For a new beekeeper, inspecting a hive can be daunting and sometimes detrimental to the hive. To help you through these inspections, we have just introduced a new field guide, called Hive Inspections Basics for Northwest Beekeepers. It breaks inspections into three levels: external observations, hive top inspections, and frame inspections. We thnk this will be a useful tool for beekeepers just starting this year and for those who feel a bit lost when doing a hive inspection.
If you are new to beekeeping, you might be alarmed to see a large portion of your colony hanging in a cluster outside the hive during these hot days, particularly in the evening. It looks as if your hive has grown a beard, thus it is called "bearding." Some people associate this behaviour with swarming, but more often it is their normal response to hot summer days. However, if your hive is particulary strong, you will see more bearding, and the probability of swarming is generally higher in a strong hive. Some people use slatted racks to reduce bearding, and slatted racks are often credted with reducing swarming. Whether they deserve the credit is debatable.
The blackberry nectar flow on the Willamette Valley floor is starting to slow, but there is still plenty of other nectar available. A good rule of thumb is to remove honey supers by first week in August. As with all such rules, there are plenty of exceptions. For example, higher elevations still have plenty of blackberry flow. But it is prudent to allow the bees plenty of time to make up any deficits in winter stores. Also the varroa mite population is high this time of year, so a good time to do a mite treatment is shorty after removing the honey supers.
You will often see high drone traffic on your hive entrance this time of year. And if you inspect your combs you will also find plenty of drones. This is normal. At least one of your combs will have drone cells, normally clustered around the edge. Some beekeepers install a drone comb, or an empty comb, on which the queen will lay predominantly drone eggs. Varroa mites prefer drone cells, so the beekeeper will remove this drone comb once it is capped over and then kill the drone brood to kill the mites. This is often done as part of in integrated pest management program (IPM).
Those of you running horizontal top bar hives such as the Kenya hive, make sure to regularly check the follow board. With the nectar flow now in high gear, the bees will need regular increase in space. In a strong flow, you might need to move the follower board every few days. To save effort, you can remove it competely, but the bees might build comb in a more scattered fashion.
A simple way to check the progress of your hive during the crucial nectar flow period is by using a crude but effective weight check. Go to the back of the hive, grab the hive cup handle (or cleat) of the lowest hive body, and lift. This tips the whole hive forward. It should feel quite heavy now, and get progressively heavier each week throughout the nectar flow. If your hive is not gaining weight at this time of year in the Willamette Valley, the colony might need supplemental feeding, or it might be in trouble. By end of the season, tipping the hive should feel nearly impossible because of the stored honey.
We are still in swarm season in the Willamette Valley. To reduce swarming from your own hives, the simplest thing you can do is make sure your colony has plenty of hive space for expansion. If you catch a swarm from one of your own hives, make sure you house it as far apart from the source hive as possible. Experienced beekeepers often like to a keep a spare single storey hive ready to house a swarm. If you are trying to lure a swarm, you can bait an empty hive box with some waxed frames, with a little lemon grass oil on a patch of cardboard or cottom swab. You can also use a swarm attractant that contains the pheremone Nasanov.
Quite often, we receive questions about dead bees and debri on the front entrance of the hive. On a rainy day following a sunny day, the colony will put more of its efforts into housekeeping, resulting in trash on the front entrance. You would not normally see more than a few dead bees scattered aross the entrance. If you see much more, it could be an indication of something more than housekeeping.
On a similar note, if you install an old brood comb into the hive, the bees will set to work cleaning out the cells, and for a few days following installation, you will often see small chunks of pollen and debri on the entrance. This is normal. However, before installing, consider the risk of latent pathogen build-up in the old comb. For example, foulbrood spores can remain in the comb for decades.
In the Willamette Valley, blackberries are starting to bloom on the valley floor. Time to get your honey supers ready. Make sure you remove all feeders and treatments before installing supers. Some beekeepers wait a couple of days after installing supers before installing queen excluders. This gives the colony time to start building wax in the super.