Beekeeping is an extremely rewarding experience whether you are a professional beekeeper or a hobbyist with one or two hives. Beekeeping, or apiculture, dates back thousands of years. For millennia, humans have recognized the importance of bees for pollination, and harvested their sweet product for human sustenance and overall health. To this day, scientists, nutritionists, and health professionals continue to study both the agricultural benefits of bees, as well as the holistic and nutritional gifts bees offer humanity.
There is something very peaceful about keeping bees. When you are out with the bees, you feel as though you are one with nature. You cannot control the bees, which makes them different from other forms of livestock and agriculture. There is no way to dominate or contain bees. You have to work within their rules. As a beekeeper, your job is to serve the bees and help them survive, and hopefully receive a sweet return. The most important code for keeping bees is to understand their language. The hive is a complex kingdom and they will manage it as they see fit. You can help your hive by providing space to grow, nutrition, and a productive queen. Keep reading for signs that your hive is struggling, and steps you can take to help it manage a crisis.
Signs of a healthy hive: The Brood
There are several signs of a healthy hive. The first sign of a healthy hive is that it has smooth capped brood. Smooth capped brood indicates that the the queen is laying fertile (female) eggs, and they are being capped by workers approximately 6 days after the queen laid her eggs. Smooth capped brood is uniform in appearance, and surrounding brood should also be capped, unless the brood is emerging, which can cause a scattered appearance. Worker brood will emerge at 21 days. With a healthy, mated queen, you should constantly see capped brood in the hive. If the brood is raised, or bumpy in appearance, it is infertile (male) brood, which will produce drones. Some drone brood in a hive is normal, but an abundance of drone brood can be a sign that something is wrong. An absence of larvae and smooth capped brood is a sign something is amiss. Also, there may be symptoms of illness within the hive that can be spotted through the careful inspection of the brood.
Potential Problems In The Absence Of Smooth Capped Brood
Your hive may be queenless?
There are several signs that your hive may be queenless: No capped brood? No larvae? No eggs? Multiple eggs in a single cell? Your hive is likely queenless. For more information on how to recognize a queenless hive, and investigate your options, see our About Queen Bees page!
Important note: Bee eggs are very small, and are very difficult to spot, especially in dark wax frames. It is useful to use a magnifying glass and a headlamp when looking for eggs. Eggs should be laid in a uniform pattern, and there should not be multiple eggs per cell (laying workers). Eggs and small stage larvae can be difficult to spot, so before assuming that your hive is queenless or has rejected a queen, inspect the hive thoroughly.
Even when capped brood is present, problems can still exist. If you see a sporadic pattern of white or yellow softness in the brood, and the brood is emerging in a sporadic pattern, you may have European Foulbrood. This disease affects colonies across the United States, and can devastate a colony. EFB will weaken the colony because larvae affected by EFB cannot mature and will die. The population will decrease if EFB is remains untreated. EFB is caused by the bacteria Melissococcus plutonius, European Foulbrood should not be mistaken with American Foulbrood, which is caused by a different type of bacteria (see below). You have a few options when faced with EFB:
1. EFB feeds on young, uncapped brood, so you can break the brood cycle by removing the existing queen, letting the hive remain queenless for a week, and then requeening. if the bacteria does not have food, it cannot grow. However, if there are multiple stages of larvae and eggs present, the disease may continue.
2. You can treat the hive three times every 5-7 days with Terramycin, an antibiotic that will kill the bacteria. Remove any honey boxes before treating. Note: A Veterinary Feed Directive is necessary to obtain antibiotics.
