The most important thing to remember is to move like a Tai Chi Master…gentle, unhurried movements. Bees hate vibrations, so cause as as few as possible: wedge out frames gently and lift up and out without tilting the frames, or bumping them against the hive body and crushing the bees. If the bees get upset, stop. Give them a gentle puff of smoke and give them a few seconds to settle down. The pitch of their buzzing is your guide…it gets higher and louder when the bees are upset.
Smoke the entrance, the top entrance, under the cover and any other hole in the hive gently before you open the hive up. Give the bees a minute or two to go fill up on honey before cracking the inner cover. Move quietly and do not bang equipment around. Wedge the inner cover open (it will be stuck down) without big cracking noises ie. slowly. Give the top of the hive a bit of smoke as the cover comes off. Work through the hive quietly. If you need to put hive bodies on the ground, do so on top of the upside down outer cover…lay it on the ground first. That way a queen running for cover will not end up on the bare ground or grass and be lost. About one inspection in 20 you will find the queen on the cover when you go to put it back on. Put her gently back in the hive first.
As you inspect, make a mental note of how much honey and pollen is in the hive, and where. How much brood is in the hive, especially the rough amount of cells with eggs…the size of your palm? Two palms worth? Tracking egg amounts tells you something about the queen…if the rate is up, why? And if the rate is down, why?
Is the larval brood pure white and glistening, wet looking? Are there any discoloured larvae?
Are the capped brood cappings solid or do some have ragged holes in them (suggesting foulbrood)? Are the sheets of capped brood solid, or riddled with missed or empty cells (shot brood, shotgun pattern)?
If you see the queen, is she marked? And is she looking good?
Are there any damaged, odd-looking or obviously sick workers? Are there any drones around?
Does the queen need more laying room? Another box?
As you inspect, use all your senses!
See the bees: are they calmly moving about the frames, or scurrying wildly? Note things that are odd or worrying. Smell the bees: is there a sweet, musky honey scent, or can you smell something sour or rotten?
Hear the bees: is there a low, contented hummmmm, or is the pitch sharper and full of anxiety?
Touch…keep your movements gentle and slow, vibrations to an absolute minimum.
And taste! As you break apart frames you will often open up some honey cells in the bridge comb. Enjoy the savoury-sweet wild honey flavour!
Bees come in three sex divisions: queen, worker and drone.
The queen is the sexually mature, reproductive female. She has 32 chromosomes, and stores the sperm gathered on her mating flight(s) in a special organ, her spermatheca. Remarkably, the queen can choose, when laying any given egg, to fertilize the egg (which then yields a worker bee, who also has 32 chromosomes but does not develop into a queen, and never goes on a mating flight…in special situations a worker will lay eggs, and they will develop, but they will always be unfertilized, and so grow up to be drone bees)…or not fertilize the egg, which yields a 16 chromosome drone. Drones then, are said to have only a mother, no father.
Queens are the egg layers. Worker bees do all the other tasks (making and cleaning cells, feeding and cleaning queen and brood, storing pollen and nectar, curing nectar into honey, capping the honey, gathering pollen and nectar, cleaning the hive, and guarding the hive). Drones fly to drone congregation areas to await virgin queens, mate with those queens, and also regulate temperature in the brood nest.
Because bees feed one another and the queen, disease can rapidly disseminate throughout a hive.
Genetic Diversity in the Hive
While the workers in any given hive share a single mother, the queen, they have (if the queen found lots of dates at the drone congregation area on her mating flight(s)) different fathers. Queens can be mated succcessfully by one to over 20 drones. Recent research confirms that the more drone fathers there are in the colony, the healthier and more vigourous it is. Thus, there is, in a well mated queen, a wealth of genetic diversity in the hive. Not only does the queen pass to her daughters a random 16 chromosome sub-set of her own 32 chromosomes, she passes a subset of 16 from the drone whose sperm is used to fertilize the worker egg. Many drone fathers = many different paternal subsets in the colony workers. Workers who share a drone father, called “supersisters”, will differ slightly based on which subset of their parents’ genes they inherit. Thus workers are genetically diverse, meaning they have differing abilities and susceptibilities to disease or pests. In the best case scenario, that diversity endows the hive with a population in which at least some of the worker bees will excel at any given task or challenge. One well known limitation in commercial queen breeding is the tendency to inseminate the queen with closely related, non-genetically diverse, drone semen…often the product of very targeted breeding programs ie. disease resistance, or propensity to forage aggressively.
As of Midwinter Eve, December 21 in the Northern Hemisphere, the colony senses the lengthening of the days and the queen begins laying more eggs. Her egg production will rise throughout the early months of the year and peak around Midsummer’s Day, will rise when there is lots of nectar and pollen coming in, and will fall when food sources dwindle. Thus, the colony expands in the early part of the year, and contracts in the latter half. Beekeepers generally focus on having the hive at full strength to meet the dominant area nectar flow (if honey harvesting is their main objective). Given that the youngest forager is 42 days old from the egg (21 days to hatch, and 21 days to mature into a bee capable of foraging), and given that the life of a forager is only two to three weeks at most, the hive must be at peak population just before the nectar flow (in order to meet the flow with the maximum amount of foragers). Pollination services want to meet the early agricultural bloom with peak populations, so will force their colonies in late winter/early spring by feeding lavishly.
Organization of the Colony
Driven by an array of chemical feedback loops (via pheromone production), everything that needs to be done in a colony is done by castes of bees. Castes are roughly age based, with bees using the following progression:
It is a very busy life! Queens hatch, mature, go on their mating flight(s), and return to lay eggs in the hive for the rest of their life. They will be replaced if for some reason their pheromone levels drop (indicating lowered fertility), or if they do not lay an optimal amount of brood (brood pheromone levels drop), or if they are sick or injured. Drones exist to mate with queens from other hives (queens prefer to fly well outside the flight range of their local drones, increasing their chances of mating with unrelated drones), and to regulate the temperature of the brood nest.
Read the Sting Basics section (pgs. 11-16) of Randy Oliver’s Beginning Beekeeping Workshop. Upon being stung, calmly scrape the stinger and venom sac out of your skin, as quickly as possible. Work with smoke, and protective gear either on or at hand. Work gracefully, quietly and with minimal vibration. If the bees become upset, cover them and quietly walk away. Do not hesitate to end an inspection and return on a better day! Carry an epipen, a charged cell phone, and a bottle of Benadryl for bee inspections. If you feel a sting is serious, and you are experiencing the symptoms of anaphylaxis, use your Epipen and seek immediate transport to Emergency for medical care. Remember as you work that as few as 100 stings can kill a child, and the adult lethal dose (in the absence of severe allergy) is 300-500 stings. Given that a good sized colony can easily contain 30,000 to 60,000 bees, it is essential to work in a way that does not upset the bees, particularly in an urban or community garden setting.
Note that if you are allergic to wasps (yellowjackets/hornets), they predate bee hives and so are regular and short tempered visitors to the beeyard. If you have a wasp allergy, be extremely cautious, particularly in late summer when wasp numbers explode and they become even more likely to sting.
Whatever else you have in there, always be sure you are packing a charged and working cell phone (to call for medical help), an Epipen (in case of anaphylaxis) and a bottle of Benadryl (helps suppress sting reactions, buying you extra time for the ambulance to arrive!).
Using a binder or clipboard, devise a way to track the life of your colony and document the findings of your inspections. Set up this tool such that you have a way to plan your future inspections and goals. Sample log sheet.