Bee-Engaged: An Average Joe’s Guide to Basic Hive Inspections (first published in the ABF Quarterly, Volume 78, No. 2, 2020 – June 2020)
By: Joseph “Joe” J. Komperda, Sr., The Average Joe Beekeeper, Certified Master Beekeeper
“Beekeeping is Local” but it is also dependent on the goals and objectives of the beekeeper. Practices used by Sideliners and Hobbyists can vary greatly from techniques practiced by Commercial Beekeepers. No matter what level of beekeeping you’re at, experience dictates methods used in your beekeeping routine.
For Hive Inspections, this Average Joe’s Guide addresses newer, less experienced beekeepers who wonder what an inspection is and when it should be performed. My rule is to have a plan or reason for your inspection.
As we approach the Summer solstice, inspections can become a great educator. Getting into the hive on a weekly basis provides insight into bee biology. Identifying eggs and their position on the cell bottom, larvae and their various sizes and capped brood versus bee bread and capped honey contributes to bee knowledge. Seeing pollen being brought in, trophallaxis between workers, the difference between a worker and drone and even locating the Queen are all part of the wonder of the hive. Without inspections you can’t appreciate these sights!
With newer hives, equipment needs can be determined via inspection. In Langstroth hives, once comb is drawn out on seven or eight frames, it’s time to add a second box. When that box is built out, add a super. Surprisingly, this can happen in a week or two. If you only inspect once a month, you’ll miss the milestones in the colony build up.
Some newer beekeepers won’t inspect for fear of rolling and killing their Queen. When inspecting, I start by removing the second frame on the left side of my hive as the Queen is less likely to be there. Before going deeper into my inspection process, I want to point out my frame numbering system.
In my research, I have not been able to identify a standard for numbering the frames in a hive. While standing behind the hive, I designate the left frame as #1 with the right frame as #10 (diagram on left). When talking about a stack of brood boxes, whether deeps, mediums or a combination, the top will always be designated T while the bottom is B. With a third box, it is in the middle, so it is M. My hives and nucs are uniquely numbered so all numbers start with H for hives while N indicates a nuc. Finding a Queen on frame four in the top of Hive 08 would be annotated as H08T04. Drone brood on the top of the 5th frame in the bottom deep would be H08B05. Supers start with S and are numbered bottom to top.
Back to inspections, I try to consistently follow a standard procedure or routine although that’s not always possible. As I observe my colony, I record my findings in the same sequence. I normally start with Frame #2 but earlier (or later) in the season I may start on frame 3 or 4 depending on the density of bees. Using a frame rest or spare nuc box, I place the first 1 or 2 inspected frames outside the hive to open the space for frame movement. I then look at the next few frames and observe the number of bees, the extent of brood coverage, honey, nectar and bee “bread”. By frame 7, I have usually seen everything I set out to see in my plan for that session.
Some people will tell you that you should use smoke during your inspection. I like to light a smoker “just in case” but prefer to not use it if not needed. Depending on the time of year, the flow, weather, number of bees, colony temperament and other factors, you might want to use smoke. For those who say smoke sets a hive back, you might mist sugar water to calm the bees down via distraction. Likewise, a quart bottle of water mixed with 1 oz. of Liquid Smoke (available in grocery stores) provides a smoky mist on the bees. Both alternatives can help calm the colony, but you may have to revert to the smoker.
While you’re inspecting, it’s a great time to grab a half of a cup of bees and perform a mite count. Whether you prefer a sugar shake or an alcohol wash, a mite count goes a long way toward effectively managing your bees. You should perform a mite count on a monthly basis April through October so include them in your inspection plans.
Understanding the bee life cycle or “Bee Math”, helps in completing your inspection even if you haven’t seen everything you wanted to see. With eggs in cells you know the Queen is there and was laying in the last three days. Observation and knowledge make you a better beekeeper.
You might see Queen Cups or Emergency Cells (picture on left). Newer beekeepers may panic as they believe a swarm is imminent but don’t worry, bees are amazingly efficient. They will build these structures “just in case”. If it is filled with Royal Jelly, Supercedure may be underway. Depending on where the cell is located, you may also be witnessing swarm preparation. Plan your next inspections to track the growth, emergence and actions of a new royal!
If it is swarm season, you need to understand that a Queen Cell can be completed in eight days from egg laying to capped cell. In about six or seven more days a swarm may fly. If you’re inspecting once every other week or less, you could miss the swarm entirely. Looking in the hive after a swarm rarely demonstrates that your numbers have diminished. Regular inspections help you gauge the number of bees in the hive. One side of a deep frame that’s completely covered with one layer of live bees contains around 1500 bees (pi. Many times, you’ll find bees stacked on top of each other increasing those numbers. Counting frames of bees quickly gives an indication of the colony’s actual size. By estimating capped and uncapped areas of your frames, you’ll receive insight on the colony’s size in the next week or two. You need for a regular look inside of your hive.
For the Average Joe it is important to get into hives on a weekly basis, both early in the season and early in the beekeeping career. As time progresses, you’ll learn more and as your knowledge and hive count increases, your inspection frequency may lessen. No matter where you are in your beekeeping adventure, inspections can help you determine the health and vibrancy of your colony and it reveals the marvels of your bees!