Routine beehive inspections are essential if you want a healthy, thriving colony. To help you get started, we’ve created this indispensable guide for inspecting a hive. You’ll learn a simple step-by-step process to ensure the bees prosper.
Inspecting a beehive in 8 steps
A well-thought-out hive inspection plan makes it easier for beekeepers to identify problems. Follow these eight steps for efficient hive inspections where nothing gets missed.
1. Get prepared
Good preparation will make the inspection process easier. Create a checklist of must-have tools and review it before setting out to check hives.
At a minimum, you’ll need the following ready to go:
- A smoker with enough fuel to last the inspection.
- Protective clothing or suit, along with gloves and veil.
- Extra equipment like supers for increasing space.
- A honey refractometer if it’s harvesting season.
- Bee brush, hive tool, and any other useful tools or gadgets.
- A frame holder is optional, but it is nice to have.
- Relief supplies in case you end up getting stung.
- Cell phone in case of emergency.
Once everything is in place, it’s time to focus on the hive checkup objectives.
2. Have a clear plan
Every time beekeepers disturb a hive, there’s a risk of injuring or killing bees. At a minimum, it causes significant disruption. A solid plan for checking the hive will keep you focused on what matters.
Here are 8 essential things to look for during an inspection:
- Are there signs of robbing or animal invasion?
- Are bees bringing in pollen to the hive?
- Does the brood pattern look okay?
- Do the larvae and eggs look healthy?
- Are there any signs of wax moths or ants?
- Are there dead bees or unpleasant odors?
- Are the frames almost full?
- Any indications of queen cells or swarm signals?
3. Smoke the hive
Begin by blowing smoke under the cover and into the entrance of the beehive. This practice will disrupt the alarm pheromones, resulting in calmer bees. They go into emergency mode, gorging themselves on honey instead of stinging.
Take off the hive’s outer cover and carefully place it in a position so that any bees clinging to it won’t get injured.
The lid often gets glued shut with propolis, so use a hive tool to lever this cover off the hive box. It will easily pop loose without any need for force.
Once the inner cover comes off, puff a little smoke into the hive, then replace it. Allow 5 seconds for the smoke to do its job, then completely remove the cover and gently place it to the side.
Tip: For a better beekeeping experience, check out our research on the top hive smokers.
4. Begin removing boxes
One deep box is typical early in the season, which makes the job easier. With multiple brood boxes, start with the bottom one once the boxes above it have been put aside. Then work your way upwards, replacing one box at a time and inspecting it.
A hive tool will help with separating the boxes. Its blade can break off burr comb, wax, or propolis that binds them. These tools generate vibrations that disturb bees, so only use them when necessary.
Supers turn heavy when filled with honey, so placing them on wood or cinder blocks makes lifting easier. Cover any open boxes with the inner cover or a hive manipulation cloth to keep the bees calm and intruders out.
Quick tip: Pay careful attention to the order of the boxes and replace them the same way once you’re done.
5. Start inspecting an end frame
It’s usually best to start with an end frame as they are easiest to remove and have fewer bees on them. Hive tools help pry it from the adjacent frame. Remember that the frames are close to each other, so don’t pinch them together. This will endanger worker bees and may even kill the queen.
Once removed, place the frame carefully on the ground or hang it on a frame holder if you have one.
Begin inspecting the outer frame, looking for any problems or irregularities. They rarely have brood, so if you see any, that’s a sign the colony lacks space. The best solution is to add another box.
6. Check the rest of the frames
Remove additional frames, one at a time. Check each side by slowly turning the edge in your hands.
Don’t remove every frame, as it massively disrupts the bees. If you spot capped brood, new eggs, and larvae, you can assume the queen is healthy and doing her job. There’s usually no need to scour every corner of the hive to spot the queen.
After checking the lowest box, repeat this process with the remaining boxes.
7. Take detailed notes
Record keeping may be a legal requirement where you live, and detailed notes also improve your beekeeping. You can accurately assess the colony’s performance, health, and behavior over the season.
Records allow you to spot colony patterns and decide what equipment to take next inspection based on the previous notes.
Always record the date and make notes on observations like each hive’s strength within the apiary. Also, note diseases or pests along with any action taken.
Other valuable records include hive numbers, signs of swarming, and honey testing. Feeding data and details of new bees you’ve introduced are also helpful.
8. Close the hive
When the inspection ends, replace all the frames and boxes in the same order, then add the hive cover. You’ll need to use a puff of smoke or a bee brush to clear away the bees from the edges of the boxes when you return them.
After the inspection, clean the hive tool and any dirty equipment before storing everything until next time.
How do I know the brood is healthy?
Brood is a section of comb that houses the eggs, larvae, and capped pupae. Thriving brood indicates that the colony is prospering, so it should be the primary focus for the beekeeper during an inspection.
A healthy brood pattern will demonstrate all stages of brood and won’t have a lot of empty cells. Look for cells with honeybees at each stage of development during honey flow.
Check that eggs, pupae, and capped brood are in groups close together rather than scattered randomly. Check out our article on the lifecycle of a honey bee to learn more.
