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Beehive Inspection- {What to Look For}

Watching bees work from the hive entrance is endlessly fascinating to us beekeepers. However, performing a routine beehive inspection is vital to having healthy colonies. The first time a new beekeeper decides to look inside a hive- it can be a bit unnerving. But don’t worry, you can do it. And with time, your hive inspections will become more meaningful because you know what to look for and learn how to recognize problems.

Why Hive Inspections are Necessary?

Beekeeper performing a beehive inspection on hive image.

Regardless of the method of beekeeping or your colonies will require some management. Your beekeeping goals and even the type of beehive you use, will play a role in how you manage your bees.

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Routine hive inspections are important because the only way to know what is happening inside – is to look. In today’s world, your honey bee colonies face many challenges.

A good inside look is the only way to truly evaluate the status of your hive. If the colony has a problem with their queen, a pest problem or disease, the beekeeper needs to know right away.

Modern hives are designed to allow inspection without harming the colony. This is one reason beekeeping moved away from using skep hives – they could not be inspected.

Having investing a lot of time and money in beekeeping supplies and bees, it is wise to protect your investment. And we want to be a good steward of our colonies.

If you are a new beekeeper, you may feel a bit unsure. Its okay to be a little nervous. Having a bit of fearful respect is a good trait in a beekeeper.

Beekeeper using smoker to check beehive image.

How Often Should You Inspect a Beehive?

Is a hive inspection schedule necessary?  We often read that the beekeeper should do “routine” inspections but what does that mean? What exactly is “routine”?

A common beehive inspection schedule is monthly for established hives and every 2 weeks for new hives -during the warm season. Of course, you can adjust that to the needs of your colonies.

The timing of inspections depends on various factors and is not something that is “set in stone”.  Different colonies will have issues that need to be dealt with at different times. 

Any hive that has a special problem may require closer monitoring. New hives that are still building up or new splits may need more frequent inspections for a while.

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After that, these colonies can be left alone for a longer time. Any healthy strong hive needs a minimum of 4 or 5 inspections per season.

New Beekeepers Learn By Observing

During your first year of beekeeping, you will open your beehive more often than normal.  That is okay. Learning how to be a good beekeeper requires some hands-on experience in the hive. 

You can watch a million videos but the live experience is much different when you are looking inside your own beehive in your backyard.

In the beginning, you may find it difficult to inspect quickly and see everything you need to. You will get better as you gain experience. Keeping bees is a process – you don’t learn everything in one year.

Worker bees on frame inside hive image.

Hive Inspections Do Cause Bees Stress

While opening a hive can provide valuable information, you can overdo it! Interfering with colonies too often may cause problems.  Anytime we open a beehive, we are causing stress to the colony. 

It is not normal in “bee-life”  to have the top of the hive opened and a giant dressed in white looking inside. This stress can lead to undesirable actions by the bees.

They may kill their queen, decide to replace her or the entire colony may abscond – leave the hive completely. Of course, we must do inspections but don’t get too over zealous.

Inspect with a reason. Get the job done and get out. An open hive is your learning tool. However, don’t over do it !

Keep Good Hive Records

Keeping good hive records is very beneficial in managing honey bees. Hive notes help you remember what was happening in the hive when you last looked.

It is very difficult to remember if you have more than 1 hive. A recap of conditions the last time you opened the hive is useful.

I have notebooks with beehive inspection sheets dating back over 10 years.  Anytime that I go to my bee yard, I review the notes from my last inspection.

Perhaps I don’t need to open every hive every time. Good notes are priceless and will keep you from fumbling around and wasting time.

If you want to take your beekeeping record to the next level, consider my Beekeeping Journal. It is full of inspection tips and places to take notes.  It also includes a beekeepers calendar.

Beehive Inspection Checklist

Here are a few key points to keep in mind when going through your honey bee colonies:

  • queen is present and laying ( don’t see queen? look for eggs or young larva)
  • good brood pattern – some worker brood-not all drones
  • bees are building new wax (drawing comb) on foundation
  • bees are bringing in pollen or you see pollen stored in the comb

Great, check back in 2 weeks. ( Or 3-4 for an established hive)

Using smoker with hive inspection in bee yard image.

