Beehive inspections are vital to keeping healthy honeybee colonies. Let’s discuss all the things that you need to know before you inspect a beehive.
What to Know Before a Beehive Inspection
Every so often in the Spring & Summer you will need to open your hives to make sure that they are happy & healthy. Without inspections, you could lose entire colonies due to pests, disease, and overcrowding.
I highly recommend having an experienced beekeeper walk you through your first hive inspection to show you what to look for.
How Often Should You Inspect a Beehive?
It is recommended that you check on new colonies every week for the first month, but after that it varies from beekeeper to beekeeper. Some like to inspect hives monthly while some only do seasonal inspections. If you know how to observe bees at the entrance of the hive, you are likely to be able to tell if there are major issues without opening the top.
When Should You Inspect a Beehive?
A beehive can be opened ideally when the temperature is above 50 degrees F and it is not raining. Calm & sunny days are your best bet to avoid harming the bees and causing them to panic.
Try to inspect your beehive during the day (11 AM to 3-4 PM) because the forager bees will be out foraging so you will have fewer bees to work around.
When NOT to Open a Beehive
Don’t perform a hive inspection when it is very cold out. Opening the hive in the winter can let in a lot of cold air which would cause the bees to expend too much energy trying to keep warm.
Don’t perform a hive inspection when nectar is scarce. The bees will be more aggressive at this time and by opening the hive you could potentially cause another hungry colony to rob yours.
What Do You Need for a Beehive Inspection
Beekeeping Protective Gear
I have friends who work their bees entirely without protective clothing. That works great for them, but, unfortunately, I have a severe allergy to bee stings so I suit up from head to toe. I highly suggest wearing a bee suit if you are unsure of your allergy status. If you don’t want to wear a full suit, then a veil and a jacket will protect the center of your body from stings. I always recommend having an EpiPen on hand when working with bees even if you have not had an allergic reaction in the past.
Beehive Inspection Tools
You don’t need much to inspect a hive, but there are a few basic beekeeping tools needed for a hive inspection:
A smoker works to “calm” the bees while you work in the hive. I put calm in quotation marks because the smoke doesn’t sedate them as many people think. It actually interferes with their sense of smell so they don’t pick up on the alarm pheromones from the guard bees when you enter the hive.
The smoke also makes them believe that there is a fire nearby so they start prepping to escape. They start eating honey quickly to move it to a new home and this slows them down so they do not attack as much.
2. Hive Tool
Beehive frames are often covered in a thick sticky substance called propolis. Propolis is what bees use to seal up cracks and openings within the hive. In order to remove the frames, you have to release them from the propolis. A hive tool allows you to break the seal and pull the frames out without damage.
3. Bee Brush
A bee brush is good to have one hand so you can gently brush bees off of frames that you are inspecting for honey, pollen, brood, etc.
What to Look for When You Inspect a Beehive?
Before opening the hive, observe what the bees look like at the entrance. In the spring & summer, you should see bees with what we call “pollen pants”, little balls of pollen stuck to their legs as they come back from foraging. This is a good sign that they are actively foraging for the colony.
Check to see if the bees are active. Are they flying in and out of the hive? Do you see bees that are walking/stumbling and unable to fly? Are there dead bees on the bottom board? If you notice that your bees are bearding (collecting in a clump on the front of the hive), then you may want to keep a close eye on them. They may simply be cooling the temperature of the hive interior, but they also may be preparing to swarm.
While observing the hive entrance, you may notice bees fighting and/or throwing (yes throwing) dead bees off of the landing pad. Guard bees will fight bees from other colonies so they don’t rob the honey stores and undertaker bees will toss dead bees out of the hive in an effort to keep a clean house.
When you perform a beehive inspection (inside the hive), you will need to watch for several different signs that could point toward issues within the beehive.
1. Behavior and Temperament
Are the bees calm or are they aggressive? Remember that bees acting nervous or aggressive is a normal occurrence. They see you as an intruder and they want to fend you off. This is where the use of a smoker comes in.
