When getting started in bee keeping I was lucky enough to get to attend in person bee school. This also linked me to a local bee keeping mentor who has also become a close friend. With Covid going on many bee schools have gone remote or suspended classes. It is also a financial investment that, while I believe it is worth it, may not be in the cards for everyone.
To this end, I am going to talk about some things that a bee keeper should always be looking for during a hive inspection. I will try to break this information down to small pieces so it is easy to understand for someone who is just getting into bee keeping. If you are an expert bee keeper, please feel free to send me a note for anything I have missed here and I would be happy to add it.
When you approach your hive before you open it take a look at your traffic coming in and out of the hive. On a bright warm sunny day, there should be pretty heavy but even traffic going in and out. Bees coming back to the hive will most likely have visible pollen sacks full on their legs. The different colors of the pollen can tell you what is blooming right now and what the bees are collecting which is interesting, but not necessary to know. If you have a lot of aggression and fighting at the door, there may be robbing going on, consider adding a robbing screen. This robbing can also be indicative of a small or weak hive. If there are a lot of bees hanging to the bottom of the hive, very still, don’t panic! This behavior is called bearding. It is one ways that the bees cool down their hive. Bees flying around the entrance in figure 8 patterns are called orientation flights. These are also totally normal and nothing to worry about.
Once you establish regular traffic at the entrance of your hive its time to get into it. Suit up for safety or comfort. Different bee keepers wear different amounts of protective gear. Wear as much or as little as makes you feel most comfortable. There is nothing wrong with wearing a full suit and gloves, or nothing at all. Do what makes you feel the most comfortable because your comfort will translate to the bees in calmer energy and smoother movements which will be sure to make less of them angry or uncomfortable.
Open the top cover of your hive and take a quick look at it to make sure the queen didn’t happen to walk up there, and to make sure there isn’t burr comb on it. Burr comb is just what they call comb when it is built somewhere it isn’t “supposed” to be. If there is any scrape it off. Repeat this with the inner cover.
Once your frames are visible take a minute to take a look at the coverage. There should be several frames in the center covered in bees working their frames. The outer frames might have fewer or no bees and that is okay it is normal for them to cluster around the center where there is more work to be done. If all the frames are covered in bees, it might be time to add another brood box or a honey super.
To get into the actual inspection of the hive, always work from one side of the hive to the other. You don’t want to pull a frame right from the middle of the hive for several reasons.
1) With all frames in your hive there should only be what is known as “bee space” having the frames properly fit to the hive will limit amount of burr comb being built. Because of this you won’t have a lot of space to work with if you have a full hive and are trying to pull a full frame from the center.
2) It makes it MUCH more likely that you will squish and kill bees if you pull right from the center. If you pull a frame from one side you will be able to slide subsequent frames over before lifting them up.
3) The queen is more likely to be working in the center of the hive. The worst bee to accidentally squish would be the queen! Make sure you are giving them space to not get crushed by moving frames. They will get out of the way if you go slow.
Working from one side of the hive towards the center it is likely that your outer most frames will have less to look at. If you are in your first season the outer most frames may not have comb built up on them, and that is okay. If there is comb, it may be more filled with food stores pollen and honey than brood eggs or larva which is also normal and okay.
The closer you get to the center of the hive the more you should see. Take a look inside some of the center frames. You will be able to tell how long ago the queen was working those frames based on what you are seeing. If the frame has heavy coverage of eggs, she was probably be there recently, and might even still be there working. It takes between 18 to 22 days for a bee to develop from an egg all the way to hatching. It will go from bee stage into Larva stage and right before birth a nurse bee will cap the cell. If you are looking at a frame that has a large section of capped brood that will mean you are about to have a huge population increase which is usually great for your hive!
If you have looked through the center few frames and seen eggs, larva and capped brood, then you have seen all that you need to see for a successful hive inspection. Occasionally new bee keepers will get caught up in trying to spot the queen. This isn’t always necessary for a successful hive inspection because if you can see eggs, you know she is in there somewhere and doing her job.
The other thing it will be important to keep an eye out for is any pest issues you might be having. The most common things you will see if you are having pest issues are wax moths or hive beetles. If you are seeing bugs other than bees in your hive generally speaking you have a problem and are going to want to address it.
I hope you found any of this information helpful! Please always reach out if you have questions or clarifications. For some visual information related to a beehive inspection and what you want to be looking for please check us out on youtube at www.youtube.com/oldreddingfarm