Beehive Inspections

Pinterest Hidden Image

Whether you are just starting out or have some beekeeping experience, knowing how to inspect a beehive is a fundamental task. If you want healthy productive honey bees, regular hive inspections will be a part of your life going forward. In this guide, I will give you the basics of how to perform a hive inspection and keep your colonies thriving.

Beekeeper performing a routine beehive inspection.

It is normal to feel a bit awkward at first. Not everyone can open a box with thousands of stinging insects – you are a hero. In order to be a “beekeeper” not just a “bee-haver”, you must master this part of beehive management.

Preparing for a Hive Inspection

Taking the top off a beehive is a fairly straight forward action. But before you dive into inspecting your beehive – let’s do some preparation. This makes the experience safer for you and for the bees.

  • gather equipment and tools
  • use protective wear
  • choose a good time

Necessary Tools and Equipment

There are many beekeeping tools you can buy. Dozens of doo-dads and gadgets that can be very helpful but are not always necessary for routine hive inspections. The absolute basics are:

  • Bee smoker: used to calm bees and mask alarm pheromones (don’t forget smoker fuel)
  • Hive tool: a versatile tool used to pry apart components and scrape off excess wax or bee propolis.

That’s really it. Beginning beekeepers might benefit from a bee brush (to gently brush bees off the frame) and some frame grips (makes gripping frames easier). Though I rarely use them during normal inspections of my beehives.

Protective Gear

Opening a beehive without protective beekeeping clothing can be your choice. Personally, I never do it. You will always see me wearing my hat and veil at a minimum. Why?

  • I don’t enjoy getting stung
  • The comfort is not worth the risk (sting to the eye etc.)
  • I don’t have to prove anything to anyone by being a super-hero in the bee yard.

You do you. But, I advise a beekeeper’s hat and veil at least. A beekeeper suit or jacket is also a good choice.

Beekeeping gloves can be rather difficult to use in the hive but wear them if it helps you be calm and enjoy your bees more.

The Right Time for Hive Inspection

A beekeeper does not always have the gift of choosing the very best time for hive inspections. However, when you can plan when to open the hive. Here are some tips to consider:

Weather Conditions: Inspect your hive on a calm, sunny day with temperatures are above 60°F. Many of the older bees are likely out foraging for food, this means fewer bees in the hive.

It is also easier to manipulate frames and check conditions of the comb without a box bursting with bee bodies.

Time of Day: Late morning to early afternoon is often the best time of day to inspect a beehive. For the same reason as the weather conditions. The work force of foraging bees will be out of the hive.

Approach & Open the Hive

As you approach your beehive, be calm and careful. Avoid flinging your arms around or making loud noises. There is no need to alarm the colony.

Why do bees sting? Honey bees sting as a defense. Don’t give them any reason to become more defensive than they would normally be.

Use Your Bee Smoker

Prior to opening the hive, light your bee smoker with your favorite fuel. Work with the unit until you can produce cool, white smoke. Smoke affects bees by calming them and masking alarm messages.

Give a few gentle puffs around the entrance of the hive, under the screen bottom board if you have one. Then raise up the top cover and apply a few cool puffs there. Now wait for a minute or two – giving the bees time to react to the smoke.

Bees entering hive entrance.

A beehive inspection begins before you ever open the hive. Observe the hive entrance for a minute or two. What do you see?

If the weather is nice, you should see a steady stream of bees coming and going. The workers serving as guard bees may be seen inspecting incoming bees to ensure they are not robber bees.

Position yourself. Every beekeeper has a favorite way to stand. In general, it is advisable to stand beside the hive or even behind it. This depends on personal preference and whether you are right-handed or left.

In most situations, I stand behind my hives as that gives me the most leverage. Avoid standing in front as you will disrupt the entrance more and increase the chances of being stung.

Remove the outer cover and set it aside. I keep a small metal stand in the bee yard for this. I place the outer cover upside down on the table.

Then, insert your hive tool under the corners of the inner cover. Pry slowly and gently to unstick the cover from the top bars below it.

It is a good idea to apply a puff of smoke under the inner cover (or through the hole in the middle). Once you know it is loosened – gently lift the inner cover off. Set it on the outer cover you just removed.

Beekeeper using smoker to check beehive.

Lifting Frames

Manipulating frames is one of the most nerve wracking parts of beehive inspections. You want to avoid squeezing and killing bees as much as possible. Also, you do not know where your queen is – you certainly do not want to harm her.

In a standard dimension 10 frame Langstroth Hive, I begin my inspection by removing the frame in the #2 position (left-right). I was taught to do this years ago as in most cases the brood nest is less likely to be here (or the queen).

Use your hive tool to loosen the ends of the frames from the frame rest shelf. Then, grab the ends of the top bar and lift the frame straight up. Slowly and gently.

Whenever possible, hold frames over the open hive during beehive inspections. Any bees that fall off will fall back into the hive – not on the ground.

After checking the frame, I place it on a frame rest or carefully prop it against the hive. Now I have more room to remove the other frames. Each one is placed back in the hive after it is check – usually in the same position.

Milk brood or bee larva in honeycomb cells in beehive.