Best Time of Day for Opening a Hive

Work schedules may not allow total flexibility for working your bees. However, the best time of day to open a hive is later morning or early afternoon.

During this time of day, most of the mature forager worker bees are out gathering food needed for the colony. This means fewer older bees to object to your presence in the colony.

If you must work bees in the evenings, go slow and use cool white smoke from your bee smoker to calm the colony.

What is the Minimum Temperature for Inspections?

Honey bees are cold blooded insects. But, they do a great job of regulating the temperature inside the hive. This is critical to the survival of baby bees or brood.

Opening the hive on a cold day, interferes with the ability of the workers to keep the brood warm. This could result in the death of some brood. Ideally, do not open the hive unless the temperature is at least 60° F.

How to Inspect a Beehive

Try to gather everything you need for your beehive inspection before opening the hive.

Be ready with proper protective gear. There is no shame in wearing a bee suit if you want to. You will do a better job with your bees if you can relax – at least a bit. 🙂

Proper use of the bee smoker, helps calm the hive and that saves bee lives. Always have a smoker with you in the bee yard, even if you don’t use it a lot.

It is also a good idea to keep a box or bucket with your favorite smoker fuel nearby. You don’t want to run out of smoke when you really need it.

With your protective gear on, your smoker lit and blowing cool white smoke and a hive tool in your hand – you are ready to start.

Bees entering hive entrance image.

Observe the Entrance of the Hive

Don’t forget to start observing your bees before you open the hive. Stand beside the hive and watch for a couple of minutes.

Looking closely at the hive entrance can give you clues about the condition of the colony. Are the bees coming and going regularly? Do you see any foragers returning to the hive with pollen on their back legs?

It is common to see guard bees that briefly inspect returning foragers but you should not see fighting. Fighting bees at the entrance may be evidence of robbing bees.

Seeing a small number of dead bees in front of the hive is no cause for concern. This is normal as some bees die every day.

Opening the Hive

Give a few gentle puffs of smoke at the hive entrance and a puff or two under the top lid. Let the smoke work through the hive for a couple of minutes.

Gently remove the hive top and inner cover, Use your hive tool to separate hive components. (I simply could not do without my hooked hive tool – but use what works for you.) Use slow smooth motions.

Check Your Queen Status

If you purchased a package of honey bees, they arrived with a mated queen and a few attendants in a small queen cage.

Your first hive inspection after installation will be a bit different than a routine inspection. You may need to remove the empty queen cage. (4-5 days after installation.)

Be sure to gently push your frames together afterwards. (Sometimes you need to wedge them apart a bit to fit the queen cage.

We don’t want to leave them that way.) Another week or so later, check to ensure that you have an accepted laying queen in the hive. Don’t visit too long that first time.

queen honey bee inside a queen cage with worker bees looking inside

In an established colony, you also want to verify that a laying queen is in the hive. While we always want to find our queen honey bee it’s not always possible.

Finding 1 bee in a hive of thousands can be difficult. Over time, experience makes the task easier and you will get better at it. Most likely the queen will be near the brood nest but she can be anywhere.

Take extra care when removing and replacing frames – many queens have been accidentally killed during frame inspections.

Sometimes, we have to be satisfied with finding evidence of a queen. This means fresh eggs in a nice pattern in the comb – or lots of young larva.

Milk brood or bee larva in honeycomb cells in beehive image.

Checking the Brood Pattern

The beehive inspection video that goes with this post gives you examples of things to look for.  However, you still need to understand hive basics before inspection time.

Brood is the term we use to describe developing bees. Eggs, larva or capped pupae are all referred to as “brood” by most beekeepers.

Bee eggs can be very difficult to see at first. They look like small white pieces of white thread in the bottom of the cells. When freshly laid by the queen, eggs stand up in the bottom of the comb.

Larvae are white grub-like baby bees and we call them “milk brood”.   The white secretions you see in the cell is brood food produced by nurse bees.

