The Queen Is Going Nuts! Another Winter-Problem.

Winter can be so uncomfortable….

This is not only true for us, but just as much for bees.

May I present to you “The Queen That Is Going Nuts”.


This is a weird winter problem, and a challenge for beekeepers:  a queen that has inappropriate egg-laying habits.

Funnily enough this issue occurs when cold winter weather is absent.  Warm(ish) winters/autumns can cause confusion among queens that are used to cold winters. When it’s cold outside, it’s a sign for the queen to reduce her egg laying. However, in situations where temperatures get to around 17 degrees in late autumn or winter, the biological clock of the queen gets a bit confused about the time of year (and you can’t blame her!). Some queens will just happily continue laying loads of eggs as if it’s still summer. Out of control! This is mostly the case with new, young queens.

It is undesirable to have too many eggs and young larvae in the hive when winter is about to set in. As I described in my previous post, bees cluster up in a ball in winter. Hive activity is minimal. The babies are still in their cells, not ready to emerge yet, not ready to join the cluster. The cluster will form in the brood box, over the brood (the babies). In a normal situation, the queen will either completely stop laying or she will reduce her laying to perhaps one or two frames if the climate is milder. She then stops laying in the outside frames, and will only focus on the very centre of the brood box – the warmest place of the hive.

But if she continues laying in multiple frames, there will be too much brood. And too much brood means not enough food! In winter when there is no supply of new incoming honey and pollen, the bees need to be careful how their food stores get rationed. If they don’t watch out, the excess babies will eat all the honey supplies that were meant to keep the hive alive!

The hive needs to focus on keeping warm, and not everybody will fit in the cluster. Imagine if you have a hive with three or four boxes stacked on top of each other – how can all these bees fit in one box, in one cluster? They can’t. And how would all these bees get fed? They wouldn’t.

Therefore, the colony becomes stricter about who is allowed in, and who is not. The population needs to be significantly reduced. Numbers can be as drastic as a reduction from 10.000 bees in one hive to only a couple of thousand.

Foraging bees, who have done such a good job in summer by collecting pollen and nectar, become redundant in winter. There’s not much out there for them to forage and what’s more: bees lose their ability to convert nectar into honey in the cold of winter. This is why it’s crucial they get their honey supplies ready in time, before the cold sets in. As the foraging bees can’t contribute much to the hive anymore, keeping them alive would only mean that they devour honey supplies without doing any work in return. The hive needs to get rid off them.

The same is true for drones, the male bees: as their only function is to mate with the queen -an event that takes places in spring- in winter they are just redundant threats to the honey supplies.

Drohn_im_Flug_08-3(Wikimedia Commons)

The hive gets rid off them by starving them off, as well as by increasing the number of guard bees. Guard bees stand in front of the hive entrance and watch who comes and goes. When winter comes in, the only bees that are still allowed in are the ones that have managed to find some food to bring home. To every other failing foraging bee the door will be mercilessly closed. “I’m sorry, you’re not allowed in anymore”.

The guard bees and forager bees fight a tragic fight, but it is for the greater good of the hive…
Everything to save the food supplies!

You may understand that in this situation of drastic population reduction, any excess brood is highly undesired. So, if you find yourself in this situation with an inappropriate queen, it is time for action.

She needs to be stopped!

To stop a fanatic queen, the beekeeper has to be creative. I know about a few possible solutions, or “manipulations”.

  1. The first one is to supply the hive with an extra heavy sugary syrup. You need to increase the sugar-to-water-ratio. A light syrup stimulates egg laying much more than a heavy syrup does.
  2. You could also artificially control the “lay out” of the brood box.  This means that you need to sacrifice baby-lives. Take excess brood frames away so that you have only two core frames left. Replace them for frames with pollen and honey. Another option is to replace them for empty frames, so that the bees can move down the pollen and honey themselves (from the stores boxes).
  3. This is a crazy one. And very counter-intuitive. Yet a very experienced beekeeper informed me about this….Put the excess brood in the deep-freeze. Take them out after a few hours. They will be dead. Put the frames with dead babies back into the brood box, on the outside edges. The bees will clean out the cells until they are nice and empty. Then they can start filling them up with honey…

The key to remember is that the queen needs a barrier that stops her from laying. You need to stop her from filling up empty cells. When the cells are filled up with honey and pollen, she won’t lay eggs in them anymore.

Luckily this is not a very common situation. But you never know- with global warming on its way, we might await some warm winters….


Slime! Robbers! An Uncomfortable Winter-Dilemma.

