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How To Inspect A Beehive + Free Checklist

A beekeeper inspecting a beehive

Routine beehive inspections are essential if you want a healthy, thriving colony. They also offer a fascinating insight into how bees operate. The first time you look inside a hive may seem daunting, but after a few sessions, you should feel at ease with the process.

A solid hive inspection plan will make the job much easier. Knowing how to identify problems will make you a better steward of the colony. To help you get started, we’ve created this essential guide to inspecting a hive. You’re about to learn a simple step-by-step process for making sure the colony is prospering.  

Inspecting a beehive in 8 steps

Follow these 8 steps to make inspecting a hive an efficient process where nothing gets missed.

1. Get prepared

Good preparation will make your job a lot easier. You don’t want to open up the hive, only to realize you’ve forgotten your hive tool. Instead, organize what you’ll need to avoid any mistakes.

At a minimum, you’ll need the following ready to go:

  • A smoker with sufficient fuel to last the inspection.
  • Protective clothing or suit along with gloves and veil.
  • Additional equipment like supers for increasing space.
  • Bee brush, hive tool, and any other useful tools or gadgets.
  • A frame holder isn’t essential but is nice to have.
  • Relief supplies in case you end up getting stung.
  • Cell phone in case of emergency.
A selection of beekeeping equipment ready to help the beekeeper inspect a beehive
Get all the equipment ready before starting an inspection.

Once you have everything in place, it’s time to focus on the objectives of this hive checkup.

2. Have a clear plan

Every time the beehive is disturbed by a beekeeper, there’s a risk of bees being hurt or killed. At a minimum, you’re going to cause significant disruption. Having a solid plan for checking the hive will reduce the chance of missing something and will keep you focused on the goal.

Some of the important things you’ll want to look out for:

  • 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 pests like ants or wax moths?
  • 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 will disrupt the alarm pheromones, resulting in calmer bees. It also causes the bees to go into emergency mode; when this occurs, their focus is gorging themselves on honey. 

A smoker pumping smoke into a hive.
Calm the bees with a smoker.

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.

Use a hive tool to lever the cover off the hive box. It will easily pop loose, without any need for force. This is a necessary step as the lid is commonly glued stuck with propolis.

Once the inner cover comes off, puff a little smoke into the hive and then replace it. Allow 5 seconds for the smoke to do its job, then completely remove the cover and carefully place it to the side.  

4. Begin removing boxes

Early in the season, you’ll only have one deep box, so removing boxes won’t be necessary. Once you have multiple boxes, start with the lowest box first and work upwards.

You’ll need to remove the boxes on top and gently set them aside. A hive tool will make separating the boxes easier. Use the hive tool’s blade to break off any burr comb, wax, or propolis that’s stopping you from removing the box.

Keep in mind that using the hive tool is generating vibrations that disturb the bees. Try to use it only when necessary.

Honey supers can get heavy, so placing them on wood or cinder blocks makes it easier to pick them up at the end. Cover the boxes with the inner cover or a hive manipulation cloth to keep the bees calm and intruders out.   

Quick tip: Make a note of the order the boxes were originally placed and keep everything the same when you replace them.

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. A hive tool may be needed to help pry it away from the adjacent frame. Keep in mind the frames are close to each other so take care not to roll the bees by pinching the frames together. This could harm the bees or even the queen.

Once it’s removed, place it 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. Outer frames rarely have brood, so if you see signs of any that’s a sign the colony is short of 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 frame in your hands.

Try to avoid removing every frame as it causes the bees a lot of disruption. Instead, if you spot capped brood, new eggs, and larvae then you can assume that the queen is healthy and doing her job. Don’t worry about checking every corner of the colony to spot the queen.

Once you’re finished with the lowest box, repeat the process with the remaining boxes.

Specialized beekeeping tools make removing frames easier.

7. Take detailed notes

Record keeping may be a legal requirement when you live. Keeping detailed notes will also help your beekeeping. You can accurately assess the colony’s performance, health, and behavior over the season.

Records allow you to spot patterns in your colony. You’ll also know 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, record any diseases or pests along with any action taken.

Other records that are useful include hive numbers, signs of swarming, honey testing, feeding, and details of any new bees you’ve introduced.

8. Close the hive

When the inspection is over, replace all the frames and boxes in the same order, then add the hive cover. If you have a reason to rearrange the boxes, then do so.

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.

All that remains is to clean your hive tool and put away your equipment until next time.

How do I know the brood is healthy?

Brood is the section of comb that houses the eggs, larvae, and capped pupae. Thriving brood indicates that the colony is prospering so it should be a 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. You should see 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. You may want to check out our article on the lifecycle of a honey bee to learn more.  

Several beekeepers looking at bee brood frames.
Bee brood is a strong indicator of colony health.

Low brood levels are a sign that the queen may not be performing. A lack of eggs may signal a recent problem. Look for signs of 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 can also impact brood levels.

