There are a number of things you need to keep in mind when doing a hive inspection. This can appear a little overwhelming at first, but once you are inspecting your hives regularly this becomes second nature. Each of these elements on the list are equally important as if there is anything out of sorts with even one, then your hive will become less productive and healthy.
It is essential to ensure that your hive is what we refer to as ‘Queenright’ meaning that your colony has a normally laying queen. At certain times of the year your queen may go off lay, usually during periods of dearth or as the weather gets colder. Except in those times it is not exactly essential to physically see your queen, it is usually fine to just spot eggs. Once a honeybee egg is laid it stays in this stage for 3 days, therefore if you see eggs then you can be assured that your queen was present at a minimum of 3 days ago.
Always check for the presence of queen cells too, these can be swarm cells which is related to the ‘space’ element of checking your colony.
So how can you tell if your colony is not queenright? Well, of course if there is no presence of eggs… But also, not quite that simple! Workers are also capable of laying eggs but they are unfertilized, meaning they will only produce drones and you may also get a drone layer, a mated queen that has run out of her sperm stores.
The topic of identifying queenlessness in your colony is far too extensive to discuss here but we will soon be going into that in another post!
No matter how frequent your checks are, you should be thinking in advance how much stores your colony has, and is it enough to sustain them until you visit them again. Take a look at the young larvae, do they have a good amount of royal jelly, or are they looking dry?
This is of course all in conjunction to which point in the season it is. Is there a strong nectar flow on? Is there going to be poor weather? Is there a lot of brood in the colony (more mouths to feed)? These are all questions you need to ask yourself to ensure that you can estimate if they have enough stores. You must remember that the stores don’t just refer to the honey, but also to the pollen present in the colony. Without adequate stores of the protein packed bee bread, the colony would not be able to feed the worker larvae the optimum amount.
So how much stores should you needf or a full sized colony? Most beekeepers ensure that they have at least two full frames of honey in the brood box. This is taking into account that usually on brood frames the brood nest will be surrounded with a good amount of stores too. This should be sufficient until the next weekly check.
Disease & Pests
The topic of disease and pests is so vast that it needs an entire blog post dedicated to it as well. We will just briefly discuss the importance of detecting disease early on.
During your hive inspection it is important to inspect larvae carefully, they should be well formed (clearly see their segmentations) and pearly white. Anything out of the ordinary is worth having a closer look, such as trying to spot any similar instances throughout your brood frames or taking photos and showing a fellow beekeeper, if you want to revisit the same frame later on, you can use a queen marker or even your hive tool to mark the top bar of the frame.
How is the pattern of your sealed brood? Is it a good and consistent pattern or is it pepperpot-ish?
Also have a look at the floor, are there a lot of dead bees that the colony are struggling to manage? Or are there plenty of dead bees outside in front of the hive? You will always have a few dead bees outside the hive, as you gain experience it will be clear when the amount is abnormal. Do your adult bees look healthy overall? Are their wings deformed or do your bees look hairless and shiny?
In the case of varroa infestation, the damage of colony collapse can be averted as long as you treat before your mite levels are growing beyond your colony’s control. You can manage your detection by proactively doing a mite count, whether this is by sugaring, alcohol or observing using your varroa floor.
If you’re not well versed in the various diseases and pest damage then always get a second opinion from an experienced beekeeper.
When doing your hive inspection you must be thinking about the space available for the bees. The moment you take your crown board off you should be able to see if there is a suitable amount of space, are bees visible on all of the seams (the space between the frames)? Are the bees starting to build wax through the porter escapes and up through the crown board and into the roof?
It’s not only about giving the bees enough space to expand, it is also imperative to not be giving the bees too much space before they are ready. A smaller colony may not have enough strength in numbers to keep the temperature constant throughout the hive and as a result they cannot keep the brood from chilling.
On the other end of the spectrum, the lack of space pushes the bees to start thinking about swarming! All beekeepers want to avoid their colony from swarming because it takes a lot longer for a colony to become productive again, that’s not taking into account the risk that the virgins may not come back from their mating flight. Rule of thumb is that 1 frame of capped brood will become 3 frames of bees so as you’re going through your hive consider whether or not you may need to add supers.
I hope that gives you a good idea of the four main elements to keep in your mind when going through a colony. I realise it seems that there is a lot to remember, but these do become second nature as your beekeeping experience builds up so anything out of the ordinary will stick out like a sore thumb.
When first starting out it is always best to have a good mentor who can assist you when you’re going through your colonies, they may be able to spot things that you miss. Before you know it, you’ll probably become a mentor to a beginner beek yourself!