What to Look For

There are several reasons to inspect your hive. Let’s assume you are simply doing a routine inspection to see that the colony is on track with no obvious problems.

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

Assessing the Brood Pattern

While it is nice to see her, you don’t have to find the queen bee. Learn how to recognize bee eggs – they look like tiny white grains of rice. There should be one in each cell.

Bee larvae are developing bees that look like white grubs. Healthy larvae are shiny and pearly white.

When the larval stage of the honey bee life cycle ends, workers will cap each cell with a beeswax covering. Now, we call these capped brood.

The brood pattern in a hive changes throughout the season. But, a good brood pattern shows brood of all stages: eggs, larvae, and capped that are grouped together in a concentrated pattern.

There will be few empty cells among the brood – this is easiest to see on a frame of capped brood.

Bullet shaped drone brood found during hive inspection.

Worker Brood vs Drone

Capped worker (female bees) brood cells protrude very little above the comb surface. Brood cells with drones (male bees) 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- usually on the outer edges of the brood nest. However, if you have nothing but drone brood – you have a problem! Your colony may be queenless and need assistance. 

Watch for Disease

It is usually not necessary to look at every frame in the hive. In fact, keeping the hive open for as short a time as possible is best for your bees.

However, always check the frames in the brood nest region as this is the area most likely to show signs of disease.

Watch for dark colored larvae (dead) or capped brood with sunken caps or caps with holes. This can be a sign of a temporary set back or real trouble such as European Foul Brood vs American Foul Brood.

Checking for Pest Problems

As you go through the hive, look at the bees on the comb. They should seem active and alert. You may see signs of a problem with varroa mites (a major pest of honey bees). Spotty brood patterns, bees with deformed wings, mites in exposed brood etc.

But, most of the mites in your hive will be inside capped brood cells. Do not rely on visual inspection for mite monitoring – you must test for varroa. By the time you see mites on the bees – it may be too late to save the colony.

Small Hive Beetles and Wax Moths are opportunist pests in the bee colony. They mostly damage weak colonies that have other problems. If you see signs of these pests or damage from them – take steps to control it.

Nectar and Honey

Nectar in open cells and honey capped with wax should be present in your hive. Bees need constant access to food. They must eat every day – not just during the Winter.

Pollen

When you see wax cells filled with colorful substances, that is pollen. Pollen collected by the colony as a protein source is converted to bee bread and stored in cells until needed. This is the protein source for the colony and vital to brood rearing.

Closing the Hive

After a thorough inspection (or a brief one), it is time to close the hive. Be sure you have replaced that first frame that you removed back in the hive.

All frames should be pushed together with any extra space divided on the two sides. Gently smoke the bees if you must to move them out of the way.

Place the inner cover on the top box. Then, add the outer cover. Now, secure your hive with a ratchet strap, brick on top or your preferred method.

Wait – don’t leave the bee yard yet! Take a final look to ensure that you closed the hive properly. Replaced your entrance reducer or any other hive accessories you may have moved. Now the bees can get back to work.

Using smoker with hive inspection in bee yard.

Keep Beehive Records

After the hive is closed, it is time to make notes on what you saw. 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.

Worker bees on frame inside hive.

What if the Bees Get Really Mad?

In general, honey bees are rather docile. However, you are invading their home. The degree of defensiveness displayed by any colony changes in response to conditions.

If you find that bees becoming very upset, they may begin to buzz around your veil and even head butt you.

It might be best to close the hive temporarily and apply a few more puffs of smoke. Step away and let them calm down. If they remain agitated, its time to close up the hive and try again another day.

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 – mostly worker brood -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?
  • during swarm season watch for queen cells

Great, check back in 2 -4 weeks.

FAQs

What is the best time of day to open a hive?

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.

What is the minimum temperature for inspections?

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.

How often should you inspect a beehive?

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. The healthy strong hive needs a minimum of 4 or 5 inspections per season.

Are too frequent inspections a bad thing?

Opening a hive too frequently stresses the bees. The bees may kill their queen, decide to replace her or the entire colony may leave the hive completely.

Final Thoughts

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.

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

Leave a Reply

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

23 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. 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.
    Thanks.
    B

  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.

  18. Randy Silverman says:

    I had to remove hanging comb from between two frames that were too far apart. I’ve corrected the frame spacing and felt it was a shame for the girls to have done all that work (especially when part of it was heavy with honey) just for me to take it all away. So I put an empty super above the inner cover and put the comb and honeycomb on top of that hoping that they would climb thru the hole and repurpose the wax as well as use the honey. My question is, will they do that or was this just an exercise in good intent but otherwise all in vain?

  19. Charlotte Anderson says:

    They might but giving them too much space like that can cause more problems. I understand, I hate to waste their efforts too. BUT, it would probably be better to just place that comb somewhere outside (away from the hive) and let the bees harvest the honey. Keep the wax if you want to use later.

  20. Do drones only go after the queen?

  21. Charlotte Anderson says:

    Drones only mate with virgin queens and mating takes place in flight away from the hive.

  22. Daniel Wanjala says:

    This is very helpful and interesting. Thank you

  23. Charlotte Anderson says:

    Blessings to you.