Taking your first peek into the hive is an incredibly exciting experience. Your first hive inspection is the moment at which you can start building a relationship with your bees. Because of this, it’s a good idea to develop good habits early. In this section, I will cover all essential inspection techniques you need to safely inspect your hive. Stay calm, relax, and enjoy this incredibly amazing spectacle!
If you are new to beekeeping, try and visit your bees once a week so you get a hang of the process as well as a chance to observe the life cycles of your bees. For the more experienced beekeeper, 6 to 8 inspections a year is more than sufficient. It’s best not to disturb your bees too often as this sets honey production back slightly with every inspection.
Here are some simple hive-inspecting tips to follow and stick with:
Before going to inspect your hive:
- Wear light-colored clothing only. Bees don’t like dark colors.
- When visiting your hive, always wear a veil.
- Make sure to avoid strong odors on yourself and your clothing. Take a shower, brush your teeth and don’t use perfumes, colognes, or any other strong scents. Remove any jewelry and anything made of leather or wool. Bees don’t like any material made from other animals.
- When visiting your hive, always use your smoker. Light your smoker before going on your inspection and make sure the smoke that comes out of your smoker is cool. Just like the spraying syrup, the smoker will keep your bees calm and friendly.
- Bring your toolbox and an old towel to every inspection.
When inspecting your hive:
- Inspect your hive only during the day and only when the weather is pleasant.
- Never leave honey or syrup in an open container near your hive.
- Take your time – bees don’t like sudden movements.
- Allow the bees to crawl on your clothing and don’t swat at them.
Opening Your Hive
Always approach your hive with calm and assured steps from the side or rear of the hive. Avoid approaching the hive from the front as you don’t want to run into inward and outward flying bees.
- Standing on the side of your hive, approximately 2-3 feet away from it, blow a few puffs of cool smoke into the entrance of the hive to calm the guard bees. Be generous but don’t overdo it.
- Still standing on the side of your hive, lift the hive cover up and blow some cold smoke into the hive. This is to calm any guard bees at the top of the hive.
- Place the smoker on the ground and slowly remove the outer cover with both hands. Make sure to get a good grip and place the cover upside down on the ground next to you.
If you’re still feeding your bees at the time of inspection, you will also need to remove the hive-top feeder. To remove the hive-top feeder, follow the following steps:
- Blow some cool smoke through the screened access into the hive.
- Use your hive tool to separate the feeder from the hive body. These two parts may stick together, but regardless of this, make sure to ease the parts apart gently so as to avoid alerting your bees.
- If you’re having trouble removing the feeder, loosen both sides with your hive tool and blow some cool smoke into the crack that form as you loosen it with your hive tool.
- Wait 20-40 seconds and remove the feeder and place on the ground.
- When removing the feeder, make sure not to spill any of the syrup. If syrup remains in the feeder, cover the feeder with the old towel you brought with you.
Number one rule of thumb of beekeeping is to never leave syrup out in the open. This can attract neighboring colonies and can cause war (quite literally). If you’re no longer using a hive-top feeder, you’ll need to remove the inner cover which is always used in the absence of a hive-top feeder.
- To remove the inner cover, blow some smoke into your hive through the oval hole.
- Using your give tool, gently release the inner cover from the beehive. Again, if you’re having trouble removing the inner cover, loosen both sides using the hive tool. Pry the inner cover from the beehive body slowly and quietly.
- Blow some cool smoke into the cracks that form as you loosen the inner cover from the hive body.
- Wait 20-40 seconds and remove the inner cover. Lean it against your hive but be careful not to crush any of your bees.
Now that your inner cover (or hive-top feeder) is removed, your hive is finally open! It’s now time to take a peek into the magical life of your bees.
Upon opening the hive, slowly blow several puffs of smoke down into the hive. Make sure the smoke descends down into the spaces between the frames. Most of your bees should at this point move toward the bottom of the hive.
You don’t want to keep the hive open for longer than around 10 to 15 minutes. What you will have to do during inspection will be discussed in the next paragraph.
What to Do During Inspections
Inspecting your hive is essentially the same every time you visit your hive. Always start by removing the first frame from whichever side. To remove the wall frame (your first frame), follow the steps below:
- Use your hive tool to loosen the wall frame on both sides.
- Using both hands, slowly pick the first frame by both ends and carefully life it out.
- If you have a frame rest, store your wall frame there. Alternatively, lean it vertically up against the body of the beehive.
Now that you have removed the wall frame, this gives you the space to manipulate the other frames. Slowly work through the frames of your hive. Use the same procedure to loosen the second frame and once inspected, return it to the space where the wall frame was located. Repeat this for the third frame and after inspection, place it into the open slot where your second frame was originally located. During this process, make sure not to crush any of your bees and push them aside with your fingers or the flat end of your hive tool if necessary. A small blow of smoke will also make them move out of the way.
