Beehive Inspections-What to Look For

This post may contain affiliate links – full disclosure – read here

Why Hive Inspections are Necessary?

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.

picture of a beekeeper inspecting a frame from a beehive

Regardless of the method of beekeeping you practice, most of us are keeping bees in manmade hives.

Having investing a lot of time and money in beekeeping supplies, it is wise to protect your investment.

Routine hive inspections are important because the only way to know what is happening inside – is to look.

If the colony has a problem with their queen, a pest problem or disease, the beekeeper needs to know right away.

image of beekeeper inspecting a colony of bees

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?

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 – a common hive inspection schedule is monthly for established hives and every 2 weeks for new hives. You can adjust later.

Inspection Frequency – Needs of the Colony

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.

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.

Swarm Season Inspections

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, swarming all play a role in colony health.  If something goes wrong that the bees cant fix, you need to know. 

New Beekeepers Inspect More Often

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.

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 !

Ultra Breeze Large Beekeeping Jacket with Veil, 1-Unit, WhiteUltra Breeze Large Beekeeping Jacket with Veil, 1-Unit, WhiteUltra Breeze Large Beekeeping Jacket with Veil, 1-Unit, White

 

Keeping Beehive 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 I go in the bee yard.  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.

Your Beekeeping Journal - A Guide For Beekeepers: Because Beekeeping Is A JourneyYour Beekeeping Journal – A Guide For Beekeepers: Because Beekeeping Is A JourneyYour Beekeeping Journal - A Guide For Beekeepers: Because Beekeeping Is A Journey

 

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)

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 early afternoon.

During the afternoon, 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.

What is the Minimum Temperature for Inspections?

Honey bees are cold blooded insects. 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, interfers with the ability of the worker 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 degrees 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 bee 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.

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. 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 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.)

Another week or so later, check to ensure that you have an accepted laying queen in the hive.

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 fnding 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 look for evidence of a queen. This means fresh eggs in a nice pattern in the comb.

picture of honey bee eggs in wax cells

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.

What is Brood?

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.

honey bee and worker larva in comb

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.

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.

picture of good brood pattern in a bee hive

Develop a good understanding of how bees reproduce . Learn to identify eggs, larva and capped brood.

Ideally, brood of all stages is present as this confirms the presence of a laying queen.

Finding Drone Brood During Hive Inspections

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.

Capped brood in a bee hive

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.

Hive Inspections During Swarm Season

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!

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!

Removing Burr Comb during Beehive Inspections

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” comb – burr 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.

Wonky comb makes future hive inspections more difficult. Remove any comb that is not being constructed where it should and in the proper manner.

burr comb or extra comb built on the tops of beehive frames inside a beehive

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.

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.

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.

This is a gift that not everyone gets to see. Learn, plan and prepare ahead of time and you will be ready to inspect your beehives with confidence.

Beekeeper Charlotte

Similar Posts

10 Comments

  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. 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?

  3. 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/

  4. 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.
    Thanks.
    B

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

  6. Sandi Cook says:

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

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *