large mass of bees or perhaps only a handful.

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Whether or not this is an issue to be concerned about depends on several factors – including how many bees are down there. Any time we find a lot of bees in an unusual state, it is clear that something is happening.

There are several reasons you may see workers at ground level. Perhaps they are drinking water from damp soil, mine love to drink nasty donkey poop water – even though they have a clean source.

Or maybe they have found a sweet food source that is not apparent to our eyes. In either case, finding a mass of bees on the ground is cause for further investigation.

Do Honey Bees Live in the Ground?

In most cases, the striped insects we see coming and going from a hole in the ground are not really bees. They end up being wasps. In my area, Yellow Jacket Wasps live in the ground in large colonies and are certainly not honey bees.

It is common for people not familiar with insects to make this mistake. They see striped winged insects come and going and believe them to colony of honey bees. But, you will not find any honey inside this type of nest.

Wasps serve a good purpose in controlling caterpillars and other pest insects. But, they cause problems when they nest near playgrounds or areas with foot traffic.

In fact, yellow jackets are a predator of bee colonies. Beekeepers often set up yellow jacket wasp traps to try to reduce the number of wasps near the bee yards.

Only once, have I found an actual beehive with honey bees that seemed to be living in the ground. On closer inspection, they were actually nesting in the remains of a dead tree stump. Could they not find a better place?

Mass of honey bee gathered outside hive.

Honey Bee Behavior

In spite of the many years of study, we still don’t understand everything that our colonies do. Honey bee behavior is a complex thing.  While a hive of bees living in the ground is not likely – never say never.

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Our actions as beekeepers have a direct effect of the actions of our bee colonies. Sometimes, we do things that cause a reaction by the colony.

One example is installing a new bee family inside a freshly painted hive. Sometimes, this may cause the bees to abscond or leave. Colonies are sensitive to smells and may not like their new home.

This is why it is important to learn as much as you can about how bees communicate and function as a colony. Using visual cues and special bee pheromones, the needs of the hive are communicated to the other members. We must strive to avoid doing things that upset this balance.

Single worker bee sitting still on ground.

Bees in Front of Hive: Normal or Not?

Every hive inspection should begin at the front door of the beehive. You can not understand everything about colony status from entrance observation. But, always take a quick peek before disturbing the hive.

Dead Bees on Ground

Anytime you go to the bee yard – you may see some dead bees laying in front of the hive. Don’t panic. Some of them die every day because they have reached the end of their life cycle

Inside the hive, some workers have undertaker duty. They grab the dead bodies and fly away with them or simply throw them out the front. Don’t despair if you see a few dead colony members.

Crawling Honey Bees

What about live honey bees crawling near the hive? This is not a big problem as long as it’s only a few. Finding 15 or 20 on the ground unable to fly could signal a pest or disease problem.

Also called, “crawlers”, bees unable to fly could be suffering from issues related to mite infestations or even pesticide exposure.

This could be a minor problem that does not require action but you should take a minute to recheck your last mite counts or treatments.

Handfuls of Dead Bees

If your girls have been exposed to a deadly pesticide, it is common to find handfuls of dead in front of the hive – a very sad situation indeed.

Often, there is not much we can do about this as we have no idea where the foragers were poisoned. Mosquito spraying can harm beehives as well as agriculture pesticides. Hopefully, the colony will retain enough workers to carry on and rebuild.

Bee Bearding at Hive Entrance

One situation that often strikes fear in new beekeepers is seeing masses of bees hanging off the front of the hive. The fear is that the they are getting ready to leave.

This can happen when if the colony decides to swarm. However, usually, this phenomenon is called bee bearding. The girls are simply sitting outside on the front porch during a hot humid evening.

While not a sign of an imminent swarming, strong colonies are more crowded and more likely to form a beard. They are also most likely to swarm so routine inspections are a great idea when you see a lot of beards.

Be Observant In The Bee Yard

It is a good idea to walk through your bee yard occasionally and just observe. You don’t always have to open your hive to gain some understanding on your colony status.

Look carefully (but not too closely without a veil) at the entrance and the area in front of the hive. Look for any evidence of fighting at the hive entrances. Fighting or wrestling at the front can be a sign of honey bee robbing.

Always watch for anything unusual in bee behavior and make notes in case you need to recall the event later. Your colony could be reacting to many different things.

Unexpected Bee Behavior in My Bee Yard

During a recent walk through the apiary a few years ago. Something caught my eye. I found a small clump of bees on the ground near a hive. How odd.

It is not rare to find a small honey bee swarm on the ground – though you will usually see a swarm hanging in a nearby tree or bush.  Yet, if a queen bee sits down – the rest of the swarm will as well.

Small clump of honey bees in the grass near hive image.

My curiosity is peeked. They do not appear to be sick – the mass looks very small to be a swarm?  They do look confused.  Why is this happening?  Have I done anything to cause this?

Yes, maybe I did. A quick peak in my beekeeping journal tells me that this was one of the hives I inspected yesterday.  What did I do?

Failing to Find a Queen

This was one of the colonies that I found to be low in population during some hive inspections this week.  If fact, I had combined two small colonies into one yesterday.

