Category Archives: Honey bee behavior

Caffeinated honey bees

A beekeeper friend sent me a link about an experiment with honey bees, and caffeine spike sugar syrup.  I had seen this link before, but did not follow it, I guess I was just too busy at the time. However, I followed it today. More interesting than I had thought. I tried to find the scientific paper that was listed at the end of the video, but it is a subscriber only article, and all I could see was the abstract. I then looked around again, Googled I mean, and found this link to the video,, which includes more scientific info about the study. Interesting. I wonder what plants produce caffeine, besides teas and coffees? And which actually release caffeine via nectar? Or could other substances produced in nectar produce a similar reaction?

This is another reminder of how interesting these little insects are, and what new questions they can introduce us to.

Maybe it would help explain this behavior. Not completely serious here, but we do not know why they engage in this wash-boarding behavior. You never know.

Robbing – honey bees as thieves!


Yes, our honey bees can become little criminals and steal from their neighbors! The threat of larceny is usually not great in the spring and early summer when a good nectar flow is on, but as the flow slows or stops (as occurs from time to time, especially in periods of dry weather), bees are on the lookout for any food they can find. So watch out! It is that time of year. The closest source is often a neighboring hive. Colonies with strong populations can usually defend themselves. New nucs and divides, recently captured swarms, and any hives which have not built up well or which are dwindling due to disease, pests, or other causes, are all likely targets of robbing bees. The culprits may come from your own hives, from your neighbor’s, or from nearby bee trees. Continue reading

Bees Are Collecting Pollen & Spring Is Coming!

Daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths – the big, colorful blossoms that we associate with spring – may not have made their annual appearance yet, but spring is gradually moving north. Beekeepers know it because their bees are carrying more and more pollen back to the hives. This activity has been going on for some time further south, and is now reaching Tennessee and Kentucky. Though not the first photos I’ve received of pollen laden bees this year, the two I’m sharing with you here are particularly nice. They were sent to me by my Tennessee friend Fred Sloop.

                                  Click photo to enlarge – a Sloop Family photo

Lots of pollen collection not only signifies blooming in the bees’ foraging range, but also means that brood rearing is underway in earnest in the hives. Pollen consumption is integral to the rearing of new bees and, in the process, stimulates the bees to collect more pollen, which in turn ….. Hence the frenzied activity we are beginning to see.

Maybe there is a beekeeper on staff at National Public Radio, or maybe it’s something in the air. At any rate, a few days ago NPR ran a story about how the collection of pollen by bees  is facilitated by a slight, negative electrical charge in flowers. As bees fly they gain a slight positive charge from friction with the air. When they visit a flower, the pollen is literally electrically attracted to the hairs on their bodies. Honey bees actively collecting pollen will work purposefully to free it from the flower, but electrostatic attraction ensures that the flower’s needs are met whether or not the bee is interested in pollen on given flight. (The NPR spot also sights a recent study at the University of Bristol which demonstrates that bumble bees, at least, can sense the flower’s electrical field and use it to guide themselves to nectar sources and to avoid those which have just been visited by another bee.)

But wait, even more remarkable things happen after the pollen is on the honey bee’s body. NPR left out the most interesting parts. The bee uses her forelegs, which have hairs Continue reading

Are Your Bees Doing the Washboard Dance on the Front of Your Hive?

Bees, in addition to just hanging out at the hive entrance, sometimes exhibit an even more interesting behavior called washboarding. This is a rhythmic movement, in which bees on the front of the hives (on the landing board and often above it) seem to step forward and backward,  swinging their front legs in what looks to me like a sweeping movement. In another era, when I was a child, my mother still sometimes made use of a washboard to do small batches of laundry by hand. (Her main laundry chores were done in an old fashion ringer washing machine.) This movement of the bees does remind me of the up and down movement my mother made on the washboard. However, I think it looks even more like a dance. Since the term “honey bee dance” is used to describe the movements of forager bees inside the hive on the face of the comb, I guess a new term was needed for this behavior. I find it interesting that only certain hives take part. Out of the 15 full, two story hives in my apiary, only two are exhibiting it at this time. One is shown in the video below. This raises multiple questions, why are they doing it, and why are only certain hives doing it? Is it weather related? Heat? Related to bearding on hives? Though long aware of this behavior, I had not noticed the bees in my apiary performing it earlier in the year. (I have observed it in years past.)

