The winter hive: to tap or not to tap
A beekeeper in Kentucky wants to know if tapping on the winter hive is really as dangerous as her mentor claims. She writes:
[My mentor] came over last Sunday to help me with a winter checklist. While we were standing there, I leaned down and tapped on the hive to hear the bees inside. This made him super angry. He said tapping upsets the bees and causes disruption in communication, absconding, and energy loss. He says I’ll be lucky to keep them alive this year. Forty minutes later he was still going on about tapping, but never mentioned mites or feeding or inspecting, as if there was no point in worrying about any of that, as if they were already dead. Did I kill them?”
My first thought? Get a new mentor. This guy is out to lunch, even if he sincerely believes his own nonsense. Furthermore, if in the course of a winter checklist, he didn’t even mention mites or feed, why is he even there?
I can’t understand why some beekeepers pass so much judgement on others without ever bothering to think. People don’t even get married these days, yet we seem to have legions of old wives out there telling tales. What ever happened to common sense and good judgement?
It’s a noisy world
Sounds happen, even in winter. Overhead, a multitasking chipmunk chatters like a teenager while dropping pinecones, one after another, hoping to collect the seeds. Kerplunk! goes the metal roof. Buzzzzz! go the bees. A woodpecker, always hungry, decides to widen the space between your box joints, sounding like an automatic weapon as she probes for bugs. An unexpected wind thrashes the branches and drops the remaining apples, which land with a vinegary splat and ooze across your landing board.
Your dog runs across the yard, barking sharply at the local cat, while your neighbor blows his dead leaves at 90 decibels into your flower bed. A thunder clap like a cymbal crash makes your kids squeal with terror as they scurry past the hive and into the house, slamming the door behind them. Meanwhile, an enormous jay, feeling blue and territorial, paces across your hive cover, his claws clicking against metal as he squawks annoyance at the woodpecker.
The thunder brings not rain, but hailstones that pound on the hive and break off a limb which lands there, too. Noise, noise, everywhere is noise. Believe it or not, honey bees take all this in stride. They will survive multiple auditory assaults to live another day, regardless of what your mentor says. Come to think of it, bees even lived through the asteroid strike that took out the dinosaurs. Betcha that made a hell of a racket.
Even “real” beekeepers do it
So that’s the common sense part. The good judgement part has to do with the way you tap on your winter hive. You needn’t slam the brood box with a hammer, baseball bat, or the back of a shovel. Just a gentle tap with your fingers works fine. When I do it—and yes, I do it—my tap is as gentle as the tall grasses that whisper against the hive in summer. In fact, I often don’t get a rise out of the bees after the first try, so I have to step it up a notch. The gentle buzz that follows tells me all is well, and I move on to the next one. And the next.
In addition, you don’t have to tap every day or even every week. You can use an infrared camera or a stethoscope for more careful observations, but if you don’t have those things with you, a quick tap can be comforting to the beekeeper. Or, if you get no response, you know it’s time to fetch other diagnostic tools for a closer look.
An occasional gentle tap on your hive is not going to hurt anything. Sure, hive tapping may get the bees a bit riled, but so do other sounds in their environment. And yes, they might require a bit more food to make up for frequent upsets, but an occasional tap won’t make the difference between living and dying.
A noise is a common everyday occurrence whether bees live in a human environment or a wild one. To paint hive tapping as an evil, unconscionable act of supreme ignorance is unjustified and just plain wrong…so tap away.
Honey Bee Suite