Beekeeping is a surprisingly easy hobby to start. While you need to do your research and purchase all the necessary supplies, the daily life of a beekeeper can be quite simple. Honey bees work hard to sustain themselves and keep their hives running. That said, there is one routine beekeeping task that you shouldn’t ignore or cut corners on. Hive inspections are a key part of keeping healthy, thriving colonies. While this isn’t an extremely complicated task, establishing a familiar strategy will make each inspection that much easier. Make every beekeeping season a success with these tips for conducting a hive inspection.
What Is a Hive Inspection?
Think of your hive inspections as a regular check-up for your honey bees. It’s a great time to visit your hives and make sure everything is running smoothly. One of the biggest inspection mistakes new beekeepers make is visiting your hives too often. A hive inspection consists of opening and taking apart your hive to see the individual frames within. Doing this too often can disrupt productivity and stress out your colony. Limit yourself to one inspection every seven to ten days during spring or summer. You should also be sure to inspect on warm, moderate days. Cold or rainy weather can make inspections uncomfortable and even deadly for your hive. Finally, remember that you should never perform a hive inspection in the winter. Once your honey bees hunker down in the fall, leave them be. An inspection will disrupt the cluster and make hive temperatures plummet, putting your honey bees in serious danger.
Preparing for Your Inspection
When inspection day comes around, the first thing you need to do is gear up. Protective equipment is crucial to a safe hive inspection. Only you can decide how much or how little you wear out to your hives. Some beekeepers suit up from head to toe, while others are comfortable in their normal clothes with a hat and veil. As long as your outfit helps you feel comfortable around your honey bees, it’s perfectly fine. In addition to protective gear, you need to grab your hive tool and bee smoker. These are both essential tools that make the inspection much easier for both you and your honey bees. Some beekeepers also take a notepad and writing utensil out to the apiary. While this isn’t necessary, it makes it easier to write notes and keep track of everything you see—especially if you’re inspecting multiple hives at a time.
Approaching the Hive
One of the biggest tips for conducting a hive inspection—and for beekeeping in general—is to remain calm and confident. The calmer you are, the calmer your bees will be. An inspection disrupts your honey bees’ day. You don’t want to agitate them further by acting nervous or aggressive around the hive. Never stand in the way of your hive’s front entrance, as this will put you directly in the worker bees’ flight path. Be gentle and calm as you approach your hive. Your smoker will also help keep the honey bees calm by disrupting the alarm pheromone guard bees might put off when they see you. Just be careful not to drown your hive in smoke. A gentle puff here and there should be enough to keep your colony subdued as you work.
Opening and Disassembling the Hive
Your inspection should start with the bottom part of the hive and work up. This means you need to first open and disassemble the hive to get to that bottom box. Start by lifting the outer cover and blowing a puff of smoke into the hive. Gently lower the cover and give the smoke a moment to work through the hive. After a minute or two, remove the outer cover and set it on the ground upside down. This will serve as a stable base to stack the rest of your hive as you go. Repeat this process for the inner cover. You might have to use your hive tool to pry open this cover and scrape off excess wax or propolis. Once the covers are off, it’s time to remove each of the hive boxes. Carefully smoke each box, lift it from the hive, and gently set it on top of the covers on the ground.
Inspecting the Hive Box
Once you reach the bottom box, you can begin the actual inspection. Start by removing the first frame and setting it on top of your other hive boxes. Be careful not to dislodge or squish any honey bees that might be on the frame. With that out of the way, you can go through each remaining frame and lift them one at a time to inspect. Make sure you inspect each of the hive frames in order so you don’t disrupt the pattern of your hive. When you’re done with each frame, place it in the open space left behind by the last frame you removed and push it up against the frame in front of it. This will help give you the space you need to remove and adjust your frames. Handle your frames carefully so that you don’t squish or hurt any bees in the process. As you look at each frame, there are a few things to keep an eye out for, including:
- The queen. This is easier if you mark your queen with a marker or a touch of paint
- Parasites, such as varroa mites or wax moths, or the damage they cause
- A healthy and even brood pattern
When you get through the entire box, push all of the frames back so you can put the front frame back in place. This finishes the bottom box, which means you can take the next box and replace it on the hive. Now simply repeat the inspection process for this box—and all the remaining boxes—until you completely reassemble the hive. Once you make your way through the hive, replace your covers, gather your gear, and celebrate a successful hive inspection. When you leave your apiary for the day, check your clothes and equipment to make sure you don’t have any straggler bees with you.
While the hive inspection process might seem daunting, a little practice will soon turn inspection day into a familiar routine. If you’re already a beekeeping expert, share your knowledge with us in the comments below!