Reading your bees

Whether you’re conducting a hive inspection or just sitting in front of your bees with a cup of tea, studying them carefully will tell you a lot about the health and well-being of your colony. This page aims to suggest what you might look out for.

Inside the hive

It’s best not to disturb your bees unless you have a really good reason, especially as much can be learnt by studying the hive entrance.

If you take time to watch your bees in August, you’ll probably see

• Intensive, busy flights at the entrance

• A clean landing board and ground in front of the hive. If you see lots of dead bees at this time of year it almost certainly indicates disease or insecticide poisoning.

• No signs of robbing or fighting with bees from other colonies or other insects such as wasps

• No crawling bees, chalk brood mummies

• A few healthy drones on the landing board

During a nectar flow, you may also detect a delicate floral odour in the air.

Limited activity

If on the other hand, there’s only limited flight at the hive entrance on a warm day, that’s not good. In August, bees should be everywhere. If there is only limited activity, you will need to open the hive to determine what’s gone wrong. Queen loss, laying workers, pesticide exposure or disease are the most common reasons for a colony to fail. Opening a hive under these circumstances is an easy call, the colony needs help if it’s to have any chance of survival.

Swarm-like activity at the entrance

Sometimes in August, when the weather’s hot and possibly thundery you’ll see bees pouring out from the hive. Although you may not be able to detect it, drones will be in the mix. If it were spring, you might think a swarm was about to issue. Whilst it’s not impossible for a colony to swarm in August, this activity is probably not that. In an hour or so, all returns to normal. We don’t actually know what the bees are doing (perhaps they’re too hot) but the key thing is not to panic.

Chalk brood mummies in front of the hive

Colonies with Chalk Brood are unlikely to thrive and re-queening at some point should be considered. Don’t panic though, there’s no real hurry. Chalk brood is a fungal disease and colonies seem to be more susceptible in season’s when its rained a lot. There are no approved chemical treatments for the disease and re-queening is the best option.

Chalk brood mummies on the landing board

Hive rubbish

Some colonies seem to make a great effort to dump their rubbish well away from the hive, others dump it directly outside, even on the landing board! The rubbish will consist of old cappings, wax moth litter and even dead bees. If all is otherwise well, it’s really nothing to worry about. There may be an increase in hive debris when you have spun out honey and returned the empty supers to the hive. The bees go over the returned supers and repair the damage we cause. They use or re-store the residue honey then repair the comb as space is required. This remodelling results in extra hive debris.


If you see frenzied activity in front or around the hive or bees fighting, this is almost certainly a sign of robbing. Small or weaker colonies are particularly susceptible in the late summer or autumn. Once the robbers have overcome the defences of the weaker colony, they will loot the hive’s honey reserves resulting in a significant pile of cappings at the entrance.

Denise made this short video to show robbing at the West End apiary. In this instance, she solved the problem by reducing the entrance and replacing a leaky roof.

Make sure all your boxes are tight with no gaps and reduce the entrance to make it easier to defend. If the bees still cannot defend themselves, the hive can be moved as a last resort.

Bee colour

If you’re observant and notice a change in the colour of your bees, it may mean your queen has been superseded. When you next open the hive, you may be able to confirm this; there may be the remnants of queen cells, if your queen was marked and now she isn’t, that’s a sure sign or you may find two queens (mother and daughter) working happily together in the hive.

Ventilating bees on the landing board or side of hive

During hot weather, a few bees will commonly ventilate at the hive entrance or on the landing board. Ventilating bees put their bums in the air and furiously fan their wings. Although to us it looks the same, this is not the signalling behaviour bees do using their Nasonov glands; it’s air conditioning for bees!

A hot hive

You may see masses of bees clinging to the front of the hive. This ‘bearding’ on the outside is a clear indication that conditions within the hive are either too hot or too crowded or both. It’s also a cue to you to give your bees more space by adding a super. If it’s early in the season or there’s a nectar flow on, you may consider adding more than one. If the reason for the bearding is over-heating however, the bees may continue with this behaviour even after you’ve added the super.

Bearding is quite a common occurrence and is generally harmless. Not sure what would happen in sudden rainfall and it can be a worrying site for neighbours.

Wash-boarding behaviour

If you watch your bees carefully and you’re lucky, you may witness the mysterious ‘wash-boarding’ behaviour. This is where dozens of bees, move their bodies rhythmically backwards and forwards whilst clinging to the outside of the hive. They may also fan their wings. Some beekeepers think propolis is being applied, scientists think it may be to do with the application of pheromones. Nobody knows, but its a sign of a healthy and productive colony.

Landscaping bees

Generally, only a handful of bees (six to eight) are assigned this duty. They seem committed to clearing grass and litter from the front of the hive. These are not the same bees that remove dead bees or do the cleaning, it seems to be a completely separate task.

Propolis workers

Commonly, workers can be seen manipulating propolis as though they were working with wet cement! Sometimes, they work in groups and at other times, they work alone on some self-assigned project. They’re a particularly hardworking lot!

Richard took this photo clearly showing a worker carrying propolis on her legs.

Apiary odours

On still warm days (when there’s no wind), take a deep breath whilst in the apiary. You will almost certainly be able to detect the ‘essence of beehive’. Bees use propolis at the entrance to disguise the smell of the colony but despite these efforts, a healthy hive has a distinctive and very pleasant odour. If there’s a deviation from this, it could be a sign of disease.

Inside the hive

Hungry bees

If you notice your bees are moving more slowly than usual, check the stores. In winter, it’s usually too cold to open the hive so ‘hefting’ is the best way to check stores. Hefting is a matter of practice but you can learn how to do it at an apiary meeting. If the hive seems light in winter or early spring, you can place a pack of fondant over the feed hole on the crownboard. Go back and lift the lid a week later, if your bees are hungry you’ll see them in the fondant. If you determine stores are light in summer (due perhaps to poor weather), you can feed your bees using a contact or tray feeder and syrup made to a strength of 1kg sugar to 1 litre of water.

