As beekeepers inspect their hives this summer, every 7-10 days, here are some essential questions to ask every time they look in the hive.
Question 1. How is my queen?
This is a critical question for every beekeeper. Hives need a strong queen to calm the other bees, and increase their workforce in order to survive.
We can sometimes find the queen in the hive. She will be on a frame of comb with space to lay eggs. Other bees get out of her way and orient towards her as she travels.
But often we can’t find her. She is one in tens of thousands of bees and it’s like the ultimate game of “Where’s Waldo.”
Instead of finding her, we can find signs of her. We can look for eggs. If we see eggs in a normal pattern of one per cell, we know there has been an active queen within the last 3 days. After 3 days, eggs hatch and become larvae.
There are reasons in a normal colony where the queen is not laying eggs, but it’s more rare.
We also will keep an eye out for queen cups (normal and part of every hive), and queen cells (where bees are growing a new queen or several in a peanut-shaped cell). These might be signs of swarming, superseding, or that the existing queen is missing.
We watch for multiple eggs in each cell, which may be a sign that the hive has developed laying workers (where the queen is gone and worker bees start laying drone eggs as a last ditch effort to preserve the colony genetics).
They mean that the beekeeper needs to learn more about what is going on in their hive.
Question 2. Do they have enough room?
Bees are awesome. They have an unrivaled work ethic and want to increase their hive into every inch of space they can.
An essential principle of beekeeping is to provide room for expansion as the colony grows.
We start our new colonies in a single Langstroth box. Once bees start working on the outermost 2 frames, or the box is about 80% full, we add another box on top. We put a frame of honey from the colony up into the new box to prime the bees to move up into it (and an empty frame in its place in the bottom box). If the weather is cool, be careful not to chill any brood by moving it away from the cluster.
We continue adding boxes through the summer as needed. In our area, we typically get up to 4 boxes tall on each colony. Our record was 9 deep boxes, and some (sad) years we never need to add a second box.
We can also provide more room in the summer by extracting some honey. We can uncap the cells, spin out the honey, and return frames with empty drawn comb to the bees for a refill.
Sometimes we can also give them more space by reversing the boxes so that they use up all the space currently available to the bees.
Our older colonies usually winter in 1 or 2 deep boxes. We compress them down into fewer boxes in the fall to help them keep warm through the winter. In the spring, over-wintered colonies tend to grow surprisingly quickly, and we continue to add boxes as they fill them. We usually try to divide overwintered hives in the spring to add additional hives to our operation and replace winter losses. The divide to maintain model is one of the most sustainable beekeeping models.
When bees feel crowded, workers can’t collect as much nectar, and the queen my reduce the number of eggs she lays because there are not enough cells for her to lay them. This will slow the hive’s growth momentum, and may reduce their strength going into winter. At some times of the year, crowding will promote swarming (which means lots of ladders and climbing trees with a hand saw trying to catch the swarm).
Avoid Too Much Space:
A common question we get is, “If bees need space, should I put all the boxes on the hive at the beginning of the summer?” The answer is no.
We do not give bees all of their boxes at once because bees would have a hard time regulating the temperature in and defending the empty space. Brood needs a constant temperature and bees work to heat or cool their hive to maintain that temperature. Having too much room can make it harder for them to expand their brood nest.
If they have too much space, they will build in a chimney fashion, rather than working on frames to the side of the brood chamber. They want to build where the heat is, so they build up instead of out, where the heat rises.
In the spring, beekeepers guess how much space the bees will need before the next inspection. We often add a box ahead of time to make sure they will have enough room to expand. This may prevent swarming. Occasionally, we add a box before bees need it, and the weather turns cold, chills the brood, and slows down the hive. It is a constant give and take with Mother Nature.
Provide them the correct amount of space to build at the correct time, and they will be happy bees.
Question 3. Are they healthy?
The third essential question for hive inspection is “Are the bees healthy?”
We need to look at the health of both the adult bees and the brood.
We want adult bees to look healthy, with properly formed wings, legs, and hairy bodies with 3 segments. We want the correct proportions of worker bees (female) and drone bees (male). There will be tens of thousands of worker bees and hundreds of drones. We do not want to see mites attached to their bodies.
We want the queen to lay a healthy brood pattern, with few empty cells between the brood cells. Healthy brood is bright white, shiny (not chalky), smells normal (not foul), and does not have mites (maroon dots on their bodies).
