During the bee keeping season (March to November) you need to do weekly inspections. The purpose of inspecting your hives is to keep them healthy and strong by heading off problems as early as possible before they become a big deal. And especially to avoid colony failures – dead outs.
Upon examination of a hive which has failed you might find that it is infested with hive beetle or wax moth larva, or that it is completely devoid of food stores. This might lead you to believe that those were the cause of the failure, but chances are that they were just the last of an unfortunate series of events which started much earlier – Which usually went undetected because the hive was not inspected regularly enough.
Inspect only when the temperature is above 57 degrees. You can pop the top when it is cooler, but don’t remove frames or you may chill/kill brood. Inspecting in the middle of the day is best because many of the bees will be out foraging, and the reduced hive population will be less aggressive and easier to deal with. A hive which is disturbed after dusk/dark will be much more aggressive.
Two major causes of colony failure – queenlessness, and malnutrition – are very preventable, even for a beginner, just by doing weekly inspections and being prepared to take action.
How to do a Hive Inspection
- Light your smoker
- Smoke at entrance - not too much just enough to make them smell it.
- Remove the top
- Smoke at top – again, not too much.
- Remove end frame, examine, set aside.
- Examine each frame in order, and replace tight together
- Pry all frames over together to make room to replace end frame.
- Remove top box with slight twisting motion to break loose from frames in bottom box. Set top box aside – lean against hive stand or place on top of inverted cover.
- Inspect bottom box.
- As you replace everything keep in mind - never leave space between frames or the bees will fill it with comb.
What you are looking for when you Inspect
- Proof of an actively laying Queen - this is really more important than anything else. If you keep your hives queenright and fed you will be doing better than 3 out of 4 new beekeepers.
- Adequate Food – at least 15 pounds at all times once the hive is established
- Appropriate amounts of brood
- Queen Cells
- Signs of swarming, swarm prep disease, robbing or other problems
It’s great to see the queen, but not necessary.
The Queen is often surrounded by attendants which are facing her in a “rosette.”
It can often be very hard to spot the queen even when she is right in front of you.
As you can Imagine a queen might be difficult and time consuming to find in a strong hive. Don’t waste too much time looking for the queen – instead look for Eggs and young Brood.
Eggs can be hard to spot on new white comb – black plastic or old foundation will make it a lot easier. The milky looking substance is royal jelly being fed to newly hatched larva. Eggs and newly hatched larva indicate that your queen was present and active within the last 3-4 days. That is good enough proof of an active queen.
Just hatched larva like this can be hard to tell from eggs – which are about the same size – but the camera reveals that even very young larva are segmented – and surrounded by food.
As larva age they get larger and curl into a circle. #2 is probably about 24-36 hours old.
The reason that confirming that a hive is Queen-right is so important is that queenlessness is probably the most common cause of colony failure during the bee keeping season. Queenlessness can happen in a variety of ways:
- Swarming can result in queenlessness if the new queen fails to return
- The queen can just up and die (rarely) – and the hive fails to requeen itself
- A weak hive can get robbed and lose both the queen and the ability to produce a new queen in the process – or simply gets robbed into starvation and fails generally. Prevent robbing by keeping entrances small, don’t open hives more than necessary, keep populations strong, use robber screens.
- If a hive becomes unpleasant enough for some reason (hive beetles, heat, starvation) the queen might abscond – that is leave with all of the workers which are able to go with her.
- An over abundance of food (often caused by feeding) can also cause a hive to eventually fail – because too much food is one of the things which can cause a hive to swarm – and possibly result in queenlessness. But if you do your inspections, then you probably will not overfeed your hives to the point of swarming.
Make sure that there is plenty of food available – The goal is to have at least 15 pounds of honey at all times in each hive.
A medium frame of capped honey holds about 3 1/3 pounds.
Food which is on a frame along with other resources – like brood – counts toward the total.
Bees also need plenty of open nectar for day to day use. If a hive does not have a good bit of open nectar in addition to capped honey – during the beekeeping season – then you need to feed syrup/sugar water. That is – Unless, there are honey supers on the hive with honey being produced – Never feed when supers are on during honey season which is about early April through Early June. But if there is a honey flow on – open nectar will not usually be short.
Pollen is the high protein part of a honey bees diet – brood cannot be produced without pollen. However a hive also cannot live on pollen alone.