I want to present a peculiar winter-problem to you.

It may sound abstract, but an awful dilemma for (beginning) beekeepers in preparation for winter is the “Robbing Versus Slime” dilemma.

Beekeepers play God over honeybees. They do so at any time of the year, really. Especially for new or weak hives beekeeper supervision and support is important. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the overwhelming rules of nature can pose some tricky situations. Sometimes it can be hard to know what is best for the bees. Especially at the time of year when winter is setting in….

(Which is right now in the Southern Hemisphere)

Let me explain.

Bees love the sun. They love warm, calm days.  They hate rain and they hate cold drafts. Try opening up a hive on a cold rainy day, and you will find out for yourself! But in most countries, winter is an inevitable phenomenon. So, just as we have to, the bees just have to deal with it. Luckily they have a good heating system. Their tactic is to cluster up in a ball-shape in the brood box of the hive. They vibrate while they’re bunched up, and this is how they keep themselves and each other warm.

If all has been going well over summer, the bees have built op significant stored supplies of honey. They depend on these stores for winter-survival. If summer hasn’t been that fruitful for the hive, meaning that they haven’t collected enough food supplies, the beekeeper needs to support the bees by feeding them an additional sugar syrup.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A Bath-Feeder! This is a box you put on top of your hive and fill it up with syrup. A welcome surprise for the bees.

Mind you: the bees don’t completely stop flying in winter – you can find them outside the hive when its 12 degrees or over, to do household tasks like cleaning out rubbish. Also, they like to keep their poo’s outdoors.

This is why it’s important for beekeepers to realise that bees need an open entrance in the hive, even over winter. They need to be able to come in and out to do their tasks, as well as they need fresh air and a ventilated home.
Human-built hives that consist of stacked wooden boxes usually have two openings.


  1. One on the bottom front-side of the hive. This is an opening at the base “landing board” – the plank from which bees depart and arrive. Most beekeepers put “entrance reducers” over this opening, to make the opening smaller. This reduces the risk of intruders entering the hive.
  2. The other opening is at the top of the hive. The “hive-mat” is a plank that covers the boxes, protecting the bees. One side of the hive-mat has an opening in it. This opening is called the “vent”. Yes, a hole for ventilation, but also a potential entrance. However, you can choose to put the hive-mat upside down on the hive, which closes the vent off.
  3. (I feel that I need to mention that some old beehives have way more holes than this. After many years, the wooden structures kind of start to fall apart… but this is no reason to stop using them! Some beekeepers simply stuff some grass in the holes, and they’re ready to go again!)

Now, why would you choose to close off the vent? Why would you want to deprive your hive from ventilation?

And this is exactly where the “Robbing Versus Slime” dilemma comes in.

  • Robbing. A good thing about closing off as many openings as possible, is the fact that it prevents robbing. Robber bees are sneaky bees from other hives, that come into your hive and steal your honey supplies. Very unfair, indeed! (Other creatures can rob out your hives as well: like mice!)
  • Slime. Something horrible can happen in winter when the bees are all inside clustered up and vibrating. When there isn’t enough ventilation, slime starts to form on the walls of the hive. Literally, it drips down in big slimy droops. This makes the bees unhappy!

In other words: when you open up the vent you prevent slime-formation but you encourage robbers to come in, and when you close off the vent you prevent robbers but you encourage slime-formation!

But if bees don’t tend to fly much in winter, surely the risk of robbers can’t be that big?

This especially a problem for (beginning) beekeepers with new and/or weak hives. Weak hives are hives that haven’t been productive enough to collect enough honey supplies. The beekeeper that supplies his hives with large quantities of sugar syrup, basically sets out “bait” attracting other creatures. Of course, this is especially exiting for other hungry bees in times of cold, despair, and dead flowers. Myummm! As soon as temperatures allow, they will go out and inspect where this delicious sweet smell comes from, and if they can have a taste of it as well….

commercial feeding

Luckily, a happy end is possible for this dilemma –

There is always a DIY solution! To keep your hive ventilated ánd protected from robbers, you can attach a mesh over your feeder. This way the feeder is best accessible from within the hive, and intruders have no access via the vent.


The Honey Bee Isn’t Holy.

I think it’s pretty clear now. Bees are not just furry buzzers; they are very, very important pollinators.

pollen                                              different colours of pollen inside the hive


They actually receive a surprising amount of attention in the media for an insect.

I have seen articles that basically describe the apocalypse when numbers of honey bees are getting too low. The honeybee is put on a throne;  these heroes are responsible for the welfare of the world. We will starve of deprivation without their magic touch.

