Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Inspecting a Beehive

I'd taken a break from my bee posts but now they are back! I've now completed a few beehive inspections on my own and now it feels like second nature to me. I thought inspections had to be done every day and I was wrong, I knew during the colder months you should not disturb them but a weekly inspection is all that is needed through spring to the autumn.

What are you looking for when you inspect your hive?
  • Is the queen present and laying?
  • Has the colony got enough room?
  • Does the colony have sufficient stores of pollen and honey?
  • Is the colony healthy?
  • Are there any queen cells?
It can be useful to keep this information stored into a notebook so you can see the difference week to week. As I have a shared beehive this is our way of communicating the changes that we have seen but it's something I would definitely do with my own. 

When is the best time to inspect your bees

The best time to inspect is between 11am and 4pm on a still, sunny, warm day when all the flying bee are out foraging.

How long should an inspection take?

Typically, inspecting your bees should take around half an hour per hive. Time flies when you are having fun and you can quite easily find yourself lost in a world of magic - however it's important to try to keep the inspection time down to a minimum so as to reduce the stress on the bees.

What equipment do you need?
  • Hive tool
  • Smoker (liquid or flame)
  • Bee brush or goose feather.
  • Extra frames
  • Supers
  • Queen excluders
  • Clearer boards
  • Feed (either liquid or candy)
  • Queen catching apparatus
  • Queen marking cage and paint
  • Medications for treating any health problems
The most important equipment will be your suit and veil. This might make you look like a astronaut and you might think it will make you hot in the summer sunshine but you'll be too distracted by the bees to worry about that. In time you might decide you do not need to wear any protection, some choose not to as they feel they are extra careful without the bee suit. For me the suit, boots and veil are important. I also think it's handy to have someone else with you or can spot any gaps or holes that you've missed.

How to use a smoker

You should puff a little smoke around the entrance to the hive about 5-10 minutes before you open it. This starts the fire drill and they will hopefully be full of honey and unable to sting when you open the hive. Once inside the hive - you should smoke a little on the tops of the frames as you inspect the colony. 

Lifting out a frame

Take your time and consider the weight of the frame as you lift it. It's interesting to note the different weight of frames containing empty cells, those with plenty of honey, and pollen stores and those covered with brood. Lift with a straight continuous motion to avoid crushing bees on the sides or rolling them over the bees on the frame next door as this also annoys them (although not as much as being crushed).

Holding the frame

Once you have fully extracted the frame you can hold it up to eye level to inspect it. Avoid tipping the frame horizontally as nectar and unsealed brood are at risk of dropping out. Instead hold the frame in front of you like you would a book and begin to read the pattern. If you really need to hold the frame horizontally, just ensure that you hold the frame directly over the hive, so that anything that fails from the frame will land in the hive.

Identifying parts of the comb

There are five sections of a frame which are: capped honey stores; nectar; pollen; brood; and empty cells. These are easy to identify, all are important and their quantity and distribution need to be noted.

Capped honey

There should be a reserve of capped honey at the very top of the frame, this often extends around the corners. If there isn't, then the bees are running extremely low on food reserves and you will need to feed them. This can happen at any time of year, even in summer if the bees haven't been able to fly for a week because of bad weather.


In the rows of cells immediately underneath the capped honey, there should be stores of nectar. This is a snack food for bees, the equivalent of having a bowl of nuts on your desk, which you can dip into as you work. The bees consume this and feed it to the larvae.


Next will be pollen, this may not be so clearly defined but you should see cells packed with pollen, often different shades ranging from bright orange and red to almost black. Pollen is the protein, which bees eat, if there is none it would probably coincide with a prolonged period of bad weather.


A good brood patch is circular with a high density of cells containing either eggs, larvae or sealed brood, depending on how long ago the queen was active on that frame. If the cells containing brood are sporadic, (i.e. there are a lot of empty cells) it is a sign that either the queen is failing or the bees have ejected diseased larvae.

Queen cells

If you discover a queen cell (which suggests that the colony is making a new queen) you will need to decide whether to leave it or whether to remove it. A colony with a strong queen, plenty of space and a secure home are unlikely to be thinking of swarming.

Empty cells

During the day many of the bees are out foraging but at night they all cluster in the hive. If there are no empty cells at the very bottom of the frames then the message will spread that a new home is needed and the colony is in danger of swarming. From spring to summer the number of active frames in the hive will increase as the colony expands but the make up of each frame will stay the same.

I haven't got round to adding more room yet to our hive but will apparently need to do this in a few months. I know bees are struggling with the cold and especially the early frost too.I'm still not seeing a wealth of bees in the garden, I do now have a bee drinking pool (don't laugh it is not full of beer) with lots of stones so that the bees can rest and drink. Now I've mentioned it I think I should name my bee drinking pool (pub?)... hmm... any ideas?


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