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Watching bees work from the hive entrance is endlessly fascinating to us beekeepers. However, learning how to inspect a beehive is vital to having healthy colonies. For new beekeepers it can be a bit unnerving. But, don’t worry, you can do it. There is no other way to know the true condition of the colony – you have to look inside.
In the beginning, you may feel clumsy and slow. But, with time and experience, your beehive inspections will become more quicker and more meaningful. You learn what to look for and how to recognize problems. This is the key to good hive management.
Inspecting Your Beehive – Step by Step
It is impossible to give an exact guideline for how often you should check your colony. Many factors are involved in setting a timeline. But, you do need to check several times during the warm season-at a minimum.
Here are some key things to consider as you prepare to work in your apiary. Try to gather everything you need for your hive inspections before opening the hive.
This is not the time to be running back to the house for something – but we all need to do it sometimes LOL.
1. Gear Up
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.
2. Observe the Entrance of the Hive
The first thing to do when inspecting a hive is – look. Don’t forget to start observing your bees before you open the hive. Stand to the side 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 a lot of fighting. Fighting bees at the entrance may be evidence of robbing bees.
Are there dead bees out front? Seeing a small number of dead bees in front of the hive is no cause for concern. This is normal – honey bees do not live very long – some die every day.
3. 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 – avoid quick jerky movements.
4. 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 check. 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 while manipulating frames.
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 bee larva.
5. Checking the Brood Pattern
The beehive inspection video that goes with this post gives you examples of things to look for. However, you need to understand a few 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.
Capped brood refers to cells that are capped with a tan wax covering. When larvae reach the pupal stage, (around day 9-10) they no longer need to be fed.
Worker bees 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 for everything that goes wrong.
The time of year, foraging conditions and pests (such as varroa mites) all contribute to the amount of brood in the hive.
Good Brood Pattern
A good brood pattern has all stages of brood represented on the comb -with few empty cells among them. Brood of the same age is close together rather than having a patch here and there.
Learn to identify the various stages of the honey bee life cycle. Ideally, brood of all stages is present during the warm months.
Workers vs Drones
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 .
Therefore, the sign of a failed queen is a large amount of drone brood with little or no regular capped worker brood.
Develop a good understanding of how bees reproduce. It will help you make important management decisions.
6. Are the Bees Building Good Comb?
Any hive inspection should include taking note of the condition of the comb. If you have added new frames, are the bees building comb nicely on their new foundation?
If this is an established colony, look for 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!
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” comb – burr comb.
Scrape the burr comb off -but if your equipment measurements are a bit off, the bees may build it back between the boxes.
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 to entice the bees to use it.
7. Nectar and Pollen
The amount of nectar and pollen in the hive varies depending on hive age, strength and the season. But, you should see some food stores present.
8. Special Hive Problems
Other than queen status, comb building and food stores, be aware of any noticeable problems.
- see any queen cells why are they there?
- visible pests – Small Hive Beetles or Wax Moth Larva (or evidence of them)
- sign of disease – pest problems in the hive
9. Closing Up the Hive
Try to limit the amount of time you have your hive open. Our bees are rather accommodating in most cases but it is unnatural to have their roof off.
After you finish inspecting your hive, make sure you have placed all the frames back in the box. And, the wooden frames should be pushed together.
Any extra space can be divided on each side of the bee box. Don’t leave all of the extra space on one side – the colony will put comb there and it is a mess.
10. Keep Good 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. I have notebooks with beehive inspection sheets dating back over 10 years. Good notes 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 beekeeper’s calendar.
Beehive Inspections Checklist
Here are a few key points to keep in mind when going through your honey bee colonies:
- it is not always necessary to see the queen – look for eggs, larva
- look for a good brood pattern – few empty cells
- 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?
- any sign of dead brood (brown larva) or pest problems?
Great, check back in 2 -4 weeks.
Why Hive Inspections are Necessary?
Routine hive inspections are important because the only way to know what is happening inside – is to look.
In general, “routine” means regular. How often is that? Most beekeepers set a minimum schedule for when they think a hive needs attention. It might be monthly or every two weeks – unless a problem is suspected.
Wait a minute – there are wild bees? Can’t bees survive on their own? Sure, sometimes they do – but often they die within a year or so.
The depth and frequency of looking inside the hive will vary from one person to another. Your beekeeping goals and even the type of beehive you use, will play a role in how you manage your colonies.
Frequent Inspections During Swarm Season
Monthly inspections for established hives are sufficient for most of the season. The exception is during Spring when there is a stronger chance of swarming.
Inspect strong over-wintered colonies every 2 weeks. If you find signs of swarm preparations, you have to decide what to do with the queen cells.
Will you let the hive swarm or considering splitting the beehive? Don’t destroy these swarm cells without a plan. Perhaps your queen has already left!
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.
The best time of day to inspect a beehive is late morning to mid-afternoon. During this time of day, most of the mature bees are out gathering food needed for the colony. This means fewer older bees to object to your presence in the colony.
Honey bees are cold blooded insects. Opening the hive on a cold day, interferes with the ability of the workers to keep the brood warm. Try to avoid opening the hive unless the temperature is at least 60° F.
A common beehive inspection schedule is monthly for established hives and every 2 weeks for new hives (for the first few months) -during the warm season.
Of course, you can adjust that to the needs of your colonies. Any hive that has a special problem may require closer monitoring.
The healthy strong hive needs a minimum of 4 or 5 inspections per season.
Opening a hive provides valuable information but don’t overdo it! It is not normal in “bee-life” to have the top of the hive opened and a giant dressed in white looking inside.
The bees may kill their queen, decide to replace her or the entire colony may abscond – leave the hive completely.
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.
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! What a wonderful opportunity, you get to look inside the hive into the special world of the honey bee. Not everyone gets to do that!