Routine beehive inspections are vital for keeping honey bees productive and healthy. 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.
Importance of Looking Inside the Hive
If you have been involved in beekeeping for any amount of time you know the importance of beehive inspections.
And, don’t forget to start observing your bees before you even open the hive. Looking closely at the hive entrance can give you clues about the condition of the colony.
For example, less flight activity at the front than you have seen previously could signal a problem or even that your hive has swarmed. Fighting bees at the entrance may be evidence of robbing bees .
But you don’t know what is really happening without taking a look inside the beehive.
We want to do brief inspections whenever possible. You don’t have to look at every bee, every time you open the colony.
And for new beekeepers, this can be especially frightening. You finally have your first hive of bees. Everything is so exciting and you don’t want to mess up, right !
Now – It is time for a first beehive inspection and you cant wait to get in there. I still get excited about opening a hive, you never know what you will find inside.
Be ready with proper protective gear. There is no shame in wearing a bee suit if you want to.
Your First Beehive Inspection
Hold on just a moment, lets think this through – maybe you don’t know what to look for.
Should you keep any hive records? Yes, keep notes on what you see after every time you look in the hive. It is very difficult to remember if you have more than 1 hive.
How can you tell if everything is OK? The answer to that questions become easier with experience. However, I can give you some ideas to consider.
Are you really going to be okay doing this alone? Yes – you are! I’ve been there my friends. I remember opening my first beehive on my own, like it was yesterday.
Also, those of us who have been doing this for a while can get into stressful situations with open hives too!
How Often Should You Do Hive Inspections?
Is a hive inspection schedule necessary? We often read that the beekeeper should do “routine” inspections but what does that mean?
The timing of inspections depends on various factors and is not something that is “set in stone”. Different hives will have issues that need to be dealt with at different times.
Set up a basic schedule for when you need to check your hives – perhaps monthly for established hives and every 2 weeks for new hives. You can adjust later.
Inspection Frequency Determined by Needs of the Colony
Some hives could need an inspection weekly for a while. This is true for new hives or new splits. We need to be sure a good queen is present.
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 year.
Your beekeeping goals will play a role in the frequency of how often you need to look inside a beehive.
Are you concerned about swarming? If so, you will keep a closer eye on your hives during the Spring swarm season. Hives often swarm without the beekeeper realizing anything has happened.
Hive health, queen status, foraging conditions etc will all play a role in colony health. If something goes wrong that the bees cant fix, you need to know.
New Beekeepers Learn During Hive Inspections
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 honey 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.
Again, this is where good note taking comes into play. Talking into a digital recorder and then transcribing the notes when you get back inside is a good practice.
Beehive Inspections Checklists
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 I go in the bee yard. Good notes are priceless and will keep you from fumbling around and wasting time.
It is easy to make your own checklist. Just jot down the important things you want to remember. i.e. is the queen present? do you see brood ? do they have honey ? etc
You can purchase and my Beekeeping Journal from Amazon. It is full of inspection tips and places to take notes. It also includes a beekeepers calendar.
Looking Inside a New Colony
New honey bee colonies have a lot to do during their first season. It is a tenuous time for the colony. Comb must be built, food stored for Winter and young raised all at the same time.
New hives can benefit from weekly hive inspections -until the colony is about 3 weeks old.
By this point, you should have a idea of the quality of the queen. This is very important because without a good queen the colony will be doomed.
First, you want to see that the queen is accepted by the workers. Is she is present and moving around freely on the comb. Workers don’t always accept a new queen. They can kill her.
Next, you should check the brood pattern. Brood is the term we use for developing bees. Eggs, larva or capped pupae are all referred to as “brood” by most beekeepers.
Develop a good understanding of how bees reproduce and you will know which stages of development to watch for. Learn to identify eggs, larva and capped brood.
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.
The Established Hive Inspection
Montly 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.
Have a plan in place for what you will do if you see Queen Cells. This means the colony is preparing to swarm. Don’t destroy queen cells without a plan. Perhaps your hive queen has already left!
By mid-late Spring, many beekeepers are adding honey collection supers. I do no deep hive inspections until they come off. This works for me because I don’t really have a Fall flow.
Some of you may have to do look inside your hives during the flow. But in general, monthly hive inspections on mature hives will work.
Hive Inspections Cause Bees Stress
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.
Inspect with a reason. Get the job done and get out. An open hive is your learning tool. However, don’t over do it !
New Beehive Inspection Checklist
- queen is present and laying ( don’t see queen ? look for eggs)
- good brood pattern – some worker brood not all drones
- bees are building new wax (drawing comb) on foundation
- bees are bringing in pollen
Great, check back in 2 weeks. ( Or 3-4 for an established hive)
Inspecting a New Colony
A new hive of bees started from a package or nuc – or even a split, tends to be rather calm. If you use slow smooth movements and your smoker, inspecting should not be much trouble.
Do you need to use the bee smoker? Yes, use your smoker to puff a little cool white smoke at the hive entrance.
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.
Check Your Queen Status on Each Hive Inspection
If you purchased a package of honey bees, they arrived with a mated queen and a few attendants in a small queen cage. The queen cage may be wooden or plastic.
The white candy plug allows a slow release and gives the colony time to accept the queen.
Your first visit inside the hive will be to remove the 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.)
Check to see if she is released from the queen cage. If so, remove the queen cage but don’t go looking for her on every frame.
Don’t stress your new colony. This is not the best time to look at each bee on each frame in the hive.
Your bees are still settling down in their new home. Pull the cage, push the frames together and close the hive.
What happens in your queen and her friends are still in the cage? Occasionally the queen candy (white plug) is too dry and it takes the bees longer to release the queen.
If your queen is not released, recheck again in a couple of days. Around day 7 (from installing the cage) you can release her, if needed.
Don’t get in too big a hurry to release your queen. This applies to both new colonies and those being re-queened. The introduction phase is important and should not be rushed.
Inside the Beehive -Finding Burr Comb
Sometimes the bees build comb in places that we don’t expect. As you look down through the frames, does something look weird? You may find some awkward comb built around the queen cage.
This is normal. Remove it and push the frames back together. We call this “oddly placed” comb – burr comb.
Scrape the burr comb off -but if your bee space is wrong, the bees will just build it back.
Remove any comb that is not being constructed where it should and in the proper manner. Wonky comb on your frames makes future hive inspections more difficult.
After you finish inside the beehive, make sure the wooden frames are pushed together. Extra space can be divided on each side of the hive box.
Unless you are using frame spacers, you do not want to try to evenly space the frames out. They are designed to be push closely together.
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 hive inspection time.
Larvae are white grub-like baby bees and we call them “milk brood”. If you see small larvae in your hive, it is a good sign. Your colony is probably “queen right”.
Capped worker brood is easy to identify. 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 an adult bee.
If you only see milk brood, you will want to recheck in a week to confirm capped worker brood.
Beekeepers want a tight pattern of brood with few empty cells. It is okay and desirable to have a small number of cells open.
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 good bee brood pattern.
Finding Drone Brood During A Hive Inspection
Capped worker (female bees) brood cells protrude very little above the comb surface. Drone brood (male bees) cells are larger than worker brood cells.
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! Perhaps your hive has lost its queen or the queen is no good.
Strange 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.
Remove weird comb before 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.
When Drone Brood Spells Trouble
A mated queen stores sperm inside her body. When her supply of sperm runs out, she can only lay unfertilized eggs. (Drone Brood) .
The sign of a failed queen is a large amount of drone brood with little or no regular capped worker brood.
The colony may recognize that the colony is failing and try to replace her by making a new queen. If not, the beekeeper must get a new queen for the colony.
Laying Workers Inside a Beehive
When a honey bee colony is without a queen and brood for several weeks, some of the workers will start to lay eggs. Because they are unmated, the eggs laid by workers will all be drones.
There are many techniques that supposedly take care of the laying worker problem. The easiest is to combine the colony temporarily with a queen right hive.
Then split them into 2 hives again in a couple of weeks. You can then add a new queen to one of them.
Final Tips for Inspecting Your Hive
- 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.