Ann Chilcott is a Scottish Expert Beemaster. She explains just what can be detected about bees by watching the hive entrance.

"A careful observer can learn a lot about what is going on inside the hive by watching quietly from outside. It is very tempting for a new beekeeper to open up a hive just to look inside and marvel at these amazing insects working industriously as a superorganism. A single bee cannot survive alone, but as part of a large number of bees it thrives and works with them as a single unit. In this article I shall discuss just a few of many things that may be observed from the hive entrance.

By the way, next time you slather honey on your toast please remember that it takes 12 honey bees many trips to make one teaspoon, so each bee on average will only produce about 5 drops of honey over the average three weeks spent collecting nectar. A bee can spend between 5 and 150 minutes on each trip out collecting nectar from between 75 to 3000 flowers, depending on the kind of flower and nectar production. I’m so aware of the hard work involved in producing honey that I rinse that last drop of honey out of a jar with a cup of tea.

Opening up a hive at any time stresses the occupants to some degree, and research shows that it takes at least 8 hours for the colony to settle down after an inspection. The hive temperature is raised in order for the eggs, larvae and pupae in the broodnest to be kept at a constant temperature of around 34-36 °C.

Breaking the propolis seals and moving the furniture about is disturbing at the best of times, but during the cold winter months you do not want to be opening up hives and cooling the occupants. In order to produce heat bees require calories, in the form of honey or sugar syrup, so that they can move their wing muscles thus generating heat. In autumn, blocks of fondant can be directly placed over the brood frames, or above the crown board for when the queen starts laying again in early January and food stores run low in early spring.

On a warmish sunny day in January or February you may see bees out on cleansing flights because they do not defecate inside the hive unless unwell. You will know about this if you come home from work and find your washing spattered with little yellow dots containing pollen husks. Your partner may not be too pleased but you will know that your bees are alive and well.

You can place your ear on the side of the brood box and listen for the bees gently humming. A soft tap on the side will elicit a response if you are uncertain about the survival of the colony over winter.

Seeing foragers return from field trips with full pollen loads on their legs causes all beekeepers to rejoice in early spring for it means that the queen is almost certainly laying again, and that the bees require more pollen to feed the brood. Pollen stores don’t last longer than about a year inside a hive due to deterioration and bees require a wide variety of different pollens to maintain health.

Hive debris on the floor tells you where the colony is clustered in the hive and emergency feeds can be given directly over the winter cluster for easy access. Bees often starve in winter because it is too cold for them to move to where the stores are.

Hive debris will also tell you if there is a heavy varroa infestation. If you have an open mesh floor the mites will fall to the floor from the bees. You may see tiny clear flakes resembling sea salt on the floor and these are wax flakes which have fallen out of the wax glands before the bees have added propolis and manipulated them for use in the hive-- so they are colourless. This is a sign in winter that the queen is probably laying again and the colony needs more wax to cap larval cells.

Drones flying before April (when drone rearing, in preparation for mating with virgin queens during swarm season, usually commences) might mean that the colony’s queen has run out of semen and is laying only drone eggs, or that the queen is dead and workers are laying unfertilised drone eggs. Either way, the colony is doomed unless re-queened, which is usually impossible in late winter/early spring unless you overwinter a spare colony, or nucleus for the purpose of a having spare queen for such an event.

When you see drones in April you can start preparing equipment and planning for managing swarm season. The drone population in a colony varies from between 300—3,000. Swarming is a means of colony reproduction whereby the old queen usually departs for a new home with more than half the colony, leaving behind queen cells from which one queen will survive to lead the colony.

At the end of summer it is usual for the worker bees to throw nearly all of the drones out of the hive in order to conserve precious food stores enabling the colony to survive winter. They often chew off their wings and drag them out of the hive entrance so you may see lots of dead drones outside the hive on the ground. If you see drones being thrown out in June you should be concerned that there may be a shortage of food. Perhaps poor weather has reduced a nectar flow, or you have harvested spring honey and the bees are running low on stores. If drone larvae are found at the hive entrance then you may need to feed sugar syrup immediately. If worker larvae are found outside the hive the situation is usually very serious. In emergencies, sugar syrup can be sprayed directly onto a starving colony that would otherwise be unable to move upwards to a feeder on top of the crown board due to weakness and immobility.

Dead bees at the hive entrance in winter is usually normal because at the end of summer the population in a hive is around 40,000, whereas in February it may have reduced to 10,000. So 30,000 bees will die over 150 days which is around 200 deaths a day. In the dead of winter the bees will stay inside, but on warmer sunny days they will remove the dead bees and throw them out the front door.

During the summer season most of the foragers will die with their boots on in the field so you never see them again. However, if you see a large pile of dead bees, near the hive, with their mouthparts extended you would be correct to suspect poisoning. In this case you would collect 3 samples of 300 dead bees. Two samples would be sent for toxicology studies, and the third would be frozen for future tests should a legal investigation be required. You would photograph the bees and make notes about time of day, weather conditions etc. and try to find out if crop spraying has been undertaken in your area."


Ann Chilcott, Scottish Expert Beemaster, writes about beekeeping every month in Smallholder magazine, where this article first appeared. To find out more about beekeeping, why not subscribe to the magazine.