A beehive inspection is the only way that will tell you if your honey bee hive is strong and healthy.
A beehive inspection will give you a glimpse into your honey bees’ lives.
Honey bees are very competent and can take care of themselves for the most part. Taking a peep into the hive will make sure that they are healthy and don’t need any outside help from you.
If they do need help, you’ll be able to give it to them.
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Supplies You’ll Need for a Hive Inspection
I’ve listed these again at the bottom in case you want to see it again without having to scroll all the way back up here!
How to Perform a Beehive Inspection
Any time that you plan on handling parts of the hive or your bees, have your bee suit and smoker handy.
Check your hive every 7-10 days in the spring and summer.
Don’t check more often than that. Beehive inspections that are too frequent will cause the bees to panic and possibly flee the hive.
Smoking the Hive
Smoking the hive does two things to the bees.
- Guard bees release pheromones when the hive is under attack to let the bees inside of the hive know. It covers up the pheromones that are released by the guard bees.
- When the smoke gets into the hive, it makes the worker bees think that there is a wildfire nearby. The workers start gorging themselves on honey in preparation to leave the hive. Gorging bees are busy bees and won’t bother you while you’re working.
Start by smoking the entrance to the hive.
This will mask any of the pheromones the guard bees release.
Remove the top cover and smoke the hive through the hole in the inner top cover. Replace the top cover. After a minute or two, remove the top and inner cover.
You can apply more smoke if needed.
If you notice bees starting to line up and look at you, it’s time for more smoke.
Opening the Hive for Beehive Inspections
Inspect the beehive from the bottom up. If you have multiple brood boxes and honey boxes, remove them to get to the bottom brood box. All boxes need to go back in place correctly, just like they were when you took it apart.
Check the frames in the bottom brood box. Pull out each frame slowly and gently, making sure not to squish any bees. Once you’ve looked at both sides of the frame, return it back to the brood box the same direction that it was when you pulled it out. Be careful not squish bees when you replace it!
As you are checking the hive, remove any propolis with your hive tool. Gently scrape it off of any surfaces that prevent you from handling the bees. Bees use propolis to seal up the hive and will try to seal down frames, covers and boxes. This can make it hard for you to check the bees, so remove it if you notice it.
Work through both brood boxes and honey boxes. Replace them as you go, putting them back the way that they were. Line them up and make sure that they face the right direction. This is important to the bees; they need to know where to find certain parts of the hive or certain frames.
What to Look for During a Beehive Inspection
There are several things that you’ll check for during a beehive inspection. You’ll check for parasites or pests, the queen and brood, drones and check the drawn out frames.
Parasites and Pests
These are the last things that you’ll want to see in your hive, so I thought we would cover them first and get them out of the way.
Varroa mites are the most common parasite that beekeepers have to deal with. They feed on the blood of the honey bees and their life cycle is closely entwined with that of the honey bee.
Tracheal mites are hard to detect because they live in the tracheal tube of the honey bee. The tracheal tube is the tube that bees use to breathe.
The small hive beetle (SHB) attacks hives in the southern United States. Hives in the U.S. were didn’t have to worry about the small hive beetle until it was discovered in hives in Florida in 1998. Strong hives can typically handle SHB populations without trouble. The SHB is an opportunistic pest and attacks hives that are already suffering from Varroa mites or other pests. Large populations of SHB can overwhelm even large, strong hives.
Wax moths are another opportunistic pest. They damage stored honey combs. Similar to the SHB, wax moths can generally be handled by a strong bee hive.
The Queen and Brood
Any time the hive is inspected, check for the queen. This is easily done with a marked queen.
A trained eye can easily find an unmarked queen. She is slightly larger than the workers and has a long, slender, unstriped abdomen.
You’ll also want to check that she is laying properly.
Check the brood frames for the presence of brood (eggs and larvae).
Eggs are small and can be hard to see. The eggs will most likely be around the middle of the frame, towards the bottom. There should only be one egg per cell.
Larvae are a good sign that the eggs are being laid and are hatching properly.
Drones are a good sign that your hive is healthy.
These male bees do not collect pollen or nectar, take care of young or work in the hive. Their sole purpose is to mate.
They will leave the hive and form swarms with other drones. This drone group will release pheromones that signal to queen bees that they are there and ready to mate.
After mating with a queen, the drone dies.
Only strong hives can sustain a population of drone bees. About 15% of your hive population should be drones.
It can be easy to confuse drones with the queen because of their size. Drones are rounder and fatter than workers and the queen. They also have large eyes.
Other Things to Check For During a Beehive Inspection
Make sure that bees are coming and going freely. Bees that are coming in should have pollen on them. There should also be capped honey and comb going up on empty frames.
Check for the presence of odd comb that stands out. These could be queen cells or swarm cells. If you see queen cells or swarm cells, contact an experienced beekeeper or the company that you ordered your bees from for advice.
Drawn Out Frames
A complete beehive has two brood boxes and two honey boxes. When you first start out, your hive will be all in one brood box.
As the honey bee population grows, you’ll add to the hive.
Timing when to add another brood box or honey box is crucial to success. Add them too soon and the hive can’t protect it.
Count how many frames are drawn out, or filled with comb.
When the first brood box has one or two frames left that aren’t drawn out, you can add the second brood box on top.
When the second brood box has one or two frames left, you can add the first honey box.
Add the second honey box when the first honey box has one or two frames left.
First Beehive Inspection
For your first beehive inspection, it will be simple since you will only have one box to check.
Start on one end of the brooder box and gently remove a frame. Be careful to move slowly and don’t squish any bees. Use your bee brush to move bees if you need to.
Check for the queen.
If she’s marked, she will be easy to find.
An unmarked queen is harder to find but she can be distinguished from the others if you look closely.
She will be slightly larger than the other bees. She will have a long, slender abdomen that isn’t striped like the worker bees.
If you don’t see the queen, check for comb, honey, and eggs or larvae.
Flip the frame over and check the other side of the frame. Gently replace the frame, careful not to squish any bees.
Move on to the next frame and look for the same things.
If you still can’t find the queen, it may be that you’re just having a hard time seeing her. She can be hard to distinguish for the novice beekeeper, especially if she’s unmarked.
Eggs are a good sign that your queen is in there and she has laid within the last 1-3 days.
The eggs look like thin, tiny grain grains of rice. They should be placed in the center of the cell.
When you find eggs, check that there is only one egg per cell. More than one egg per cell means that worker bees are laying, which isn’t a good sign.
Eggs can be hard to see simply because of how small they are.
When you’re looking for eggs, hold the frame above you, slightly tilted. The sun should be over your shoulder. Don’t let your bee suit or body create a shadow on the frame. This will make it easier to see the eggs within the cells.
Since the eggs are so small, we’ve found that it’s easier to use our phones to snap pictures of the frames. Then, later, we can zoom into the pictures and see the eggs easily.
Performing Beehive Inspections
As a beekeeper, it’s important to keep an eye on how well your bees are doing.
If there is an issue, you want to catch it early before it gets out of control.
If you notice pests or bees that look unhealthy, they may need some help from you. Treatments for pests and diseases are easy to find and can save a hive.
Beehive inspections are crucial to a healthy hive.
Perform them every 7-10 days during the spring and summer.
Check for parasites, possible queen or swarm cells, brood, honey, and drones.
It’s a good idea to take pictures of the frames while you’re inspecting it. You can zoom into the pictures later and look closer for signs of pests or brood that may be hard to see.