Honey bees are experts at keeping their hives. They know how to build the hive, protect the queen, raise the brood, gather resources, and create the honey that sustains them all year long. Our busy, buzzy friends work hard every day to keep their colonies running, which is why they’ve survived for millions of years on their own. However, when you become a beekeeper, you take on the responsibility of keeping your hives thriving throughout the season. Part of this responsibility includes hive inspections. While your honey bees are professionals at the daily upkeep of their colony, regular inspections allow you to keep an eye out for the bigger problems such as queenlessness, disease, or pests. However, you don’t want your work to interrupt your honey bees’ routine. Learn how to safely and efficiently open your hive and check in on your colony with this guide for inspecting a honey bee hive.
The Purpose of Bee Hive Inspections
Hive inspections give you a chance to look inside your colony and make sure everything is still running smoothly. These are important to catch signs of disease, population decline, low honey production, or other issues that pose a threat to your hive. Performing inspections regularly also allows you to notice trends or patterns within your honey bee colony. The more experience you have inspecting the hives, the easier it is to tell when something is wrong with your honey bees. That being said, you shouldn’t inspect your hives too often. Many new beekeepers want to visit their honey bees all the time to make sure nothing’s wrong—or to just watch the fascinating work that occurs within the hive. However, constantly opening up the hive can stress your honey bees out and throw off their productivity. It’s best to limit your inspections to every seven to ten days. The exception to this rule is when you set up a new hive. Your first inspection should occur about a week after you set up the hive. This will let you check in on your queen and make sure the colony is settling in well.
When inspection day comes around, the first thing you need to do is suit up. Protective gear is a vital part of beekeeping, no matter how experienced you are. At the very least, you need a hat and veil to protect your head and neck. Even if you’re completely comfortable around your honey bees, you should always protect your eyes, nose, and mouth from an accidental sting. If you choose to wear a bee suit or jacket, make sure you zip and button everything properly. Try to eliminate spaces where honey bees can accidentally crawl inside your clothing, such as loose-cuff jeans or sleeves. After the inspection, gently check your clothes—taking care to check any wrinkles or baggy areas—for any stragglers.
Smoking and Opening the Hive
Once you’re suited up and ready to go, it’s time to grab your tools and head out to the hive. Throughout the inspection, your bee smoker is going to be your best friend. If a honey bee at the entrance of the hive thinks you’re a threat, they will release a chemical that the rest of the colony can smell. This chemical, or pheromone, acts as an alarm system, putting the entire hive on edge and causing a lot of worker bees to come after you. This is where your smoker comes in. Smoke counteracts the alert pheromones and keeps the colony docile as you approach and work through the hive. Blow some smoke into the hive entrance, then gently open the top cover and send smoke in that way as well. Let the hive sit for a minute to give the smoke time to calm the honey bees. Next, you can set aside the top cover and start disassembling your hive. Keep an eye on your honey bees’ behavior as you work through your inspection. You may have to keep smoking the hive every few minutes to keep your honey bees calm during the process.
Disassemble the Hive
The next step in this guide for inspecting a honey bee hive is to carefully disassemble the hive. You inspect your hives from the bottom up, which means you’ll have to take apart the supers and look at them one by one. Start by removing the inner cover with your hive tool. You may have to scrape off wax or propolis. Set the cover aside, keeping an eye out for any stray honey bees in the process. Next, move on to the honey supers. Once again, you will have to use your hive tool to pry open the boxes and scrape away any propolis or wax that hinders your progress. After the supers are your deep boxes. Remove these until only the bottom box remains. This is where you will start your inspection.
Inspecting Hive Frames
When you start your inspection of the bottom deep box, direct some smoke between the bee hive frames to keep your honey bees docile. You can then grab your hive tool and pry open your first frame. Make sure you start with one of the frames closest to a wall. Remove this first frame and gently set it aside. Now that you have more room to work within the box, pry up the second frame and begin your inspection. Carefully hold each frame so that you can examine it without crushing any of your honey bees. Take time to look at both sides of each frame and keep an eye out for your queen bee. When you are done examining the frame, place it back into the open space left by the last frame you removed. This gives you room to pull out the next frame and continue your inspection. Repeat this process until you’ve examined and replaced each frame. Make sure you keep the frames in the same order as when you first opened the box. Once all the frames are back in place, use your hive tool to center them within the box. Then, you can move on to the second deep box and begin the process again. After you examine every hive box, reassemble the hive, replace the covers, and leave your honey bees to return to their business.
Do you have any tips for beekeepers performing their first hive inspections? Share your expertise with us in the comments below!