Beekeeping in the U.S. has been taught in more or less the same way for nearly two centuries, with the main premise being that bees need beekeepers in order to flourish. Many beekeepers who have decided to keep bees using the Warré method are criticized by people using the Langstroth method. They’re often accused of neglecting their bees or being “Bee havers” as opposed to “Beekeepers”. Well, I say let them criticize. Warré beekeepers, in general, are having great success by simply letting their bees be bees. It’s very important to remember that apis melifera, commonly referred to as the European honeybee, is among the very oldest species to ever live on this Earth. Recent discoveries (think Jurassic Park) have shown that honeybees, in more or less their current form, have occupied this planet for at least 60 million years, and many scientists believe that they’ve been here for 100 million years or even longer. In contrast, human beings, in our current form, have been around for about 200 thousand years. Even our most primitive ancestors came to be only about 6 million years ago. Obviously, a species that has existed for at least 10 times longer than us does not need us for anything. In fact, it is humans who need honeybees, not the other way around. So if bees don’t need us, why should we “keep” them? Although honeybees can take care of themselves just fine, that doesn’t mean you have honeybees in your backyard right now. If there are bees in your area that’s great, but oftentimes they’re simply not around. Setting up a hive or two in your backyard benefits both you and the bees, alike. You get the benefits that they bring, and they enjoy greater proliferation of their species. It really is that simple, and oh yeah…there’s that whole “you get honey” thing, too!
Almost all of our customers are beginner, hobbyist beekeepers. Many have taken classes at their local beekeeping clubs or elsewhere, where they’ve been taught the same old things; inspect regularly, find the queen, check the brood pattern, check for disease, etc. What’s worse than teaching these highly invasive, micro-management techniques and demanding that they be implemented, is not teaching you how to tell if your hive is healthy without ever opening it up; which is what I’m going to do here.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The first and most obvious thing that you can determine by simply watching the hive entrance is colony strength. The stronger the colony is, the more bees will come and go each minute. The busiest hours are typically between 11am and 2pm. If the weather is good, a colony of moderate strength will have bees coming and going at a rate of about one per second. A strong colony can easily have them coming and going at rates of hundreds per minute. If there are more bees coming and going than you can count, the colony is very strong. If there are few, the colony is weak.
Because a honeybee colony is surely doomed if anything happens to its queen, verifying that she is present and performing her duties is the main purpose of inspecting a beehive. But this is easily determined by observing the beehavior of your honeybees. Most hobby beekeepers spend a lot of time watching their bees come and go from the hive anyway, because it’s so relaxing and enjoyable. Verifying that everything is OK is just a matter of understanding what is seen. The first thing to watch for is pollen being brought into the hive. Many people believe that pollen is used in the production of honey or that adult bees eat it; neither of which is true. Bees use pollen for one purpose and one purpose only; to feed brood that are in the larval stage (open brood). If there is no queen there will be no brood, and therefore no reason to forage for pollen and bring it into the hive. Now, that’s not to say that your bees won’t bring in any pollen at all if there is no queen/brood. Sometimes, when a hive is queenless, workers will become depressed and/or bored and will bring in some pollen simply out of desperation or a willingness to do anything that might be helpful. They won’t, however, bring in any substantial amount of pollen. Bees tend to forage for pollen in the morning and for nectar in the afternoon, so it’s best to judge how much pollen is being brought in by observing your bees in the morning hours. Regardless of how many bees are entering the hive, at least half of them should be carrying pollen. Their pollen sacks will usually be full, so seeing the pollen should be easy even from several feet away. As long as you see plenty of pollen going in, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that the hive is anything other than queen-right.
Although seeing plenty of pollen being taken into the hive should instill confidence that everything is OK inside, it’s not proof-positive that healthy brood is being raised by the colony. That irrefutable proof will come when you witness orienting activity. Often confused with swarming or robbing when first seen by new beekeepers, orienting is the act of young, newly emerged bees coming out of the hive in order to become familiar with the outside of the hive and the surroundings. Several at a time, hundreds or even thousands of bees may exit the hive on a fine afternoon, each immediately doing a 180-degree turn and looking at the hive entrance. This is so they will (usually) know how to get back inside. They may hover near the entrance for some time, before flying in a circular pattern, slowly working their way farther and farther from the hive. Orienting is a very easy-to-see burst of activity that usually lasts about an hour. Frequent orienting (every day or every other day) is a sure sign of a healthy colony. The most intense orienting activity will be observed on the first nice day after several days of rain, since bees will not orient in poor weather. Each time you see your bees orienting, you’ll have peace of mind of knowing that your colony is growing and thriving.
What to listen for
Listening to your hive can be a helpful management tool. If you listen to your hive from time to time through the screened bottom, you’ll learn what your bees “normally” sound like. It’s helpful to know this so you can recognize when their sound changes. We’ll talk more about that in a bit. Listening with your ear against the side of the hive can help you determine not only which boxes your bees are occupying, but also what they are doing in each box. It’s easy to see if your bees are occupying the bottom box of a hive by looking through the screened bottom, but what if your hive has four boxes and you can see that they’re not occupying the bottom one? You’ll wonder which box is the lowest one they’re in or how many have comb in them. The desire to know these things is one of the main arguments for having windows in each box, but since we know that windows are bad for your bees and that bees hate them, listening is the best way to find the answers. By simply placing your ear against the back of the hive, you can easily determine which boxes the bees are occupying. If the bees are building comb in a box or depositing nectar in cells, there will not only be the sound of bees humming, but a sound that is similar to the trickling of water as well.
Influences on Beehavior
It’s important to remember that weather has an enormous amount of influence on beehavior, so one should be careful not to make judgements based on what is observed when the weather is cold, wet or generally unstable. Besides weather, the event that has the most profound effect on beehavior is swarming. Oftentimes, beekeepers are caught off-guard when a colony swarms. This is usually because people don’t understand why swarms occur and are “sure” that their bees won’t swarm. They think just because their bees have plenty of room that they won’t swarm, which is not true. Healthy bees may swarm regardless of how much room they’re given, so rather than simply assuming and/or hoping they won’t, you can use your knowledge of beehavior to recognize changes and predict a swarm. Since swarms frequently happen when no one is home, beekeepers are often unaware of them. I receive many calls each year from people who have noticed that something is drastically different but they’re not sure why, and the reason is usually swarming. The description of what they’ve observed goes something like this: “My hive has been doing absolutely fantastic! They’ve been extremely active and bringing in lots of pollen. But all of a sudden, I’m seeing that they seem much weaker and far less active.” When this happens to you, it’s because your bees swarmed. In fact, if you see that they were really strong yesterday but weak today…start looking around. You’ll probably find the swarm nearby. It would be really great to get a heads-up before this happens, right? It’s also beneficial to understand post-swarm beehavior in order to have peace of mind that things are OK. So, let’s talk about beehavior both immediately before and after a swarm occurs.
The first thing you’re likely to recognize when bees are preparing to swarm is that the amount of pollen being brought in will increase dramatically. If you go out to your hive one morning and think “Wow! I’ve never seen them bringing in so much pollen!”, then realize that they are most likely preparing to swarm. There may be hundreds of bees entering the hive per minute with most of them carrying full sacks of pollen, and this should easily be recognized as extraordinary beehavior. The reason for loading the brood nest with pollen before a swarm is because after the swarm, when a new queen has mated and begins to lay eggs, she will lay several thousand eggs in just a few days in an effort to repopulate the weakened colony as quickly as possible. There will be so much brood for the workers to tend to that there will be very few bees available for foraging. Therefore, the large amount of pollen that will be needed after the swarm must be collected and stored beforehand.
The next thing that you’re likely to notice as your colony prepares to swarm is a rapid population build-up without any substantial building of comb. By using the techniques described above (listening and observing through the screened bottom) you’ll likely notice that the bees are occupying more and more space within the hive, but you’re not hearing the “trickling water” sound indicating that comb is being built. The reason for not building comb is simple. When the swarm occurs, up to 60 percent of the bees will leave to create a new colony elsewhere and it is important that the remaining bees be able to cover all of the comb in the hive in order to protect it from pests and also to keep the brood warm.
People who pay close attention to their bees often do notice these changes in beehavior, but they simply attribute them to the hive being very strong; not realizing what is about to happen. Now that you’ve learned the signs of swarm preparation, you can use that knowledge to better manage your hives. Beekeepers should always have extra equipment on hand, but when one of your hives is preparing to swarm it’s of the utmost importance. After your hive has swarmed and you've captured that swarm is not the time to be calling and asking how fast we can get a hive to you (it happens frequently). If you’re fairly certain your bees are preparing to swarm, or even if you’re not, you can choose to set up a bait hive, put up swarm traps, or preempt the swarm by splitting your hive. I am assuming, of course, that you’d want to keep the swarm and add another hive to your yard. Another option is to do nothing and simply let the swarm fly away to become a feral colony. Some people will criticize me for saying that because they feel that it’s irresponsible for a beekeeper to knowingly let a swarm go off on its own, but I personally feel that there are more pros than cons to having feral bee colonies around, especially in rural areas.
The last thing that you may notice before a hive swarms is that the sound of the bees will change from what they normally sound like to something much different. The drones in the hive will begin to make a steady, deep, monotone hum that you’ll be able to detect just by standing next to the hive. Once this starts, the swarm is imminent and can be expected at any time.
If you know what day a swarm occurred or at least the approximate day it occurred, I strongly urge you to mark it on your calendar so that you can monitor the beehavior of the original colony for the next 35 days. Obviously, the first thing you should notice after a hive throws a swarm is that there is a lot less activity at the entrance, since there are a lot fewer bees in the hive. Orienting activity may continue for up to a week after the swarm, but then it will cease completely because the queen left with the swarm and a new queen has yet to emerge, mate and start laying eggs. The best advice I can give you as far as what to do during this 35-day period is to stay out of the hive. Resist any and all urges to look inside the hive because anything that you do is likely to disturb the bees to the point of causing the colony to fail.
Within one week after the swarm, up to twenty new queens will emerge from their cells and fight each other to the death until there is only one remaining. Just before this happens, several queens may start “piping” while still in their cells. Piping sounds as the term implies. It’s a relatively high-pitched “toot” sound. Hearing piping from the hive lets you know that the queens will begin to emerge within the next 24 hours. You will, however, have to spend an awful lot of time with your ear to the hive or just plain get lucky in order to hear it happening. Regardless of whether or not you ever hear any piping, know that the new queens will emerge within one week, because the queen cells were all capped before the swarm left.
Between 32 and 35 days after the swarm, orienting activity should begin again, which will let you know that the queen was successfully replaced and brood is once again being raised. When you see orienting resume, all beehavior will return to “normal”, or as it was before the colony started preparing to swarm. If after 35 days orienting activity does not resume, a new queen should be introduced into the hive as long as there remains a substantial population of workers.
If you study the information on this page and learn it well, you will be able to determine colony strength, whether or not a healthy queen is present, if a hive is preparing to swarm and when a hive has recovered from a swarm…all without ever opening the hive.