Minding Your Bees and Cues

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Minding Your Bees and Cues

Sensible Beekeeping
By: Becky Masterman & Bridget Mendel

Make Sense
The most sensible beekeeper is the beekeeper who uses the most of their senses. The information your skin, nose, ears, eyes and mouth gather for you is not only enjoyable but will help you hone in on nuances of colony health and behavior. As you approach, open and pull out frames from the hive bodies, take note of what you see, hear, smell taste and feel. Your senses provide clues about your colonies and apiaries. By tuning into all of your senses, you connect the science of beekeeping with the art of beekeeping.

Most of us rely heavily on sight to inspect inside the hive. We strain our eyes to see eggs on glaringly bright days or play “Where’s Waldo” with the queen. But observing what is happening outside of the hive can also inform your management. Look for change in activity throughout the season and with shifts in weather.

Can you recognize a colony on a nectar flow prior to opening the hive? Before you get to the hives, do you see bees flying in organized, yet crowded and frenzied masses back and forth in the air? A colony taking advantage of the copious carbohydrates of a nectar flow indicates that you’d best add some supers.

Do you see afternoon bees flying in arcs facing the colony? They are taking their orientation flights. Also check the entrance for stationary bees with their abdomens in the air. Are the abdomens crooked or pointed straight out? Bees with crooked abdomens are using a pheromone called “Nasonov” to direct their nest mates to the entrance of their hive. Orientation flights are paired with Nasonov releasing entrance bees.

This is a colony with lots of propolis on the tops of the frames and box rim. The propolis is the sticky-looking brown-ish golden substance (can also be other shades of brown, yellow, red, green or white). Photo credit: Brooke Nikkila

Before you pull the first frame from the hive, watch how the bees behave. Calm, adult bees wander around on the frames. Agitated bees may run, fly or get into the “heads up or butts up positions.” Heads up bees line up between the frames in a defensive posture. A straight, pointed up abdomen is also a sign of defensiveness, especially when stingers are out. Pay attention to how your movements change a colony’s demeanor.

Beekeepers in the blind community are an inspiration for strengthening our other senses, particularly our ears (https://www.beesfordevelopment.org/story/jennifer-oloya/). A honey bee apiary can literally be abuzz with foragers flying back and forth from the hives. You can see and hear them when approaching the yard. Inside a honey bee colony, you may find the pleasant hum of a contented colony, or the roar of a “hopelessly” queenless colony (no eggs or larvae, no prospects of making a new queen). Pay attention to the pitch and tone of your vibrating bees. Worker piping is another sound that a beekeeper can learn to identify. We like Dr. Tom Seeley’s description of piping worker bees rallying the swarm for take off. He tells us that if we listen to the swarm on a tree, eventually we will hear the audible piping of workers signaling to their sisters that it is time to take off to their new nest site (Seeley & Tautz, 2001). We prefer to trust his words and put the swarm in a box as soon as possible!

After letting smoke from the smoker dissipate, take a moment to smell your colony. Smell the overall colony—it should smell pleasantly like beeswax and honey. Propolis stored in crevices and around the edges of the box (and eventually on your hands or gloves) will smell resinous and medicinal. Defensive bees near your veil or stings under your nose can smell like bananas. Note any changing smells throughout the year. Some nectars have a bit of a funk to their smell. Notably, goldenrod can smell like gym socks and buckwheat can have a musky and malty odor. At any time of year, recognize unpleasant odors of sour, rot or death that can indicate brood disease or dead bees.

Has the brood nest warmed your hands when you are pulling out a frame? Similar to the way we sweat or shiver to maintain “body temperature,” honey bees collectively use thermoregulation to cool or warm the nest with and maintain a temperature in the mid-90°F range. A gloved beekeeper in cooler weather might not detect the warmth of the brood nest. Gloveless beekeepers feel the warmth and recognize the importance of a quick inspection when the colony is losing heat. Regardless of your personal protective gear choices, cool weather inspections are disruptive and require the colony to expend extra energy re-regulating their cluster temperature.

Sampling your way through seasonal nectars is a way to learn about the different floral resources available to your bees. Poking your finger into the wax of a super frame (or better yet into the burr comb between boxes (the nectar not the drone pupae!)) to taste the nectar is not only delightful, but provides clues about the nectar the colony is turning into honey. If you harvest your honey at the end of each season, the blend of floral resources might be more difficult to discern. Adding a quick taste to your inspection regimen (warning: do not taste during mite treatments and don’t forget that you have a veil on when bringing your finger to your mouth!) will inform your knowledge of the habitat your colonies are utilizing and help you learn about the nuances of nectar flavor. If you want help connecting the flavors to the floral sources, we suggest a visit to the UC Davis online store to purchase their honey flavor wheel.

These bees are in the “heads up” position looking up at the beekeeper: good time to puff a little smoke. Photo credit: Brooke Nikkila

Being Sensible
The Minnesota Apiculture Extension program with the help of the University of Minnesota Bee Squad and a community of beekeepers are incorporating recognition of senses in their Beekeeping in Northern Climates inspection workbook, supported by a North Central Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) grant. Not yet available, it is meant to be a companion to the recently revised and available Beekeeping in Northern Climates, Third Edition manual. Another beekeeping support effort from the University of Minnesota Bee Squad and Minnesota Apiculture Extension program, Bee Veterans, teaches the use of multiple senses to learn about honey bees. You can take their lead and fine tune your inspection skills by adding another sense or two (or three) to your inspection notes.

Ecofarms Jamaica works trains members of the deaf community to keep bees – https://www.ecofarmsjamaica.com/
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) https://www.sare.org/grants/
University of Minnesota Beekeeping Programs https://beelab.umn.edu/manuals
Dr. Tom Seeley and piping bees https://www.beekeepingtodaypodcast.com/piping-hot-bees-with-dr-thomas-d-seeley-s6-e42/
Seeley TD, Tautz J. Worker piping in honey bee swarms and its role in preparing for liftoff. Journal of Comparative Physiology A: Sensory, Neural & Behavioral Physiology. 2001;187(8):667-676. doi:10.1007/s00359-001-0243-0
Honey bee thermoregulation article in Bee Culture by Clarence Collison https://www.beeculture.com/a-closer-look-25/
UC David Honey Flavor Wheel https://ucdavisstores.com/merchlist?ID=