I recently wrote about the ten-day interval for checking beehives. In an attempt to avoid a long-winded, rambling, lose-my-readers kind of post, I didn’t cover all the details for WHY ten-day checks are key and what exactly the beekeeper is looking to find. Hive inspections are relatively quick and most information can be deduced from looking at only a couple of frames. Afflictions are usually easily visible and most problems or hiccups can be prevented if you are in the hive snooping around at this time frame. I can catch the problems, but still remain a fairly inconspicuous observer that doesn’t create undue stress and hardship by interrupting the hive’s daily rhythms.
Here’s your first round of Beekeeping 101…
Get ready for vocabulary. Here’s a quick lesson so that we are all on the same page and you aren’t left scratching your noggin and looking around with a nunplussed look of “huh”.
QUEEN: the only reproductive honeybee in the hive. She is characterized by an extremely elongated abdomen that allows her to deposit one egg into the center of each cell. She is both the egg layer and the fertilizer. She was inseminated once in her life by a handful of drones and is responsible for all aspects of the reproduction in the hive.
WORKER BEE: the female honeybees. Each hive has approximately 50,000 to 100,000 worker bees. These industrious gals are responsible for all the inner-working of the hive and transition through a predictable set of jobs during their 45-day lifetime.
DRONE: the male honeybees. The drones can be accurately characterized as parasites whose only function is mooch off the supplies and food in the hive. The drone’s sole function in life is to inseminate a queen bee and after completion of this task is, to put it bluntly, useless. Each hive houses about 200 drones.
Figuratively speaking, I have a checklist that I utilize each time I open up a hive and start looking around.
Are there eggs present? Are they where they should be?
If there are eggs present, I know that the queen was present in the hive during the last three days. She is extremely difficult to spot, so the appearance of eggs ensures that she has been around lately. Eggs become larvae after three days. The eggs are the size of a doll-house grain of rice and are located in the center of each cell. If they are on the sides of the cell – there is a problem. The queen is no longer laying and a worker bee has taken over. Time to get a new queen…
Is there larvae present? Is the larvae healthy, white and meaty? What does the capped brood look like?
After three days, eggs develop into larvae and look like a white, chunky worm curled into very bottom of each cell. Larvae is covered with a thick, dark brown cap at day nine. The bee grows underneath this cap and upon maturity (day 21) chews her way out to freedom. The capped brood for worker bees looks entirely different from the capped brood of a drone. If there is a great deal of drone capped brood – there is a problem. There is a worker bee laying unfertilized eggs and the queen has either vanished or is no longer laying for whatever reason. If all looks good with the larvae and capped brood, I can be assured that the bees are raising their young and the offspring are growing at a predictable rate.
Do the frames have a hefty weight of honey? Are cells being packed with pollen?
If the frames have the tell-tale heft of honey, the hive is happy. Workers bees are assigned different jobs (nurse bees to the queen, pollen gatherers, guard bees, etc…). If the bees are busy packing the cells with the golden harvest, the season is in full swing. Pollen is the primary protein source for the honeybee and the juice that keeps their engine running. In some of my pictures, you will notice a sticky, brown patty on top of some of the frames – this is a pollen patty. An artificial substitute for pollen that is used with new hives to give them that extra kick start. Once the hive is in full swing, this patty is removed and discarded.
Is there still a minimum of two empty frames for the queen to lay eggs in?
At the peak of her reproductive age, the queen is laying 1,000 eggs per day – all day, every day, non-stop. And, she needs room to put each of these eggs. If there is not ample room for bees to fill cells with honey and pollen, the stress level in the hive rises and the hive begins to consider swarming – which leads to the next question…
Are there any queen cells being produced and raised?
Queen cells are one of the easiest things to point out in a hive. They are roughly the size of a peanut shell (approximately two-inches long) and hang in an elongated, bulbous form from the face of frames. A beehive will not swarm (leave in a mass of 20,000+ bees with the original queen at the center) if they have not raised a new first. The presence of queen cells can be a sign of worker bees practicing their skills and feeding royal jelly to developing larvae. Or, it can be the sign of a bigger problem – stress in the hive as a result of overcrowding and/or a dried up queen. Either way, they should be removed and the hive inspected further.
Is there a pleasant, droning, monotonous buzz to the hive?
The first sign of something amiss in a hive is the sound. Standing outside the hive, before the lid is even off – a whiny, high-pitched frantic drone can be distinguished. Approach with caution and inspect carefully.
Now you know the basics of beekeeping. Suffice to say – you can learn a lot by just watching the hive and it’s daily rhythms. If you want to delve deeper, you have to literally observe the inner workings and see the bees at home. Don’t worry – you aren’t going to tested or quizzed on this first lesson. But, as always, let me know if you have any questions or want a little more clarification.