What are they doing? While many beekeepers believe that the bees are cleaning the surface of the hive near the entrance, I am not convinced. I do not know of any scientific research or evidence which shows that what they are doing is cleaning. If you are aware of any (a scientific paper), let me know. I did find one interesting article, co-authored by Dr. Jeff Pettis – head of the USDA Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, discussing some of the scant research which has been done on this behavior, but the authors conclude that the reason for it is still unexplained.

See a little video I filmed this week of some of my girls doing their “washboard dance”, and turn up the sound. Washboard video.

Are Your Bees Hanging Out at the Entrance?

Do your hives have a lot of bees hanging near the entrance? This is a common behavior observed by beekeepers in the summer, especially in July when it is hot and the nectar flow has slowed down.

It is often called bearding and, when observed in July, should not be considered a precursor to swarming. If you are seeing this in your hives and are concerned that they are getting ready to move to a new location, calm down and take a deep breathe. Swarming is not imminent.

 I liken bearding to a human behavior from the days before air conditioning was common. It’s a sweltering Sunday afternoon, your chores are done, and the inside of the house feels like an oven. Where would you hang out? Why, on the front porch, of course. Some observations you can make to confirm that the behavior you’re seeing is bearding: fewer bees on the front of the hive in the cooler hours of morning and evening and on rainy days; more bees on the front of stronger hives. Stronger hives mean more bees, more body heat, and less room inside.

A Beekeeper Asks: Multiple swarms from one hive?

A beekeepers asks:
I had a hive swarm three times in a week. They would go about 30-40 feet up in the trees, after they would swarm it seemed they would disappear, and a couple days the same hive would swarm again. Is this normal? The last time they swarmed they must of left. Got a call from a neighbor a mile away with a swarm in the back yard eye level , finally got to give them a new home looked like mine, but they are now.

Phil’s reply:
There are two possibilities of what was going on.

One is that the swarms you saw went back into the hive they emerged from, which will happen if the queen does not leave with the swarm – a not uncommon phenomenon. During swarming the queen does not lead the swarm, but goes along with it. If she misses the boat, so to speak, the swarm will return to the hive after they discover she is not with them. However, they will swarm again later. The swarming behavior is delayed, but the urge is still there. To be certain that the bees went back into the hive, you must actually see them return. A couple of weeks ago, I had a swarm in a tree. While preparing to try to capture it, I lost sight of it for less than ten minutes. At the end of that time they were GONE! Did they go back in the original hive or did they just leave for another home? I’ll never know, since I did not actually see them go.

The other possibility is that you had a primary swarm followed by after swarms (also known as secondary swarms.) A hive may swarm multiple times, with some period of time in between. The original queen will leave with the first swarm. Secondary swarms depart with virgin queens as they emerge from the queen cells. If you did not actually see the swarms return to the hive, they may have been secondary swarms.

There is no way of knowing whether the swarm you captured is a swarm from your hive. I actually think it is more likely to have been from a bee tree near where you captured it. I have, on a number of occasions, captured swarms well away from any beekeeper’s hives, and asked myself where they came from – then walked around and found a bee tree. Question answered. Bee trees are not uncommon these days, at least here in Kentucky, and I hear the same thing from beekeepers in other states as well.


A Beekeepers Asks: Questions about missing queens and laying workers

A beekeeper asks:
About three weeks ago I caught a very large swarm and immediately placed it in two deep hive bodies with 10 frames in each. I looked in the hive today and found the top box was almost completely full of capped honey, lots of bees, but no brood. The bottom box, had some capped honey at the top corners of the frames, little pollen and two frames in the middle with some capped brood. I did not see the queen and my question is how to tell if a queen is present in the hive?

Phil’s reply:
I never worry about seeing the queen, unless I’m making nucs (I do not want to move her), re-queening, or doing a task where I really need her in hand. I depend on seeing eggs or larvae to determine her presence.

