All beekeepers naturally want their bees to be healthy and thriving, and periodically ‘inspect’ them to determine how they are doing. Responsible apicentric low-intervention beekeepers want to do this with a minimum disturbance to the integrity of the bee colony.
A lot of clues about a colony’s state can be gathered from external observations, without opening a hive – here I discuss how to do this, what to look for, focussing on features of low intervention hives and natural comb. I also review the very few occasions when it may be really necessary to open a hive.
Conventional beekeeping teachers demonstrate how to inspect hives by pulling frames out of several hives in a teaching apiary for a rapid visual check, and use queen excluders and requeening to maximise bee numbers, disrupting the bees’ evolved breeding cycle (which naturally has brood breaks to control pests) to maximise honey yields. But there are less traumatic ways to monitor colonies, which don’t involve protective clothing and are ideal for hobbyists with just a handful of hives. These techniques are not unique to natural beekeepers but seem to have dropped out of the standard lore of conventional beekeeping.
This is usually all you need.
Most low-intervention beekeepers think windows are worth investing in. Viewing the flat side of the comb tells you more about the state of the colony’s stores; but most people use them to view comb edge-on so they can monitor how a colony is building up. The first picture’s honey cells are white because these bees have the black bee trait of adding an air gap between honey and wax cap; other colonies have dark honey cells. The second picture here shows a swarm which has been very slow to build up due to a nectar dearth and only has 7 combs; if you click on the image to enlarge it you can see the comb is empty of stores.
What you hope to see is capped honey, shown in this third image from a hive in late Autumn. When the comb is really full, you not only see white-capped cells but golden honey right against the window.
This colony has produced two types of honey cell – some white, some dark. Perhaps some of the workers have different drone fathers and thus different capping techniques; or it may be due to the honey coming from a different source, I don’t know! This photo should help you distinguish dark honey cells (flat topped) from capped brood cells, which are shown in pictures below – slightly domed, a light brown colour, and unlike dark honey cells they never look shiny or wet.
I wrote a previous article on keeping hive records which covers this in more detail, but in summary:
- Clues to a colony’s condition can be gathered from factors such as traffic (bees leaving / returning per minute), the bees’ temperament, bearding (a mass of bees outside because the hive is crowded or overheating), how many drones you see etc.
- The key is to look for changes from normal behaviour. With time you will learn the rhythm of the colony’s day – and how it changes with the weather and season.
- Sometimes you will see ejected larvae, and this is usually a good sign, indicating the colony has ‘hygienic’ traits and can deal with varroa infestations without help.
- Watch for raiding by other creatures – typically wasps or a larger bee colony – small colonies may require help defending, like reducing their entrances.
- The most significant clue to a colony’s state is whether the workers are carrying pollen in, meaning they are probably feeding young, so the queen is OK. This picture shows workers carrying two different pollens in the “pollen baskets” on their back legs. Recently my hives stopped carrying in pollen for 3 weeks, which would normally be alarming but was due to a drought – there was no nectar in flowers, so no spare food to raise extra mouths. It’s important to be aware of the environment before jumping to conclusions.
I strongly recommend a small, old but invaluable book just on this subject, At the Hive Entrance by H.Storch available from Northern Bee Books. (Avoid Amazon’s version, it’s a poorly printed pirated version, and although pdf copies can be downloaded for free that defrauds the IBRA research charity of their commission).
Hive floor detritus
Some hives have slide-out floors under a “varroa mesh”, designed to permit examination of what is falling from the combs above. Primarily these are used to count the numbers of varroa mites but I find the other detritus more interesting. I’m beginning to get rid of the meshes, leaving just the removable floor, so that the bees can reach it and clean it if they wish. Otherwise it just protects pests like varroa, wax moth, and (should it arrive in Britain) the Small Hive Beetle, from the bees above.
This image shows typical detritus in detail. Of particular interest are the two types of wax capping, much larger than the numerous white crumbs: white caps (from uncapping honey stores); and light brown (signifying that brood have hatched). These can tell you if a colony is having to eat its stores prematurely, and if they are hatching young adults, without you having to open the hive.