Keep an eye out for too much drone brood, as this is not a good sign. Drone cappings protrude from the cell walls and they’re mostly on the outer edge of the brood. While some brood is perfectly natural in the warmer months, if it starts to dominate the brood then it’s likely you 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, then scrape it off; this is burr comb and usually makes inspections more difficult.

New colonies should be showing signs of comb building in their hive. If not, maybe there is a lack of foliage for worker bees to collect. If this is the case, help them out with some sugar water feeders.

Bees sometimes build sheets of comb in the wrong place. If you see them building in places that don’t align with the foundation, then remove it immediately. Left unchecked, it’ll become very hard to clean up once the queen lays in the cells.

If you notice black or very dark honeycomb, then record this in your notes. It’s likely the comb will need to be replaced, but not until next season.

A beekeeper in protective suit looking at a frame of honeycomb
Healthy looking honeycomb.

When is the best time to inspect a beehive?

The optimal time for inspecting a beehive is on a sunny, calm day at around midday while your 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 as bees can become extra defensive.
  • Unless it’s an emergency, don’t open a hive in rain or when temperatures are extremely high or low.
  • If you detect robbing activity then don’t inspect the hive as your colony will be exposed to the invaders.

How often should I inspect a beehive?

In spring and summer, try to inspect beehives every two weeks for new colonies and monthly for established hives. There’s a fine balance between keeping your colony in optimal shape and making your bees unhappy by over-inspecting.

Hive inspection frequency will vary based on various factors. New beekeepers are best to check their hives more regularly. Once a week is a good target.

In cold climates, checking hives in the off-season can become much less regular. You may only need to check the colony has enough food and that their hive entrance isn’t blocked by snow.

8 tips for a successful hive inspection

As beekeepers gain experience, the task of beehive inspecting becomes quicker and easier. To help speed up the learning process, check out these tips and tricks for better inspections.

  1. The calmer you remain during inspections, the more placid the bees will remain.
  2. Puff a little smoke around yourself if you notice the bees are getting aggressive.
  3. Never aggressively try to swipe bees away as this will only excite them more.
  4. Always approach hives from the back or sides to avoid triggering guard bees.
  5. Take any wax that gets removed with you or you’ll attract pests.
  6. If the bees appear agitated by your presence, slowly walk away. You may want to return another day when they’re calmer if they keep following you. 
  7. Don’t obsess about seeing the queen every visit.
  8. Carry a pencil to mark frames of interest that you want to look at closely next time.

How to inspect a beehive by outside observation

Although it’s necessary to regularly open the hive for inspections, you can also observe from the outside. Here are some of the ways you can study your colony with minimal disturbance:

1. Look for dead bees

Honey bees never leave dead bees inside the hive as it can encourage disease. Watch the hive entrance for any signs of dead bees being removed from the hive. 

2. Check for robbing

Robbing is more likely in times when food supplies are scarce and you’re feeding the colony. You can usually tell there is robbing going on when there is frenzied activity at the entrance of the hive. The intruders could be other bees, wasps, or even the occasional bumblebee.

Closeup of an entrance to a beehive
Reduce the entrance opening if you witness robbing.

A weak colony may be overrun by robbers, so you need to act fast. Be sure to reduce the size of the hive’s entrance using whatever materials you have at your disposal. This will give them better protection from invading forces.

3. Observe the bees

From one side of the hive, watch how the bees are acting. Lots of forager bees taking off and landing is a good sign that the colony is growing. Look at the returning worker bees to see if they are loaded up with pollen.

4. Monitor the hive’s temperature

On fiercely hot days you’ll notice an overheated hive has bees busy fanning to cool off the hive. Although they’re good at regulating heat, you can give them a hand by temporarily removing the screened bottom board to improve ventilation. You can also put a small gap in the outer cover to allow some cooling wind into the hive.

Commonly asked questions

How long do hive inspections take?

A hive can usually be inspected within 10-20 minutes. If you encounter issues with cross-combing or disease, then you may need to allow extra time to get the job done. Always try to 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, then it’s usually best to give them a week to settle in before disturbing them with an inspection. A split colony can be left up to 2 weeks before their first inspection.

How much smoke is needed to inspect a beehive?

When you first begin an inspection, a few light puffs should be enough to calm the bees. 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 smoker gently releasing some smoke with hives in the background
Be vigilant with smoke ready when checking your colony.

Summing up

The first time you inspect a beehive it can be a little unsettling. Before you get started, you may want to spend some time with an experienced beekeeper learning the ropes. No amount of theory can replace good practical experience.

Once you’re ready to inspect, remember that staying calm and using gradual movements are important. You’ll also have a more successful inspection with a good plan and all the required equipment ready to go.

Most importantly, enjoy yourself. You’ll find keeping bees is incredibly rewarding and inspections can have a meditational effect that is hard to describe. Good luck with your first inspection!

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