Beehive Inspection Strategies
Hi new beekeeper. You finally have your first hive of bees. Everything is so exciting and you don’t want to mess up, right ! Months and months have been spent in research and reading. You are ready, hopefully. Now – It is time for a first beehive inspection and you cant wait to get in there.
Your protective wear is on and your smoker is puffing – its time to hit the bee yard.
Your First Beehive Inspection
Hold on just a moment lets think this through – maybe you don’t know what to look for. How can you tell if everything is OK?
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.
In this post, I will share tips that will help you perform a successful beehive inspection.
At the bottom of this post, you will find a video to help you recognize the various things you need to look for while your hive is open.
This blog post may contain affiliate links. Read here.
Beehive Inspection Schedule
How often should you inspect your beehives? 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. Some hives could need an inspection weekly for a while and others can go a long time on their own.
Hive health, queen status, foraging conditions etc will all play a role. Still we do say that “A vital component of successful beekeeping is doing routine beehive inspections.” Lets discus a basic inspections schedule for a new beekeeper with a new colony.
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 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 feel that you have thoroughly looked at everything. It will get better as you gain experience. This is where good note taking comes into play.
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.
You can keep notes in many different formats. My favorite is paper and pen/pencil. I have developed beehive inspection sheets directly from my notebook. You can purchase the download of my Beekeeping Journal – here and print your own – or purchase a bound a printed copy from Amazon.
Hive Inspections Can Cause Trouble For Your Bees!
Interfering with your new colonies too much causes colony stress. 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.
This stress can lead to undesirable actions by the bees. They may kill their queen, decide to replace her or leave the hive completely. So, how much is too much and when should beehive inspections occur?
As mentioned, beehive inspection frequency depends on several factors. Hive genetics, foraging conditions, and your climate situation affects colony conditions. There are some things you must learn from inside the hive. However, don’t over do it ! Have a reason for your inspection – more on frequency below.
YOU CAN DO THIS !
How to Do A Beehive Inspection
#1 Queen Check
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 and gently push your frames together. (Sometimes you need to wedge them apart a bit to fit the queen cage. We don’t want to leave them that way.)
Wait 4-5 days and 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.
Do you need to use the smoker? That’s up to you but yes I generally do puff just a small amount of white smoke in the colony a minute before opening the top.
What happens in your queen and her friends are still in the cage? I have only had this happen once. Occasionally the queen candy (white plug) is too dry and it takes the bees longer to release the queen.
So, if your queen is not released, recheck again in a couple of days. Around day 7 you can release her, if needed. Don’t get in too big a hurry to release your queen.
Finding Queen Dead in Cage!
A new queen dead in her cage suggests you may have a loose queen in the package bees. Look carefully through your bees for a queen or signs of a queen.
If you find another queen, mystery solved you have a loose queen. No visible sighting of a queen means waiting another 3-5 days and check again for eggs or larva.
Failure to find evidence of a queen at this time means you need to get a new queen quickly. Remember the population in your hive will decline over the first 3-4 weeks, older bees will die before new ones emerge. If you are queenless, you must provide a queen or fresh eggs to your colony while the population is still good. Waiting too late to acquire a queen will result in the failure of your colony.
Most bee suppliers are happy to help you with problems like this. Contact your bee source immediately and nicely ask for help.
#2 Burr Comb Is Okay
Your new bees will begin to build honey comb. Building comb (also called drawing comb) is hard work. Bees consume a lot of nectar to produce wax.
By providing extra food for the bees, I can give my new colony a boost. They can access my in-hive feeders at night and on rainy days. Proper feeding will help your bees have the resources to build comb quickly.
As you look down through the frames, does something look weird? You may find some awkward honey comb built around the queen cage. This is normal and you can remove it and push the frames back together. We call this “oddly placed” comb – burr comb.
It may also appear on the tops of frames indicating that the wooden ware is not cut precisely
enough to preserve the proper spacing desired by the bees. This issue is a bigger problem for the beekeeper than the bees.
I normally scrape some of it off but if your bee space is off, the bees will just build it back. Too much burr comb between the frames is a bigger problem than extra comb on top.
After your beehive inspection, 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.
