Honey bees, along with other pollinating insects, are crucial to the horticulture industry and to the vitality of our own gardens. As a result, more and more homeowners are choosing to maintain their own beehives. An integral part of a healthy and sustainable beekeeping practice involves inspecting the beehive. The process needs to be conducted regularly, but not so often that it disrupts the routine of the hive. For beginning beekeepers, an inspection every seven to 10 days during spring and summer is a good target. Inspecting more than weekly will make your bees unhappy by disrupting hive activity and setting them back a day.
Inspection is best conducted on a moderately warm, dry day—above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid wet, cold days for inspections.
The Inspection Process
A standard beehive consists of a series of stacked boxes, some of which are intended to hold honey for collection, others that contain the brood colony. An upper box holding honey is often known as a honey super, while a lower box holding the brood colony goes by several names, including brood box, deep super, deep box, or deep. Between the honey supers and the brood boxes, there may be a flat screen known as the queen excluder, though this is not found on all hives. This component is designed to keep the queen focused on reproduction while worker bees fill the honey supers with honey.
Inspecting a beehive is the process of systematically smoking and removing each box until you reach the bottom layer, then carefully inspecting the frames inside the boxes and noting what you see before reassembling the hive.
To get ready for an inspection, don your bee suit or jacket and veil. Gather your smoker and hive tool. If you will be refilling feeders during the inspection, have them ready. Light the smoker and wait for it to pump out nice, cool smoke for the bees.
Equipment / Tools
- Bee suit
- Hive tool
Open the Hive
Direct smoke by the entrance in front of the hive, to confuse the guard bees. Lift the outer cover slightly and direct a few puffs of smoke underneath it. Let the cover back down gently and wait for one to two minutes for the smoke to take effect.
People often say smoke "calms" the bees, but what it really does is send a signal that there is a fire nearby, which makes them instinctively gorge on honey. While they're gorging, they're not worrying about the big, white-suited animal that is messing with them. When you see their heads line up at the top bars, looking at you, it's time for more smoke.
Remove the Outer Cover
Remove the hive's outer cover and carefully set it on the ground upside down. Direct some smoke into the hole in the inner cover, if you have one. Wait a minute or two for the bees to react to the smoke.
Remove the Inner Cover
Use your hive tool to gently pry up the inner cover and remove it. If there is wax or propolis on the inner cover, use your hive tool to scrape it off. Set the inner cover on top of the outer cover on the ground, being careful not to injure any bees.
Remove the Honey Super
Pry up the top box—the honey super—using your hive tool. Lift off the super and set it on top of the inner cover. The honey super can be a shallow, medium, or deep box.
If the hive has a second honey super, smoke and remove this box, as well. If the hive has a queen excluder located below the honey supers, remove it with the hive tool and set it aside.
- Note: Young colonies may not yet require a honey super. If yours doesn't have one, proceed down to the deep boxes holding the colony.
Smoke the Second Deep Box
Gently puff smoke into the next hive box. This is known as the second deep, which in most hives is one of two boxes that hold the brood colony. If you have three medium boxes instead of two deeps, you'll just repeat this twice until you get to the bottom box. You will start your inspection with the bottom box.
Remove the Second Deep Box
Remove the second deep and place it gently on top of the honey super or inner cover. You will inspect this box later.
Remove the First Frame
Begin your inspection with the first (bottom) deep box. Direct smoke in between the frames, then remove the first frame and set it either in a frame holder or gently on top of the other hive boxes or on the inner cover, taking care not to injure any bees.
Inspect the Frames
One at a time, carefully pry each frame free using your hive tool, then lift up the frame and inspect it:
- Try to identify the queen. This is easier if she's marked, but it's still possible if she isn't. Look for her long, slender, unstriped abdomen and for a circle of workers around her. If you can't find the queen, it's important to find eggs, which indicate the queen was there in the past one to three days.
- Check for any parasites or pests—mites, wax moth larvae, foulbrood, etc.
- Determine how many frames are drawn out—filled with comb ready for honey. When seven of 10 frames are drawn in the bottom deep box, it's time to add the second deep box. When seven of 10 are drawn in the second deep, add a honey super. If the honey super is close to full, add another one.
Check for Larvae
Part of inspecting the frames is looking for brood—capped and uncapped larvae and eggs. Shown here is a beautiful pattern of developing, uncapped larvae—this is what you're looking for in your beehive inspection.
Look for Eggs
Identifying eggs is the most important part of the beehive inspection for the new beekeeper, but beginners often find the eggs difficult to spot. Eggs look like thin grains of rice. There should be one per cell, laid in the center. If you have more than one egg per cell, your hive has laying worker bees—consult an experienced beekeeper about this situation.
The best way to see eggs is to hold the frame tilted up toward the sky at about a 30-degree angle, with the bright sun shining over your shoulder. Hold it slightly to the side of you so that the shadow pattern of mesh from your veil doesn't obscure the eggs.
Using reading glasses or a magnifying glass can also help. You can tilt the frame back and forth and experiment with the angle of the sun and the frame until you see them. The bottom center of the frame is usually the best place to positively identify eggs.
Replace the Frames
As you inspect each frame, put it into the open space left by the previous frame you removed. Push each frame up against the one in front of it as you replace it—gently, to avoid injuring any bees. Using a bee brush or smoke helps move the bees out of the way, especially at the frame ears, where they are likely to get pinched.
Inspect the frames in order, and don't change their order during inspection. When you get to the final frame, push the whole set of frames together as one single unit, using your hive tool to make space in the front for the first frame. As you replace the first frame, use your hive tool to even up the space on either side of the first and last frames so that the set of frames is centered in the box.
Replace the Second Deep and Honey Super
With the first deep box inspected, proceed to the second deep box, inspecting the frames, and then restacking the box onto the first deep box.
Replace the queen excluder, if your hive has one, then replace the honey super. To do this, position the box with the edge on the back edge of the hive, then slowly "bulldoze" it forward, moving slowly to avoid injuring any bees. You can use the smoker or bee brush to gently move the bees out of the way.
Replace the Inner Cover
Slide on the inner cover using the bulldozer method: Start at one end and slowly slide the cover across the box. Use the smoker or bee brush to move bees out of the way, as needed.
Replace the Outer Cover
Gently replace the outer cover on the hive. Finally, record your observations in your bee notebook or journal. Do this right away because it's too easy to forget the exact date and the details of the inspection.
Remove your suit, and put away your smoker where it can burn out safely.