I found, during my first year of beekeeping, that simply observing the bees was the most pleasurable of all my interactions with them. I did the inspections and observed them inside the hive as well, but simply spending time watching their behavior from a chair placed a short distance away allowed me to connect the inside with the outside. It’s not a replacement for hive inspections but adds yet another assessment method to your toolbox.
Most everything I need to know about my bees, I learn by sitting in front of my hives. Armed with an old stethoscope and a magnifying glass, I can be found on most summer afternoons sitting at the hive entry boards, spell-bound. In fact, I have chairs or stools stationed all around my bee yard. Sometimes, I bring a large jug of ice-tea and a book or magazine to read while the bees buzz in soft amber clouds around me.
I don’t consider this idle time, although it may look like it to the casual observer. I have read that if you are not getting into your hives at least every two weeks to do inspections, you are a poor beekeeper, or worse: a bee “haver.” However, my hours of observation time are my primary method of hive inspection, and I find the most of the information I need without the need for suiting up, lighting smokers, or disrupting the hard work of the hive.
My bee mentor, Jacqueline Freeman (www.spiritbee.com) calls this “Putting in your thousand hours—” not a thousand hours inside the hive, but observing the hive from the outside as you sit beside your bees patiently, over many months. In the beginning of my beekeeping seasons, I was a patient observer mostly because I was keeping three Warre’ hives. There were no viewing windows on the hives, and once a Warre’ begins building up, removing single combs is major surgical event for the bees, so I had to restrict my inspections to whatever I could see on the landing board. It was an education that has served me and my bees well. With viewing windows on my hives now, I feel like I am in bee observation heaven.
So, what can you learn from sitting at the hive?
Do I Have a Queen?
This is something everyone who catches a swarm of bees will be wondering over their first month or two with the bees. I’ve seen queens entering a new hive often this year since I switched over to walking the bees into the hive rather than dumping them in. As my eyes adjust to the movement of thousands of humming, fanning bees marching up a covered plank into their new home, I’ve been blessed to see the tell-tale long abdomen of royalty, hurrying up the ramp with her escorts clustered around—and sometimes on top of—her.
If you are not lucky enough to see a queen on the ramp, looking for her inside the hive is a major disruption of the new colony, and can quickly convince them all to leave and find a home where foul-smelling giants with fat fingers do not go bumbling through the fragile new white combs. Bees do not welcome your inspections, which to them are invasions. Trust me on this. They will let you know with stings and head bumps when you have overextended your welcome. For some hives, just opening up the lid is overextending your welcome on some days.
So how can you know that you have a mated, working queen? With some practiced observation, you can see all you need to know at the hive entrance, or from your viewing window. This is what bees with healthy, mated queens do:
- They bring in pollen as soon as they get a few wax combs built, usually within three to five days.
- Wax building is strong and steady.
- They move in a steady, purposeful way both from and to the hive.
- There is busy activity on the landing board with bees guarding, cleaning, collecting nectar and pollen from returning bees, and carrying out hive detritus.
- The sound of the hive is a smooth and steady hum. If you tap on the side, there will be a very short burst of louder humming that will immediately drop off to a normal hum state.
Hive numbers will drop, then slowly begin to rise.
- Anywhere from a month to two months, you will begin seeing lovely clouds of bees spiraling slowly in front of the hive as new foragers set their inner GPS tracking chips in preparation for heading out into the field.
- From the viewing window, you will learn to identify the look of new, sealed brood comb
In contrast, this is what you may see and hear if your hive is queenless:
- Little pollen coming into the hive.
- Bees milling about aimlessly on the entry board.
- If you rap briefly on the hive, the bees will answer with a droning tone that slowly tapers off.
- Not many bees come and go, and those that do don’t move with purpose. Purpose is something you identify only by watching hives over time.
This year, I started six new colonies from swarms. All but one were blessed with strong, successful queens. One was not. I merged that hive with another queen-right hive. All of these decisions I made were based only on what I could see from the entry boards and the viewing windows.
What’s Going On In There?
Are your bees building up well, or just hanging on? Are they attracting robbers? Are they weak in some way? Are they getting ready to swarm? Most of these answers are literally right in front of your nose. A strong hive shows increasing numbers of bees coming and going. Sometimes the landing boards in mid-summer look like a subway platform at rush hour.
Do you notice your hive bearding, that is, hanging in a dense clump from the front of the hive like a…well…beard? Your hive may be telling you that they are evaporating a lot of nectar in the hive and all superfluous bees need to hang outside for the time being. Or they might be preparing to swarm, depending on the time of the year. Sometimes in very hot weather, the bees will chill out on the landing board in a big beard.
If I see lots of fanning bees on the entry board, along with the bearders, I know honey is being processed. If I see rushing bees knocking hard into the bees in the beard, or jumping on their shoulders and shaking them, I know a swarm is about to take flight and soon!
Do you wonder if your bees have mites? If they are bearding, just look at them through a magnifying glass. It is simple to see mites that way. Actually, you don’t even need the magnifying glass. I can see mites on bees as they are coming or going from the hive. Sometimes, I’ll grab the mitey bee, pull the mite off, and let her go. It’s a small triumph, I agree, but it’s satisfying, nonetheless.
Do your bees “washboard,” moving forward and back in rows, using their feet to “wipe” the hive? No one knows what this really means, but I’ve also seen bees do this inside the hive from the viewing windows, and it is thought to be an indicator of a strong hive.
Do you have hygienic bees? This is all the rage right now: Bees who clean mites from themselves, each other, and remove mite-infested larvae. You may see your bees vigorously nibbling between the body creases of returning foragers, or see bees pulling out “purple eyed” pupae—immature bees that have white bodies and purple eyes—and tossing them off the landing board.
Do you see bees balling up and fighting on the landing board, or hear high-pitched, agitated buzzing with bees scurrying up the sides and face of your hive? This is a clear sign of robbing—stranger bees swooping in to steal honey from your bees.
Do you see many nasonov fanning bees on the landing board—bees with their tails hiked high in the air exposing the small, whitefish nasonov gland at the end of their abdomen? If you have a hive with a virgin queen, the bees will often send out a cadre of nasonov fanners to guide their young queen home from her mating flights.
If you are at the hive at the right moment, you may even get to see the ancient, yearly ritual of bees expelling their drones for the season—a melancholy time for me. It means my bee year is coming to a close. And it is hard to watch those fuzzy, clumsy drones get pushed out of the hive by the hundreds.
One of my favorite sights on the landing boards of my hives is the honey-kiss—two bees exchanging nectar, proboscises extending, antennae touching gently and excitedly.
So, do I ever go into my hives? Certainly, but not as often as you might think necessary. To be honest, I only enter my hives a few times a year. And I find that to be plenty. Each time you enter a hive, you run the risk of injuring the queen. You upset the temperature balance in the hive, a balance critical to the development of the young bees. In cracking open the hive, you also break the propolis seal—that sticky red/brown stuff that is the external immune system of the bees—and allow the entry of pathogens. I have read that it takes bees two to four days to put their hive back in order after an inspection. I don’t want to make my bees spend their short, precious summer days having to repair the damage I’ve done by poking around in their sacred space.
Thankfully, I rarely need to. Am I a beekeeper or a bee haver? I like to identify as both. There is something to be said for meddling less in the complex daily life of the bees. Through patient observation, I am coming to trust the bees’ innate good sense and ancient wisdom more as the years go by. I learn a lot from good beekeepers, but I learn most sitting at the feet of my good bees.