Assess the hive for Brood
The amount of brood in your hives will go up and down during the year:
- April-May – peak brood
- July-August – much less brood depending on weather – hot+dry=less brood
- September – Good amounts of brood produced (depending on available forage) in preparation for Winter
- December – little if any brood
- Jan – Brood production slowly begins again
Notice the bald brood in this picture – in this case it is probably just not quite completely capped, but lines or patches of bald brood can indicate the presence of wax moth larva. Large amounts of scattered bald brood may indicate disease or some other stress.
Drone brood looks a lot like corn pops cereal.
Queen cells are brood too.
Assess hive population
A strong hive has good population density and is more able to deal with robbing or hive beetles – and many other problems. Keeping a strong population density is a goal of good beekeeping. This hive looks just right for adding another box.
This hive is too strong – too much population will make a hive start swarm prep. This hive needs an empty super to be added – even then it should be monitored for signs of swarm prep.
Even though this is a small nucleus hive it still has a strong population of bees. Small hives can be strong and big hives can be weak.
This is a weak hive – the picture was taken in late winter when populations are normally on the small side, but you always want to see more bees than this in the main part of a hive. When you first add empty boxes they will be weak until the bees build up into them, but supers should be removed from chronically weak hives so that the bees can better care for the smaller remaining space.
Backfilling – backfilling is when nectar is stored in the brood nest.
Backfilling the brood nest is one of the first signs of swarm prep during the Spring and Summer reproductive season. After September it is normal preparation for winter and not a sign of swarming. If you find backfilling you need to stop feeding – if you are feeding – and make sure the hive has enough room. You might even consider inserting a foundationless frame in the brood nest between two frames of brood – this will usually cause them to very quickly build a frame of comb which the queen almost always immediately lays eggs in. All of that will help to use up nectar and get them distracted from swarm prep for a while.
Parasites, Pests and Disease
Adult beetles – not usually a problem.
Beetle larvae – this is a problem.
Wax moth damage – if you see webs it is wax moths. Wax moth larva are often present but strong hives can usually control them. I hive full of wax moth damage usually secumbed to something else.
Bee feces on the front of the hive is evidence of nosema apis – mostly a problem in late winter/early spring when the bees are cooped up for long periods. Nosema Cerana does not express with streaking on the front of the hive. However both kinds of nosema cause slow build up, low feed consumption and bees crawling on the ground with “K” wings – the front set of wings sticking out abnormally.
American Foul Brood – The most serious disease of honey bees. AFB is a bacterial disease which kills brood after it is capped – turning it into a rubbery snot like substance. AFB hives will smell like rotting meat, have very spotty dark colored brood with sunken or perforated irregular caps. If you think you might have AFB you MUST call the state apiary inspector immediately. THOU SHALL NOT try to deal with it on your own. Fortunately it is not very common.
European Foul Brood – much less serious than American Foul Brood – kills brood before it is capped. Symptoms are yellow/brown off colored open brood (should be nice and white) larva which are misshapen, twisted or lying on the bottom of the cell. AFB is a stress related bacterial disease which often clears up on it’s own once a good nectar flow starts. Therapies include antibiotics, requeening, and feeding lots of syrup.
Once you have finished your inspection put everything back together and consider making a few notes.
Other inspection tips:
If you are inspecting a big hive unstack it down to the bottom box first and then begin your inspection at the bottom – otherwise you will be pushing bees down as you go and you will end up having to inspect the bottom of the hive with many many bees in the way.
Be sure that you push the frames tight together! Extra space between them will violate bee space and result in mis-built comb that you will have to fix later.
Avoid perfumed or sweet scented products on your self or clothes – especially banana scent (or actual banana) which mimics honey bee alarm pheromone.
Avoid opening hives in the dark or dusky conditions – bees can be very protective under those conditions.
Try to do inspections during the middle of the day on a day when lots of bees are flying.
Stand in back of or to the side of hives – out of the main flight path.
Keep a camera or cell phone handy to take pictures of any thing that you find interesting or puzzling – don’t zip it up inside your bee suit!.
Learn to use a smoker – and keep it lit – proper use of smoke causes less stress than trying to inspect without smoke.
First year hives are generally somewhat gentle so take advantage of that fact by learning to work with them before they get too big.
If your bees are mean – constantly butting, chasing or trying to sting you even when you use smoke and aren’t doing anything wrong – you need to requeen. Any bees will sting, but it doesn’t have to be like that.