What do I do when I check my bees?
I probably won’t post about every single inspection I make; there might not always be something interesting to write about.
This is my first inspection post so I thought it’d be nice to explain roughly what I do when I do an inspection. I’ll try to outline the stages that I go through and what I’m looking for when I open up the hives. I also managed to bring a camera man along this week, so we managed to get a few snaps of bees which is always a bonus!
The first thing I do is to give the bees a little puff of smoke at the entrance. This is a bit of trickery: when the bees smell the smoke, they think there could be a chance of a forest fire. The bees feast on honey in case the fire reaches them and they need to evacuate. I do this because when the bees are full of honey they are groggy and less aggressive. The smell of smoke also masks the alarm pheromone which they release to signal to each other when under attack (I spoke briefly about this in another post).
So basically with the smoke, less of the bees get less angry, and tell less of their mates about it!
I do try not to smoke them out too much though, only a little – too much smoke seems like it’d be a bad thing. Too much of anything is a bad thing.
For the fuel in the smoker, I’m using a mixture of dried grass, wood chips, and pine needles. I used corrugated cardboard the first couple of times, but the smoke smelt so awful! The pine needles don’t smell like chemicals so at least I’m not gagging any more. I’ve heard of using dried lavender as a fuel – I bet that’s nice.
Once they’ve had a couple of puffs, they’re mellowing out, munching on their honey… I can begin to open the hive rest assured that they probably won’t be too pissed off with me.
Cracking Open the Hive…
Usually the bees have glued it together a bit, so it might take a little prise apart for me to get in!
As well as honey and wax, the bees make a substance called propolis. Propolis is made by the bees from foraged tree sap which they process for use as a glue around the hive.1 They use this to: insulate the hive from breezes, seal up their entrances (more defensible), and also as a measure against diseases (the bees might coat a source of disease in propolis in effect creating a mummy! For example a dead mouse, too heavy to be ejected from the hive). Propolis has been found to have antibacterial and antifungal effects.2
At the moment, both of my hives are basically just one box, a roof, and a floor. Pictured here, once the roof is removed is the top of the ‘brood box’ (can you see the old frames the bees came on, and the new ones I gave them?). The centre(ish) area will be where the queen lays all of her eggs, which is usually surrounded by some pollen stores. Towards the outside of the box tends to be frames of stores (honey, syrup). When the bees have filled this box, I’ll be putting another on top for them to move up into.
Already I can see an increase in the amount of bees since I installed them nearly a month ago. They haven’t yet completely drawn out all of the wax foundation I gave them, but this particular hive only had half of a sheet left which seems like pretty good progress. Compared to my other hive, this ‘apple tree’ one seems slightly more mature in its development! There are slightly more bees, and they have draw out more combs. At this point though, both hives are still in their early days!
What am I looking for?
So far, I’ve smoked the bees, and taken the roof off the hive. Now to get to work and look at some frames! What I’m looking for are signs that the hive is healthy, as well as any indication of any moves they might be planning to pull on me (swarming)… My hives have plenty of room for now so as I only just transferred them from the nucleus colonies I bought them in! I’ll remain vigilant but not too worried about losing any swarms yet!
- Eggs: if there are eggs, the queen was there at least 3 days ago. If there’s more than one egg per cell however, there’s a problem!3
- Brood pattern: I’m looking for a nice even looking pattern – not patchy, random, or spotty. Spots of empty cells amongst sealed ones could be a sign that unhealthy bees have been ejected by the workers.
- Presence of drone cells: production of drones is normal but if all cells are drone cells it could mean the queen is on her way out. Drone cells can signal the start of swarming season.4
- Queen cups – Might be an indication that the bees are preparing to swarm
- The Queen – Always nice to see that she’s alright!
Thankfully there was not much to report this week! We opened up the hives, ‘apple’ hive is a little ahead of the other hive in their wax production. Both hives looked healthy. Bee populations in both hives is steadily increasing, with lots of capped brood in both hives ready to emerge! Both hives look like they’re gonna be booming in numbers in a few weeks!
We noticed a lot of bees doing waggle dances in both hives. This is a way that bees can communicate to other workers, the bearing and distance of an abundant nectar source. They can accurately direct each other to sources of forage miles from the hive! In fact, bees perform at least three different dances to communicate whereabouts of their forage, depending on the distance from the food source.5 The article explains the kinds of bee dances much better than I could. Very interesting behaviour from such a highly evolved insect!
Some more bee pictures, to finish off…
- 1.Simone-Finstrom M, Spivak M. Propolis and bee health: the natural history and significance of resin use by honey bees. Apidologie. Published online May 2010:295-311. doi:10.1051/apido/2010016
- 2.Walker M. Honeybees sterilise their hives. BBC News. Published July 23, 2009. Accessed 2020. https://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8152000/8152574.stm
- 3.Cushman D. Laying Workers in Honey Bees. Dave Cushman’s Website. Accessed May 4, 2020. http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/layingworkers.html
- 4.Burlew R. Drones signal the beginning of swarm season. Honey Bee Suite. Accessed May 2020. https://www.honeybeesuite.com/drones-signal-the-beginning-of-swarm-season/
- 5.Tarpy D. The Honey Bee Dance Language. NC State Extension. Accessed May 2020. https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/honey-bee-dance-language