Hygienic Behavior

“Hygienic Behavior” is a word used a lot but often not well defined. All subspecies of Apis Mellifera have a genetic component for hygienic behavior; the difference is to what “degree” each honey bee (gained from queen genetics and generational learning) is hygienic.

Here are a few behaviors that all honey bees share.

Inside the hive, healthy honey bees will not defecate. Even the queen will have her feces removed and taken outside by her attendants. In areas of extreme winter, honey bees have been known to wait four months or longer before defecating outside the hive (sometimes as soon as they exit the hive – watch out =)).

Dead honey bees inside the hive are removed quickly, the so-called ‘undertaker honey bees’ having the responsibility of eliminating dead bees or discarding infected brood and moving them away from the hive. They will even fly a reasonable distance away from the hive and pile their dead in that area to keep disease and sickness away from the hive. Old foragers bees, knowing their time is limited, will even fly away from the hive to die, preserving the hive’s cleanliness.

This ‘removing of diseased honey bees’ is a critical component of good hygienic behavior. The quicker honey bees can 1. Identify sickness/disease 2. remove/clean – the healthier the colony will be.

They clean the inside of their hive (remove debris, seal cracks, repair comb, etc.) and, in some cases, the outside of their hive too. This also is an essential component in good hygienic stock.

They will clean themselves regularly, and in situations where they are not able to clean themselves thoroughly (honey on the wings, or in some cases of Varroa), other hive mates will assist in cleaning them.

These critical behaviors are present in all subspecies of Apis Mellifera. Again, the key is purchasing and selling ‘hygienic’ stock. Questions you should ask are: what degree of hygienic behavior are you buying? What were the tests that were run to isolate these behaviors and compare them to subpar genetic traits? What exact qualities have those honey bees learned that increase the cleaning effectiveness of the hive? Are they better at grooming? Are they better at cleaning dead and sick honey bees? How soon do they notice dead/sick?

These questions are important for understanding what ‘hygienic behavior” is and, more importantly, how the breeder defines these qualities. After all, when you buy genetic stock (in this case for hygienic behavior), the tests, hive setup, area, ecology, and others all play a factor in whether or not that stock will work in your yard.

So ask questions, and just because a honey bees markets as “hygienic” – can mean very little or can mean a lot. It all depends on the ‘degree’ of hygienic behavior that the queen possesses – since, as we learned, all honey bees are hygienic – but not all meet the high standards of hygienic behaviors needed to keep disease and Varroa at bay.

We can learn a lot about how far honey bees will go to keep themselves and their hive family healthy and clean. Cleanliness is of vital importance to the survivability and longevity of honey bees.

Article References:

  1. Honey Bee Biology – Page 34-35
  2. Queen Rearing Essentials: pages 112-115

Here are some other relevant blog posts: