It’s nearly spring, and that means one thing: It’s time to get into the beehives. Your hives are either brand new, requiring installation and monitoring, or they’re just coming out of winter and require some general upkeep, more space and, well, monitoring. In bee talk, we call such an event a “hive inspection.” The phrase describes the process of checking on your bees within the hive. It’s a critical part of beekeeping, and you simply can’t be a beekeeper without doing this one task. If you don’t conduct hive inspections, you run the risk of becoming what my mentor used to call a “bee-haver” as opposed to a “beekeeper.”
Let’s jump right into the Q-and-A:
How often must I inspect my hive?
This is a great question, and there’s no single answer. Quite simply, there’s no consensus on how often to conduct an inspection on your hive. In the summer, most beekeepers inspect once a week, or once every two weeks. In the winter, most beekeepers go months without an inspection because it’s too cold, and exposing the bees to temperatures below 55 degrees F could be deadly.
What do I look for when I inspect my hive?
Hive inspections are always an assessment for levels of health and disease. First, you want to establish that you have a healthy, laying queen, who is able to lay eggs and is actively doing so. Look for signs of healthy brood pattern, eggs and larvae in all stages of development. Also during inspection search the hive for pests and signs of disease.
Will I get stung?
The short answer is: yes. Eventually. All beekeepers get stung now and again, but most good beekeepers will tell you that it was their fault—not that of the bees. Honeybees die when they sting, so this is truly a last resort for them. Our domesticated bees are also rather gentle. Most beekeepers admit that when they got stung, it’s because they weren’t thinking, were moving too fast, acting clumsily or just made the wrong move.
How do hive inspections affect the bees?
Every time we crack open the lid of a beehive, we disrupt the flow of their work. Bees work tirelessly to raise healthy brood, harvest nectar, turn it into honey and store provisions for the winter (including propolis and pollen). When we pull out frames, we destroy bits of comb, spill honey and inevitably injure bees. We are giants in their world, and by all accounts, we’re all thumbs and clumsy. Always have a purpose when conducting a hive inspection, and be slow but efficient with your time. It takes anywhere from 48 hours to a week for a bee colony to clean up the “mess” we make during our inspections.
Conducting hive inspections is one of the most thrilling and exciting parts of being a beekeeper. It’s quiet and calming, thrilling and exhilarating all at once. But as with all parts of beekeeping, we must know what we’re doing before taking action. Know why you’re inspecting and what you’re looking for before you get into the hive. Have a plan, gather all the tools you need ahead of time, and take notes (and photos) to review later. Listen to your bees and learn how they communicate: Good beekeepers know when work with bees and when to let them be.