But you know what? The honeybee isn’t holy.

She isn’t the one and only salvation. She can’t take that massive burden on her shoulders alone. She needs colleagues.

Butterflies, bumble bees, hoverflies and wild bees are just as important for pollinating crops as honey bees are. If not more important….

Bumblebee-2009-04-19-01 butterfly

These are some conclusions from a study recently published in Science. It wants to shine the light on other pollinators besides honey bees. Research has been done all over the world, and fifty authors have contributed to the publication of their findings.

I would like to talk about some results that came from this study.  Don’t understand me wrong. I don’t want to talk the honey bee down, but I want to provide a bigger perspective on crop pollination. We should watch out for becoming too depended on one insect.

Various ecologists studied a total of 600 fields that grew all sorts of crops (nuts, fruits, seeds) in every continent in the world except for Antarctica.  A lot of their findings are still quite unexplained and mysterious. They looked at the effects of honey bees on pollination, compared to the effects of wild insects. They found that while honey bees are more important for moving pollen around, wild insects are often more important to complete successful pollination – fertilisation of the plant.


How and why is a mystery. Do wild insects pick better pollen? Or do they spread them differently?  One of the ideas is that honeybees have preferences for pollen of specific species or cultivars, while often cross pollination of different varieties is crucial for successful plant fertilisation.

Even more so, it appears that some crops are completely depended on wild insects instead of honey bees. Examples are cacao, fig, passionfruit and vanilla. For as far as researchers have been able to show, honeybees hardly contribute to successful pollination of these crops. These crops are extra vulnerable when agricultural practices expand at the cost of  local vegetation.

Still, (and quite obviously) it turns out that in most cases, crop yields will be higher when both honeybees and wild insects are present; rather than just having only one or the other. So, in the end it’s not a story about “who is more important?” but about “they are all important!”.

And having enough flowers around to attract all these insects is the key. A great example comes from research in South Africa. It compared mango orchards: some of the orchards had incorporated flower patches, others had flower patches at 300 metres distance. It turned out that the fruit trees on the orchards with incorporated flower patches produced on average 1.5 kg more ripe fruits per tree! That’s an incredible difference.

Despite the fact that we need a bunch of different insects, I do understand our focus on honeybees.

I think one of the reasons the honeybee is so popular is because we feel a sense of control over them. They are very convenient insects for humans. We put them in confined boxes, we transport them and locate them in places we think are suitable; we feed them, we treat for pests, we breed queens and select for beneficial genes…

In other words: We are able to contribute to honey bee distribution, housing and to a certain extent we even have some control over their welfare.

Ultimately, the issue is directed back at us. When we feel we support crop pollination by keeping honeybees, the implication is that not only honeybees are heroes, but we become heroes ourselves. 

What is your take on this?


Information derived from a review by Marcel aan de Burg, in NRC Handelsblad, 2/3 March 2013. Photos: Creative Commons Wikipedia 

Plan Bee

Now I hope you don’t feel too discouraged by all the things that can go wrong with bees…. (see previous posts)

Today it’s time for an optimistic message!

cabbage tree and honey

We humans have strong destructive powers, but we should never forget that we also have great constructive abilities; and there is a lot we can do to support the life and well being of bees.

So, how can we help?

  • Plant bee-friendly plants in your garden. If you don’t have a garden you could perhaps plant in a local community garden. The more variety the better. Different plants and their flowers have different qualities: some are an excellent pollen source, while others provide delicious nectar.  Bees need both food sources. Examples of plants and trees suitable for the NZ garden are stone and pip fruits, hawthorn, lavender, manuka, cucumber and zucchini plants, cabbage trees, brassicas (broccoli, cabbage), thyme, sunflower,  rosemary, pohutukawa, buttercups, citrus (lemon), dahlia & varieties, mint and clover.
  • (Plus extra bonuses: your garden will look happy and full of flowers. It won’t only attract buzzing honey bees, but you might find bumblebees as well as other insect pollinators. Another bonus is the fact that some plants will be a food source for yourself as well!)
  • Try to avoid buying seeds that have been coated with neonicotinoid pesticides.
  • Don’t use sprays; pesticides or insecticides for maintaining your garden.
  • Try to avoid buying sprayed food – eat organic.
  • Become a hobby beekeeper! You don’t need a big patch of land. One beehive in the backyard or even on top of a roof is a great start – certainly one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made.



