Assessing your hive’s strength is an important skill for new beekeepers to learn. Many help resources for new beekeepers will reference strong hives versus weak hives and call upon the beekeeper to make decisions based on the robustness of their colony, but how can you tell? How do you evaluate the performance of your colony? Read on to find out.
The first measure of a strong beehive is the number of bees in the hive. Strong hives have an abundance of worker bees. Sometimes this will be evident just from the traffic at the entrance, but keep in mind the volume of foragers working changes by time of day, year and can be altered because of weather. A strong colony may have lots of traffic in the morning, but very little in the afternoon. They may have reduced traffic on a cool day. Make sure you observe the entrance to your hive at different times of day to get an accurate picture of how much foraging they are doing. Don’t fret if you see reduced traffic on a single day, try to watch for the ongoing trend. A more accurate way to judge population is to open the hive. When you crack the lid, a strong hive will usually have bees hanging on the tops of the frames or they will be well packed between them. As you do your inspections, observe the brood comb, it should be well covered with nurse bees. The nurse bees make a layer of heat with their bodies, like a blanket, over their brood combs. There should also be bees stationed in the honey supers. These bees protect the combs and the stored honey from moths and beetles.There will be significantly less bees in this part of the hive, but the more you see, the better the population of your colony is.
Pollen is a critical part of the honey bee diet and there is a strong correlation between healthy, strong hives and abundant pollen stores. When inspecting your hive, make sure to take account of how much pollen they have. I usually find pollen stored close to the entrance of the hive. If you have a Langstroth hive, this may mean you need to check the lowermost box. You can also watch the entrance to your hive for incoming pollen in the form of pollen pants! I love doing this. It is a joy to see the different colors coming in and I also like to try to figure out what kind of plants they might be foraging on. When you see incoming pollen, it means conditions are favorable for your bees and they are strong enough to take advantage of it.
The size of your hive’s brood nest will change during the year and vary by location, but a strong colony will maintain a strong brood pattern. A strong brood pattern is indicated by large swaths of brood that are similar in age. It is most easily observed when it is capped. You will see a patch where all the cells next to each other are capped, making a solid pattern. If the larvae are unhealthy, worker bees will remove them, creating holes in the pattern. The result is what’s often called a “shotgun” pattern and it is a symptom of a struggling colony.
Take a close look at the larvae when you inspect your hives. They should be pearly white and curled in a “C” shape. Discolored, twisted, melted or malformed looking larvae are signs of brood disease or parasites. When the larvae is very young, it will float in a pool of royal jelly. The more generous the pool of royal jelly, the healthier the colony. Dry looking larvae are suffering from malnutrition and are indication of colony stress. When a hive is starving, they may even cannibalize the larvae to keep the adult population alive.
Well Maintained Combs
When a colony becomes weak, it may struggle to protect all of its comb. Often moths and beetles move in and begin to destroy combs and at the same time grow their population. Sometimes the combs are empty and become crispy from neglect. The moths and beetles take advantage of the unused real-estate, but may eventually move into areas that they bees are still using. If the bees are not strong enough to defend their hive, they will be overrun. It should be noted that beetles and moths can sometimes be found in small numbers on the periphery of the hive even in strong colonies, so their presence alone does not make a weak hive.
Although an abundance of honey is a good sign, it isn’t proof of a strong colony. Bees build up honey in spring and summer and store it for months. Just because your colony has lots of honey, does not mean they are currently healthy and strong. I often see weak hives with a large amount of honey in the fall. These colonies were strong at one point, but are now weakened. Don’t judge your hive’s strength on honey stores alone.
Strong colonies will go into winter with more bees, honey and pollen than other colonies and often come out the other side with these advantages. They will perform better in the spring because they were strong to begin with and do not have to recover as some colonies do. If you have only one colony, you may have trouble observing this because you have no basis for comparison. This is why I highly recommend new beekeepers start with at least two hives. If this is not an option for you, try reaching out to other beekeepers in your area. They may let you shadow them and this will give you the opportunity to compare your colony to theirs.