4 things to look for when checking your hives

Trees are budding, hummingbirds are zinging by, and, after living all winter off of stored honey, honeybees have begun to emerge from their hives in search of fresh pollen. Now’s the time to begin peeking in to see how the hive is doing and if it needs any help from the apiarist.

When to inspect hives

In the early weeks of spring, just after the bees begin buzzing, you’ll likely be checking your hives once a week or so.  Beginning beekeepers tend to disturb bees too often. In our experience, checking them every week to 10 days is sufficient.

If you’ve just installed a nuc or package, you’ll check them about a week after installing them, and then again every 7-10 days until a healthy pattern is established.

If you have established hives overwinter, inspect them during the first warm days of spring (around 50 degrees), when you see the bees beginning to get active. If overwintered hives are two boxes deep, be sure to check both boxes -- even if the top one is queenright. It’s important to check check on bee coverage and brood in the bottom box to discern how big or productive the hive really is. Sometimes a small colony will be in the top box only and you might need to remove a box or reverse the boxes.

If the hive seems healthy after a few checks, you can taper off your inspections. The bees will happily do their thing mostly undisturbed, and you can just peek in and add boxes as needed.

If there are signs of stress, however, you’ll need to keep a closer eye on your hive, and know how and when it’s time to intervene.

Initiating the inspection

The first step of an inspection is to smoke the hive. Smoke helps calm the bees; it makes them stay close to the hive and less likely to sting. Once you’ve smoked the entrance, pop the lid and smoke inside, and then give the hive a second to settle down before you remove the lid. If the hive has supers, remove the super and set it to the side, then smoke the next box down.

The second step: look and listen. Before you pull anything apart, take a minute to assess what you’re seeing. How many frames are the bees covering? How active are they? Pay attention to what they sound like, too. With experience you can discern a healthy-sounding hive from a troubled one. As you develop these observational skills, you can tell how they’re moving, how aggressive they are, and whether they’re likely queenright.

4 things to look (and listen) for

Now it’s time to pry apart the frames somewhere close to the middle, gently remove a frame, and check for the following signs of health, stress, or disease.

1. Is the colony queenright? You’re not necessarily looking for the queen herself. That can take a long time and stress out your bees. Rather, look for signs that the queen is there and doing her job. Check for brood. You want to see brood of all stages, but especially eggs. The presence of eggs indicates the queen has been in the hive in the last three days, and is usually a sign that things are O.K.

While you have that frame removed, inspect adjacent frames to see how far from the center she is laying. This may be indicative of how large the colony will be. You can check from the center out or from the outside in and see where the eggs and larvae end. A good brood pattern means eggs in the center of the frame and frames are well filled out. A spotty pattern may indicate an unproductive hive and is something to keep on eye on in future inspections. If it continues, either you or the bees may decide the queen needs to be replaced.

2. How do the stores look? Check the frames to see how much honey and pollen is stored. Pay attention to the bees: are they bringing pollen home to feed the brood? There should be at least two to four frames of honey and pollen on the outside of the brood nest. If they don’t seem to have enough food, and the weather is bad or there’s not much blooming yet, you may choose to supplement. Supplementation can stimulate queens to lay and promote faster growth of small hives.

3. Is it time for a second deck? If your colony is filling out all the frames, it might be time to add a second brood box or a super. We generally like bees to be using the entire box either for brood or for stores before we add on a new box. We look for at least seven frames covered with bees and the last two or three frames covered with honey on the outside before we add another box. That’s not a hard and fast rule; each beekeeper can decide what her markers are for adding a new box.

If they have too much space, it’s harder for the bees to control the climate, especially in cool spring weather; they have more space to defend, leaving them vulnerable; and they won’t use frames economically: the queen will start moving up rather than filling frames out.

On the other hand, waiting too long to give them a second deck can trigger a swarm instinct, so pay attention when frames are getting full.

4. Are there signs of disease or stress? Honey bee diseases -- and their treatment -- warrant their own blog post. We won’t go into detail here, beyond noting that it’s important to know the signs for these common diseases and parasites: mites, foul brood, tracheal mites, chalk brood, nosema, deformed wing virus.

If everything looks good...

If your queen’s laying well and the colony is robust and making honey, don’t tear the hive apart every week to look for a queen. Once you see a consistent pattern of health, relax (a little bit), and assume that the honey will continue to flow.

by Kavita Bay & Brooke Barnett

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