Make sure to get a good grip on your frames – the last thing you want to do is drop a frame that is covered with your bees. Inspect both sides of your frame and make sure that all movement you make are slow and controlled. Especially when turning the frame to inspect the other side, make sure to do so slowly.
Also if you notice your bees have all lined up in a row between the frames, this is a sign that they could do with another blow of smoke to disperse them.
What to Look for During Inspections
Inspecting your frames correctly is crucial to the art of beekeeping. The purpose of inspections is to determine the health of your colony. In this section, we will cover what to look out for at every hive visit.
Checking for your bee queen:
Every time you visit your hive, always check for whether your queen is alive and productive. If you manage to find your queen that’s great, but remember that a single beehive will house around 60.000 bees in the peak of summer. Locating your queen can there be hard and time- consuming. So rather than looking for your queen, it’s better to look for eggs. Eggs are translucent white in color and somewhat resemble a grain of rice.
To make spotting the eggs easier, you can use a normal magnifying glass or binocular magnifiers. Binocular magnifiers can be worn under your veil and tipped to the side whenever you’re not using them.
Inspect your honeycomb cells:
Every time you visit your hive, make sure to take a note of what is going on in the cells of the comb. Each frame of comb will contain about 3500 cells on each side. Inspecting these cells will give you a good indication of the health of your bees. Look out for larvae, capped brood, pollen and nectar. These are all indications that your hive is in good health and productive. In the above image, you can see the bee babies on the right – these are called larvae which are singularly curled into a cell.
To the left you can see capped brood. Capped brood are larvae cells which have been capped with a wax cover. The wax cover is porous, allowing the bee babies to spin cocoons and develop into pupae.
Recognize the food collected by your bees:
Another thing to look out for are nectar and pollen. To master the art of beekeeping, it’s important to learn and recognize the various food stores of your honey bees.
Pollen comes in great variety of colors: orange, brown, gray, yellow, blue, etc. In the image below, to the right of the capped brood, you can see pollen of various colors stored in the honeycomb cells. Cells that look ‘wet’ may contain nectar or honey. During hot summer months, bees will store water to keep the hive cool. Some cells will also contain honey. These cells will look white and airtight.
Examining Brood Pattern:
Another important aspect to inspect are brood patterns. A compact and tight brood pattern will mean that your queen is in good health. Spotty brood patterns on the other hand, is a sign that your queen is ill or that you have an old queen which needs replacing.
A loose brood pattern like in the image below is an indication that your queen needs replacing. Sunken or hollow brood cells are potentially a sign of brood disease in which case you’ll have to medicate your bees.
Closing Your Hive
Once you’re done inspecting your frames, you’ll have to return the first frame back into the hive. In order to put the first frame back into the hive, follow the steps here:
- Blow some smoke onto your bees to calm them down.
- Push all your other frames toward the opposite wall of the beehive. This will make sure that all frames are at the exact same position they were in before the inspection.
- Pick up the firm frame that is either hanging on your hive stand or leaning against the hive. If you can still see bees on this frame, make sure to gently move them away guiding them towards the hive entrance.
- Slowly slide the first frame back into the hive. Use your hive tool to adjust the spaces between the frames.
If you’re using a hive-top feeder, place it back on the hive body. Top up with sugar syrup if it’s running low and replace the outer cover. If you’re not using a hive-top feeder, you will have to go through steps 5 and 6 first before reaching the seventh and final step.
5. Remove all the bees from the inner cover which should be lying on the ground next to you.
6.Replace the inner cover on the hive by sliding it in from the rear of the beehive. Make sure not to crush any bees.
7. Replace the outer cover. Again, make sure the outer cover is free of bees before sliding it back from the rear of the hive toward the front of the hive, along the inner cover. Push any bees out of the way and make sure the ventilation notch on the outer cover is not blocked.
And you are done! Inspecting your beehive for the first time can be daunting. I would suggest either writing these steps down, taking the book with you, or having someone read out the steps from a distance (if they’re not wearing a veil).
After your first few inspections, all these steps will become more fluid and you’ll start gaining a better insight into the lives of your bees. A final piece of advice is to just have fun and most importantly, stay calm and relaxed. Nothing disastrous can happen. If your bees get a little excited, just blow an extra few puffs of cool smoke at them!
The above are guidelines to ‘routine inspections’. On top of these routine tasks however, there are additional things to look out for in the first eight weeks after hiving your new colony, as well as seasonal tasks, which will be covered in the next blog.