Capped brood refers to cells that are capped with a tan wax covering. When larvae reach the pupal growth stage, (around day 9-10) they no longer need to be fed. 

Adult workers cap the cells with old wax. Inside the capped cell, the larvae will make the final transformation into a pupae and then an adult bee.

A lack of brood can signal a queen problem. However, we can not always blame the queen bee for everything that goes wrong.

The time of year, foraging conditions and pests (mites) all contribute to the amount of brood in the hive.

Good brood pattern in a honey bee colony with capped brood image.

What is a Good Brood Pattern?

A good brood pattern has all stages of brood with few empty cells among them. Brood of the same age is close together rather than having a patch here and there.

Develop a good understanding of how bees reproduce. Learn to identify eggs, larva and capped brood. Ideally, brood of all stages is present during the warm months.

Drone Bee Brood

Capped worker (female bees) brood cells protrude very little above the comb surface. Brood cells with drones (male bees) are larger.

The cappings of drone cells protrude noticeably from the cell wall. They are sometimes described as “bullet” shaped.

It is natural to have drone cells in your colony during the warm season. They are usually on the outer edges of the brood nest.

However, if you have nothing but drone brood – you have a problem!  A mated queen stores sperm inside her body. When her supply of sperm runs out, she can only lay unfertilized eggs-drones .

The sign of a failed queen is a large amount of drone brood with little or no regular capped worker brood.

Bullet shaped drone brood in beehive frame image.

Are the Bees Building Good Comb?

Any hive inspection should include taking note of the condition of the comb. If the colony is new, are they building comb nicely on their new foundation?

If this is an established colony, take note of any comb that is very dark, like black, make note that this comb may need replaced next season.

Sometimes bees build comb in places that we don’t expect or want. Of course the bees know what is best for them but the beekeeper needs to be able to inspect the hive too!

As you look down through the frames, does something look weird? If you recently requeened your hive and left the cage in, you may find some awkward comb built around it. Remove it and push the frames back together. We call this “oddly placed” combburr comb.

Queen cage with burr comb. Beehive inspections are an important part of colony management.

Scrape the burr comb off -but if your equipment measurements are a bit off, the bees may build it back. Extra comb is a minor nuisance.

After you finish your beehive inspection, make sure the wooden frames are pushed together.  Extra space can be divided on each side of the bee box. Don’t leave all of the extra space on one side.  

Bad Comb on Plastic Foundation

Bees will sometimes start sheets of comb that are not in line with the foundation. This happens more often on plastic foundation but it can occur when using wax foundation too.

If your bees are building comb in a sheet that barely attaches to the foundation, remove it quickly.

Don’t let the bees waste too much time and energy on it. The queen will lay in the comb and the mess will become more difficult to clean up.

Beekeepers using plastic foundation often brush melted beeswax on the plastic.  This practice encourages bees to use the foundation are the base for their comb.

Single queen cell found during hive inspection on bottom of frame image.

Hive Inspections During Swarm Season

Monthly inspections for established hives are sufficient for most of the season. The exception is during the early months of the warm season.

During Spring, there is a stronger chance of swarming, you should inspect over-wintered colonies every 2 weeks.  Watch for crowded conditions or queen cell development.

If a colony is very strong – you must be on the lookout for swarm or queen cells. A sure sign that the colony has a plan to swarm.

What you will do if you see signs of swarming? Will you let the hive swarm or considering splitting the beehive? Don’t destroy queen cells without a plan. Perhaps your hive queen has already left!

Conducting Good Beehive Inspections

Here are a few more guidelines to consider as you check your hive.

  • it is not always necessary to see the queen – look for eggs, larva
  • look for a good brood pattern – few empty cells
  • use cool white smoke a few minutes before opening the hive
  • don’t spend too much time with the hive open
  • look for stored pollen in cells (shades of yellow, grey, red)
  • do you see any honey?
  • estimate hive population – how many frames are covered with bees?

