What It Means, And When To Take Action
Bees are complex creatures. There’s a lot to learn – and even old-hand beekeepers need guidance from time to time.
If you’ve noticed bees hanging around the front of your hive more than usual, you might be wondering what they’re doing. There are a few possible causes – it could be as innocuous as orientation flying, or it could be something riskier like a robbery.
Here’s what might be happening if you’re seeing some strange bee behaviour, and what you need to do.
Robbing is exactly what it sounds like – bees from other hives trying to steal honey from yours. When there’s a nectar shortage, outsider bees will invade your hive and try to steal your honey – and it can be a brutal affair. Robbing bees will fight your bees, rip honey cells open, and could ultimately steal your entire supply, meaning your bees won’t survive.
The most common time for robbery is in warmer months, particularly when the weather has been extremely hot and dry and nectar has stopped flowing. Your best chance of prevention is maintaining a healthy and robust colony, as robber bees will typically attack weaker hives. If you suspect robbing is the cause of your overflow of bees, you need to put a stop to it immediately – or you may not have any bees next winter. There are ways to stop robbing in your hives, but you need to act quickly.
Before new foraging bees leave to gather nectar, they will take orientation flights to familiarise themselves with the location of the hive. When they’re only a few days old, bees will walk out of the hive and fly a short distance straight ahead, before turning 180 degrees back towards the hive. They then hover for a while, going backwards and forwards to fix the location of the hive in their brains. The bees will gradually increase their distance from the hive, building up to longer flights when they collect nectar and pollen. Orientation flights are nothing to worry about – they’re a sign of a healthy colony and thriving bees.
Cleansing and cleaning flights
Knowing what complex creatures bees are, it’s no surprise that bees have strict procedures for everything – including ‘going to the toilet’. Bees take cleansing flights, also known as toilet flights, to keep waste products out of the hive. Similarly, they may take cleaning flights to keep the hive spotless, dropping dead bees, mouse droppings or pieces of wax away from the hive. This behaviour is often seen in the spring, as dirt and debris can build up over winter.
Although it can seem alarming at first, swarming is normal behaviour for bees. When a colony expands and the hive gets overcrowded, half of the brood, along with the queen, will leave in search of a new home – where there is ample food and more space. You can expect to see swarming when bees are growing their hive population in the spring or summer. Although it’s natural for bees, you need to know how to deal with a swarm, to give your bees the best chance of survival.
It’s easy to tell bearding bees apart from the rest. Unlike bees on orientation or cleansing flights, bearding bees don’t fly. They latch onto the front of the hive and huddle together, usually covering a large part of the hive in a single layer. Bearding is nothing to be concerned about – it’s bees’ way of regulating their temperature during hot and humid weather. Although bearding can be a sign that bees are preparing to swarm, it’s usually the result of an overheated hive. The general rule is if your bees want to beard, let them.
So what’s the story?
Your bees may be flying around the front of your hive for several reasons – they may be learning to find their way back to the hive, heading on a toilet trip, taking out the rubbish or congregating to reduce their temperature on a hot day. In more serious situations, they could be fleeing the hive in search of more food or fighting a robbery from another hive. In either case, you need to take action.
New to beekeeping? Check out some of Ecrotek’s other blogs to help you get started in learning about bees.