I thought one of the colonies was without a queen and the other colony had a small population. I used my normal method of combing hives.  A sheet of newspaper was placed between the two hive bodies.  This method works for me, 99% of the time. 

Did I make a big beekeeping mistake? After a quick trip to the equipment shed to get my beekeeping jacket, it was time to take a closer look.

Using a small stick, I gently move the mass around and see an unmarked queen bee!  Good gravy what a mess!

Putting 2 Queens in 1 Hive – OOPS

My goodness, there must have been a queen in both hives after all. Well, this is a fine mess I have made.

Usually, if you combine 2 small hives that both have queens, 1 queen will be killed and the population will merge.

My guess is that instead of killing the other queen.  One queen and her group forced this lady out of the hive. The result was a clump of honey bees on the ground with their queen.

Beekeepers make mistakes that may cause some bees to be on the ground the next day image.

This shows that anytime you do anything with bees, there is a possibility of failure. I had searched through both hives several times.

I did not see any indication of a queen being present in the other hive.  But I obviously goofed ! And even with experience, you cant always find the queen bee.

Fixing My Beekeeper Mistake

Now what to do ?  The colonies I combined were rather small.  I do not want to put a small amount of bees in a regular size hive. 

A weak hive – only a handful of bees, stands little chance anyway and could certainly not protect a full sized box.  They really don’t have enough population for a 5 frame nuc sized box.

The number of workers with this queen may not be enough to sustain her and develop into a full colony and I do not have any spare workers to add to them. However, it is always a good thing to have an extra queen around maybe I can save her for a while.

Using a Mini Mating Nuc

I caused this issue for my colony and I feel a responsibility.  So, I will do something… I must try. I have a small queen mating nuc box that would be just the right size. These mini boxes are used to house new virgin queens while they mate and begin to lay eggs.

mini bee box for small hive image.
This mini mating nuc is perfect for an emergency queen box.

Their small size means they can only be used for a short time. But they are great when only a week or two of space is needed.

I take one of the empty mini frames – none of them have drawn comb.  In my equipment area, I look for a piece of broken comb.  I found a frame with comb that was damaged by a rat (who ate half of it 🙁 .) 

This scrap piece of comb is placed into one of the mini frames using rubber bands (make sure the cells are not upside down), now the queen and bees have a place to start.

drawn comb held in a mini frame with rubber bands image.

Remember the population is so small, that would not even be able to produce much (if any) wax! While this may look strange to me and you,  my little colony appreciates the effort and use the tied-in comb.

Sugar water is sprayed on comb in the mini frame.  I lay it down beside the pile of honey bees on the ground and they started to climb aboard.  I picked up the queen and placed her on the comb.

Now this frame is placed inside the mini hive. The remaining workers smell the queen and their sisters inside the box .

They go in to join them. In a short time, all of the bees are inside. They may not stay but that is their choice.

A mini mating nuc can be a useful tool when you find 2 queens in 1 hive image.

Keep Extra Beekeeping Equipment on Hand

It is always a good idea to have extra equipment available in different sizes. But, I hope you do not have 2 queens in 1 hive because of something you did, like me !

Will this little colony survive ?  Chances are they will not. Their small size may leave them victim to predators, pests such as hive beetles or robbing.

But, they have a small home with food and shelter from the rain. That makes me feel just a little bit less guilty.

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4 Comments

  1. Hello Charlotte, wanted to share some limited bee behavior I’ve observed and hopefully get your thoughts on next steps. We are beginning beekeepers – this is our second year. We’re in northern Illinois around Chicago and we lost our hive last winter to the polar vortex (we believe). This year we started our hive via nuc. Most recently, in a 24 hour period, I observed two instances of a solitary bee one in the driveway, and a solitary bee in front of the hive – both on the ground, not being able to fly. Wings seemed fine, bees seemed fine.. While my plan is to do a miite test starting tomorrow (via cooking oil on detector under screened bottom board, My question is – should I just go ahead and put some mite strips in the hive? We have two brood boxes and a feeder tray on the hive. I will be checking also this weekend on whether it’s time to put the honey super on the hive. Please note, we don’t plan on harvesting honey – we want to get through a winter first, so all the honey will be for the bees. Would really appreciate your thoughts – we have so much to learn!

  2. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Hi Chip, There are several issues that can cause a few bees to not be able to fly. Yes, wing wear is one but other parts wear out too and you can never rule our viruses. I like your idea of doing a mite count – it gives you a starting place whether you treat now or a bit later.

  3. Lisa Shine says:

    Hi Charlotte,
    I’m in central texas. Got 2 new hives of Russian bees last fall. They have done well but I am noticing what looks like sawdust on the ground in front of the hive and at the entrance there is some too. Do you have any idea what could cause this? I think it is coming from inside the hive.

    Thank you.

  4. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Hard to say without a picture. First thoughts – do you have carpenter bees in your area? Could they be drilling a hole? More likely, it could be wax cappings off honey – have you noticed and robbing activity at the entrance. Only way to know for sure if everything is okay is to look inside.

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