An important part of beekeeping is good hive management. The first time a new beekeeper decides to look inside a beehive can be a bit unnerving. But don’t worry, you can do it.
Routine Beehive Inspection
If you have been involved in beekeeping for any amount of time you know the importance of beehive inspections. Observation can give you clues but you don’t know what is happening without taking a look inside a beehive.
No, you don’t have to look at every bee, every time but you really need to know what is happening in there!
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 !
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. I still get excited about opening a hive, you never know what you will find inside.
Most beekeepers have several different types of beekeeper veils and hat/veil combos. I have some “serious” one for deep inspections. And some lighter duty veils for a quick peek inside.
No matter which type of veil you choose, it is a good plan to have one on hand (or better yet – on your head) before you open your hive.
Hive temperament can change quickly and it is best to be prepared.
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? 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.
Also, those of us who have been doing this for a while can get into stressful situations with open hives too!
In this post, I will share some tips and tricks that will help you perform a successful beehive inspection and take your first look inside a hive.
At the bottom of this post, you will find a video slideshow (be prepared to pause the video) to help you recognize the various things you need to look for while your hive is open.
Beehive Inspection Schedule
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.
Some hives could need an inspection weekly for a while and then be left alone. A healthy strong hive may need a minimum of yearly inspections.
Your beekeeping goals will play a role in the frequency of how often you need to look inside a beehive.
Do you want to prevent your colony from swarming? If so, you will keep a closer eye on this in the Spring. Hive health, queen status, foraging conditions etc will all play a role in colony health.
Still we do say that “A vital component of successful beekeeping is doing routine beehive inspections.” If something goes wrong that the bees cant fix, you need to know.
This is true whether it is your first year as a beekeeper or your fifteenth.
Efficient Beehive 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 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 and my Beekeeping Journal from Amazon. It is back with inspection tips and places to take notes. It also includes a beekeepers calendar.
Looking Inside a Beehive That is New
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.
When I have new hives I perform hive inspections weekly until the colony is about 3 weeks old. By this point, I have a idea of the quality of their queen. This is very important because without a good queen the colony will be doomed.
Develop a good understanding of how bees reproduce and you will know which stages of development to watch for. Eggs, larva or capped brood can be seen.
First, I want to see that she is accepted by the workers. She is present and moving around freely. Workers don’t always accept a new queen. They can kill her.
The second thing I look for inside a beehive is a good brood pattern. Brood is the term we use for baby bees. Eggs, larva or capped pupae are all referred to as “brood”.
A good brood pattern has all stages of brood with few empty cells among them. Brood of the same age is close together.
After the first month, you can look inside a beehive on a monthly schedule unless you suspect a problem.
For example, less flight activity at the front, evidence of robbing bees or bees that were calm previously becoming more defensive.
Looking Inside Mature Beehives
During Spring when there is a stronger chance of swarming, you should inspect over-wintered colonies every 2 weeks. Watch for crowded conditions or queen cell development.
Once I place honey supers on, I do no 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 Can Cause Trouble For Your Bees!
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 leave the hive completely.
So, how much is too much and how long is too long to keep the hive open.
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 looking inside a beehive. An open hive is your learning tool.
However, don’t over do it ! Have a reason for your inspection – more on inspection frequency below.
Key Things to Look For Inside A Beehive
Do A 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, 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.
Do you need to use the bee 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.
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.
Finding A 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 (eggs, larva) . (This also applies to beekeepers who are re-queening an established colony.)
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.
New package bees or colonies that have been queenless for a while will lose population quickly. Older bees will die and new ones are not emerging.
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.
Finding Burr Comb During a Hive Inspection Is Okay
Building comb (also called drawing comb) is hard work. Bees consume a lot of nectar to make beeswax . By providing extra food for the bees, you can give the new colony a boost.
They can access in-hive feeders at night and on rainy days. Proper feeding of bees will help them have the resources to build comb quickly.
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 and you can remove it and push the frames back together. We call this “oddly placed” comb – burr comb.
Burr comb 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.
You can scrape the burr comb off -but if your bee space is wrong, the bees will just build it back. Too much burr comb between the frames is a bigger problem than extra comb on top.
Remove any comb that is not being constructed where it should and in the proper manner. Wonky comb makes future hive inspections more difficult.
After looking inside a 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 For Brood During Beehive Inspections
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.
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.
New beekeepers often confuse drone brood for queen cells. Drones fulfill an important role in the honey bee colony.
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 Inside A Beehive
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.
Checking the Brood Pattern
Sometimes an inspection will reveal a less than perfect brood pattern. Normally, brood of the same age will be located close together.
Patches of brood scattered here 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 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.
The beekeeper needs to intervene and requeen the hive. 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.
Laying Workers Inside a Beehive
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 don’t 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.
Inspection Tips – Looking Inside A Beehive
- 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?
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 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)