3. Shake the bees into a new, uninfected hive and treat with antibiotics.
If you see your brood developing a white or "chalky" appearance, you may have chalkbrood. This affliction is caused by Ascosphaera apis, a fungus that affects brood of all ages. The fungus will infect the gestational system of the larvae, ultimately starving the pupae. The pupae die and will have a mummified appearance (See picture of mummified larvae). Discarded mummies will be present on the bottom of the hive or at the entrance. Chalkbrood usually infects weak colonies. Weak colonies are not able to properly ventilate a hive, so the hive becomes more prone to developing the fungus. If you see chalkbrood in your colony, you have a few options:
1. There is no chemical solution to chalkbrood. Hive management is the only solution.
2. Remove mummies from bottom boards and entrances to avoid transmission of Ascosphaera apis.
3. Add strong bees to the hive to prevent hive attrition.
4. Requeen your colony.
5. Give the hive honey frames to help with nutrition.
6. Adding strong bees will also help with hive ventilation, which will reduce the occurrence of chalkbrood.
American Foulbrood (AFB) should not be confused with European Foulbrood, as it is caused by perniciosa larvae. AFB is devastating to a colony, and beekeepers must take extreme measures once AFB is detected. The only way to know for sure if your hive is infected with AFB is to have infected larvae tested at a lab. However, symptoms include dark brown decaying larvae, a smell of decaying meat, moisture on capped cells that are collapsing due to decaying larvae inside, and stringy larvae. Stringy larvae is characterized by a long (2 cm) string of slimy decayed larvae that comes out when you pull on the larvae with a small stick or instrument. If you suspect your hive is infected with AFB, you should contact your local extension agent or lab to have it tested. Possible treatment protocols include:
1. Burn all the frames and boxes and start over. While this is devastating to do as a beekeeper, it is the only solution that ensures that you are not spreading the disease to other hives. Note: Some states require burning all bees and equipment
2. Treatment with Terramycin or Tylan. All honey boxes must be pulled and cannot be used on any other hives...ever. Tylan remains in the hive much longer than Terramycin, so appropriate precautions must be taken. Terramycin is approved to be used prophylactically, while Tylan is not. It should be noted that use of antibiotics is only effective if you are infected with a non-resistant strain of AFB, and dormant spores remain. Note: A Veterinary Feed Directive is necessary to obtain antibiotics.
3. Be sure to check neighboring hives very carefully for the disease. If any disease is located, take the preceding precautions.
Note: AFB bacterium spores can live dormant for up to 40 to 50 years, so do not cross-contaminate hive materials from infected hives, even if the hive is supposedly "cured." Hive materials can also never be sold, they must be burned.
More info and shook swarm method:
The Varroa Mite is a parasite that beekeepers have been combating since their introduction into US bee populations in the 1980s. Varroa Mites cause a hive to decrease in performance, reduced bee populations, and ultimately the Varroa Mite cause a colony to die.
The mites suck the blood from the brood and bees, decreasing bee life and causing deformation of bees afflicted during larval stages. Mites are dark red/brown in color and can be seen directly on the bees. Mites generally enter larvae cells right before they are capped. This infestation causes deformation of emerged bees.
Mite treatment is extremely important as soon as an infestation is detected. Here are some possible solutions:
1. Use of Apiguard treatment. This can only be used when human-consumed honey is not on the hive. It is always important to never introduce chemical measures when honey is on the hive.
2. Freeze frames to kill any remaining mites.
3, Careful inspection and early treatment is key. Hives infected with Varroa have little chance of survival.
Keep your hive healthy by...
Give them space
It is very important that bees have enough room to raise brood and store honey. If the bees feel cramped for space, they will do exactly what they are supposed to do; they will raise a new queen and swarm with half of the hive. This is the only way for the hive to control overpopulation, unless you give them enough space to grow. When your hive looks well populated, you need to make sure they have enough frames to expand. On strong hives, we will have two deep brood boxes and add honey boxes as they fill. Give them room, and they will grow!
Check your hive often
Keep checking your hive for signs of potential problems. If you spot something suspicious, act quickly. It is important to catch diseases and potential swarms early. Early detection is key for control and prevention of swarms and diseases. It is also essential that you make sure that each hive has an active, fertile queen, so that your hive can continue to thrive, produce more bees, and ultimately bring in a honey crop.