11 Frequently Asked Questions about Bee Behavior

By Howland Blackiston, Unknown

Not surprisingly, most new beekeepers face the same bewildering situations and ask identical questions. Following are some of the most frequently asked questions about bee behavior. They may solve a riddle or two for you as you embark on the wonderful adventure of backyard beekeeping. Look over these questions and answers.

  1. Help! A million bees are clustered on the front of my hive. They’ve been there all day and all night. Are they getting ready to swarm?

    They’re not swarming. Chances are it’s hot and humid, and the bees are doing just what you’d do — going out on the front porch to cool off. It’s called “bearding.” They may spend days and nights outside the hive until the weather becomes more bearable inside. Make sure you’ve given them a nearby source for water and provided adequate hive ventilation. Bearding can be an indication that the hive’s ventilation is not what it should be.

  2. Is something wrong with my bees? They’re standing at the entrance of the hive, and it looks like they’re just rocking back and forth. Are they sick?

    Your bees are fine. They’re scrubbing the surface of the hive to clean and polish it. They do this inside and outside the hive. Tidy little creatures, aren’t they?

  3. I hived a new package of bees last week. I just looked in the hive. The queen isn’t in her cage, and I don’t see her or any eggs. Should I order a new queen?

    It’s probably too early to conclude that you have a problem. Overlooking the queen is easy (she’s always trying to run away from the light when you open a hive). Seeing eggs is a far easier method of determining whether you have a queen.

    But, it may be too soon for you to see eggs. Give it another few days and then look again for eggs. Until they get a better idea of what eggs look like, most new beekeepers have a hard time recognizing them.

    A few days after the queen lays the eggs, they hatch into larvae, which are easier to see than eggs. If you see absolutely nothing after ten days (no queen, no eggs, and no larvae), order a new queen from your beekeeping supplier.

  4. Why is my queen laying more than one egg in each cell? Is she just super productive?

    Sometimes, for a short period of time, a new, young queen may lay more than one egg in the cells. This is normal and of no concern.

    However, if you see multiple eggs in many cells over a period of time, you may have a problem. It likely indicates that you have lost your queen, and some of the young worker bees have started laying eggs — a situation referred to as drone-laying workers.

    If you have drone‐laying workers, you’ll have to remove them from the hive and get a new queen. If you don’t correct the situation, you’ll eventually lose your hive as all the worker bees die off from old age. At that point only drones are left. Without the workers, there will be no bees gathering food and no workers to feed the helpless drones.

  5. Hundreds of bees are around my neighbor’s swimming pool and ­birdbath. The bees are creating a problem, and the neighbor is blaming me. What can I do?

    Bees need lots of water in summer to cool the colony, and your neighbor’s pool and birdbath are probably the bees’ closest sources. You must provide your bees with a closer source of water. If they’re already imprinted on your neighbor’s oasis, you may have to “bait” your new water source with a light mixture of sugar water. After the bees find your sweet new watering hole, you can switch to 100 percent water.

  6. A tremendous amount of activity is present at the entrance of the hive. It looks like an explosion of bees flying in and out of the hive. The bees seem to be wrestling with each other and tumbling onto the ground. They appear to be fighting with each other. What’s going on?

    It sounds like you have a robbing situation. Your bees are trying to defend the hive against invading bees that are stealing honey from your hive. You must call a halt to this activity before the robbing bees steal all the honey and many bees die in the battle.

  7. My bees had been so sweet and gentle, but now I’m scared to visit the hive. They have become unbearably aggressive. What can I do?

    Bees become more aggressive for a number of different reasons. Consider the following possibilities, and see whether any apply to your situation:

    • A newly established colony almost always starts out gentle. As the colony grows in size and the season progresses, the bees become more protective of their honey stores. Likewise, a growing colony means many more bees for you to deal with. But if the colony is handled with care, this is seldom a problem. Be gentle as you work with your colony.

    • When there is little nectar and pollen available for foraging, the bees can become very possessive and defensive — especially in the autumn.

      Incorrect use (or lack of use) of the smoker can result in irritable colonies.

    • Do you launder your bee clothes and veil? Previous stings on gloves and clothing can leave behind an alarm pheromone that can stimulate defensive behavior when you revisit the hive. Be sure to keep your ­garments clean. You can also smoke the area of the sting to disguise any alarm pheromone that may linger on clothing or on your skin.

    • When colonies are raided at night by skunks or other pirates, they can become cross and difficult to deal with.

    • Do you still have your original queen? Are you sure? If you had a marked queen, you’d know for certain whether the queen now heading your colony is your original queen (see if she’s marked!). A colony that supersedes the queen sometimes can result in more aggressive bees. That’s because you have no guarantee of the new genetics.

      The new queen mated with drones from goodness knows where. Her offspring may not be as nice as the carefully engineered genetics provided by your bee supplier. When this happens, order a marked and mated queen from your supplier to replace the queen that is now in your hive.

  8. I see white spots on the undersides of my bees. I’m worried these might be mites or some kind of disease. What are these white flecks?

    This isn’t a problem. The white flakes that you see are bits of wax produced by glands on the underside of the bee’s abdomen. They use this wax to build comb. All is well.

  9. The bees have carried dead larvae out of the hive and dumped them in and around the entrance of the hive. What’s going on?

    Bees remove any dead bees and larvae from the hive. They keep a clean house. Sometimes the dead larvae may be chilled brood, or brood that died when the temperature took a sudden and unexpected drop. Larvae that look hard and chalky may be a sign of chalkbrood. Either case is fairly commonplace. You don’t need to be concerned unless the number of dead bees and larvae is high (more than ten).

  10. It’s mid‐winter, and I see quite a few dead bees on the ground at the hive’s entrance. Is this normal?

    Yes. Seeing a few dozen dead bees in and around the hive’s entrance during the winter months is normal. The colony cleans house on mild days and attempts to remove any bees that have died during the winter. In addition, some bees may take “cleansing flights” on mild sunny days but may become disoriented or caught in a cold snap.

    When that’s the case, they don’t make it all the way back to the hive — dropping dead in the snow, sometimes near the entrance of the hive. Seeing more than a few dozen dead bees may be an indication of a health problem, so it may be time for a closer inspection on the first mild, sunny day.

  11. I see some bees with shriveled wings and very short, stubby abdomens. Are these just baby bees?

    These are not baby bees. This is usually a warning sign that the colony has a virus epidemic due to a significant infestation of Varroa mites. This results in malformations, like shortened abdomens, misshapen wings, and deformed legs. It’s time to take action.