Varroa Mites: Look in brood cells and on the bodies of bees for these small reddish-brown mites. It is common to have a small varroa population, but if the mites aren’t kept in check by the bees, then they can cause a plethora of issues.
Tracheal Mites: Tracheal mites lay eggs in the trachea of honey bees. The mites emerge from the trachea after the bees hatch and they eat the blood of the infected bees. If you notice bees that try to fly, but fall to the ground, K-shaped wings, or bees stumbling around, you may be dealing with tracheal mites.
Small Hive Beetle: These little beetles can make your hive smell like old dirty socks. Look for them in any dark space within your hive. Check brood cells for larvae.
Cockroaches: Cockroaches seem to be everywhere. They don’t cause a major health issue for the bees, but they can eat the honey stores and make for an unclean environment if the population is too large. The best way to keep the road population down is to keep your honeybees healthy and strong so the roaches aren’t able to enter the hive to begin with.
Wax Moths: If you notice webbing across cells in your honeycomb, then you most likely have a wax moth infestation. The larvae of this moth will eat through the wax that makes up your comb so you need to get rid of them quickly. Adult bees usually take care of wax moths before they get out of hand so you may not see these in a healthy beehive inspection. You are more likely to see them in a weak colony or an abandoned hive.
Ants: Thankfully, ants are a nuisance and not a huge issue because bees can remove them from the hive easily, however, you do want to keep your bees energy focused on food production and not fending off ants. To keep ants out of your hive, keep the grass low around the beehives and add oil or another slippy substance to the hive stand to keep ants from crawling up. You may even use a tarp to kill the grass around the bottom of the hives.
Mice: Mice can be an issue during cold weather seasons. At that time, they are looking for a warm place to build a nest and a beehive offers warmth and food. Add a metal entrance reducer to keep mice from destroying your hive.
3. Honeybee Diseases
A good rule of thumb when checking for diseases during a beehive inspection is to check the brood pattern. If you notice a spotty brood pattern, sunken brood cells, or a slimy substance on brood cells then you most likely have a problem that you should dig further into.
This is a fatal disease that can doom your entire apiary. It is caused by spore-forming bacteria. Colonies with American Foulbrood must be destroyed. AFB kills the larvae of the bees so check the brood chamber for patchy, dark, or sunken in brood cells with dead larvae inside. There is typically an awful odor in infected hives as well.
EFB is also a bacterial disease that affects the brood. It can be treated, unlike America Foul Brood.
This is a fungal honeybee disease that affects the bee’s ability to digest food. Dysentery (diarrhea around and in the hive) is a common symptom of nosema. The bees may also appear similar to bees with CBPV, dark and greasy looking with swollen bellies.
Chalkbrood is caused by fungal spores found on brood food. As the honeybee larvae eat the food, they also ingest the spores. The spores will sit in the hindgut of the larvae until their cells are sealed.
You can identify chalkbrood when you inspect an infected beehive by the presence of “mummy” bees dead in their cells. These mummies look almost like they have been colored on with chalk, hence the name of the disease. Chalkbrood does not typically take out an entire colony, but it can weaken them.
Deformed Wing Virus
This virus is often transmitted to honeybees by varroa mites. Crumpled wings and bloated abdomens are the most common symptoms of the deformed wing virus.
Sacbrood is a virus that affects honeybee brood. The virus is consumed by the bee larvae and this causes failure to pupate. The larvae will die in their cells and turn into fluid-filled sacs. Typically, adult bees removed infected larvae before this becomes a big problem within the hive.
Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus
CBPV is a viral honeybee disease that can lead to the collapse of a colony. If you notice dark, hairless, “greasy” looking bees that are shaking and unable to fly throughout your hive, you may be dealing with bee paralysis.
4. The Queen & Healthy Brood
If you do not spot the queen bee immediately during your beehive inspection, don’t panic. She can often be difficult to find. Instead, look for eggs inside brood cells. A honeybee egg looks like a single grain of rice. Be sure to look for multiple brood stages- eggs, larvae, pupae, as well as capped and uncapped brood cells).
