Recently, I attended our local beekeepers’ meeting. The speaker was Clarence H. Collision, Professor Emeritus of Entomology at Mississippi State University and contributor to Bee Culture.
As a new beekeeper, opening the hive makes me nervous. Will I hurt the bees? Break something? Get stung? Evidently a lot of inexperienced beekeepers feel the same — and it’s not uncommon for us to assume that if bees are flying, the hive is healthy. But Dr. Collision’s lecture on inspecting comb changed my mind on that.
Some basics on comb: It’s where bees reproduce, store food and nutrients, and form a winter cluster to stay warm. When comb is damaged, it can cause brood (baby bees) to decrease and can also impact honey flow.
The first reason to examine the comb is to check the overall health of the hive. As Dr. Collision said, a new beekeeper and an experienced one have very different ideas of a healthy hive. I thought my hive was strong the first summer, but now that I’ve seen the bees multiply over the second, I’m in touch with Dr. Collision’s metaphor for a healthy hive: one that is “boiling over” with bees.
The second reason to examine comb is to check for the queen. If you bought your queen, she’ll likely be marked with a spot of paint to make her easier to identify. Listen for a gentle hum and look for eggs – a single egg in a cell shows that the queen was there in the last 3 days. Then look at the pollen – the bees’ food source. Is it fresh, or old and glossy? Bees won’t forage for pollen if there’s a problem with the brood or if the queen isn’t laying eggs.
The third? To examine the brood pattern. It changes seasonally but, in general, a solid pattern is good.
Laying worker bees have vestigial ovaries and can lay eggs if a colony is queenless, but can only lay unfertilized eggs. If you see multiple eggs in a cell that means you’ve got laying workers.
Finally, check for signs of common bee diseases and pests, such as foul brood, varroa mites, nosema or hive beetles. Examine the cappings (color, holes not in center of cell, scattered pattern, sunken caps), color changes in larvae and pupae (white is healthy) and look for mummies (dried larvae).
If you find any of those and don’t know how to deal with the issue, your local beekeeping association or your state apiarist can help.