Bees do a great job of caring for themselves, but as beekeepers, it is still important to check your beehives periodically for issues that may arise within the colony. When you are ready to go into your hive, be sure that you know what you look for in your hive inspection.
What Do You Need for a Hive Inspection
Before we jump into what you should look for during a hive inspection, let’s make sure you have the beekeeping tools that you need.
It is a good idea to wear a bee suit when inspecting a hive. The bees will view you as a threat and act accordingly. If you don’t want to wear a full suit, I highly recommend at least wearing a veil to protect your face. Have an EpiPen on hand as well. Even if you have not experienced an allergy in the past, you can develop one so better safe than sorry.
Basic beekeeping equipment is needed for a hive inspection:
- Bee Smoker- A smoker will help to calm the bees while you work around them
- Hive Tool- A hive tool allows you to break apart propolis so you can remove frames.
- Bee Brush- Use a bee brush to gently wipe bees off of frames that you are inspecting.
Important Things to Look for in a Hive Inspection
When performing a hive inspection, you will be looking inside and outside the hive.
Outside the hive
First, you will need to inspect the outside of the beehive. Look at the entrance and check for additional holes that may be in your hive boxes. There should only be one entrance so holes should be covered.
What to look for:
- Bees with “pollen pants”. This is a sure sign of healthy foragers working to feed the colony.
- Active bees flying in and out of the entrance. If you notice bees that are stumbling or unable to fly, you have a problem.
- Bearding- If you notice that your bees are bearding (collecting in a clump at the front of the hive), then pay attention. They sometimes do this to cool the hive, but they also may be preparing to swarm.
- Dead bees on the bottom board. This is normal, but you don’t want to see an excessive amount of dead bees here.
Inside the hive
When you open the top of the hive and start working your way through, you will need to watch for:
- Bee Behavior and Temperament
- Signs of Disease
- Signs of Pest Infestation
- A Healthy Queen & Brood
- Honey Stores
- Available Space
1. Bee Behavior & Temperament
Are the bees calm or aggressive? Expect bees to try to attack you (you are viewed as a predator by them), but they should calm down with the use of a smoker.
2. Honeybee Diseases
The first thing to do when looking for potential diseases is to check the brood pattern. If you notice spotty brood, sunken brood cells, or a slimy substance then you most likely have a problem that you should dig further into.
- Fatal disease caused by a spore-forming bacteria
- Infected colonies must be destroyed
- Patchy, dark, or sunken brood cells with dead larvae inside
- Awful odor in infected hives (similar to dead fish)
- A bacterial disease that affects the brood
- It can be treated unlike America Foul Brood
- Patchy brood
- Discolored/Dead larvae in uncapped brood cells
- Sour smell
- Fungal disease in Honeybee brood
- Spores will sit in the hindgut of the larvae until their cells are sealed
- Larva die in the cell and become “mummified”
- A viral disease that affects honeybee brood
- Causes failure to pupate
- Larvae will die in their cells and turn into fluid-filled sacs
Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus
- Viral honeybee disease that can lead to the collapse of a colony
- Dark, hairless, “greasy” looking bees with swollen abdomens
- Shaking bees that are unable to fly
- Fungal honeybee disease that affects the bee’s ability to digest food
- Dysentery (diarrhea around and in the hive) is a common symptom
- Bees appear similar to bees with CBPV, dark and greasy looking with swollen bellies
Deformed Wing Virus
- A viral disease often transmitted by varroa mites
- Common symptoms include crumpled wings and bloated abdomens
3. Honeybee Pests
There are many honeybee pests that can affect a hive, but these are the 5 most common.
- Tiny red/brown mites
- Found in brood cells and bodies of bees
- Mites can cause many issues if the population in the hive gets out of control
Small Hive Beetle
- Small black beetles
- Cause an odor like old dirty socks
- Can be found in any dark space within your hive… You may see them scramble on the inner cover when you first open the hive.
- Check brood cells for beetle larvae
- Moth larvae will eat the wax foundation from hive frames
- Leave a distinctive webbing across frames
- Generally not an issue in healthy strong hives.
- Lay eggs in honeybee tracheas
- Leave the trachea after the bees hatch to eat the bee’s blood
- Try to fly, but fall to the ground
- K-shaped wings
- Stumbling bees
- Mice are a problem when it is cold outside
- Make nests in beehives for warmth and food
- Add a metal entrance reducer to them out
4. The Queen & Healthy Brood
Look for eggs in brood cells. Eggs look like single grains of rice within the cell. You will want to look for multiple stages of brood (egg, larva, pupa, and capped or uncapped cells).
Check for a healthy brood pattern- consistent color, not spotty, and raised capped cells.
Try to spot the queen bee. You don’t have to work too hard to find her… If you find fresh eggs in the brood cells, then you know she is there and active and you don’t have to keep searching. If you have a queen excluder, then she should only be able to be in the brood box and not in honey supers.
- Swarm Queen Cells: Bees build swarm cells to raise up a second queen in order to split and swarm. If you notice swarm cells, it is a good idea to split the hive to avoid losing half of your colony. These cells hang vertically off of the bottom of the hive frame and generally have a peanut shape.
- Supersedure Queen Cell: This type of queen cell is meant to replace the current queen. No action is needed when you notice supersedure cells. Trust the bees with this one. These cells are vertical, but they are usually on the front of the frames instead of the bottom.
- Emergency Queen Cell: Emergency cells are created when a colony loses its queen and they are desperately trying to raise a new queen. Give them 15 or so days before you intervene when you notice emergency cells. These cells look similar to supersedure cells, but several will appear all together in one spot.
5. Honey Stores
Check to see how full the honey frames are. If the boxes are getting full, you might need to add a new box (or super) so the honeybees have room to expand. If you don’t give them enough space, then they are likely to swarm. Only extract honey from capped cells as bees add caps when the honey reaches the proper moisture content.
6. Available Space
It is a good idea to add an extra honey super when 6-7 frames (out of a 10-frame super) are filled with honey. This will ensure that the bees have enough space to move up when the super is full.
In the winter, you will want to reduce the amount of open space to one brood box and one honey super.