  • If you feel that owning a beehive is too much responsibility, there is also the option to let another beekeeper put a hive on your property. You provide the space, they take care of it. Simple.
  • A Dunedin-based initiative is “Rent a hive“. Worthwhile checking out:
  • Word of mouth is a powerful tool. Talk to people and raise awareness in your area about the importance of bees and the threats of chemicals and pesticides.
  • It seems that within the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries no-one is responsible for protecting the welfare of bees. Also, there hasn’t been a lot of research going into the specific effects of pesticides on bees. We could write to our local MP or newspaper, calling for a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, and urging for the importance of more research.


And good things are already happening….!

Currently there is a cool project planned in Christchurch, the destroyed city that deserves some extra love.

It’s called Plan Bee; a collaboration between the city council and an apiarist.

The goal is to put beehives all over Christchurch: in gardens, on rooftops, and even in city council-owned parks and reserves. It will be a big leap from the current situation – at the moment there are less than a dozen hives in Christchurch central city.

It’s an unique project that has never been executed anywhere else in the world. It has exciting prospects. Not only will it improve local ecosystems, but it is also going to create jobs: from construction and maintenance of the hives to harvesting and selling honey. To get the project rolling, people can buy shares in the honey and own beehives. A final exciting aspect of the project is the planned “bee house”. This will be a place where people can learn about bees and honey.

I think this is a great way of getting bees closer to the public. It gives people more insight in the mysterious ways of bees, emphasises the importance of bee-pollination, and teaches how we can be involved.

What do you think?  Feel free to comment!


Information based on The National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand,;  Fairfax News NZ,; and Organic NZ, March/April 2013, Vol.72, No.2, p.48, article written by Sue Kedgley. Pesticide photo from Wikimedia Commons, by Colin Grey.

Hidden Poisonous Potions and Intruders

Do you ever sit around in the grass and watch how bees fly by, hopping from flower to flower and happily buzzing to and fro?


I sometimes do. And sometimes it strikes me how good they look.  Nice wings with patterns and a sharp defined edge. Nice striped coats on their fuzzy bellies. Beautiful bags stuffed with colourful pollen. Cool skinny little legs and black shiny eyeballs. They look  like they are on a mission and it looks good.  They seem to know exactly what they’re doing and their bodies seem perfectly designed to make their purpose in life come true.

pollen basket

                                        I recommend to click on this photo

Until you see a sick bee.

Until you see that a bee comes home to a hive that is stuffed with sick, mutated larvae.

Until you see a hive that is destroyed by mice, moths, beetles or the freezing cold.

In my previous post I’ve fully concentrated on a fatal bee disease: AFB. But, you might have felt it in your gut, this was not a complete story. Unfortunately, there are lots of other things that threat our precious bees. From freezing to death to starving to death to being chewed by pests or being poisoned by pesticides.

In this post I’m concentrating on two Hot Topics: Varroa Destructor and the mysterious effects of pesticides on bees.

Varroa Destructor is a Parasytic Mite Syndrome. At the moment varroa is one of the greatest reasons for hive loss in New Zealand, and it is also the reason why it basically impossible to be an organic beekeeper these days.

Varroa is not a disease,  it is a mite – a pest, a parasite. It’s a little creature that chews on the bees and deforms them.


                                        Mmm yum yum, chew chew, says the happy mite.

                                                The bees die in agony.

This it how it works.

Varroa life cycle

  • The varroa jumps into the brood cell during the larval stage of the bee. It jumps into the brood food. There it waits until the larva matures and stretches out. When ready, it emerges from the food and climbs into the larva by chewing a hole. The larva is bleeding. It establishes a feeding station anywhere inside the larva that suits it, and starts laying eggs.
  • The first egg that hatches is always male, all the following ones are female.
  • They all form their own feeding station and chew away.
  • They eat body fluids, and while chewing they deform the brood.
  • Often the bee simply dies and doesn’t emerge.
  • The more the brood gets chewed the less survival chance. The consequence is less vigour in the hive.
  • When workers chew cap open varroa comes out of the cell and spreads.
  • The length of the varroa life cycle depends on the bee life cycle. Male drones take longest to emerge from their cells (24 days, whereas workers take 21 days and queens only 16). The longer they take to emerge, the longer the mite can chew and live. This is why the mites prefer drones (And this is also a reason for some beekeepers to scrape away drone cells from the hive)

Currently bees are being genetically selected to improve their hygienic behaviour. This would improve their ability to clean out the mite out of their cells, and hopefully will contribute to eradication of the pest.

