While it is important to do regular inspections of your bee hives, you can also learn a lot about the state of the colony just by sitting and closely observing the front of the hive and entrance. Observing the hive from the outside minimizes the disturbance that occurs inside when they are opened up for an inspection. It is also a good way to do a “quick check” of the hive if you are pressed for time. Additionally, I enjoy being able to just sit and spend some time with my bees without having to interrupt their daily work!
While watching the hive entrance, the first thing I take note of is the reaction of the hive to my standing near them. A normal hive will take little or no notice of me, and will continue with its normal activities. If the guard bees approach me, or act in an aggressive manner, it means that there is a problem with the colony that should be investigated. It could be that problems with the queen are making them more “grouchy”, or that night time intruders such as skunks or raccoons are causing the hive to become more defensive. Scratch marks near the entrance are a sign that animals are the problem.
I then take a look at the bees at the hive entrance. A strong hive will have bees stationed at the entrance – the guard bees. These bees are checking the bees returning to the hive to be sure that they belong to that hive, and are not intruders from another hive. The guard bees also keep a look out for other intruders such as wasps, hornets, mice, etc.
The entrance of the hive should be a busy place – you should see many bees taking off from the hive entrance while others are returning with nectar and pollen. Speaking of pollen – sometimes it is possible to get an idea of what flowers the bees are visiting by looking at the color of pollen they are bringing in. It will vary in different areas, but in our area maple is pale yellow, blackberry and raspberry are grayish, and white clover is a dark yellow. By observing the pollen the bees are bringing into the hive, and being aware of what is blooming in your area, you can get a good idea of what plants your bees are visiting.
If you are watching the front of your hive in the late afternoon, you may see large groups of bees “hovering” in front of the hive. They may be moving up and down or moving in a “figure eight’ pattern. These are newly hatched bees that are “orienting” to the hive entrance. If a hive is producing many bees, it is a good sign that there is a healthy laying queen in the hive.
There are also a few things to look for that are cause for concern. One of these is robbing behavior. Robbing tends to become more common in fall when nectar becomes more scarce, and bees are trying to prepare for winter. Signs of robbing are bees wrestling and fighting at the hive entrance, and bees aggressively circling the hive looking for ways to get in. If you see robbing happening, it is important to take steps to stop it immediately. The hive being robbed could be weakened to the point that it will not survive the winter. For tips on putting a stop to robbing, see my previous blog, "Honeybees and Robbing".
Another concern is bees crawling in front of the hive, unable to fly. If you look closely, you may see that the wings are deformed. This can be caused by tracheal mites (if the wings seem to form a ‘K”), or by varroa mites. Again, if this is observed, steps should be taken to sample for and decide on a treatment plan for these parasites.
A third observation that could be cause for concern is large numbers of dead bees in front of the hive. While it is common to see some dead bees as the house bees clean out the hive, a large number could indicate that something is wrong in the hive and should be investigated further by doing a full hive inspection.
A valuable resource if you are interested in learning more about this subject is “At the Hive Entrance” by H. Storch. This book was originally published in German, and then translated to English and reprinted in 1985. It is considered to be “the definitive guide” to understanding what is happening inside the hive by observing the outside of the hive. It can be a little difficult to obtain a printed copy, but many libraries - especially libraries maintained by beekeeping clubs, may have copies you can borrow. I also noticed that it was available for download on several websites.
So next time you are itching to go inside your hives and see how the bees are doing, consider instead, pulling up a chair. A lot of what you would go into the hive to look for can be determined just by watching the entrance!