The hive inspection is a chance for the beekeeper to dig deeper beyond the external signs on offer when observing the hive. Watching the bees come and go from the hive can convey important clues about the colony. But for a real understanding, it is important that the beekeeper open up the hive.
We have looked at the “how” part of the hive inspection, – how to approach the hive, how to keep your bees calm, how to handle frames and so on.
We now look at the “what” and “why”, namely what exactly you are looking for when you conduct an inspection – and why?
Whether it be to assess the risk of a swarm, checking for mites, making sure the queen is productive or a raft of other reasons, it’s important you make the most of this opportunity. Having a little structure to your inspection and knowing what to look for will greatly improve the effectiveness of the inspection.
The Initial Inspection
New beekeepers have a tendency to inspect hives too often. After the rush of setting up the hive, there’s a natural desire to look frequently.
Initially, it does make sense to look reasonably soon. After the hive is set up and populated with bees, a first inspection should be conducted within a week or so. This might, for example, be a time to check that the queen is out of her cage if you installed a package of bees.
After that, your bees (and you!) will settle into a routine and, all being well, you will see the colony grow well.
From that point, don’t inspect the hive too often. Every time you do, you disrupt the complex society inside the hive and you will almost certainly kill some bees, merely by the mechanical actions you take (this is unavoidable, but can with caution can be kept to small numbers).
So it is important that you make the most of each inspection? What should you check?
The Big Issues
A queenless colony is a colony in big trouble. This state is referred to by the cumbersome but perfectly logical term “queenlessness”. Beekeepers, being the creative type, also have a name for when the queen is around and doing her job – “queenright”.
Physically seeing the queen offers peace of mind, but with tens of thousands of her offspring furiously busy around her, the new beekeeper may well miss her.
Buying a marked queen (a small spot of paint placed on her abdomen) is helpful but over time your queen-spotting talents will improve.
But what you really should seek are signs she has been active recently. This is where a keen understanding of the life cycle of the honey bee is essential. If you see eggs, then that’s a big clue she was there within the last three days.
In fact, though, it’s not a guarantee. Worker bees are females, of course. While the queen is around, she emits pheromones that suppress the development of ovaries in workers, so they don’t lay eggs. With no queen, however, that pheromone is not evident and you can find yourself with a case of “laying workers”.
Queen productivity and brood pattern
If you have a queen – identified directly or otherwise – that’s good! But not all queens are equal. You should also keep track of her level of productivity.
This isn’t quite such a binary decision as queenlessness. For the new beekeeper, in particular, there’s no frame of reference against which her performance can be prepared, although having more than one hive can be illuminating. However, bees have finely-tuned ways to assess the productivity of the queen. They may take action before you expect it!
Another important point is the brood pattern. Knowing the signs of a strong, consistent brood pattern is essential.
Risk of swarms and hive capacity
At certain times of the year, swarms will be a cause for concern. You will need to watch for signs and, if possible, take proactive actions to avoid your bees swarming.
It is important that the beekeeper has a good sense of when to add additional boxes, so the bees can start creating honey reserves in that extra space.
By the same token, there are some risks with adding capacity too early, so the timing is important.
In Threats To Bees we covered a wide range of potential threats your bees face. In the big scheme of things, many of these threats are preventable, containable or curable. Some are, like American Foulbrood, are extremely serious and can devastate a hive.
Even with all this potential for negative events, bees survive and thrive across the country. Much of that is down to their diligence, behaviors and altruism. But the beekeeper clearly has a significant and important role to play too.
As beekeepers, we present our bees with an environment that we ask them to treat as their permanent home. They do this very well. But many of the decisions we make will have a direct impact on their chances of success.
The beekeeper will develop a keen eye – and maybe even a sixth sense – for when things are not quite right. Some can be quite easy. If you are walking to your hives and it seems like they have been blown apart, with boxes scattered all around, then you might have a sneaky sense there’s a bear involved!
Joking aside, some issues are indeed obvious. But others are much more subtle. You won’t ever directly detect an outbreak of tracheal mites visually. But you should be on guard to observe symptoms, such that you can investigate based on the suspicion.
It is these types of minor or indirect signs that can help you save your bees. Small inconsistencies can expose a huge issue. This, again, is another reason to keep good records, so as to increase the chances of spotting changes between inspections.
As a beekeeper, keep things orderly and tidy! You would be surprised at how a little disorder can eventually create chaos. Just commit to leaving things the way you found them – or better. Here are a few things to watch.
Cross comb and burr comb can be a real problem. Be aware that cleaning these up can simplify things, for both your bees and you later.
For example, cross comb that establishes itself too much can be a major challenge when frames are removed. This is particularly so when dealing with foundationless frames. Many a new beekeeper has pulled out one frame only to have the comb from another one come with it and crashing down.
That’s a sad sight!
We will tell you now – at some point, you will leave a tool in your hive! It’s easy to do. Hopefully, it is nothing more dramatic than walking back to your home from the hive and realizing you left the hive tool next to it on the ground. That’s easy to fix (enjoy the walk!).
But you may have left some tool on top of a box when you put the hive back together. That’s not such a minor thing. Develop a little checklist to guard against these types of oversight.
The seemingly simple act of spilling a little sugar syrup on the ground as you install or top up a feeder might seem like a minor event. But to nearby pests and maybe some potential robber bees, it’s like a huge aromatic road sign pointing the way to still greater rewards within the hive.
Many a hive has been attacked by robbers due to a careless beekeeper who flung around syrup or honey. Just be organized and careful, keeping all the food and honey inside the hive.