How To Inspect a Beehive (or How I Happened to Inspect This Particular Hive on This Particular Day)

The following is probably the most detailed video of a hive inspection that I’ve posted since the dawn of Mud Songs. For everyone who couldn’t attend the informal beekeeping workshop I had planned to put on today, this video shows what you missed (or would have missed if I’d gone ahead with the workshop). It’s a 24-minute video, which is longer than my usual videos because I left in the all the parts with me yammering on about what I’m doing — exactly the kind of yammering I’d do if I was giving a workshop.


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Defensive Honey Bees

Newfoundland supposedly has some of the gentlest honey bees in North America. Maybe so. But speaking from my experience and the experience of some other NL beekeepers I know, sometimes you just get a bad batch of bees. Here’s a video that shows some of the defensive behaviour of honey bees:

In my experience, when a honey bee feels threatened enough to sting — which is rare — there’s little or no warning. It will launch itself towards you like a fighter jet and you’ll feel the sting the instant it makes contact. A less defensive behaviour is what I call the head-butting dance. It’s when one or two bees fly in circles around your head and bounce off your face a few times to drive you away from the hive. They won’t sting you, but you’ll get the message that it’s time to go.

Side Effect of Rubber Bee Gloves

I’ve already written about my switch to rubber bee gloves. I wear them because they’re more tactical than goat skin gloves, but boy oh boy do they ever fill up with sweat in no time. Here’s what my fingers looked like after about an hour of beekeeping in the sun today:

Wrinkled fingers after sweating in rubber gloves. (June 10, 2015.)

Wrinkled fingers after sweating in rubber gloves. (June 10, 2015.)

And my hands stink like rubber. I still prefer them over goat skin. I’ll wear goat skin when I want extra protection from bees that I know I’m going to upset, or in the winter for warmth. But I think I’ll invest in several pairs of rubber gloves so I can strip them off, dry my hands and put on a fresh pair every 30 minutes or so. It wouldn’t hurt. By the time I was finished with the bees today, I could feel the sweat trapped inside the fingers of the gloves squirting around every time I gripped onto something.

The Meanest Bees

June 2019 Introduction: If I found a hive with this much capped brood in the top box today, I’m pretty sure I’d steal some of the brood to boost up any weaker colonies. Do the math: 1 frame of capped brood = 3 frames of bees. I found 7 frames of capped brood, which adds up to 21 frames of new bees in a colony with only 20 frames. So the thing to do there is to make more room. Either expand the brood nest by adding another deep or load up some honey supers to give the exploding population something to do. I would normally never leave a hive split up like I do in this video, but the bees were so defensive, digging into my shoes and cuffs and everywhere else, I had to bounce before they got me good.

The hive in the video has been off by itself in the woods for more than a year because the colony has always been full of the meanest bees I’ve ever seen. I have added honey supers to the hive but I’ve never inspected the brood nest, never manipulated or disturbed it in any way. I finally decided to inspect the hive yesterday, by dismantling it and rebuilding it in a sunnier spot, because I noticed the bees filling the honey super with pollen and something about that just didn’t seem right. I found seven frames of solid capped brood in the top deep of the hive (I would expect the brood nest to be in the bottom at this time of year). I didn’t inspect the bottom deep because the bees got too riled up and one bee even got inside my veil (I squished it before it could sting me).

I returned today to inspect the final deep and add it to the hive in its new location. The first frame I inspected was empty and several woodlouse were crawling around the edges of the comb. I’ve noticed woodlouse (also known as carpenters in Newfoundland) inside most of my hives; I don’t know if they’re harmful. I was unwilling to inspect more than one frame because — I admit it — I was scared of the bees. They were constantly bouncing off my veil whenever I got close, obscuring my vision at times. A standard bee hat and veil, secured by cutting edge technology known as string, seem ridiculously inadequate under such circumstances. The open hive boiled over with bees, all of them aiming for my face.

It was unnerving. I probably would have been better off leaving the bees alone. What do I care if I have to deal with a few frames of pollen mixed in with the honey? I still don’t know exactly what’s going on with the bees in this hive. I’m interested but I’m not that interested. I wish them well.

Postscript: This is the only defensive colony I’ve experienced since I started beekeeping in 2010. It makes more honey than any of my other colonies. That’s the main reason I’ve never requeened it. If I still had my hives in the city, I would have requeened the colony immediately. All of my other bees are friendly and gentle, a real pleasure to be around most of the time.

Honey Bees Don’t Like Black

A honey bee from a normally friendly colony stung me in the arm today because I was wearing a black t-shirt. I often wear minimal or no protective clothing around this particular colony because I know the bees are not at all defensive (not at this time of the year, anyway). Today was no different, except I forgot I was wearing a black t-shirt. As soon as I opened the hive, I noticed a few bees zig-zagging back and forth like they were hyped up on caffeine — not at all a relaxed flight pattern.

Once the bees start whipping around like wasps, it’s time to turn around and leave. Come back later with a veil and gloves and a smoker. But I thought, “Nah, these bees —f%$#@!” Zap, right under the sleeve of my t-shirt. The little bugger got me good.

I’ve been told many times not to wear black around honey bees because, supposedly, honey bees have evolved to be more defensive around anything big and black. Most creatures in the natural world that are big and black (e.g., black bears) are a threat to honey bee colonies. When honey bees see something big and black coming their way, it’s usually better for them to sting now and ask questions later.

Big black bear detailed ursus americanus

I’ve heard how the bees will even sting the ankles of people wearing black socks, but I wear black boots every time I’m around my bees and I’ve never seen them go for the boots. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t take much stock in these particular campfire stories — until day. My single experience of wearing a black t-shirt and getting stung for the first time around some bees that aren’t normally defensive isn’t much of a data set. It can’t be used to arrive at any kind of scientific conclusion. But I’d rather not wait for science if it means I have to get stung a few more times in order to prove the black bear hypothesis. Getting stung once is enough. I’m a believer. I’ll avoid wearing black around my bees again.

August 8th, 2014: For the sake of science, I wore black and then white around the same hive of bees. The bees came in for the sting while I was wearing black and ignored me while I was wearing white. Case closed. Closed enough, anyway.