With this heavy nectar flow and a new swarm, you are not likely to see brood in both boxes, even with a big swarm. The bees are putting lots of nectar in now. If you are seeing eggs or larvae (uncapped brood) in the bottom box, you have a queen. Don’t worry about actually seeing her. If you look in the area (on these frames) where you are seeing the brood, that is the most likely place for her to be hanging out.

You may wish to put a honey super (or two) on that hive. I have 2 hives containing large swarms I have caught, which are putting honey in supers.

A beekeeper asks:
About three weeks ago I had a large swarm emerge from a hive (I saw and captured it). The top box in that hive is full of capped honey, but the bottom one is almost empty with only a few cells of capped brood. I did not see the queen. I’m concerned about the hive. Advice?

Phil’s reply:
You say there is some capped brood in the bottom hive body. That indicates that there was egg laying occurring less than three weeks ago, perhaps a few days longer if that is capped drone brood. It can take a hive between 2-3 weeks to produce a laying queen after it swarms and leaves capped queen cells. As I said in a recent post, queens emerge 7 to 8 days after the queen cells are capped. (And swarms will depart as soon as that happens.) Another week will pass before the virgin queen is ready to make her mating flights. During that time, she reaches sexual maturity and makes orientation flights. After successfully mating, she will start laying eggs in 2 to 3 days. Added up, it takes 2 to 3 weeks for the new queen to start laying eggs after a hive swarms. I would give it a few more days before considering installing a new queen. You may have a virgin, or a newly mated queen that has not yet started laying eggs.

I sometimes call this period, from just after the hive swarms until most of the brood in the hive emerges, a time of “apparent queenlessness”. It looks as though the colony is without a queen, but it may, in fact, be in the process of producing a new one. Many a beekeeper has contacted me at this time of year to tell me they thought a hive was queenless. They placed a queen in the hive or started to install one, and discovered eggs or young larvae. I advise patience before installing a replacement queen in a hive that seems to be queenless at this time of year.

A beekeeper asks:
I have a hive that has dwindled. There is a laying queen and I continually see eggs, but there is never brood. At one time I moved a frame of nurse bees into the hive, thinking that might be an issue, but it did not help. There are some capped drone cells which makes me wonder if the queen is not laying and workers are. The eggs seem normally positioned in the cells. Just curious what you thought.

Phil’s reply:
You may have a queen who has run out of sperm, so she is laying only drone eggs. (I have in the past called these infertile queens, but that doesn’t really sound right. They are fertile because they can lay eggs -just not fertilized eggs that develop into workers). Beekeepers often call them “drone layers”. With both laying workers and a queen that has run “dry”, you get only drone eggs. But if you’re seeing the queen, you probably do not have laying workers.

Laying workers is a condition that can develop in a hive after it becomes hopelessly queenless, when some of the workers respond to the lack of queen and brood pheromones by starting to lay eggs. Workers cannot mate, so when the do lay, the result is the same as when a queen dries – nothing but drone brood. Though workers are always capable of laying eggs, their urge to do so is suppressed by the pheromones present in a normal hive. Since brood pheromone plays a role in the suppression as well as pheromones from the queen, it takes several weeks for laying workers to develop even after the queen is gone. We can postpone this behavior by moving a frame or two of capped brood into a hive that has been queenless for a long period.

To help determine whether you have laying workers or a queen that has run out of sperm when you don’t see the queen and are finding only drone eggs, here is what to look for:

  • Laying workers: Only drone brood in the hive, and seen in worker sized cells; multiple eggs in a cell (always more than one laying worker in hive, so more than one of them may lay in a cell); the drone brood is scattered (they miss cells). The workers do not have the instinct to lay in every cell and to position the eggs properly.
  • Dry queen: Drone brood only, and seen in worker size cells; not scattered and no multiple eggs in cells. The queen is laying, just laying unfertilized eggs.

My bees were after water today.

I have a chicken waterer set up in the front yard near my home beeyard to serve as a “honey bee waterer”. The girls were really taking advantage of it today! You may also view a short video clip of the action.

Click on the photo to see as a sharper image.