Getting a family of bees into the bee box is only the first step of having a hive. Colonies must be inspected to be sure that everything is progressing like it should. A timely first hive inspection can be a great way to avoid disaster – but you have to know what to look for. Once the colony is growing continuing routine hive inspections are crucial to having healthy honey bee colonies.
What to Look for in a First Hive Inspection
Getting your first colony of honey bees is really exciting. Every thing is ready and you suit up and get to work. After months of anticipation, the bees arrive and are installed in their new home.
You did it! All you have to do now is sit back and wait for the honey – right? No, not hardly!
That new colony will need some supervision if you want it to grow into a healthy, productive colony. How do you know if they are progressing as they should? Of course, first you must learn what to do through educating yourself with books, classes etc.
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First stand to the side and observe the front of the hive. Do you see bees coming and going? No more than a few dead bees out front? You can learn some things from casual observation.
But, it’s a fact that you can never really know what is happening in the hive without looking inside. Periodic colony inspections are needed throughout the season.
Thankfully, the bees do rather well without our help most of the time. However, if the colony is dealing with a queen problem or disease, the beekeeper may need to help out to save the colony.
You can’t know if this is happening without checking the frames inside the hive.
When to Inspect the New Colony
It is common for the over anxious beekeeper to really want to look inside every day or two to see what is happening. Avoid this urge. The new colony needs to feel peaceful and secure.
This is important because the bees in the package are not from her original colony. In the few days that it takes the worker bees to release the queen, they should come to accept her as their leader.
While you are waiting for inspection time to roll around, continue your research and find answers to any beekeeping questions you can think of – review pictures of the different types of bees found in a colony and know what bee brood looks like.
New Package Hive Inspections
Most of us are very excited about checking to see what is happening inside! Your first new hive inspection can take place about a week after install.
This is a minimal inspection and we want to be as calm and gentle as possible. This is not a time to marvel over each bee in there. Use your bee smoker with a little cool white smoker to calm the bees.
Be brief, there will be plenty of time to watch your bees later. Do what you must and close the hive back up so the bees can get back to work. There are several things to look for while the hive is open.
Is the Queen Released?
If your new colony is from a package of bees, you have 1 main purpose. The goal is to make sure the queen is released from the queen cage.
Most often the queen cage is empty. That’s a good sign. Remove the cage, use your hive tool to scrape away any excess or burr comb and gently push your frame back together.
You may not see the queen but that’s okay. Finding eggs or young larva is a good sign that she is present and laying. Honey bee eggs are hard to see. But, young bee larva (baby bees) look like small white grubs.
Don’t spend too much time with the box open or frames outside – especially if the weather is cool. Bee Brood can become chilled and die.
Looking for Bee Brood
Don’t be alarmed if you do not see brood yet. Those tiny bee eggs are hard to see and easily over-looked. And, sometimes it takes the queen a little while to get started. Perhaps she is present and doing fine but has not started to lay yet.
If a brief inspection shows the queen released but you see no brood, close up the hive. Return again in 5 or 6 days and perform another search for larva. At that time, an absence of brood should be addressed with a replacement queen.
Yes, it is possible to need to requeen a hive, even during the first season. Not every queen is a good queen and it is impossible to know until they are in the hive.
With experience you will learn more about recognizing the different types of bee brood. Then, you will be able to complete your hive inspections much faster.
First Inspection for Nuc Hive
When purchasing a nuc of bees for your new beehive, you are starting off a step ahead of a package in terms of colony growth. However, nucs are not always better and have challenges of their own.
The new colony started with a nuc has some frames of comb, brood and food. The queen is already laying and known to the bees in the box.
You do not have to worry about queen acceptance because she is already accepted. However, there are still some first inspection things to check.
Perform a Queen Check
The most important thing to look for in that the new nuc hive is the presence of a laying queen. About a week after install, you hope to actually see the queen in the brood nest area.
Also, new eggs or tiny larva should be present. This indicates that she is still laying after the move to the new box.
You want to ensure that the queen is still alive. She could have been harmed during the move or installation. Care should always be taken when transporting frames with bees – you never know where the queen might be.
A nuc colony should have some brood of all stages. If you do not have any brood in a new nuc colony, you may have not received what you paid.
Check for Pests or Disease
You want to do a quick check for any pest problems or signs of disease. Do the bee larva look white and healthy? Brown twisted larvae signal death and possible disease.
With dead larva, our biggest concern is American Foulbrood, however there are many reasons for larva to die and it is not always a big disease issue. Don’t panic if you see a small area of dead larva.
What about honey bee pests? A few pests here and there is no reason for worry. As long as the colony has a good population you are okay.
A couple of Small Hive Beetles is no cause for panic. However, an infestation numerous Small Hive Beetles calls for quick action.
Likewise, spider web like webbing is an indication of problems with Wax Moths. Don’t worry over a bit of webbing or a moth larva here and there – a healthy hive can deal with them.
If all looks well inside, close things back up and give the bees another couple of weeks to get to work.
New Hive Inspection Checklist
- queen present or evidence of a queen (eggs, larva)
- all stages of brood
- honey and pollen in the comb
- bees are busy working – not lethargic
- brood (larva) is white and healthy
- no obvious sign of disease
- few or no obvious pest problems
How Long Should You Keep the Hive Open
Try to spend no more than 15 minutes with the top off the new colony. This is a tenuous time for the bees in their new location.
Looking inside the colony can be very educational. It is one of the most useful types of training for new beekeepers.
No beekeeping class or book can prepare you for the wonder and mystery of seeing the bees working on the comb.
However, we must remember that it is not natural for a hive to be open to light. Or, to have a giant in a white bee suit removing parts of the bees home.
All hive inspections should have a goal and be as brief as possible. Unless you are dealing with a major problem.
How Often Should I Check My New Hive?
For a new hive, brief weekly inspections are the general guideline. Please don’t open the hive every day. Your bees may leave – they need to be able to feel secure and safe.
For extra insurance, there are some beekeeper techniques to consider that may help prevent your bees from leaving – especially when dealing with package bees.
When using packages to start a hive, the hive population will slowly drop for a few weeks until new brood begins to emerge. Once this happens, the population should quickly build.
After colony growth is well under way and the queen seems to be accepted and doing well, montly inspections are the general rule for most beekeepers.
Moderation in a hive inspection schedule is the key. Try to limit the number of times you open the hive – just for fun. Though it is okay to do that occasionally too.
When a colony is new, be especially careful and know what you hope to accomplish with each peek inside the hive. Don’t forget to enjoy your beekeeping experience. Yes, things will go wrong and Yes, sometimes it will be your fault.
But it is all a part of the learning experience. Our failures help us become better beekeepers in the years to come.