Yet, before we get to that stage the most common solution for now is suppressing the mite is by a non-organic chemical treatment. Special Varroa strips are often used. Mites that have emerged from cells and start spreading throughout the hive, are the ones we can kill off. And it has proven to be successful.

varroa strips

The treatment we choose depends on the scale and type of our apiaries. There is a lot of discussion between commercial, organic and hobby beekeepers. Some organic beekeepers suppress the mite with organic chemicals like oxalic and thymol. Also, hobby beekeepers with hives on a small scale might choose more natural and labour-intensive ways of dealing with varroa. Some of them have been successful, others haven’t been.


The common treatment

  • There are two different chemical groups for varroa strips
  • You need to keep on changing between chemical groups, otherwise the mites develop resistance against the strips.
  • As soon as you take strips out of the hive, varroa starts winning the battle again. But you can’t leave the strips in continuously either. They should be removed in winter and when you’re going to harvest honey. The chemicals aren’t good for human consumption. (It may sound dubious, but it is fine to feed bees “chemical honey”…..)
  • Mind you:  bees hate the strips. They will move away from them. The queen is likely to not relay her eggs in the area where the strips are. The longer you leave strips in the same place, the more effective the bees get in avoiding them. This is why you need to keep on moving them around inside the hive, every 6 weeks or so.


Breathe again.

It’s not all doom and gloom. For the region where I live, Otago, New Zealand, there is a hopeful prospect. It gets very cold in winter and therefore there is the possibility that not every hive will have brood all year round.  This increases the chances you kill off varroa in winter when you have been treating your hive with chemical strips.

Does this mean we should embrace the use of pesticides in beekeeping practices completely?



There are many other pesticides out there, some of them are frequently used in agricultural practices with beehives. One important group of pesticides is called neonicotinoids. They are used for a wide variety of common seeds: grass seed, rye, maize, squash, sweet corn, pumpkin and brassicas. A lot of people don’t even relate the use of plant pesticides to the welfare of bees. The plants get sprayed for “better” crop yields; and the bees help pollinating the crops. No worries?

This is a pressing topic that urgently needs more attention.

Various articles have been published and speculate about mysterious hive losses. Bees feed from the flowers of these neonicotinoid-sprayed plants: the pesticides work their way up from the seed, through the plant, into the pollen and nectar. In other words: the bees feed on (small doses of) poison. The poison attacks their central nervous system and causes disoriented behaviour.

And there are many other types of pesticides of which the effects on bees haven’t been properly researched yet. They could be highly toxic . They might reduce their immune systems, which makes them more susceptible to external threats and diseases………..

Could this be one of  the reasons why we lose so many hives?

Let me know what your thoughts are, feel free to comment!


Information about pesticides obtained from Organic NZ, March/April 2013 Vol.72 No.2.  The first three photos in this post kindly retrieved from Wikipedia

Poem Of a Mutated Larva (Or Two).



O, Morphous mass!

On the bottom of the cell

Are you waiting for me?

Your body porridge
Slump. A foul fishy
odour of rotten flesh

And workers stamping
on your brown, lifeless mush
Leaving, as they leave,
A tiny imprint

“Here lays a fleshy worm.
slimy tongues poke out
or dry to a stale


I’m sorry, that was disgusting. What the hell was that!?

This, my dear readers, is the New Zealand Beekeeper’s Nightmare.

This is AFB, American Foul Brood Disease; or the “Aids of the Bees”. When there is AFB in the beehive, there is no cure. When there is AFB in the beehive, the only solution is to burn all the evidence.

In this weird poem I have described a few very important symptoms that help you identifying this disease. Symptoms are best recognised in the larval or pupal (post-larval) stage. To sum up a few:

Instead of a healthy pearly white creature that is curled up in a c-shape; the larva/pupa becomes

  • Body porridge
  • Slump: it lays like a flat mass on the bottom of its cell
  • Brown
  • Lifeless
  • Stinks like rotten fish
  • After a while the slimy substance dries up to hard scaly bits

However, these symptoms could be confused with symptoms of other bee diseases. This is why my poem ends with the one and only Definitive Symptom of  AFB

  • The Pupal Tongue. For some strange reason, a pupa that dies of AFB  sticks out its tongue. It looks like a thin thread that points upwards in the cell. You rarely see it, but when you do there is no doubt: your hive is infected with AFB. 
  • Another way to identify the disease is by doing the “Ropiness-test“. This is shown in the picture above. To do this test all you need is a little stick; the foot of a match stick for example, or a piece of dry straw. You poke it into a suspicious looking cell. When you lift it out again and you see a brown slimy thread roping out, there is a good chance your hive is infected.

