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 and you won’t see any eggs. This would usually happen during periods of dearth when no nectar is flowing, or as the weather gets colder. Most times when we inspect a colony it is not essential to physically see your queen, if we have eggs this will usually be enough to confirm our colony is queen right. 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 a minimum of 3 days ago.
Always check for the presence of queen cells too, these could be swarm cells which may be related to the ‘space’ element within your colony, or they could be supersedure cells. (See our separate post about what to do if you have queen cells).
So how can you tell if your colony is not queen right? Well, of course if there is no presence of eggs… But its not always quite that simple! Workers are also capable of laying eggs, but they are unfertilized, meaning they will only produce drones, you may also have a queen that has turned into a drone layer, this is 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 looking at what stores your colony has. Do they have enough stores to sustain them until you visit them again? Take a look at the young larvae, do they have a good amount of royal jelly in the cells, or are they looking dry? If your colony is struggling for food the larvae may look dry.
When checking your colony for stores you do of course need to think about which point in the season you are in. Is there a strong nectar flow on? Is there going to be poor weather? Is there a lot of brood in the colony and therefore more mouths to feed? These are all questions you need to ask yourself to ensure that you can estimate if they have enough stores. Also 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 pollen the nurse bees will not be able to produce food for the growing brood. You may find that in a queenless colony your bees do not gather pollen, for this reason we always stop for a moment and watch the returning foragers as this gives us good idea if our colony is queen right with brood.
So how much stores should you need for a full-sized colony? This question is not quite so simple, and the answer will depend on where we are in the beekeeping season. As a rule of thumb, you may say that your colony should never have less than the equivalent of two full brood frames of stores in your colony. However, if we are in June or July and have big colonies 2 frames of stores with no new stores coming in is clearly not going to be enough for your bees. We would hope that in June/July we have a nectar flow on and our hives have supers on that the bees are packing nectar into so there will definitely not be food shortage problem. However, there is usually a break in the nectar flow during the season, this is called “The June Gap” (which is not always in June, it can be a lot earlier). Usually when the June gap hits, your colonies are nice and strong and therefore depending on how long the gap is your bees can eat their way through those supers full of honey very quickly! If this happens the amount of stores may be an issue, it is not unheard of for bees to die of starvation mid season due to a dearth in nectar flowing.
More stores are obviously needed to get your bees through the winter months, so the rule of the equivalent of 2 full brood frames of stores when we are in late September is also not going to be enough. Check out our post about winter preparations for your bees.
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 segmentation) and pearly white. Anything out of the ordinary is worth having a closer look at. Check all frames and see if you have similar larvae that is causing concern elsewhere in the colony. If you do see something that does not look right take good clear photos and show a fellow experienced beekeeper. If you want to revisit the same frame later use a queen marker or even your hive tool to mark the top bar of the frame so you can locate the frame again. There are some relatively common brood diseases that show now and then like chalk brood, sac brood, stone brood and bald brood. These are usually not much of a concern and you do not need to notify anyone. If however you do have larvae that looks like EFB (European Foul Brood) or AFB (American Foul Brood) you need to get in touch with your local bee inspector as these are notifiable diseases; contact details can be found on BeeBase.
How does the pattern of your sealed brood look? Is it a good and consistent pattern or is it pepper-pot-ish? If the pattern is pepper-pot, by this we mean that the pattern has empty cells. This can be a sign of high brood mortality, the bees will have uncapped and removed any dead larvae thus leaving empty cells, or it could be diploid drones which do not survive to full development and again the bees will remove them leaving a poor laying pattern. A pepper-pot pattern can also be a result of a queen who is having difficulty laying.
Also have a look at the floor, are there a lot of dead bees that the colony are struggling to clear away or are there lots of dead bees outside in front of the hive? It is worth mentioning that you will most likely always see dead bees outside the hive after winter. Depending on how strong the colony is you may also find that you have lots of dead bees on the hive floor. A stronger hive will have plenty of workers who will keep a clean house and they may have removed them but a colony that is struggling will not have the man power to house clean. If however you are mid season and you see lots of dead bees there may be a problem. Also look at the adult bees, do they look healthy overall? Are their wings deformed or do your bees look hairless and shiny?
In the case of varroa infestation, any damage can be averted as long as you treat before your mite levels are growing beyond your colony’s control. If you do see signs of varroa damage in the colony treat straight away. All colonies will have varroa however some bees will be better at tolerating / dealing with varroa then others. You can manage your varroa by proactively doing a mite count. We have a separate FAQ’s page covering varroa.
Shiny hairless bees may be chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). If you’re not well versed in the various diseases and pest damage, I would seek help and advice from an experienced beekeeper. You can also find lots of advice on BeeBase.
Whenever you are doing a hive inspection you should always be considering the available space for the bees. From the moment you take your crown board off you should be able to see if there is a suitable amount of space in either the brood box, or if you have supers on, space in the supers. As a rule of thumb, when you supers are full of bees, that means all frames covered in bees, you are ready for a new super. If you don’t have supers on your bees yet, then see how many frames your bees are covering in the brood box. If they are really congested, you may have seen evidence that they have started to build wax up through the holes in the crown board and into the roof! Be wary if they have done this as they may be so congested that they are pulling queen cells with a view to swarming – see our separate post on swarming!
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 a constant temperature throughout the hive and as a result they may struggle to stop any brood from chilling.
On the other end of the spectrum, as mentioned above 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. There is also the risk that the new virgin queen 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 you may need to add supers. It seems obvious but do consider the time of the year, don’t be adding supers too late in the season as your colony will be reducing not expanding.
I hope that gives you a good idea of the four main elements to keep in your mind when going through a colony. It may seem that there is a lot to remember, but as your experinece builds up these will become second nature and in time things that don’t quite look right 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 beekeeper yourself!