In our area, we mostly test for varroa mites, smell for foulbrood, and watch for dysentery streaks. We sometimes see chalkbrood, but that tends to clear up as the weather warms up and doesn’t need treatment.
We also watch for signs of pesticide kill (piles of dead bees several inches thick), skunk scratches on the front of the hive (they eat the bees), and bear damage (which means hives that are totally smashed).
We test for mites regularly and cull the darkest ⅓ of our comb each year to prevent spores and pesticides building up in the wax. We look for light to medium beeswax in our hives.
New beekeepers are often concerned about some “normal” bee behavior, which seems concerning at first.
One normal behavior is bee bearding, where 10,000 bees sit on the porch of the hive in the heat of the summer in a huge mass of bees. Another is when the hive is very busy and working on a heavy nectar flow (rush hour is about 4:00pm). Bees also take a play flight when they move to a new location, which is also a high amount of activity. It’s easy to mistake these for swarm behavior until you have seen swarm behavior (which is like a tornado of bees).
If new beekeepers keep their hives on a cement pad, they may see hundreds of dead bees on the cement. This is normal. Hundreds of bees die each day in a healthy colony. Worker bees typically live about 30 days and there are 40,000-ish of them. We don’t see the dead bees if we keep the hives on dirt, grass, etc., but we do on cement. Pesticide kill leads to several inches thick of dead bees, and that is a cause for concern and crucial conversations with neighbors and local producers.
Question 4. Is there honey?
The fourth essential question during hive inspections is about honey.
Bees consume honey for energy. They make honey from plant nectar. If nectar is scarce (like in a drought), bees will go hungry, and we may need to feed them, or move them to a spot with more nectar.
Pay attention to which flowers bloom and when in your area. It will help you learn the annual rhythm of your hives. Are there time gaps in your local nectar flow? Can you plant some things to help fill that gap? What do you see growing within 3 miles of your hive? Some of our most productive nectar flows come from linden trees, yellow sweet clover, mint, and cone flowers.
We harvest honey throughout the summer because we have honey customers asking for honey throughout the summer. Some beekeepers like to harvest all of their honey at once in late summer. This is a good strategy if you need to rent an extractor or share with a beekeeping co-op.
Harvest honey on a warm day when most of the bees are out working. We usually see honey around the corners of the brood chamber and in boxes above the brood chamber called honey supers. Generally, the honey in honey supers is for the beekeeper, and honey in the brood chamber is for the bees.
Wear your best protective clothing and use a smoker. Start the smoker and use smoke before opening the hive. Bees will be more aggressive when we harvest honey than at other times of the year. Go through the hive frame by frame and remove the frames that are full of honey. Put them in a bee-tight place as you go. (You don’t want bees to rob the honey you just took out of the hive.) We use a deep box with a lid and a modified bottom board that does not have an entrance, called a drip tray. Some beekeepers use large plastic bins. Uncap and extract the honey indoors to avoid robbing.
Put empty frames back in any empty spaces so bees will not build rogue comb in their absence.
Pollen is the protein source for honeybee larvae. Adult bees are finished growing and do not require a protein source, only honey. Our bees have always collected enough pollen that we haven’t needed to supplement with pollen patties, except in severe drought. I’d guess that you probably won’t need to supplement with pollen either. Look in your hive. Do you see pollen storage? It is often stored under the honey. If so, they have enough to spare. If not, consider supplement options.
Bees consume honey to generate heat and survive the winter. We need to make sure they have enough honey in the fall, before it gets cold. Here are some rules of thumb on preparing for winter.
Along the Utah Wasatch Front, we like hives to be 100 pounds going into winter. We extract honey until about Labor Day. Any honey the bees make after that is for winter storage. In late October, we compress the hives into 1-2 boxes, putting them into the smallest area possible. We also check to make sure a 2-box deep hive weighs 100 pounds. We know what 100 pounds feels like to lift. If you do not, use a scale.
If the hives are heavy, we may extract more honey. If they are light, we may feed honey or sugar syrup back to them. We have until about Thanksgiving to have them up to their full winter weight.
We feed them in the fall before it gets too cold because it is very difficult to feed them in the winter.
We leave hives alone until a warm day in late February, when we check on them. We watch them very carefully in the early spring and feed honey or sugar syrup if they seem light. March is the most critical time to feed bees because nectar is scarce, but they are beginning to rear brood. Feed them in March. We usually feed 1-5 gallons of honey or sugar syrup per hive.