You can start raising suspicions by looking at the wax-caps that cover the brood. (This is only the case when the larva/pupa is 9 days or older). Symptoms that they might show are:

Perforation. If you see any any caps with holes in it, it’s a sign that worker bees have “smelled” that something is wrong. They poke a hole in the cap and peer through it, to check if their babies are OK.
sunken caps
greasy texture (instead of fluffy)
grey colour (instead of light to dark brown)
spotty cap pattern (instead consistent laying pattern; however this can also be a sign of a failing queen (see my previous post).

Note: You only have to find ONE infected larva or pupa in order to diagnose AFB. When this is the case, you have to burn the whole hive (according to New Zealand regulations). It’s a nasty process. You should pour petrol over the bees first, so that they suffocate. You dig a hole, throw in the hive and set the whole thing on fire.

What is the cause of all this misery?

It’s a bacteria. Paenibacillus larvae is its name. As it develops it appears in two different forms.

  • Spore form. Like plant seeds with a hard outer coat. The spores are extremely strong: they can live over 35 years, and resist boiling water.  The bee children get infected when nurse bees feed them honey and pollen with spores on it. One single diseased larva may contain more than 2.5 billion spores.
  • Vegetative form: This is the bacteria as a reproducing agent. The spore has germinated into something that is replicating itself. It climbs into the gut of the young larva and when the larva matures to the (pre-)pupal stage, it penetrates the gut wall. It starts replicating more and more by consuming bee-tissues. Often it’s fatal. the vegetative rods turn back into spores when all tissues have been consumed. It means there’s no more food left for them. This is how the infection can start off with 10 spores and ends up with billions in one single bee.

Don’t think that bees let this disease just passively overwhelm them! They will do their best to get rid of it by taking away infected larva and excreting infected honey outside the hive.

Unfortunately, their attempts are not always successful…

Who’s to blame?


The most important source of AFB spread is the beekeeper!

  1. By switching extracted honey supers (boxes) between hives (often a year later)
  2. Transfer of brood frames between hives

At other times the disease spreads through the behaviour of bees themselves. The most important source is robbing. Robber bees are bees that infiltrate other hives. They ingest infected honey, take it into their own hive, regurgitate it there and feed to their brood.  Robbing is usually how AFB turns up out of the blue in commercial operations.


Most of this information comes from the book “Elimination of American foulbrood without the use of drugs” by Mark Goodwin, Cliff Van Eaton, National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand. After studying this information I sat a bee disease exam, passed it, and this is how I became an “Approved Beekeeper”.

What are you up to, moon man? Part II

bee frames

In this post I continue what I started in my previous post: a List for Basic Beehive Examination. Previously, I have shown you what those funny looking beekeepers look at when they inspect hives from the outside. Now it’s time to take off the lid and investigate some suspicions by exploring the hive from the inside. Amongst others, I will show you how you can uncover one of the big beekeepers’ concerns: a failing queen.

The Beehive from the Inside.

Beehives maintained by humans often consist of a few wooden boxes stacked on top of each other. When you examine a beehive, you are mostly interested in looking at the bottom box: the brood box. This is the box where the queen lives and where she lays her eggs. This box is full of activity, food sources and different stages of bee-life.

Most boxes will contain about 9 frames that consist of sheets of wax cells. The bees store pollen, nectar and honey in these cells, as well as eggs and larvae. When you go and look at frames it is important to keep the following in mind: the more central the frame is located in the box, the warmer it is – many bee bodies form insulating layers. Bees love warmth and warm conditions are especially important for the babies. It is likely that the queen will choose warm central locations to lay her eggs.


1.)    Look for the queen. The first thing you want to know is if the queen is still around. When you look for the queen you will usually just start at frame 1 and make your way through the box in sequent order (in theory she could be anywhere), but you have the most chance in the middle frames. Even if you can’t directly find the queen, in these middle frames lies the answer if she has been around or not: if there are eggs, it means that the queen has been around in the last three days (each egg hatches after three days!).