The brood pattern should be regular (a spotty pattern is generally a bad sign), and a consistent color, and the capped cells should be raised- not sunken in.
If you can see healthy brood, then you do not have to continue searching for the queen because there is evidence that she is healthy and doing her job.
Keep an eye out for queen cells on your hive frames. There are 3 common types of queen cells and they each have different meanings.
Swarm Cells: Swarm cells appear as vertical cups of comb built off the bottom of hive frames. These cells are created by bees in order to raise a second queen. They do this when they are overcrowded so half of the colony can stay with the original queen and the other half can leave with the new queen. If you notice swarm cells, go ahead and split that hive to avoid losing half of the colony.
- Supersedure Cell: Supersedure cells are created when the current queen is not doing her job well or when she is unhealthy. The bees recognize the need for a new queen so they build these cells in order to raise a new queen that will replace the current one. You do not have to take any action when you see this type of cell. Just trust your bees to do what they do. Supersedure cells are vertical like swarm cells, but they are generally on the front of frames instead of hanging off the bottom.
- Emergency Queen Cell: Emergency cells can be vertical or horizontal and they generally are seen in clusters. Bees build these cells when the queen has died and they are working overtime to raise up a new one. If you see emergency cells when you inspect your beehives, keep an eye on the colony, but give them 15-20 days (the length of time it takes for a queen to hatch) before you intervene.
5. Honey stores
The amount of honey in a hive will vary based on time of year. In the Spring, you don’t want to have a lot of extra honey because it will go to waste. This is a good time to pull honey frames for extraction.
In fall and early winter, you will want to make sure that the bees have plenty of honey stored up to eat when there are little to no plants to forage from.
6. Available Space
Make sure that your bees have enough space or you risk the colony swarming or even absconding. When your top honey super (10-frame) has 6-7 full honey frames, go ahead and add another box for them to move up into.
When overwintering honeybees, do the opposite. You want bees to have less space to have to keep warm when it is cold out so reduce the space to one deep box and one honey super.
How to Record Honeybee Hive Inspections
I suggest taking good notes on the findings from each of your beehive inspections so that you can compare your hives’ health & productivity from season to season. To do this, you can simply use a notebook or you can use a spreadsheet like the one found in The Honeybee Record Book. This book even includes a beehive inspection checklist!
How to Perform a Beehive Inspection
Now that you know what to look for, here is a quick step-by-step tutorial to walk you through your beehive inspection.
STEP 1: Prepare
Before you open a hive, make sure that you are suited up as the bees can get aggressive in an effort to protect their home. It is also a good idea to use a smoker to calm and distract the bees while you check everything out. You will need to have a hive tool and a bee brush with you as well.
STEP 2: Observe Outside the Hive
Take a look at the hive entrance and landing board. Make sure the bees and flying in and out and that you don’t see an abundance of dead bees or bees that are having trouble flying.
STEP 3: Open the Hive
Open top cover and inner cover. Notice if you see any bugs (especially small hive beetles) running around on the inner cover. They will scurry out of the light as quickly as possible.
STEP 4: Smoke Bees
Use the smoker to keep the bees out of your face. Don’t overdo the smoke… just a few puffs every now and then should do the trick.
STEP 5: Remove Frames from Top Super
Remove each frame one by one from the top super. Use the hive tool to break the propolis seal so they come out more easily. Check for pests, symptoms of disease, and honey stores. Use the bee brush to gently wipe bees away from the area you are trying to inspect. Do this for every frame in each super. Be sure to place each frame back the same way it came out or you risk disorienting the bees.
STEP 6: Observe Brood Box
Remove each frame from the brood box. If you have a queen excluder, this should be the only box that the queen could be in so you have a good chance of spotting her. Check brood cells for pests, disease, a healthy brood pattern, capped brood cells, and multiple stages of healthy brood.
STEP 7: Replace Frames
Put the frames and boxes back in the same way that they came out. This will keep the brood, honey, and pollen stores in the ideal spots for your bees. Try not to be in the hive any longer than an hour or you might stress the bees too much.