Field Guide to Beekeeping
Inspecting Your Newly Installed Colonies for the First Time
by Jamie Ellis
I shared how to install packages and nucs in my April 2015 article. Quite frankly, that is the easy part. The work begins once you put the bees in the hive. For all the parents out there, keeping bees is not as difficult as raising children, but it is the same principle. Babies are easy to raise, before they are born. The work begins after they are born. Colonies are the same.
Your new colony needs attention. Of course, you could ignore the bees altogether. After all, bees have done a good job at “keeping” themselves for thousands of years. However, times have changed. The honey bees we keep face a number of pests and pathogens that they do not host ordinarily. Furthermore, the various environments where we keep bees may not favor their survival. Finally, honey bees face a number of stressors, stressors that require beekeeper attention. All of these issues must be addressed by you, the beekeeper.
It is important to know what to look for in, and what to do for, your new colonies. The colonies should be inspected about one week after installation, every two weeks for a couple of months, and then as needed thereafter. What follows is a checklist of sorts, one that can help guide your early colony inspections. These are items that one should look for or things that you should do when working newly installed colonies for the first time, about one week after colony installation. Consider this your first inspection checklist. The checklist is not exhaustive, but it does include most of the pertinent inspection considerations.
1) The new colony should have normal activity at the hive entrance. This simply means that bees should be coming and going from the nest entrance (Figure 1) in a manner that is appropriate for the time of the year and comparable to activity levels of other colonies. In early-to-mid spring, colonies should have a lot of activity at the nest entrance, unless weather conditions are otherwise unfavorable for bee flight. Comparatively high colony activity occurs into summer, but tends to wane as nectar and pollen resources become scare. Flight activity decreases significantly in mid fall and through winter.
2) There should be no, or only a few, dead bees at the hive entrance. A large number of dead bees at the nest entrance (i.e. 50+ dead bees) can indicate that the colony is struggling in its new environment. It could mean that the installation process damaged the bees. It also could mean that bees from neighboring colonies are trying to rob the new colony, more on that in point 3. Regardless, bees in new colonies should experience normal mortality rates, at least mortality rates consistent with bees from other, neighboring colonies. Incidentally, there is a cohort of bees in the nest whose job it is to perform undertaker services. These bees carry the dead bees some distance away from the hive. Consequently, there should never be a large number of dead bees at the nest entrance unless the undertaker bees are not doing their job or unless the colony is being robbed heavily.
3) There should be no robbing at the hive entrance. Robbing occurs when nectar resources are low in the surrounding environment. Strong colonies in search of nectar/honey may begin to infiltrate weaker, neighboring colonies in an attempt to rob the nectar/honey available within. Robbing manifests itself at the nest entrance as bees attacking one another. Furthermore, robber bees (bees from the robbing colonies) fly around the hive and look for other ways to get into the hive. For example, they may cluster around the seams between supers, around the hive lid, or around any external hive feeders. Newly installed colonies are particularly vulnerable to robbing behavior and should be protected. To reduce robbing behavior: (1) reduce the colony entrance to restrict robber bee access to the nest, (2) make sure that the outside surface of external feeders is kept free of syrup, (3) minimize the length of time spent working colonies, (4) seal all cracks/crevices around the nest, and (5) be willing to move the hives if robbing does not cease.
4) Any external feeders present on the hive should be checked for the level of feed they contain. External feeders are useful because one can monitor syrup use in real time and easily provide more syrup without disturbing the colony. On the other hand, external feeders are more prone to incite drift, especially if their outside surfaces are sticky. Internal hive feeders often hold more feed, minimize the occurrence of robbing, and come in a variety of styles. However, they take up hive space that otherwise could be devoted to combs and can only be filled when a colony is opened. Regardless, hive feeders need to be monitored frequently in newly hived colonies.
5) Bees should blanket the tops of most of the frames in newly installed colonies (Figure 2). Of course, it may be a few weeks before a new colony’s population increases. This is especially true for hives created from packages, given that offspring from the new queen have not begun to emerge. Despite this, there should be bees on the top bars of most frames when the nest is opened. Do not expect the top bars of all frames to be covered fully by bees. This is an unreasonable expectation. Instead, one should be able to see bees on and between most frames when viewed from above. The number and density of bees on the frames, when viewed from above, should increase from the outermost to the innermost frames, more or less uniformly.
6) Similar to point five, a removed frame should contain a lot of bees per side of frame (Figure 3). The number of bees on frames in the center of the nest likely will be two or more times that of frames on the edges of the nest. It is important to remember that the bee population in colonies created from packages tends to decrease before increasing significantly, this because the new queen’s offspring have not emerged. Thus, it is common to see a shrinking population in colonies started with packages, especially over the first two-to-three inspections.
7) The outermost frames in the brood chamber should contain stored nectar/sugar water and pollen. Furthermore, you should see bees in the nest with pollen on their hind legs (Figure 4). The bees deposit this pollen into cells, where it is processed into “bee bread” (Figure 5). Generally speaking, bees ...