Keep Calm and Carry On: Inspecting Hives
Barbara Thompson (Pualani Bee Farm)
May 19, 2020
Over the past two weeks since my honeybees arrived, I have spent countless hours observing the bees’ activities around the hives—a kind of getting-to-know-you phase. About four days after they arrived, I opened the bee pollen traps at the bottom of the hives and started collecting these super food granules every evening. Though not a huge task, the first time approaching the hives demanded a good portion of self-convincing to push through the fear of my first direct encounter with the bees on the outside of the hives. I needed full concentration to stay physically and mentally calm as countless bees flew up to me, close and personal, probably wondering what in the world I was doing to their usual entrance. Pretending to have full confidence in my actions, I explained to the bees, "You are now my girls and I am your trusted keeper—and we are all on this journey together." The declaration seemed to calm them down a bit (or maybe I was the one needing to be calmed).
The bees adjusted to the new hive entrance via the pollen traps within just a few days. Meanwhile, I graduated from wearing a full bee suit to collect the pollen to doing so “Hawaiian style,” wearing only shorts, tank top, and slippers. I am one step closer to being sting phobia free.
As far as I could tell without opening the hives for an inspection, two of my three hives have acclimated well to their new bee yard, evidenced not only by a high level of activity outside the hive but also by the increasing amount of pollen I can collect from the traps at the end of each day. One hive, though, has me worried, with much less bee activity on the hive exterior and only a few crumbs of pollen caught in the trap. Hence, I have deactivated the pollen trap on that hive, hoping that more nutrition might help strengthen them. However, it is clearly time to learn how to open up and inspect the hives, which, fortunately, I was about to learn from my mentor, Scott Nelson, of Raw Hawaiian Honey Company (Hamakua Apiaries).
Last Friday, Scott and I went to a bee yard about 5-6 miles away from my home. We spent over 4 hours inspecting hives, finishing only about half the yard by mid-afternoon. While inspecting the first two hives, I inadvertently sat with my back right in front of their entrances. While watching Scott inspect the first series of frames, I was oblivious of the activity of bee curiosity (or outrage?) going on behind me. Scott told me about it once we had moved away to the next set of hives. I guess the bees sensed that I meant them no harm—or my bee suit proved its value!
Throughout the day, Scott lifted one frame after the other, explaining what to look for, what to change, and what to just “wait and see.” He taught me the “concept of threes” in beekeeping, which he uses during inspections to find and recognize telltale features of a healthy hive:
1) the three types of bees, each with markedly different body types, including the smooth and elongated queen, the buff and beefy drones, and the small and fuzzy worker bees.
2) the three population differences among the bee castes that make up a colony, including a single queen, a small percentage of drones, and a vast majority of worker bees;
3) the three rainbow-arched patterns that characterize a healthy brood comb, beginning with an outer arch of white capped honey cells, followed inwardly by an arch of pollen-filled cells, and finally a large, innermost, and centrally located patch of brood cells; and
4) the three stages marking a healthy queen’s reproductive cycle, including a consistent and regular pattern of like-aged eggs, larvae, and “leather,” the latter referring to the leather-like appearance of capped brood cells.
Explained so simply, I was able to point out these typical traits after just a few inspections. When these regularities were broken, it was also relatively easy to see when something was amiss. Not surprising, normalcy—or the lack thereof—seemed to impact the personality or “mood” of each colony, which sometimes let itself be known the moment Scott opened up a hive!
Scott explained that abnormalities in these various “concepts of three,” such as collapsed cells, irregular patterns of cell capping, or the overabundance of drone, queen, or pollen-filled cells might signal problems: a missing or aging queen, imminent swarming, varroa mites, or, as in one hive filled with especially belligerent bees, the simultaneous presence of an elderly and a newly emerged queen! Luckily, Scott was creating two new nucs that day, so now he extracted a queen to use in one of them.
Since a hive can self-correct some problems it might be having, a beekeeper’s intervention is not always needed. Hence, keeping track of normal and abnormal traits within the various hives of a bee yard helps inform the inspections and the need for human intervention. As Scott emphatically advised, “manage the yard, not the hive!” The truth of this statement was clear during these inspections as he moved specific frames within or between chambers, supers, and hives, thereby providing the honeybees with a boost that would increase their productivity while also strengthening the overall health of all hives. With practice and repetition, I hope to make sense of this complex juggling of frames—but that day is not yet here.
As morning progressed into afternoon, an occasional cloud would pass by, momentarily shielding the bee yard from the sun’s intensifying heat. Each time this happened, there was a palpable change in the energy of the apiary. During the cloud shadow, the bees’ activity level downshifted into what almost seemed like a slow-motion scene from a National Geographic documentary. When the sun re-emerged, the sudden exuberance of the bees matched the intensity of the sun’s light and heat.
Being completely insulated in my bee suit on this scorching afternoon, I felt the constant trickle of sweat droplets running down my face and gathering into the folds of my shirt. I was not ready yet to do without my protective gear, so wiping away these rivulets was not an option. And so, I endured. Apparently, I was not the only sweltering being in the yard. I noticed a massive hoard of worker bees clustering on the outside of a nuc entrance. Eagerly fanning their wings, the bees draped themselves one on top of the other, extending downward in mid-air in a spectacular architectural construction, which for obvious reasons of its form is called bearding. However, the bees were not just hanging out to cool themselves in the intermittent breath of a cool breeze. They were, in fact, hard at work, improving the interior ventilation by pushing cool air into the hive, thus lowering the temperature in the brood nest. This incredible “beard” not only demonstrated the natural HVAC system that honeybees have developed but also signaled the maturity of this particular nuc, now a strong and healthy colony that was ready for expansion into a fully productive hive.
Once our inspections were over, I was eager to remove my bee suit, to feel fresh air on my overheated skin. I moved a good distance away from the hives to take off the suit but to my surprise, a handful of the bees had following me. Once the suit was off, they landed on my skin, eagerly slurping up the miniscule beads of sweat evaporating off my arms and legs.
Up until that point—having been safe and sound in my bee suit—I had remained calm and composed. But now, without my protective gear, wearing only shorts and a tank top, my internal phobia gauge flew off the charts. I held my breath, tried not to scream or embarrass myself in front of my mentor, and feigned courage but that didn’t last. Moving ever so slowly, I began inching toward my car, where I had a pair of long jeans in a bag on the passenger seat. I could feel the tickle of the bees’ tiny feet as they crawled up and down my bare legs. I knew not to swat and to just leave them to go about their business but at that moment, their business was my skin! A tug of war between my instinctive sense of fight or flight ensued, proving to be the second biggest challenge of the day (the first being absorbing the many hours of beekeeping wisdom that Scott had taught me). Finally, I arrived at my car, managed to escape the thirsty bees, and hastily slipped the jeans over my shorts.
Days as beekeeper: 14.
Number of bee stings: 0.