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First let’s talk about how often to inspect.
When you are starting out, you should inspect often because you won’t learn much if you don’t get into the hive. If you follow my advice and get an observation hive you will not need to open up your hives as often as you can learn from watching them constantly in the observation hive. But assuming you didn’t get an observation hive, for learning purposes you probably should get into some hive at least once a week. Probably not all of them. That way you can limit your disruption of the hives to maybe once every two weeks. Probably for your first few years once every two weeks is a good plan. As you get more familiar and better at judging what is happening from the outside of the hive, you can open them less often. So there are two factors here. How to learn about bees without disrupting them too much, and how to manage them (once you have learned a lot) and disrupt them less. Also your personal goals will drive some of how often you need to open the hives. If you are raising queens you will be in the hives more often. If you are just trying to get your garden or your orchard pollinated, you may not need to open them much at all and if you are raising honey, you will need to be somewhere in between those two. Also how often will depend on the time of year. If it’s prime swarm season you will need to get into the hives more often. If it’s the main flow, you mostly need to keep enough supers on (empty boxes on top for them to put honey in). After the main flow, if you harvest at the normal time, when you don’t have a lot of heavy boxes to lift, you can get into them more often with not too much effort and you can keep a better eye on what is happening. After the flow you’ll want to make sure there isn’t a dearth.
The next topic is how to do an inspection.
The first step on how is to decide what your goal is. Possible goals for an inspection: Are they queenright? Are things progressing well? Are the combs getting cross combed or are they straight? If things don’t seem to be strong enough, you might do an extensive inspection to see what is happening. So once you’ve established what your goal is, let’s do an inspection. Assuming all you want to do is see if things are ok, you may be able to just pop the top and look in the top box to see if it’s being used. Sometimes, during a flow, all you care is whether or not they need more supers because the existing ones are full. In this case, a puff of smoke in the door and open the top and take a look.
Assuming you want to be sure they are queenright then I would do a much more extensive inspection. Usually you don’t need to find a queen, but let’s do an extensive inspection where we actually want to find the queen. Here is the step by step: First, light the smoker and get it going well. Everyone has their own methods but here is mine. First get a large (tall) smoker. They are much easier to keep lit. Next pick your fuel. If you live somewhere that pine straw (pine needles) is abundant and free, it works well enough and smells nice. But it burns up quickly. I usually use burlap because it lasts better. A mixture doesn’t hurt. In other words put some pine straw in the bottom and light that. Then add a tight roll of burlap on top of that. It’s hard to beat a self-igniting propane torch for lighting it. I lit my smoker with kitchen matches for decades and it works fine, but it’s not as easy as the torch. Get it going well before doing anything else. Once you have flames coming out, stop and let it start to smolder. Then you can put some smoke in the entrance. It’s best to blow some smoke in the entrance and then wait a few minutes. So if you are doing a row of hives, it’s helpful to blow a little into the next hive as well and then as soon as you’re closing up the hive, blow a puff into the next hive.
I like to not have to bend over so far, so I usually set an empty box or two on the ground and then a bottom board, or a screened bottom board, or an inner cover or some other board on top of those empty boxes. Then set all of the boxes onto that stack so only a bottom board remains on the stand. Dump off any dead bees, and scrape it down with your hive tool if it needs it. Now set an empty box on the bottom board and start going through the frames in the stack and as you go through them put them in the empty box. The reasons for this are that each of the inspected frames are now in a separate stack. If you were to work your way down the hive without doing this, the queen can be moving around while you are inspecting and you may never see her. Anytime you’re going through a hive, keep an eye out for the queen even if finding her is not your goal. It’s always good to see her. Also, I like to mark her if I see her. This not only makes it easier to find her next time, but it helps me know if a queen has been replaced. So now you pick up a frame and you search for eggs, larvae and capped brood. Eggs look like a miniature grain of rice standing on end in the bottom of the cell. If there is a dough looking substance in the cell it’s probably bee bread which could be anywhere from orange to yellow, to white. Sometimes it’s even blue. Nectar looks like water but it’s sticky. Capped honey has a waxy cap on it. Sometimes it looks very white because some races of bees leave an air space. These are called “dry cappings”. Sometimes it looks more the color of the honey because there is no air space and these are called “wet cappings”. Either is fine but it’s waxy. Brood, on the other hand, has cappings that look like paper and the color could vary from almost white to dark brown. This is because it has things mixed in so the larvae can breathe. When a package is first installed they mix pollen in. As they raise brood the larvae spins a cocoon and the bees will chew out these cocoons and mix it with the wax to make breathable cappings later. And so the brood cappings change color over time from light to dark. And comb goes from white, when new, to yellow when finished, to brown when brood has been raised in it, to black eventually. Worker brood has cappings that are somewhat convex but drone brood is very convex, like Kix cereal. So you should examine every frame for these things: White wax, bee bread, nectar, honey, eggs, larvae, capped worker brood, capped drone brood, emerging brood (bees chewing their way out of the cells), queen cells (which look like peanuts), workers, festooning workers, drones and the queen. So what do these things mean?
If you see white wax there is nectar coming in or they would not be building new comb. Also, building new comb is something that happens much more in the spring and is a good indication of a flow. Also festooning bees (bees clinging to each other making curtains of bees in the colony) are indicative of comb building and a healthy density of bees. If you see a lot of capped worker comb, the population will quickly increase if you see emerging brood the population is quickly increasing. Bee bread, nectar and workers returning with pollen means there are those resources available. Open brood is a good thing, but eggs would be the best evidence that there was a queen at least 3 ½ days ago. Drone brood and drones means there are plenty of drones to mate with a queen, when there are a lot of them in early spring it’s likely that swarm season has started.
Capped honey means they have enough stores to start to put some of it in long term storage. If you just want to know how they are doing, you may only need to go through the bottom box and then stack them all back up. If you really need to find the queen (which on occasion you do) then keep going a frame at a time until you find her or all of the boxes are back on the original stack. It’s handy to put the queen in a hair clip queen catcher so you know where she is. Do not put this on top of another hive as those bees may kill her. Keep her on top of one of her boxes.
If it is swarm season, I would usually put some empty frames in the brood nest to keep it open being careful not to spread the bees too thin. They have to keep the brood warm and humid and if you spread them too thin you get stressed bees and possibly chilled brood. My rule of thumb is if you make a space to put your empty frame in and it fills quickly with festooning bees you can add another empty frame.
Copyright 2001-2020 by Michael Bush