Maintaining healthy honey bee colonies is not only crucial for the horticulture industry but also essential for the vitality of our gardens. As a result, an increasing number of homeowners are embracing the art of beekeeping by maintaining their own beehives. An integral part of this practice involves regular beehive inspections to ensure the well-being of the colony without causing disruptions. For beginner beekeepers, conducting inspections every seven to 10 days during the spring and summer seasons is a recommended target. Going beyond weekly inspections can disturb hive activity and set the bees back a day.
Timing and Weather Considerations It is ideal to conduct beehive inspections on moderately warm and dry days, with temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid conducting inspections on wet or cold days.
The Beehive Inspection Process A standard beehive consists of stacked boxes, some designated for honey collection and others for the brood colony. The upper box, known as the honey super, is primarily for honey storage, while the lower box, often referred to as the brood box or deep super, houses the brood colony. In between these boxes, a flat screen called a queen excluder may be present to limit the queen’s access to honey supers while allowing worker bees to fill them.
The beehive inspection process involves systematically smoking and removing each box until reaching the bottom layer. Frames within the boxes are carefully inspected, and observations are noted before reassembling the hive.
Preparation Before beginning the inspection, it is important to wear appropriate beekeeping attire, including a bee suit or jacket and veil. Gather necessary tools such as a smoker and hive tool. If feeder refilling is required during the inspection, have the feeders ready. Start the smoker and allow it to generate cool smoke for the bees.
Step-by-Step Beehive Inspection Process:
- Open the Hive: Direct smoke near the hive entrance to confuse the guard bees. Lift the outer cover slightly and introduce smoke underneath it. Close the cover gently and allow a couple of minutes for the smoke to take effect.
- Remove the Outer Cover: Lift the outer cover and place it upside down on the ground. Introduce smoke into the hole in the inner cover, if present. Allow the bees a minute or two to respond to the smoke.
- Remove the Inner Cover: Use the hive tool to gently lift and remove the inner cover. If there is any wax or propolis on the inner cover, scrape it off using the hive tool. Set the inner cover carefully on top of the outer cover on the ground, ensuring no harm to the bees.
- Remove the Honey Super: Using the hive tool, pry up the top box (honey super) and place it on top of the inner cover. The honey super can be shallow, medium, or deep, depending on the hive configuration. If there is a second honey super, smoke and remove that box as well. If a queen excluder is present, remove it with the hive tool and set it aside.
- Smoke the Second Deep Box: Gently introduce smoke into the next box, known as the second deep. This box typically houses the brood colony. If the hive comprises three medium boxes instead of two deeps, repeat this step twice until reaching the bottom box. Start the inspection with the bottom box.
- Remove the Second Deep Box: Lift and set aside the second deep box on top of the honey super or inner cover for inspection at a later stage.
- Remove the First Frame: Begin the inspection with the first (bottom) deep box. Introduce smoke between the frames, then remove the first frame and place it in a frame holder or gently on top of the other hive boxes or inner cover, taking care not to harm the bees.
- Inspect the Frames: Proceed to inspect each frame one by one:
- Look for the queen or evidence of her presence, such as eggs or workers surrounding her. If the queen is not visible, locating eggs is important as they indicate her recent activity.
- Check for parasites, pests, or diseases like mites, wax moth larvae, or foulbrood.
- Determine the extent to which frames are drawn out, indicating comb readiness for honey storage. Adding a new box is recommended when around 70% of frames are drawn out in the bottom deep box. Similarly, when around 70% of frames are drawn out in the second deep box, adding a honey super is advisable. If the honey super is close to full, adding another one is recommended.
- Check for Larvae: Assess frames for brood presence, including capped and uncapped larvae. This is an essential part of the inspection.
- Look for Eggs: Identifying eggs is vital but can be challenging for beginner beekeepers. Eggs resemble thin grains of rice and are usually laid individually in the center of cells. It’s important to spot one egg per cell. If multiple eggs are present in a cell, it may indicate laying worker bees, and consultation with an experienced beekeeper is recommended.
- Replace the Frames: After inspecting each frame, place it in the vacant space left by the previously removed frame. Gently push each frame against the one in front, taking care not to harm the bees. Utilize a bee brush or smoke to move bees away from frame edges to prevent pinching.
- Replace the Second Deep and Honey Super: Once the frames in the bottom box have been inspected, proceed to the second deep box for frame inspection. Place the second deep box back on top of the first deep box after completing the inspection.
- Replace the Queen Excluder and Honey Super: If the hive utilizes a queen excluder, place it back in position, followed by replacing the honey super. Position the honey super box with its edge at the back of the hive and slowly push it forward, taking care not to injure any bees. The smoker or bee brush can be used to gently move bees out of the way.
- Replace the Inner Cover: Slide the inner cover back on, starting from one end and gradually moving it across the box. If needed, use the smoker or bee brush to clear bees from the path.
- Replace the Outer Cover: Carefully place the outer cover back on the hive. Finally, record all observations in a bee notebook or journal immediately after the inspection to ensure accurate documentation.
Remember to remove the bee suit and safely store the smoker to let it burn out completely.
Beehive inspections are critical for maintaining healthy colonies and promoting sustainable beekeeping practices. By conducting these inspections regularly and following proper protocols, beekeepers can support the well-being of their honey bee colonies, contributing to the overall health of pollinators and the ecosystem.