When you take apart and inspect your hives, what do you see? Every beekeeper hopes for a strong population, a healthy brood pattern, and an abundance of honey and pollen for your honey bees to feast on. These and other signs indicate a thriving hive. When your honey bee colony is strong and healthy, it has a better chance of surviving pest infestations, diseases, or an upcoming harsh winter. This is why beekeepers hope to see all the signs of a healthy colony every time they visit their hives. If you notice a lack of these characteristics in your apiary, it might be time to take a closer look and address the problem with pest treatments, pollen substitutes, or other solutions. When you’re always on the lookout for the following signs of a strong and healthy honey bee colony, you can identify a weaker hive and take action quickly to set it right. Keep your honey bees in good shape by looking out for these things during every hive inspection.
A Strong, Healthy Queen
Much of a honey bee hive’s activity revolves around a healthy queen. The queen bee takes sole responsibility for reproducing and keeping the population up. She also releases pheromones that let the rest of the honey bees know she’s alive and well. This motivates them to keep making honey, raising brood, and protecting the hive. That’s why you should always keep an eye out for the queen whenever you take a peek inside your hive. This makes it easier to quickly spot and address “queenlessness,” which can be dangerous for a hive. If you lose a queen because of old age or other unfortunate circumstances, you might end up with laying workers, which can then create an unbalanced population with not enough worker bees. Be sure to mark your queen with a dot of ink or paint to make her easier to spot during inspections. If you realize your hive is without a queen, act quickly to replace her and get your population back on track.
A Thriving Population
As important as the queen bee is, a healthy hive also relies on thousands of worker bees. Without the hard work of a thriving population, a colony would have no foragers to gather pollen and nectar. They would also be missing nurse bees who care for the brood and guard bees who keep pests and parasites away. Your honey bees also need a strong population to cluster together and keep the queen and the rest of the hive warm through the winter. It’s always a good idea to monitor your hive’s population. Pay attention to the traffic coming in and out of your hive entrances. You should also keep population in mind as you open up the lid of your hive. A colony with a good population will likely have honey bees packed between frames or hanging out on top. Strong populations will also have plenty of nurse bees moving around over the brood combs.
Abundant Pollen and Honey Stores
Honey bees use both pollen and honey to feed themselves. If your hive doesn’t have a good supply of pollen or honey, something is definitely wrong. Keep an eye out for pollen stores in your hive, which are usually located near the brood cells. You can also watch the forager bees come back to the hive with the pollen baskets on their legs stuffed with pollen. You also want to check the honey stores every time you inspect your hive. A plentiful honey supply means your colony is still healthy and productive. It also indicates they’ll have enough food to make it through the winter—and allow you to collect some sweet, golden honey for yourself. However, abundant pollen and honey stores alone don’t guarantee a healthy hive. If a colony was once strong but has recently taken a hit to its population, it might still have plenty of honey in the hive. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean the honey bees can maintain themselves alone. When monitoring your hive’s food stores, make sure you take the other signs of a strong and healthy honey bee colony into consideration as well.
A Healthy, Regular Brood Pattern
A productive queen and plenty of worker bees maintain a hive, but a healthy brood pattern ensures the colony’s future. As you perform hive inspections, make sure you take a good long look at the brood cells. If your queen bee is doing her job right, each cell should have a single egg in it. The hive will also have a regular brood pattern, meaning that the comb will have a solid grouping of capped brood cells. This indicates that there is a large amount of healthy brood who are about the same age. If there are holes or uncapped cells in this pattern, it means that workers or nurse bees have removed unhealthy larvae. If this happens, you should be on the lookout for other issues in the hive, such as pests or diseases that might be harming the brood’s health. You can also look at the larvae themselves to judge the health of your brood. Healthy larvae will be a pearly white color and will sit curled up in their cells. If you notice discolored, twisted, or otherwise malformed larvae, it’s usually an indicator that your brood is suffering from some sort of disease or parasite.
No Pests or Parasites
It’s always a good sign when your hives are free of varroa mites, wax moths, and hive beetles. During hive inspections, look for any symptoms of these and other pests, parasites, or diseases that may enter your hive. If you see webbing from wax moths or mites and beetles crawling around, it’s time to take action. Keep in mind that some pests, like moths or beetles, are simply an unfortunate reality of owning a beehive. If your colony is strong, they’ll be able to keep these pests at bay without too much issue. However, if your guard bees can’t keep pests to the perimeter of the hive, they might take over and start destroying the hive’s resources and population. One good indicator of your hive’s health is the comb. Clean, well-maintained comb means your honey bees are the only ones using it. Look out for destroyed comb and other symptoms of common beehive pests. Like with most honey bee threats, addressing the problem quickly makes it much easier to put your colony back on track.
What do you look for in a healthy hive? Share your expertise and advice with us in the comments below!