How to recognize a queen? She is a bit bigger than other bees. Her wings are short in comparison to her body, and she moves differently. When you take a frame out of the box you will find that she crawls around, looking for a dark spot. The queen lives her life mostly in the dark…Adult_queen_bee

2.)    Look for the brood. The brood consists of different stages in bee-development: from eggs to larvae to pupae. All these stages live inside cells: eggs and larvae are directly exposed to the human eye; pupae are protected with a wax-layer (a capping). You should look if all these stages are present in the hive and you should look at how they are dispersed over the frames. This is an indication for queen-quality. Does the queen have a nice and even laying pattern? Or are the frames a bit chaotically organised with all sort of things happening in the same area? (egg cells directly next to food storage instead of next to more egg cells)


3.)    Look for food sources.  Look at where the bees have stored nectar, pollen and honey. Nectar looks like a transparent runny liquid; pollen comes crumbly in different colours (from light yellow to dark orange and brown), and honey is the stuff that has a wax capping over it (often yellowish, and different in texture from pupae-cappings). Again, look at how the food sources are dispersed over the frames. Not only can dispersal be an indicator for queen quality, but also for worker-bee quality. Food and brood chaotically amongst each other can be a sign of lazy workers!

4.)    Look at different types of bees. Besides the brood and the queen, there are two other types of bees to look out for: the female workers and the male drones. Males are bigger than females. They all crawl over the cells, and occasionally stick their heads inside cells for feeding. Ideally, you don’t want too may drones in your hive because they don’t do any work. Their only function is to mate with the queen!

5.)    Look at cell structures. You will notice that some cells are bigger than others, and other cells can even form big bulky clusters. These are indications for different events.

Big cells, mostly on the edges of the frames, are drone cells. When there is too many off them, some beekeepers decide to scrape these cells away to prevent more drones from emerging. A drone emerges from an unfertilized egg laid by the queen. A queen laying too many of these eggs is not the best queen and might be a reason for dissatisfaction inside the hive.

Bulky cell clusters are queen-raising responses. They can be there for three different reasons:

-They are swarm cells. The bees are not happy inside the hive and they want to escape. This might be because they are not happy with their queen and want to escape from her, or because their queen is not happy with their situation or location and tells them they should all escape together to find a new home.

-They are supersedure cells. This is a definite indication that the queen is failing. The bees are not happy with their queen and build a queen cell – which is exactly that big bulky cluster. Any egg layed in a queen cell will become a queen (due to a special diet of royal jelly that the workers feed it). Once the new queen emerges she will battle the old queen. Ninety per cent of the time the vigorous new queen will win.

-They are emergency cells. An emergency has happened: the queen got lost or has died. The bees quickly need to respond to replace her.


Please let me know if you have any questions!

What are you up to, moon man?


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!

Bee Ethics: The Battle Continues



In my previous post I have started a heated fictional discussion between a beekeeper and a vegan/animal right activist.

Find out what happens next…


battle continues

Vegan/animal right activist: Do you consider how disturbing your actions must be to the bees? There are studies out there that have shown us a new perspective about insects and pain. Some insects avoid negative stimuli, which is an indication that they are sentient. They are living organisms, after all! No human interference, means no more stressing and crushing bees!

Beekeeper: Crushing bees is unavoidable, indeed. But colonies are amazingly resilient, and can expand very quickly. A loss of a few individuals won’t be a big deal to the hive as a totality. Bees have good hygienic behaviour and are very industrious: they clean up the mess and carry on.

Vegan/animal right activist: How do you justify the stress you cause when you transport hives from one location to another? They might suffocate on the way!

Beekeeper: We aim to do this under the best conditions as possible. We strap the hive tightly together so it doesn’t fall to pieces on the way. We make sure it is not too hot or too cold. We take them on the back of a ute, so that the hive stays well ventilated and the bees can breathe. We won’t visit friends on the way, and we even avoid taking a break at the petrol station: we go straight for our destination to get the bees grounded as soon as possible.

Vegan/animal right activist: How do you justify using nasty chemicals in the hive for pesticide treatment?

Beekeeper: First of all I would like to emphasise that in New Zealand it is forbidden by law to use drugs for curing bee-diseases. However, we are allowed to use chemicals for pesticide treatment and especially right now it is absolutely necessary. At the moment the biggest enemy of the bee is the Varroa mite. This is such a dangerous enemy; there are simply no effective organic alternatives.  If we want bees to survive Varroa, the only way we can effectively help them is with chemical strips. The bees won’t enjoy it, but in the right dose this chemical doesn’t hurt them. In fact, it saves their life.

Vegan/animal right activist: How do you justify the artificial feeding regime you put them under?

Beekeeper: we feed bees a sugar syrup. This is a mix of water and sugar. Organic beekeepers feed them honey, but for most beekeepers this option is too expensive. Yes, it is artificial, but we simply do it to support the bees when they can’t find enough food themselves. Especially in winter, when food sources are scarce.

Vegan/animal right activist: Bees are very good in sourcing their own food. They can fly up to 5km. If you didn’t steal their honey they wouldn’t need artificial feeding!

