Once you have your first hive in place, you’ll be keen to conduct your first inspection. Beekeeping is seasonal, with different tasks for each season. However, in the first year of hive management, as a new beekeeper the main aim is to gain confidence and experience in opening the hive and learning about the colony of bees.
You will need to learn about their behaviour and their health by close observation of the hive, and the activity of the bees both inside and outside. You can learn a great deal by observing the bees coming and going to the hive.
How Often Should You Inspect Your Beehive?
In your first months as a beekeeper, it’s a good idea to conduct inspections approximately every two weeks, weather permitting. It’s not necessary to remove all frames during the fortnightly visits, as this may disturb the bees. The main aim of your first inspections is to gain experience and confidence in opening the hive.
Keep a Diary After Each Inspection
Before my first inspection, I decided to use an exercise book as a diary to record what I saw. It’s a great resource as it helps you record your observations and it reminds you what was going on last time you conducted an inspection.
You can record not only what you saw, but also what you might need to do the next time you inspect the hive. I always re-read what I wrote the previous time before I undertake the following inspection to serve as a reminder.
Your log entry should begin with the date and weather conditions. I then use headings to remind me what to look for. These include:
Food: Is there honey and pollen stored in the frames? If so, how much?
Eggs: Are there eggs (tiny white specks) or larvae at the bottom of the cells? Look for eggs or larvae if you can’t see the queen.
Space: Is there enough space for the queen to lay eggs or for honey to be stored?
Disease: Are there any signs of disease or pests?
Ask for Help During Your First Hive Inspection
As well as a logbook, I would ask a more experienced beekeeper to help you during your first inspection or inspections. If you are a member of a local bee club or association, talk with members to find an experienced beekeeper that lives near you.
Experienced beekeepers are usually very willing to help. With their guidance, you will gain knowledge of what to look for and what to do during inspections. You will become more confident in yourself too. Confidence helps you inspect without fear of being stung!
Inspecting the Brood Box
Before you inspect the hive, assemble your tools, put on your suit or other suitable beekeeping clothes and light your smoker. As well as the smoker, your tools will include a hive tool, which is used to prise open the lid and manipulate frames, and a bee brush used to gently brush the bees from the frames.
Another useful, optional tool is a frame holder that is attached to the super. This will hold removed frames rather than resting them on the ground against the brood box. An alternative to this is an empty box or super in which to place the frames. I place my empty super on the upturned hive lid as it will prevent any bees from ending up on the ground and getting squashed.
Ensure your smoker is well lit and emitting plenty of cool smoke before you approach the hive. I carry my smoker in a metal bucket to keep it off the ground and upright during an inspection. I also have the bag of fuel nearby in case I need to add more to the smoker.
Before opening the hive, administer a few puffs of smoke directly into the hive entrance. Then move around to the side of the hive and slide the lid open enough to add a few puffs of smoke. Wait about 30 seconds, then remove the lid and rest it upside down beside the hive.
Direct a few more puffs down between the frames. This will send the bees down further between the frames. Look down between the frames to check how many bees you can see in the hive.
Remember, it’s important to remind yourself not to use too much smoke. You only need enough to quieten the bees. Too much smoke and the colony may require several days to recover. However, if the bees are agitated or a bit aggressive, you may need to use smoke during the inspection.
In the beginning, inspections can take a while because you are learning what to do, so the bees may get annoyed. That’s when it’s handy to use a little bit more smoke, but just a couple of gentle puffs.
Using your hive tool, remove the second frame in from the side nearest you. This is the first one you will inspect.
Gently brush or shake the bees back into the hive. Look at both sides of the frame and check for eggs, larvae, brood (capped larvae), pollen, capped and uncapped honey. Can you see the queen bee? It’s worth trying to find her. She’ll most likely be on a frame that has larvae and eggs, towards the centre of the hive. Don’t worry if you can’t see her. She’s difficult for a beginner to spot, but it’s worth trying.
Take a mental note of what you see before placing the frame gently on the ground against the brood box. Alternatively, if you have an empty super or frame holder, you can put the frame in there.
It’s important to start with the second frame in as the bees may have secured the first frame to the side of the box. If you try to force it away, it may become damaged. If you have an experienced beekeeper guiding you, be sure to ask questions about what you see and what, if anything may be of concern.
Now that the second frame has been removed, use your hive tool to gently pull the first frame away from the side of the box and lift it up. This is the second one you are inspecting. You’ll be looking for the same things as before: eggs, capped or uncapped larvae, pollen, capped and uncapped honey.
Pollen is the protein component of a bee’s diet and is carried to the hive on its hairy legs. Pollen has distinct colors which are easily identified in the frame cells. Once again, after inspection leave this frame outside the hive, by leaning it up against the brood box, in the frame holder or in the empty super.
Next, gently lever the third frame away from the fourth one and remove it for inspection. After you inspect this frame, place it back in the hive slightly away from the other frames to allow yourself plenty of room to examine the fourth, and then the remaining, frames.
You don’t need to take them all out completely – removing the first two will give you ample room to examine the rest comfortably. Once you have inspected all the frames, place them back into the brood box in the order you removed them.
While the hive is open, take the opportunity to scrape off any burr comb from the walls or frames too. Burr comb is the extra comb bees often build between and on top of the frames, and it prevents you from removing the lid and separating the frames.
As you get experience, there’s no need to examine all the frames each and every time you conduct a hive inspection. With experience, you will obtain enough information by removing two or three random frames during an inspection, as well as looking down between the frames to see how healthy the bee population is.
Knowing how to inspect your hive is an essential skill that ensures the health of your bees. Keeping bees is a fascinating and enjoyable pastime, and as you gain knowledge and confidence in handling your hives, it will become even more so.