As a new beekeeper, you relish every opportunity—and excuse—for a hive inspection: Spending precious minutes in the presence of so many thousands of honeybees is thrilling. But as a more seasoned beekeeper, you begin to recognize that those inspections, while informative and critical to successful beekeeping, can be disruptive to the hive’s typical business day, and you aim to be as effective and brief as possible.
Good beekeepers go into a hive for an inspection with a purpose: to take note of the population’s growth, monitor the queen’s progress, assess for disease or illness, and keep an eye on honey production. There are several clues to look for that tell us what we need to know.
1. Do You See A Queen?
The first sign of a colony’s health is the queen. Simply put: Is she there and alive? Spotting a queen can take a bit of skill and practice, but if you’ve marked your queen—a small dot assigned a color for the year of her hatching, harmlessly painted on her abdomen—she’ll be a heck of a lot easier to find.
The healthy, mated queen spearheads the colony, and without her, the colony will not survive unless provided with a new queen. If you search the hive and find the queen healthy and active, your colony has already passed the first test. If you search the hive top to bottom and still can’t find Her Majesty, the next question to ask yourself is:
2. Do You See Eggs?
Honeybee eggs look like tiny grains of rice floating upright at the bottom of a cell. If you see eggs laid in a healthy pattern—only one per cell, located in the brood nest—you can rest assured that a queen was present in the hive within the last few days.
Sometimes, eggs can be as hard to find as the queen herself. Time your inspections during the mid-afternoon, when the sun is at an angle, and hold up a frame of brood with the sun shining over your shoulder. You might have more luck seeing those tiny grains with just the right light.
If you can’t see any eggs, ask yourself:
3. Do You See Larvae And Brood?
Without finding a queen or seeing eggs, your colony might be on the verge of distress, but don’t panic just yet. Look for larvae and brood, clues that the colony is growing, and determine their stage of development. Study the stages of honeybee larval development, so you can more accurately determine how long the hive has been without a queen (if it is) and what you need to do about it.
4. Do You See Supercedure or Queen Cells?
Peanut-shaped queen cells are constructed by worker bees when they know the colony is without a queen or when they intend to replace an old or failing queen through a process called supercedure. Healthy hives often know before you do if they need to raise a new queen or replace an old one. If you see these cells, you can choose your next move: You may let the bees raise their new queen—my personal preference most of the time, as it trusts the bees’ instincts—or you can cut out the cells and provide the colony with a purchased, mated queen of your choice. The latter is an option if you need to diversify genetics or want to know the individual queen that spearheads your colony. There are many reasons that beekeepers would choose either option; neither is right nor wrong.
5. Do You See Swarm Cells?
Swarm cells look just like supercedure or queen cells: They are large (about 1 to 1½ inches long), peanut-shaped and constructed to rear queens. However, they differ in intention: Swarm cells are created when the colony intends to cast off a swarm. There’s a trick to telling the difference, too. Typical queen cells and supercedure cells will often be located in the center of a frame, while swarm cells will be located along the bottom of a frame.
6. What Does The Brood Pattern Look Like?
If you have a healthy queen, her nest should display a fair amount of brood in various stages of larval development. Some cells will bulge slightly, which are constructed to house developing drones: male bees that are slightly larger than female worker bees. A healthy frame of brood looks like a bull’s-eye, with capped brood in the center and a ring of pollen and capped honey around the outside.
7. Do You See Signs Of Illness? Disease? Pests?
Internet image searches and many references to your favorite beekeeping books will keep you well-versed on how to identify typical honeybee diseases and illnesses, such as nosema, American and European foulbrood, chilled brood, wax moth infestations and hive beetles. Every inspection should include a visual sweep of the brood nest and honey supers for these illnesses, pests and disease.
8. What Is Your Mite Count?
Note that the question is referring to how many varroa destructor mites are present, rather than if you have them at all. Unfortunately, for nearly all American beekeepers, varroa mites in a honeybee hive are inevitable. Because varroa mites suck the bees’ blood, weakening their individual and collective immune systems, monitoring their populations in any given hive will provide you with valuable clues to the colony’s overall health or decline.
9. Are The Bees Storing Enough Honey?
The amount of honey a colony needs going into winter will vary from region to region, from hive to hive, and even from one season to the next. If you’re a new beekeeper, consult with experienced keepers in your area to determine the minimum amount of honey a typical hive will need per winter. If your bees are not able to store enough before the winter arrives, you may need to supplement their feed, preferably by feeding them raw, natural honey, though in a pinch, sugar syrup will do.
We beekeepers are a nerdy bunch, and that’s how we like it. You’ll often find beekeepers scribbling down notes in a sticky, honey-caked notepad, right there in the apiary. Keeping notes on each of your hives’ inspections throughout the season is a wise move. Track each colony’s health and behavior patterns, local blooms, weather anomalies, and day and temperature during each inspection. This practice will hone your beekeeping skills and monitor your bees’ progress, making all of your future beekeeping decisions conscientious and well-informed.