In the attached video slideshow (be prepared to pause the video) are some tips to help you recognize the various things you need to look for while your hive is open.

Are you really going to be okay doing this alone?  Yes – you are! Beehive inspections give you a look inside the special world of the honey bee.

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  1. John carrier says:

    When I open the brood chamber I have 2 light boards that will cover half an hive i put these,over the chamber to keep the hive dark also found if it’s a nice warm day I use a fine hand garden spray instead of a smoker I hope this helps New beekeepers

  2. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    That’s very interesting John !

  3. Chris Piper says:

    I am a new beekeeper with one hive and I think I am too excited about beekeeping! I think I have inspected the hives too many times because I enjoy watching them so much. In the past 3 weeks since I got my bee package, I have probably looked at the frames six times spending about 15 minutes per visit. I give them fresh sugar water when the boardman feeder when there is less than 25% remaining (on a daily basis because the mason jar is only 1 quart). I have not been able to find the busy queen, but I have identified drones, capped cells and nectar/pollen storage (clear liquid in cells). I have spotted funky-looking weird comb in a couple of places. I removed the first 2 that occurred near the queen’s cage, but have not removed the 2 others on the other frames because the bees have already seem to be using it for nectar storage. Should I remove them anyway?

  4. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Yes, you may be a little over excited. LOL I’ve been there too! I would slack off to weekly inspections. Make sure all your frames are pushed together. If you are on Facebook, you can ask your question (pictures help) to the other beekeepers there are get their opinions to0. https://www.facebook.com/groups/448725525473443/

  5. Just wanted to say thanks so much for making that video/test. As a new but not sooo new beekeeper, even after having been in several hives for a couple months and seen lots of frames and examples live…this video has still been so helpful! Every frame I’ve seen has been a healthy one so they were great for getting an idea of good brood patters and what everything is and should look like…but they showed me nothing in regards to if things are wonky. I loved this video/test so I can know what to look for if things turn a bit sour (lose the queen, she goes sterile, laying workers, etc.). I appreciate your time in creating and posting that – and all your great info.

  6. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Thank you so much! I appreciate your kindness and wish you the very best beekeeping year.

  7. Sandi Cook says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! The clear explanations are videos are exactly what I have spent hours searching for!

  8. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    I am so pleased you have found them helpful!

  9. Sonja R Maloney says:

    How long will bees live after you catch the swarm,and do you feed them right away? And is it ok to place the new hive a couple of feet from the hive they swarmed from?

  10. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    It is okay to place them nearby. Yes I always feed captured swarms. I don’t like keeping them locked up,they need to fly and forage.

  11. My bees are doing great, they filled up 2 new frames with comb in less than 2 weeks, so I add 2 more a couple of days ago. The problem I’m having is that the girls built their comb at the front of the hive (I have a horizontal hive that my husband built), and when I try to take a peek there I can see that the frames are connected by comb. I’m afraid of destroying brood by prying them apart. I haven’t been able to see the queen, but from the astounding number of bees, I’d say she’s laying just fine. She came with 10,000 in the package, but I’d say there are at least 3 times that number now. We have the hive in an outbuilding because of bears and our extremely cold winters and they literally form a cloud outside as they’re flying in and out. They are northern ‘mutt’ hygienic bees so hopefully they’ll get through the winter with little trouble, at least they’ll be out of the wind.

  12. Charlotte Anderson says:

    In your horizontal hive, I assume you are using standard Langstroth frames? Make sure they are pushed together to prevent the bees from building extra sheets of comb between the frames.

  13. No, Charlotte, we’re using the deep frames. They are pushed together, but some of them appear to be adjoining.

  14. Charlotte Anderson says:

    That’s okay. I would gently separate them when you inspect. You will have to at some point anyway – some bees build more burr or bridge comb than others.
    Burr Comb

  15. Thanks for the answer, Charlotte, you’ve been a great help.

  16. What a resourceful site. Thank you so much, Charlotte. I also appreciate the other resource tools such as video clips and images you ve embedded in your material.

  17. Charlotte Anderson says:

    Thank you for the kindness.

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