A Blog post by Eugene Makovec summarizing Randy Oliver’s  Advanced Beekeeping Workshop presentation.

Reading the Combs

On Monday, March 1, 2021, Randy Oliver shared his experiences and knowledge for what to look for and how to respond when opening up your hives.

Bees require three things to survive and thrive: a dry cavity, proper nutrition, and to control parasites/pathogens.

The colony has two objectives: to store enough food for times of dearth, and to propagate its genetics (via swarming).

General statements:

  • The life of the colony is one of Recruitment (the raising of new bees) and Attrition (the flying off to die of old bees). Management (beekeeping) is about maximizing recruitment and minimizing attrition. Successful beekeepers are the ones who have too many bees every spring. They are the ones whose advice you should take.
  • Nurse bees (3-15 days old) are the “stomach of the hive,” the only ones who produce the enzymes that make pollen digestion possible. They control protein transfer (to brood and adults) via transfer of jelly. Fresh pollen stimulates jelly production, and jelly is the shared currency that lets every bee in the hive understand the status of the colony.
  • Colony development follows pollen availability, not daylight hours or temperatures.
  • Winter cluster: Bees on the outside form an insulating shell at 50-65°F, heads in cells, “pumping blood from head to tail” to generate heat to the cluster.
  • Spring Turnover: As long-lived (diutinus) winter bees revert to nurse bees, they become short-lived summer bees. As a result, the adult population drops precipitously as brood develops to replace them. The challenge is to have enough adults to keep the brood warm. A cold spell during Spring Turnover quickly causes them to run out of protein. They respond by eating the eggs, then the larvae – leaving only the pupae, which need neither food nor warmth.
  • Fall Turnover: As short-lived summer bees die off, winter bees develop differently; packing their bodies with vitogellin (fat bodies) – which are not depleted by feeding the following generation – and loading their gut with pollen. This allows them to live until Spring Turnover, when they spend the remainder of those reserves on recruitment.

Reading the combs – some things to look for:

  • Energy interface: open honey or nectar
  • Protein interface: pollen/bee bread
  • A full frame of brood covered by bees will contain one adult for every three cells – meaning that frame of brood will soon turn into three frames of adult bees.
  • The beekeeper can determine protein levels by checking for wet brood (larvae “swimming in jelly”). If brood is dry, feed pollen substitute immediately. (This is more common in California and other dry western states than in the Midwest.)
  • During the main flow, nectar storage takes precedence. Give them space! White wax bridge comb means they’re short of storage space.

Contributed by Eugene Makovec


Posted March 6 2021