Beekeepers look funny. They wear big white suits and black veils that cover their faces. They wear leather gloves that reach up till their elbows and sturdy boots with thick soles. They carry alien-looking tools with them, including a strange smoking-device.
They look as if they came straight off the moon.
My housemates get really excited when I dress up and get prepared to look at my beehive in our backyard. At the same time, I also feel some estrangement from their side. It’s clearly a great mystery to them what I am about to do. It’s as if I suddenly became another person to them. A person from foreign origins; with foreign intentions.
I must admit that I always giggle myself when I run into other dressed-up beekeepers, or when I see them in the distance from the side of the road. Especially in New Zealand where a lot of beekeeping takes places on vast farmland properties, those white suits standing around a bunch of square stacked boxes on the green endless pastures, look like a true curiosity.
I’m sure most people understand that these outfits are necessary to protect oneself against some vicious bee-stings. But what are those white moon mans exactly looking at? What is there to see inside a beehive, except for a ridiculous crowd of buzzy bees?
Here is a List of Basics in Beehive Examination
I will divide the List up in two blog posts: one to examine the outside, and the other to examine the inside of a beehive.
First of all, it is important to realise that beekeeping is a multi-sensory event. You don’t just look – but you listen, smell and touch. Even when you start to walk towards your hive, you must activate your senses.
The Beehive from the Outside
Is the hive busy or quiet?
-Are there any bees hanging out on the outside of the box?
-Are they constantly flying in and out?
-Is there a constant sound of happy buzzing?
It’s a good sign if the answers to these questions are three times ‘yes’. It is an indication that you have an industrious busy hive with hard working bees.
There are two alternative scenario’s when the answers are ‘no’ –
1.) The hive is quiet. Minimal bee activity visible from the outside. You can hardly hear a buzz.
2.) The hive is roaring. The bees are going nuts. They are everywhere. They have a big temperament and they roar furiously.
Something could be wrong. There are two important concerns that are always on the beekeepers mind.
-Is the queen failing?
A queen should be in charge of the hive at all times. She gives the bees behavioural instructions via smell (pheromones). A failing queen means that for some reason she isn’t in charge. Maybe she has gotten too old to function well, or maybe her instructions don’t reach the bees in a satisfactory way. Another big issue with queens is her egg production. A good queen lays eggs constantly (except for in winter) and most of her eggs should produce female worker bees. A well-functioning hive should always have new babies on the way that quickly get raised to be productive members of their society.
In case of a quiet hive the bees it is likely something is wrong with the egg production of the queen. The queen doesn’t lay or doesn’t lay enough. The hive fails to function as productive as it should.
In case of a furiously roaring hive it’s possible the bees aren’t satisfied with the bees for other reasons. Her instructions fail to make the hive function as efficiently as it should. She might be too old, she might be sick or damaged, or maybe she has just ‘bad traits’. It creates chaos. It is even possible that the worker bees take over and make plans to escape.
The solution for a failing queen? Replace her!
-Is there a disease in the hive?
This is another important concern. Bee diseases make beekeeping hard. While American Foul Brood is the disease that beekeepers fear the most, the Varroa mite is currently the biggest enemy (at least, in New Zealand). The mite is a pest, not a disease, but it makes the bees sick and deformed and in most cases it kills them off. It is possible to see dead bees lying around the outside of the beehive when there is a disease. Bee-disease is a big topic (whole books are dedicated to it) and I will dive deeper into this topic in one of my next blog posts.
Note: A quiet hive isn’t always explained by these two main concerns. Instead of a failing queen or a disease, it is possible that your hive is weak due to other reasons. For example, the success of a beehive is depended on location and weather. A bad rainy summer could be to blame; or an exposed windy location. Bees don’t like that. Also, when your hive is new it can suffer from a ‘false start’. Some hives take longer to start up and get going than others.
Note II: Equally, a roaring hive isn’t always explained by these main two concerns either. A temperamental hive can also be explained by ‘bad genes’. Some bees are genetically more aggressive and chaotic than others.
Find out in my next post what beekeepers look for inside a beehive!