Inspecting Your Beehive
Though bees do better when generally left alone, there are some good reasons to thoroughly inspect your hive, especially as a beginner. While this post is by no means comprehensive, especially about what you see in the hive as it pertains to comb patterns, pests and diseases; you may have more specific questions. For those, I defer to my favorite beekeeping manual, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping (linked below). Also, this inspection process applies to a Langstroth hive beekeeping. For the highlights, here is how I approach my hive inspection.
I want to have all of my tools prepared, smoker lit, gear on (gloves and veil at minimum) and good conditions for the inspection (above 50°F). It is best to inspect the hive during midday, once the sun has hit the hive and many of the worker bees are expected to be out foraging. The fewer bees you have to disrupt, the better. With smoker in hand, approach the hive from the back, opposite the entrance, to be sure you don’t interrupt the path of entering and exiting bees.
Inside the Hive
I start my inspecting seeking to learn how things are going inside the hive. I am looking for evidence of a queen who is laying eggs, if not the queen herself, as well as myriad other things. To start, direct a couple of puffs of smoke into the entrance and step back, allowing the bees to begin to settle. Meanwhile, make sure you have a clear area to stack your hive bodies as you work through the frames. Next, pry off the hive cover and direct a few puffs of smoke into the hole of the inner cover and wait a few more seconds. If bees are being aggressive (swirling around your face), just puff some smoke around you to create calm. Using your hive tool, pry under the inner cover (which will be nicely sealed with propolis) and gently lift. Puff a little smoke over the frames and the bees will draw down into the frames. There may be bees hanging out on the underside of the inner cover, and maybe even building comb. It is ok to scrape this comb off to keep a larger comb from forming later (which would make prying the lid even more disruptive) and set aside.
The inspection should start at the bottom board of the hive, so start systematically prying away each hive body and stacking. The first hive body (the top box) becomes the stand for the subsequent hive bodies as I work down. Once loosened, I place this box on its end on one of the shorter sides with the comb perpendicular to the ground, as pictured above. For the next box, I will stack directly on top of the perpendicular box without tilting it sideways, and will offset each of the next boxes diagonally to minimize contact area between boxes to prevent squishing bees. Once at the bottom board, check to see if any dead bees need to be swept out, or if there are signs of pests in the hive. Bees tend to keep their house clean, so a strong hive will have very little to do here. Place the bottom box back onto the bottom board and begin inspecting frames. It is best to start from one of the sides with the least bee activity and systematically check each frame. Using the hive tool, pry each frame out and do a quick scan checking for nectar, brood, capped honey, uncapped honey, pollen, and evidence of baby bees. Carefully replace each frame allowing bees to move out of the way as you go, and replace the frames exactly as they were before. Use your smoker as you go to drive bees back down into frames. Repeat with each box. As you replace each box, use the “bulldozer method” of slowly pushing each hive body onto the top of the next one until it is aligned, rather than setting it directly on top, which will allow bees to get out the way rather than being squashed by a descending overhead object.
What to Observe
As the season wears on, the colony should grow. A good rule of thumb is to inspect the hive every two weeks over the active season. First and foremost, you should be looking for brood ranging from an egg (which indicates a queen was present at the most three days ago), to open brood, capped brood and emerging brood. A full spectrum of brood is necessary for a well-functioning hive and generally, you’ll notice the the queen works in a spiraling pattern and each of these stages will be clustered in the broodnest together. It is not necessary to look for the queen each time you look in the hive. If you understand the broodnest patterns, you have a pretty good indication of her presence and health. Additionally, you should see honey and pollen stores present. Absence of brood doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t enough food, sometimes bees initiate a change in their cycle to manage pests or disease, but if it persists several weeks, it may be time to feed. Also consider the amount of comb available to the queen to lay. Once the bees have drawn out comb on most of the frames and seven out of eight are full, it is time to add a new box. You can swap each of the outside frames from the bottom box with two empty frames from the new box and add these to the middle of the new box to draw the bees up.
Outside the Hive
Throughout the day, from the time the sun first hits the hive, you should start to see bees exiting and reentering the hive freely and purposefully. If you don’t see activity, an inspection is called for to check for disease or a missing queen. If there are aggressive, swirling bees outside the hive, these could be robber bees preying on a weak or diseased hive and seeking their honey stores. In this case, you can close off the hive entrance to allow the defending bees a chance to protect their hive. If you notice an abnormally large amount of bees streaming out of the hive, they may be preparing to swarm, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In a healthy hive that has reached critical mass, bees will raise a new queen and split to form a new colony elsewhere, which is how bees have survived since their time began. However, they could also be absconding due to dissatisfaction with their home. In either case, an inspection is warranted. In general, you should see a small amount of dead bees disposed of by their surviving hivemates outside of the hive, as bees complete their life cycle every day. Bees will carry out their dead to keep the hive healthy. If there is an unusually large amount of dead bees, or weak, crawling bees, that could indicate disease and should be investigated.