This is a follow-up to a recent post on mid-summer hive inspections. Previously, I discussed how to go about an inspection and what to look for. In this post, I will talk about what I saw during the inspection and what it means.
During any hive inspection, no matter what the time of year, I’m interested in the following issues:
-Food stores in the hive
-The presence of brood in all stages
-Signs of disease, parasites or pests – this may include taking samples or using other monitoring techniques to spot problems which cannot be assesed by visual inspection alone.
Food stores in the hive
At this point in the season, I am not concerned that hives contain sufficient food stores (honey and/or sugar syrup) for the winter, but rather that they contain enough food to get them through until the fall nectar flow begins later in August. This is the time of year when, in Kentucky and the surrounding region, the nectar flow usually slows to a trickle or a slow drip. However, in central Kentucky at least, the bees seem to be finding nectar in spite of the dry weather. In my apiary the flow is small. Not much was being put into the honey supers (I have now removed all of them), but there is enough to cause the bees to rear more brood than I normally see this time of year. Which is a good thing. While making my recent inspection, I noted stored honey in the brood boxes, which is also good. I would be concerned if there were less than 15 pounds in the brood boxes. A hive at any time of year needs about that much to sustain itself during periods when little or no nectar is coming in – either because floweres fail to produce it during a dry spell, or because extended periods of rain keep the bees from gathering it. Fifteen pounds translates into about 3 deep frames full of honey, so it doesn’t take much.
The presence of brood in all stages What about the queen? In my earlier post on hive inspections, I never mentioned looking for the queen. That’s because the presence of eggs, uncapped brood, and capped brood tells me that she is there whether or not I see her, and much more besides. Abundant, healthy brood in all stages of developement is an indication of of the general health of the hive.
Healthy capped brood
The cappings on capped brood should be constant in shape and color, and larvae should be a nice, white color. It is very important to learn what healthy brood looks like in order to recognize problems when they appear. A lack of brood may indicate the absence of the queen, an infertile queen, a shortage of food, or health or parasite issues. However, the genetic make-up of some queens causes them to slow down or stop laying during times of low nectar flow. As a result, though I am pleased to see brood and eggs, I do not immediately jump to the conclusion that their absence at this time of year is evidence of a serious problem.It just means that if I’m seeing no brood or seeing a break in the brood rearing cycle (eggs but no brood, or brood without eggs, for example) I need to try to figure out why.
When I open a hive, I also pay attention to the number of bees on the frames. A strong population is a good indicator of the health of a colony, especially when accompanied by ample food stores and brood. Reduced numbers call for an explanation. They could be the result of a current problem such as disease (nosema), or parasites (varroa). They could also be evidence of an earlier problem (such as the loss of a queen) from which the hive has not fully recovered. Late swarms and nucs which haven’t had time to build up exhibit low populations as well.
Signs of disease, parasites or pests?
If sufficient food stores, healthy brood, and a strong population are indications of a healthy hive, what are the signs of a problem? Take note of brood that is not constant in appearance or looks abnormal. Look for holes in abnormal capped brood which can be a sign of a brood disease or varroa mites. The most common health issues that honey bees face are varroa mites and nosema disease. Nosema disease is common, but is difficult to detect; a lab analysis is required. I suggest that beekeepers collect samples in late summer and send them to a bee lab for testing. The alternative is to treat preventatively. Beekeepers throughout the United States may send honey bee samples to the USDA Bee Lab in Beltsville, Maryland for free testing. Go to their webpage for information. You may also be able to send samples to your state university bee lab. In Kentucky, beekeepers can send samples to Dr. Tom Webster at Kentucky State University – email Dr. Webster (firstname.lastname@example.org) for information on collecting and mailing samples. Beekeepers in other states should check with their beekeeping university extension program for availability of testing services in their state. Often when samples are sent for nosema testing, varroa tests will be performed at the same time. However, varroa mites can easily be monitored by beekeepers as part of routine hive inspections. While the use of sticky boards is the most accurate sampling technique, other methods can be employed, including powdered sugar rolls, solution washes with soapy water or alcohol, and merely removing pupae with forceps. I consider after Labor Day the best time of the year for varroa treatments. Watch for future posts on monitoring and treating (if required) hives for varroa.