#3 Checking For Brood During Hive Inspection
My beehive inspection video (with practice examples below) gives you a good overview of things to look for. However, you still need to understand hive basics before hive inspection time.
Once the queen is released and accepted by the colony, she begins to lay eggs. In just a few days, eggs become larvae. 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.
Beekeepers want a tight pattern of brood with few empty cells. It is okay and desirable to have a small number of cells open. If you only see milk brood, you will want to recheck in a week to confirm capped worker brood.
Occasionally, a queen is not properly mated and she will look great but not be able to produce a good pattern of worker brood.
Using Drone Frames In Your Beehive
Some beekeepers use a special plastic drone comb frame for mite control. I am not a fan of this method but there are beekeepers who use it with success. Because we know varroa mites prefer drone brood, this special frame is imprinted with drone size cell impressions.
Worker bees follow the impression size and build drone size brood cells. The queen bee then lays unfertilized drone eggs. Mites are attracted to this frame of drone brood.
After the bees cap the drone cells but before adult drones emerge, the beekeeper will remove the frame and place it in the freezer to kill the mites (and drones inside the cells).
You may choose to try this method, but I think it would be a better project for an experienced beekeeper. Failure to remove the special frame at the right now could result in a “mite bomb” in your colony. High mite populations that will cause the colony to fail.
Drone Brood Is Not Always Bad
In 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.
New beekeepers often confuse drone brood for queen cells. Drones fulfill an important role in the honey bee colony.
Finding Funky Comb During A Beehive Inspection
Funky Comb – More Than Just A Little Burr Comb
As your bees draw comb,they will sometimes do some strange things. Strange to the beekeeper’s eye – the bees have their own plan.
Keeping your frames pushed together can help prevent “wonky” comb built where you don’t want comb. However, 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 in any bee hive.
Remove weird comb before the bees waste too much time and energy on it. The bees often get it right on the second try. Beekeepers using plastic foundation often brush melted beeswax on the plastic. This practice encourages bees to use the foundation.
#4 Accessing The Brood Pattern During Beehive Inspection
Sometimes a beehive inspection will reveal a less than perfect brood pattern. Normally, brood of the same age will be located close together. Patches of brood scattered her and there could indicate a problem. However, a good queen can have a less than perfect brood pattern. 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. However, the queen is a key factor . This is a time when having more than 1 colony is of benefit. If the other colonies are growing and this one is not, we must wonder why.
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 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.
Kill the old queen (but not before you have a new queen “in your hand”). Introduce your new queen , using a special queen frame or slow release queen cage.
#5 Beehive Inspection Reveals Laying Workers
A bee colony may become queenless and fail to raise a new queen. Or, a beekeeper may add a new queen that is not accepted by the colony. If they dont want her – they will kill her. Slow introduction with a queen cage reduces the likelihood of this happening, but it can happen.
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 is often more than 1 laying worker in a colony. These laying workers may also fly outside the hive and forage. The colony is doomed without beekeeper intervention.
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.
#6 How Often to Inspect A Beehive
The frequency of a beehive inspection depends on the needs of the colony. Many beekeepers inspect new colonies at 2 week intervals. I inspect my established colonies monthly throughout the warm season.
For the new beekeeper with a new honey bee hive, I would inspect weekly for the first 4 weeks. Then monthly or bi-monthly for the rest of the season.
#7 Quick Tips for Beehive Inspections :
It is not always necessary to see the queen. You only need to see evidence of a fertile queen. Properly laid eggs (in adjacent cells – one per cell) are a good sign. Concentrated areas of worker brood with some drone brood on the edge of the brood nest. A good brood pattern is a beautiful site to any beekeeper.
Do you see where the bees are gathering nectar or perhaps even capping honey? What about pollen? Pollen will be stored in an area near the brood nest.
Lets Play – Practice Makes Perfect (Or at least better)
This is a video slide show. Each frame will give you 7 seconds to look before the answer appears. Just hit the pause button to give yourself more time. Then Play to continue. Have Fun.
New Beehive Inspection Checklist
Queen is present and laying (don’t see the queen- look for eggs/small larva)
good brood pattern – not all drones
comb is being drawn
bees are bringing in pollen and nectar (feed if needed)
Good – check back in 2 weeks
Tools of the Trade to Make Inspections Easier