The bees tell their story

There’s a well known saying: “A picture tells a thousand words.” Beekeepers also have a saying along the lines of going through a hive is like reading a book, the bees are telling you what’s going on on each frame. So what does this picture of a frame tell me? And is it a thousand words?

Type of frame

First of all this is a brood frame where the new bees are raised. The cell size tells us which of the three types of honey bee are being raised.

Eagle eyed beekeepers will have noticed that it’s smaller than a standard brood frame: my hive is brood and a half, basically you give the queen more space to lay. The upside is they’re less likely to swarm (the way a colony reproduces), the downside is the weekly checks during the season take longer. They were on this system when I took them over, they do very well on it and frankly who am I to argue with them?

Up the workers

Worker larvaeEggs hatch into larvae after three days, then the nurse bees (workers) feed the larvae until they cap them after about 7.5-10 days, depending on which type of bee it is. The larvae pupate, take on their adult form and chew their way out after 16-24 days again depending on the type of bee. I think these cappings look like mini digestive biscuits. The uncapped cells contain worker larvae too – I can tell by the size of the cells. The collection of life stages from egg to emerging is known as brood. 

There are no eggs present on this frame. If there were I’d be able to tell how long ago they were laid and therefore when the queen was present. Eggs are shaped like tiny grains of rice: if they’re on their tip she was there in the last day and they slowly become horizontal over the course of the three days.

The pattern of the cells

Honey arc

This is pretty much the classic brood pattern (though I did have one queen who had a more impressionist approach): capped worker brood in the middle getting younger as it goes outwards surrounded by an arc of honey. Then there’s the larder of honey towards the edges of the frame; after all it makes sense to keep the food close to where you’re going to feed the babies.

What type of bee are we looking at?

Workers trophallaxisThese are all workers as far as I can see. They are (usually) sterile females who do every job in the colony apart from laying eggs; occasionally if there’s a problem with the queen some will start laying. In that case the hive is in serious trouble and you can tell the queen isn’t laying as workers can’t get their bums to the bottom of the cell and will often lay multiple eggs in one cell. They can only lay drones (males) thanks to the strange honey bee genetics which will probably be the topic of another blog one day. Workers have different jobs according to their age and the needs of the colony; basically it goes nurse bee (just emerged, looks after the brood); house bee (keeps the place clean, receives nectar for storage and processing into honey); guard bee (bouncer); forager (collects nectar and other things the colony needs, more on that another time).

We can also see two bees doing trophallaxis, one of my favourite science words. Basically it’s the exchange of fluids for a variety of reasons: a forager passing nectar to a house bee for storage; a forager giving another forager a taste of a good nectar source; and it also acts as a form of communication, for example by transferring queen substance so the workers know all is well. I like to think of it as them having a chat.

There’s something missing

Usually just inside the honey arc there’s a pollen arc, this is used as the protein part of the brood food. For some reason these bees have decided to store it either side of the brood nest; again who am I to argue and frankly I doubt there’s anything I could do about it even if I wanted to. Which I don’t.

Incoming full pollen baskets

Incoming pollenI love watching the pollen loads coming in, it’s a sign that brood is likely to be present and therefore that the queen is likely to be laying. Plants produce a huge variety of colours of pollen and those more experienced than me can tell which plants the bees have been feeding on by the colour of pollen at that particular time of year. I aspire to this.

The knobbly bits at the bottom

Q cups and brace combThe knobbly bits and enlarged cells at the bottom of the frame can show they’re thinking about swarming. Some of these are queen or play cups, the start of queen cells. However, my bees seem to build these when they’re stuck inside on wet days, perhaps trying to worry the beekeeper – we’ve been together long enough that I know the colony’s personality and they’re not inclined to swarm in August.

The other knobbly bits are brace comb, built linking this frame to the one below it; the bees are trying to strengthen their home.

A healthy hive

The brood pattern indicates a healthy hive; yes there are a few empty cells but nothing that indicates a problem. The larvae are lying flat in their cells, a beautiful pearly white and clearly segmented, all good signs. The cappings look good: they aren’t greasy or sunken which could indicate a foulbrood disease. The worker bees on the frame look healthy, are active and their wings aren’t deformed so no sign of deformed wing virus carried by varroa mites.

Husbandry hints

This bit is more for beekeepers and anyone interested in taking up the craft but you may find it interesting too.Husbandry

Why the rubber gloves?

OK they’re not part of the frame but they are part of the story. I wear this type of glove because they’re thin enough so you can still feel what you’re doing and they’re also easy to clean to prevent the spread of disease. Due to the eczema I also wear cotton gloves underneath to soak up the sweat which can trigger a flare up. 

Cleaner frames

These are the newer ones I’ve added to the hive. Comb management is important for disease prevention and something I’m still trying to get my head around – basically if it’s three years or older it needs to be replaced although as with many things in beekeeping it’s not quite that straightforward.

The blue thing

This is a frame hanger. I take out the frames nearest me to create some space to work and pop the frames on the hanger which holds them over the entrance and landing board. If the queen happens to be on them, I haven’t noticed her and she falls off she can stroll back in again.

This frame is only part of the story

With twenty four frames available to the bees for the brood in a brood and a half hive this is only one chapter. Only by reading all of them do you get an idea of the story and even then it might not be the full picture: the bees can sense problems we can’t see, such as a failing queen. They taught me that lesson this year, I might tell you about it one day. 

Can a frame tell a thousand words?

According to my word counter it can tell about 1,200 words and with all the frames in the hive that’s quite a story every week from spring to autumn. Pop back to check for upcoming posts on honey extraction and August in the apiary.

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