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What’s going on here? Small clusters of bees around one unusual bee

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What’s going on here? Small clusters of bees around one unusual bee

I’m stumped. I’m a beekeeper and for two years my neighbors have had a wild hive in their sycamore tree about 30 feet up. They often ask me bee questions. Today they asked me to come look at small clusters of bees at the base of the tree. There were easily 10 or more small clusters of bees in the grass and on the ground within an 8 foot circle. Each cluster was made up of about 3 to 5 worker bees. There were also a number of individual workers flying in hops low above the grass. There wasn’t anything to forage here, and the grass isn’t a source of water. It was a warm day for October, at 77*, and plenty of plants still blooming but not in this spot. The hive entrance above showed a healthy flow of traffic.

https://preview.redd.it/l4unbj9fqqs71.jpg?width=1006&format=pjpg&auto=webp&s=6beb5aa632d2d17af8be90979e3b5fa51bfba782

I took the stem of a leaf and used it to tease apart a cluster. Inside I found one different looking worker. All the other workers had a fairly consistent pattern of a yellow and black banded abdomen. The unusual worker had a much darker abdomen terminus – the last few segments had no yellow. EVERY cluster I teased apart had one unusual worker and 3 to 5 regular workers!

https://preview.redd.it/5ypvuuhjqqs71.jpg?width=1116&format=pjpg&auto=webp&s=5e6cd448776530a551228bfae1235904e7524448

When I separated the unusual bee from the rest, it would find a spot to grasp and pulse its abdomen and flap its wings, and in short order regular workers would cluster around it. When I separated a regular worker, no other came to it, and it would fly away.

The regular workers were not aggressive as if defending against invading bees. Their behavior was as if they were tending a queen. My first thought was that is was a queen, but their abdomens were not significantly bigger. Immature queen? And why so many? Why outside the hive? I don't think the unusual bees are queens. And they are not drones.

Here’s a photo of a cluster, and another of the unusual bee.

I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Any ideas?

submitted by /u/DazzerRed
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