Beginning Beekeeping – Hive Inspections & Diseases

Attending local beekeeping meetings, I notice there is rarely any mention of honey bee diseases or mites. Many ailments affect the honey bee, but the highly infectious American Foulbrood is at the top of the list. AFB is an unknown to most beginners, yet it can wipe out your colonies and neighborhood hives, too! Varroa mites should be on everyone’s mind as well; after all, they’re in most everyone’s colonies!

You have chosen to “keep bees” for many varied reasons, and if wanting to help honey bees is one of them, you’ll be doing yourself and the bees a favor if you learn to spot common diseases and mites. Spotting American Foulbrood and Varroa mites needs to become second nature to you, and it will be with enough practice and guidance from a mentor. Beginning beekeepers must understand what they’re looking at and what they’re looking for. This is where a mentor comes in handy – your local beekeeping association is a great resource! To find your local beekeeping association, you can download our list of associations by state here.

American Foulbrood typically manifests itself with sunken caps on the cells, with a stringy, caramel-like larva. Insert a small twig or toothpick into the cell for verification—if it strings it is quite likely AFB. Advanced infected cells will have dark scale along the wall which is difficult to remove. Destroy the twig so that any infection will not be passed along to other bees. And remember to sterilize your hive tool. Removing any infected AFB frames and destroying them will usually be adequate to stop foulbrood although the infected spores can live for many years. Usually if a colony has succumbed to AFB, all the frames are burned and the boxes singed inside using a blow torch with low-level flame, or dipped in lye water.

What should you look for during a hive inspection?

There are a lot of things to be looking for during a hive inspection, besides pest or disease. Common things to look for include, number of bees per hive. Is there a nectar flow? Is the hive queen right? Can you see eggs? Why is there so much burr comb on some of the frames? Perhaps it’s time to add a super; is there an overabundance of drones visible? Is there adequate frame space for the queen to lay or have the bees “honey bound” or blocked out the queen; that is, have they placed honey inside cells where she would normally lay eggs? Do you need to join the weaker hive with a stronger one? Have they enough honey to make it through winter? Are there wasps attempting to enter the hives? See any signs of ants, mice or skunks? Hit the books, work with your mentor, attend local beekeeping association meetings and this will all become second nature!

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