Understanding normal bee behaviors is essential to identifying unusual behavior and correcting any problems.
The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver (Quarry Books, 2015), by James E. Tew, presents 100 common problems faced by beekeepers and offers practical solutions in clear and simple terms. Each key area, from hive management and equipment to diseases and honey production, is tackled in depth with photographs, tips and useful insights. The following excerpt is from chapter 3, “Biology and Behavior of the Colony.”
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It is easy for the beekeeper to grow to see the bee colony as a domesticated animal, one requiring management and care. Over the years, hive equipment and management procedures have evolved that show the bee in an unnaturally tamed light. In fact, the bee has another natural life that beekeeper management techniques unintentionally suppress.
In reality, the honey bee continues to adapt to the demands made by the beekeeper and the equipment used by typical beekeepers. But withstanding this pressure, the honey bee is still a wild being. No aspects of bee studies make this plainer than a review of the biology and behavior of the honey bee. When the naturalness of events such as swarming, queen replacement, brood care, and wintering preparation are observed, honey bees show that they still understand their natural life. Competent beekeepers strive to understand these aspects of the bees’ natural world and incorporate these behaviors in their management systems.
It is important that you gain a solid understanding of bee behavior and colony biology, so that you can distinguish between what’s normal and what represents a problem.
If a colony is genetically disposed to defensive behavior, the bees will readily sting in an effort to defend the colony and its resources. However, bees may also increase stinging levels if animals have been pestering the colony at night, if it has been exposed to insecticide, or if the beekeeper has been clumsy when manipulating the colony.
From season to season, beekeepers who closely monitor their colonies come to know the current personality of the colony. If an otherwise docile colony becomes overly defensive, you can either attempt to decipher the cause and correct it, or choose a different day to manage the colony. Some aspects of excessive stinging response are beyond the beekeeper’s ability to manage. For instance, thunderstorms seem to make bees testy. Also, bees will be feistier during periods of heat and when there is an absence of nectar. During these periods, if hive manipulation is required, you should wear full protective gear and use abundant amounts of smoke.
If a bee colony is so defensive that it is unenjoyable to manage and is a danger to the neighborhood, the queen can be replaced with one from a reputable queen breeder. Hopefully, the new queen’s genetics, reflected in her worker offspring, will provide a bee that is more docile and manageable. Additionally, you can reduce sting occurrences by applying white, cool smoke to the colony before it is agitated and then reapplying smoke at regular intervals. As much as possible, you should avoid bumping and jarring the colony when manipulating it.
Importantly, if you get stung a time or two, try to keep from overreacting by waving and swatting and possibly dropping frames, as this will only make matters worse by agitating the bees further. In general, expect some stings, but don’t expect too many.
Occasionally, a swarm from either the parent colony or a neighboring colony will cluster in the small space between the hive and the ground. Rainy weather, the physical condition of the queen, or the emission of attractant hive odors from the screen bottom, could be the cause.
Typically, honey bee swarms occur nearly every spring season. Taking the old queen, approximately two to three pounds of departing bees will temporarily bivouac on something like a tree limb for a few days while the final new nesting site is chosen. At this brief interval, this bee swarm is easy to retrieve and to install into hive equipment. While some swarms are easy to hive, others are much more difficult.
When the departing swarm clusters beneath the colony from which it issued or underneath a neighboring hive, it makes for a troublesome swarm retrieving experience. While this situation does not happen every season, it happens often enough to be an inconvenience. Hives with solid wooden bottom boards rarely have these swarms beneath them. Normally, temperate honey bees do not have much interest in being so near the ground. If the swarm is small, it can actually go unnoticed.
To retrieve the swarm, the colony must be completely broken down to the bottom board. It can be a laborious process. Additionally, some confusion can result when the swarm queens in the parent colony are disrupted and the swarm and the original parent colony bees are mixed in flight. The bottom board containing the swarm can then be carried to an awaiting empty hive filled with combs. The size of the hive box is irrelevant at this time. The bees can be shaken in the new box or the swarm can be laid in front, allowing the bees to find the cavity themselves.
When a beehive does not thrive, there are many possible causes. Some common reasons are: an underperforming queen, a disease or pest infestation, or pesticide exposure.
When the beekeeper discovers a problem in a colony, the first thing to do is to determine the possible causes. The second is to choose a method of treatment or management regime, but a close third consideration is whether or not enough of the season remains for the colony to recover sufficiently, even if the corrective program is successful.
For the beekeeper with several years’ experience, a quick review of the combs will usually offer some clues. If any brood is present, is it healthy? Compared to other nearby colonies, is this a feature that is unique to this ailing colony? Is the queen present? If so, is she productive enough to stay on the job? If the queen is not present, a new queen must be introduced. If a queen can be acquired in three to four days, this weak colony’s condition can be supplemented during that time by adding a frame or two of larvae and capped brood. Taking time to raise a queen from a larva will take far too much time, so a mated queen will need to be purchased.
Even if brood is transferred and a queen is acquired in just a few days, this colony will need further subsidies of brood and food stores from other colonies. If that is not possible, and the colony is in a dire condition, once you have confirmed that no transferable disease or pest is present, it should be united with another colony.
Defective combs built on new foundation are not uncommon, whether it’s beeswax foundation or wax-coated plastic foundation. Good combs are never absolutely guaranteed.
Nothing beats a good nectar flow for good comb construction. However, bees can be induced to build comb by supplying them with concentrated sugar syrup. This is a much weaker alternative to a good nectar flow, but the wax produced from the syrup will still be useful for capping cells, queen cell construction, and repairing damaged combs.
There are several occasions when bees build poorly formed combs. Though bees seem to prefer natural comb foundation to wax-coated foundation, poorly built combs on wax foundation are more difficult to reconstruct. The bees sometimes slightly modify wax foundation to build aberrant combs, and those permanent foundational changes are not readily repaired. On the other hand, plastic foundations, sometimes called inserts, are rigid and solid and cannot be modified by comb-building bees.
Combs can be scraped away from plastic foundation. After the beekeeper reapplies molten beeswax to the damaged areas, there is a good chance the bees will build normal combs. If this method is used, all traces of the previous defective comb markings on the foundation must be removed or the bees will use those markings as a basis for yet more defective combs.
Sometimes, a significant amount of healthy worker brood will have been constructed on defective combs. Obviously, it would be a waste of resources to destroy this brood. During a warm season, the defective brood combs may be put at the sides of the hive or otherwise away from the brood nest. After the brood emerges, these combs should be either corrected or replaced.
Reprinted with permission from The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver by James E. Tew and published by Quarry Books, 2015. Buy this book from our store: The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver.
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