READING A HIVE
When you open a hive and look in, you see a snapshot in time. For all you know, when that lid goes back on it could signal the start of a bee committee meeting on how to mess with the beekeeper! But when you consider what you are looking at, a hive can tell you a story. It may be about weather conditions, or congestion, or disease, or food availability but all the signs are there for you to figure out what has gone on in the last six or so weeks, and how your hive is likely to track over the next few weeks (barring catastrophic events!) This requires a little bit of experience, but be attentive and your hive will speak volumes.
Look at the food stores, is there fresh nectar coming in? If you see lots of watery uncapped cells, then a nectar flow is underway. Remember ‘the nectar flow’ is not necessarily a single event. You may get a nectar flow from willow in early spring, or hawthorn after that. An influx of spring nectar can cause the brood area to fill up fast albeit temporarily, leaving the queen without much space to lay. This can lead to a patchy brood pattern or be the first incitement towards swarming.
Check pollen levels in the hive. Pollen is the protein source for bees, it is a major stimulus for young bees who produce royal jelly. They feed this to the queen to keep her laying well. Pollen is brought back to the hive packed as pellets on their hairy wee legs by the way of static and hairs (Corbicula). If the weather is wet, the pollen doesn’t stick and stores get used up, harming the queen’s ability to lay and reducing the opportunity for the hive to expand.
Check brood levels. The proportion of brood ages fluctuate throughout the year. Up until the longest day the colony is expanding and there should be a slightly larger volume of younger brood. Around longest day the queen maxes out and then starts to ease off. Around three weeks later the colony may reach its optimum size, and three weeks after that the optimum number of foraging aged bees are active. This is the natural flow of hive, although it can be manipulated to prepare hives for earlier crops.
We have no control over daylength, wind strength, or sun intensity, but these have an impact on hive growth. After the Australian bushfires, the light levels dropped to such an extent that queens visibly pulled back (reduced their laying area) This impacted the hives for months afterwards and led to much smaller colonies going into winter. A thousand less eggs today is a thousand less juvenile bees next month, and a thousand less foraging bees the month after.
There are other factors which can also have a visible effect on a hive. Insecticides can show as a sudden reduction in the size of the colony as foraging bees are poisoned and do not return. In this case you may see a large brood area and a functioning queen with young bees only in the hive. Alternatively, you may have missed your hive swarming or a supersedure event. This may present as a lack of open brood or eggs and your dearly beloved queen is missing in action. Diseases and parasites require their own chapter, another rough guide we think!
There are so many things to see if you take the time to look…