Low brood levels may signal an underperforming queen, and a lack of eggs could mean there’s a serious problem. Look for queen cups and queen cells, a sign that the worker bees are already working on a new queen.
A lack of brood doesn’t always mean the queen is at fault. External factors like mites or poor foraging conditions also impact brood levels.
Too much drone brood is not a good sign. Drone cappings protrude from the cell walls, mainly on the brood’s outer edge. While it is perfectly natural in the warmer months, if it starts to dominate the brood, you will likely have a queen problem.
Watch how to inspect a hive in this video
Problem signs to look for in honeycomb
No beehive inspection is complete without checking the condition of the comb. If you see structures in odd places, scrape them off; this burr comb usually makes it harder to move parts of the hive.
New colonies should demonstrate comb building in their hive. If not, there may be a lack of foliage for worker bees to collect. If this is the case, provide them with some sugar water feeders.
Bees sometimes build sheets of comb in the wrong place. Remove it immediately if they construct in areas that don’t align with the foundation. Left unchecked, it’ll become hard to clean up once the queen lays in the cells.
Take note of black or very dark honeycomb as it may need replacing next season.
When is the best time to inspect a beehive?
The optimal time to inspect a beehive is on a sunny, calm day around midday while bees are out foraging. The temperature should be within the range of 60° F (15.6° C) and 90° F (32.2° C). Inspecting at this time will cause minimal disruption to the colony and reduce the chance of hurting any bees. Removing boxes and frames will also be much easier.
- Avoid inspecting a hive at night; visibility is poor, and bees can become extra defensive.
- Unless it’s an emergency, don’t open a hive in the rain or when temperatures are at extremes.
- Don’t inspect the hive if you detect robbing, as your colony will be exposed to invaders.
How often should I inspect a beehive?
In spring and summer, inspect beehives every two weeks for new colonies and monthly for established hives. There is a delicate balance between keeping a colony in optimal shape and making it unhappy by over-inspecting.
In cold climates, never open the hive in winter. It’s a good idea to ensure the hive entrance isn’t blocked by snow.
8 tips for a successful hive inspection
As beekeepers gain experience, inspections become quicker and easier. Check out these tips and tricks to help speed up the learning process.
- The calmer you remain during inspections, the more peaceful the bees will stay.
- Puff a little smoke around yourself if the bees become aggressive.
- Never aggressively swipe bees away, as this will only excite them more.
- Always approach hives from the back or sides to avoid triggering guard bees.
- Take any wax scraped from the hive, or you’ll attract pests.
- If the bees appear agitated by your presence, slowly walk away. Return another day when they’re calmer if they keep following you.
- Don’t obsess about seeing the queen every visit.
- Carry a pencil to mark frames of interest that need checking next time.
How to inspect a beehive by outside observation
Although opening the hive during inspections is good practice, you can also observe from the outside. Here are some ways you can study honey bees with minimal disturbance:
1. Look for dead bees
Colonies remove dead bees from the hive to reduce the spread of disease. Watch the entrance for any signs of bee removal.
2. Check for robbing
Robbing is more likely when food supplies are scarce and you’re feeding the colony. You can usually tell the hive is being robbed when there is frenzied activity at the hive’s entrance. The intruders could be other bees, wasps, or even the occasional bumblebee.
Robbers may overrun a weak colony, so act quickly to bolster the hive’s defense. Reduce the size of the hive’s entrance using whatever materials you have. This step offers better protection from invading forces.
3. Observe the bees
From one side of the hive, watch how the bees are acting. A growing colony will have many forager bees taking off and landing. Look at the returning worker bees to see if they are loaded with pollen.
4. Monitor the hive’s temperature
On hot days, bee fanning will cool the interior of their home. They regulate heat, but beekeepers can improve ventilation by removing the screened bottom board. Making a small gap by adjusting the outer cover also allows cooling wind into the hive.
Commonly asked questions
How long do hive inspections take?
While the duration of a hive inspection will vary depending on various factors, 10-20 minutes is a good target. If you encounter issues with cross-combing or disease, allow extra time to get the job done. Always finish the inspection as quickly as possible, but don’t rush.
When should I perform the first inspection with new bees?
If you bought a package of bees, give them one week to settle before creating a disturbance. A split colony can be left up to 2 weeks before its first inspection.
How much smoke is needed to inspect a beehive?
A few light puffs should calm the bees when you first begin an inspection. If you notice a line of bees staring at you between the top bars, that’s a signal to give them a few additional puffs.
A hive inspection offers some fascinating insight into how bees operate. Looking inside a hive for the first time may seem daunting, but experience makes it easier. Beginners will learn quicker and reduce mistakes by spending time with an experienced beekeeper. No amount of theory can replace practical knowledge.
Once you’re ready to inspect, stay calm and use gradual movements. You’ll have a more successful inspection with a comprehensive plan and the required equipment ready to go.
Most importantly, enjoy yourself. Keeping bees is incredibly rewarding, and inspections can have a meditational effect that is hard to describe. Good luck with your first inspection!