Faeces informs you about pests. Insect poo is hard and cylindrical, but healthy bees don’t defecate in their hive; the two types here are probably wax moth and ant. Mammals like mice leave soft droppings which are pointy at each end.
There are many clues you can pick up by, say, hefting the hive to gauge weight of stores; but the best advice here is to learn what is normal behaviour for your colony. They vary a lot: for example one of mine is very active, to support a high population, while another is more laid back and generally cautious about over-breeding. They are normally good natured and ignore me (though one does not like the sound of my voice!) and two are swarms caught this year, so they are still establishing themselves and not investing resources in producing drones. What’s normal for one is noteworthy in others.
This should be a rare event as it disrupts the bien (the overall balance within the hive of heat, humidity, pheromones) especially if you use excessive smoke, and may cause alarm or squash bees. It’s not unknown for people to inadvertently damage the queen; and it trains the bees to recognise you as a threat, which isn’t good if the hive is in a garden. Opening a hive is always a slight gamble trading off potential benefits and risks.
First ask, why are you opening the hive? I no longer do so without a good reason – I tend not to disturb a hive’s brood area more than once a year, because I am selecting for bees which handle problems without human intervention, rather than aiming for artificially high bee numbers to maximise honey production. A side effect of rarely opening the hive is that the bees do not associate humans with threats, making them calm neighbours.
- Most of the time I see odd behaviour at the hive entrance, like a long period without pollen going in, I think: well even if the queen has failed… what would I do about it? I don’t re-queen: if a colony fails I repopulate with a more successful strain or a random swarm next year.
- Things develop very rapidly in the insect world. By the time you spot a problem it’s probably out of your control anyway, and the bees seem to beat back pests and diseases in their own manner given time. Varied nutrition helps. Allowing them to swarm helps control varroa (because there is a “brood break”, no new eggs are laid for a while after a swarm, and varroa mites cannot breed without bee larvae to parasitise).
- Occasionally I perform a hive manipulation like harvesting honey, or adding (‘nadiring’) a new box to a Warré, or emergency feeding, or reducing entrances to protect against robbers or wasps. These don’t involve disturbing the brood nest.
- I’ve been known to open hives to teach people.
- I open hives sometimes to keep in practise.
So let’s say you have decided to open a hive because you have heard there is a notifiable disease like foul brood in the area, or you’ve noticed distressed bees crawling outside the hive. You need to know what a healthy comb looks like. Here are some reference pictures of brood comb, which is where most problems are found. Click to enlarge.
This comb from a horizontal top bar hive has a classic pattern of concentric circles of brood. Queens return to lay in brood cells once they are empty, which often results in patterns like this where older, capped brood are near hatching at the edges and a new batch of younger uncapped “pearly curlies” (healthy larvae) can be seen in the centre.
Next, from a Warré: these combs are smaller so you don’t see full circles, instead you tend to see arcs of pollen and honey above the patch of brood, i.e. brood food. This is a very clear image but not a perfect example as it was refrigerated for some time before the photo, so the central brood cells are sunken rather than slightly domed. But you can still see the colour difference between the capped brood and capped honey above. (The brood caps’ colour comes from pollen being added to the wax caps, making them porous – the developing larvae need to breathe!) Some empty queen cells at the bottom got crushed during storage.
This comb shows the size difference between cells built to house drone larvae (on the right) and workers. Capped drone cells bulge out much further than capped workers. Down the right hand edge are the beginning of a few queen cells.
Rather than repeat stuff you can find elsewhere, I urge you to browse the pictures of healthy comb and various diseases and disorders in the National Bee Unit’s image gallery. It tends to only show photos of comb built on foundation, giving a very uniform cell size and rectangular combs, but is very useful.
In conclusion, unless you are manipulating your colonies to suppress brood breaks and maximise honey yield, 95% of the time you can monitor your colonies adequately through external observations. And it is worth repeating that H. Storch’s book At the Hive Entrance is very useful, and the previous post on this website about keeping hive records has downloadable checklists of things to observe.