Beekeeper: This is not true for new, beginning hives. They are often very weak and need the additional support. In nature, these hives would have a great struggle for survival. We simply make live a bit easier for them. And we don’t take honey from these weak hives. We acknowledge that they need all their honey to survive winter.

Vegan/animal right activist: Still, don’t you think you overwork your hives? By putting on all these extra stores boxes, the  industrious bees exhaust themselves in trying to fill everything up with honey. Only so that you can take it away from them! What makes you think that we humans deserve the sweet gold product of their hard labour? Give them a break, leave them alone.

Beekeeper: It’s not as if we take and don’t give anything back. As I’ve said before, we always make sure that they get enough food and that the hive is balanced and healthy.

Vegan/animal right activist: I still don’t think that this outweighs the negative effects. Remember how important the survival of bees is to the world: they pollinate about 90% of our crops!  You breed, buy and sell them: how could you not call that exploitation?

Beekeeper: Indeed, pollination through bees is very important. And that’s exactly why it’s so important that we keep bees and encourage bee populations to thrive. We look after them and encourage even more people to start keeping bees!


You see, it’s quite a tricky debate and both parties are very sure about their position. Too often they find ways around each other’s argument and keep their opinions firmly. And this is not even nearly a picture of a complete discussion…

What do you think? Let me know!


I have derived the vegan arguments in my ‘fictional debate’ from the Vegan Society and Animal Right Activist websites.

A Closer Look: Bee Ethics


After all this talk about delicious (and not so delicious) honey I think it is time now we asks ourselves some ethical questions. In my previous posts I have shown you inventive ways to obtain honey from beehives and what kinds of things we can do with honey.

But under all these actions hides the underlying assumption that it is a given that we eat honey; it’s a good thing even.

Most of us don’t think twice when we put our spoon in the honey jar. Yes, I’m guilty of that too.

But, as we deal with living organisms just as we do in other forms of keeping or farming animals, it is a good thing to sometimes evaluate critically what is going on.

These are some ethical questions I want to look into:

  • How does human interference effect bee welfare?
  • Why do we think it is OK to let bees produce honey for OUR consumption?
  • How do we feel about stealing a necessary survival product from bees that is for us merely a luxury product?

Note: I don’t want to give a conclusive opinion and I don’t want to plant an opinion in Your brain either! I just would like to provide an overview of conflicting arguments and give something to think about. At the same time this overview will be a starting point for different topics that I will further explore in my following blog posts. So this is

Note 2: This debate takes place in New Zealand, under the New Zealand rules, but will be in a lot of cases valid all over the world.


Vegan/animal right activist: Humans exploit bees. Not only do we take their honey, but we take their pollen, wax, propolis and royal jelly. Just because they fly, doesn’t mean they’re free. Beekeepers make them go through processes that are very similar to farming and it effects them in a bad way.

Beekeeper: Most beekeepers have a warm heart for their bees. We interfere with them, but this is greatly for the benefit of the bees. I admit there are some beekeepers out there that are mostly interested in the honey and the money, but even for them it is of great importance to look after the colonies properly. Please give me some examples of negative effects.

Vegan/animal right activist: You make them go through routine examination and handling, which stresses them out and crushes a lot of them to death on the way.

Beekeeper: we examine the hives to make sure the bees and their babies are happy and healthy and not suffering from disease. Also, it is necessary to check if the queen is still alive; if she is laying eggs and if she is looking after the colony properly. Examining hives means looking, listening and sometimes even smelling. We check if the cells show any anomalies, we listen to the buzz of the bees and we use our noses to detect a potential foul smell. We can learn a lot about the happiness of a colony by using most of our senses.

Vegan/animal right activist: You are keeping silent the fact that when you do all these inspections, you kill and crush a lot of bees and you stress them out.

Beekeeper: We try to minimize deaths and stress by using a smoker. When you smoke a beehive you trigger a natural instinct. The bees think: where there is smoke, there is fire. Their reaction? They climb inside their cells and start feeding. They store up on food because they don’t know when the next opportunity to feed will be. And you know how you feel when you eat heaps: it makes you feel drowsy. In this way, we reduce chances of crushing since most of them are safely tucked away with their head in a cell. Most of them will be rather dopey instead of stressed.


Vegan/animal right activist: Well, dopey bees aren’t very natural either. Smoke suppresses their communication via smell (pheromones). Dopey bees are bees that don’t function as well. And you will still stress and kill them in all sorts of other ways.


How does the battle continue? Find out in the next post!