An unhealthy colony

There are many clues to Ill-health in your colony. The bees may be slow to build-up in Spring or the colony may shrink in numbers (spring dwindling), this could be a sign of Nosema. There may be physical evidence such as Chalk Brood, fouling of the combs or entrance, Sac brood or the bees have poorly formed wings. There maybe shiny, black looking bees that are motionless or shaking.

Sacbrood virus is an infectious disease caused by a virus that affects the larvae. When sick, the colony declines gradually with few or no replacement workers. The larvae die at the pupa stage and are characterised by a small transparent water bag at their tip.

Then there are the non-visible signs like an unpleasant smell. If you encounter any of these symptoms and would welcome help, contact Meridian. Remember, an unpleasant smell may be a sign of foulbrood which is notifiable by law.

Thirsty colony

One of the reasons bees sometimes become aggressive is they don’t have a reliable supply of water. Always make sure there’s a water supply nearby but don’t put it too close to the hive as the bees won’t be able to describe the water’s location in a dance.

A shallow tray arranged with stones and gravel will allow bees to drink safely. Make sure you place it away from the hive and keep it topped up.

Old bees

You’ve all come across people who proudly tell you they’ve rescued a bee by giving her sugar water. You probably said well done but in reality, it was likely to have been a waste of time. Workers spend the last portion of their lives as foragers carrying nectar and heavy loads of pollen. They literally work themselves to death. Bees tend to die away from the hive and the ‘rescued bee’ was probably trying to do that.

Young bees

The first half of a worker’s short life is spent in the hive. Have a good look at them the next time you open up. They tend to be paler in colour and have more hair than the older foragers. Treat them with care, they are the future of the colony.

Frightened bees

If you see bees lined up at the entrance, that’ll be your guard bees on full alert. Watch to see if the colony is being attacked by bees from other colonies or wasps. If you suspect an attack, you can help your bees by reducing the entrance so they can protect it more easily. It’s also interesting to watch them ‘checking IDs’; deciding who can come in and who can’t!

Stinging is also a sign of frightened bees. That’s why your movements should always be slow and deliberate. Be gentle, and always make sure you’ve removed enough frames to make plenty of space to work. Avoid crushing and rolling your bees at all costs.

Angry bees

If bees come buzzing around your veil even after they’ve been smoked, or they chase you or others away from the hive, stinging indiscriminately, you know something’s wrong. It could be that a good nectar flow has stopped and they’re worried where the next meal’s coming from. It could be they don’t have water. It could be they’ve gone queenless or you didn’t treat them properly the last time you opened the hive. If the behaviour persists however, you should seriously consider re-queening the colony, particularly if it’s sited near other people.

Sometimes the bees agitation is a reaction to a nervous beekeeper. Relax and they will too!

Busy bees

If you open up when the bees are busy (for example during a nectar flow), they will take absolutely no interest in you. This is the best time for a beekeeper; not only does it mean you have a thriving colony but you can complete your hive inspection with no distractions. This is the time to take photographs or just watch their fascinating behaviours.

Busy bees are happy bees; they won’t give you a second thought during hive inspections.

A weak colony

If you see Chalk brood or signs of dysentery you can assume the colony isn’t strong enough to deal with the disease itself. Assess the levels of capped and uncapped brood; it might be there are plenty of bees in the pipeline and that adding a frame of brood from another, healthy colony (and feed) will tide them over, or you may need to re-queen. The colony may also benefit from a Bailey comb change.

Crowded bees

if you see developing queen cells in Spring and the hive is crowded, your bees are almost certainly preparing to swarm. Don’t panic, but look through the colony carefully. You’re looking out for two things; the queen and the presence of a sealed queen cell. Fact is, if you find even one sealed cell, the swarm has probably already departed. It’s still worth checking though. Once you have examined each frame for the queen, carefully brush the bees from the frame into the brood box. In this situation avoid shaking the bees from the frame, you don’t want to risk damaging unsealed queen cells you may later rely on.

After brushing, you will have a clear view of the frame. Take time to examine it, you’re looking for queen cells. They’re likely to be at the bottom of the frame but can also be tucked into nooks and crannies, especially at the side between the comb and frame. It’s a good idea to mark the frames on which you find cells in some way; you’ll need to find them quickly again in a minute. Most beekeepers stick a drawing pin into the top of the frame.

Sealed: the queen and swarm has almost certainly gone!

When you’re sure you know the situation in the colony, you can decide what to do. If the queen’s still present, you may decide to perform an artificial swarm or some other kind of split. If she’s gone and the colony is still strong, you might decide to utilise one or more of the queen cells by splitting the colony. Much depends on other factors like how well provisioned the parent colony is. Queen cells and how to identify the different types

If you decide on an artificial swarm and you transfer the queen to the new box on the frame on which you found her, be absolutely certain there’s no queen cells on that frame. If there is one or more, you must destroy them. The best way to learn how to perform an artificial swarm is at an apiary meeting.

Old or failing queen

If you see queen cells in the autumn and possibly patchy, dwindling brood or one to three queen cells in the middle of the frame at any time, your bees are superseding or it’s an emergency situation in which the queen has been lost. Close the hive and leave well alone for at least four weeks. Queen cells, the different types and what to do.

Emergency cells will be found in the middle of the frame within a patch of worker brood. There’s usually fewer than three.

Based on articles by Dr James Tew (Auburn University, Alabama) and Sue Carter (Buckinghamshire BKA) which appeared in BBKA News. The first Spring inspection.

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