Hive Inspection Tips

(Forsythe Beekeepers) Have a reason or goal every time you inspect your colony.

In February / March and in the fall, pick the entire hive up from the back and front separately (or each side separately) and try to determine its weight. Watch the activity at the entrance. Usually if bees are flying, it’s OK to inspect them.

Avoid cold, rainy, and windy days. Utilize the warm, calm part of a sunny day to your advantage as most of the defensive foragers will be out in the field, and you’ll have fewer and nicer bees to upset and look through.

If going into the hive, approach it from the rear, apply smoke judiciously, work gently but deliberately, and inspect only as much as you need to. If there is a honey flow in progress, you typically only want to inspect the top honey super, not the broodnest.

Otherwise, immediately try to form a mental picture of the broodnest as you inspect it. Remember, it is shaped like an egg that has been sliced vertically by your frames. It is a sphere, with brood in the center, bee bread (wet pollen) and pollen outside the brood and more to the bottom, and nectar and capped honey outside that (with much more honey to the top). Is it off to one side? How large is it (where are most of the bees)? Then remove an outside frame (position 2 on the side opposite the broodnest) completely so that the other frames can be scooted over and removed without bumping the sides.

As you look at a frame, try to decide where you are in this spherical brood nest, so that you don’t have to remove every single frame. Just obtain an adequate sample of frames to determine what is happening. Assess for all three stages of brood (and their ratio), make sure there are only singly laid eggs.
Assess the pattern of pupae,  always make sure there are adequate honey AND pollen stores. Are there queen cells? If so, how many? Are they in the same stage or different stages of development? How much drone brood is present? Is there a disease present? Do you need to manipulate the hive, such as expanding the broodnest, adding a honey super, or feeding sugar syrup and/or pollen?

Finding the Queen

In a typical broodnest inspection, you do not need to find the queen. If you have singly-laid eggs at the bottoms of individual cells in the broodnest, you have one!

You must find her to replace her, however, and it is also important to make sure she is NOT on a frame you’re transferring to another hive. So learning how to find her is a necessary skill. When looking for the queen, pattern recognition skills come in handy. She is most likely in the broodnest. The broodnest can be quickly located by looking between the frames. It’s the congested area, and although it is usually in the center, it may be off to one side.

Have an empty hive body to put the first few already-scanned frames in and start in the upper brood chamber. Remove one frame at a time starting at the edge farthest from the broodnest. Scan both sides of each frame twice and then put it into the empty hive body. See below for scanning techniques.

Once three or four frames have been removed, you may just scoot the frames over to the empty side of the chamber once they’ve been scanned, leaving a big space between already-scanned and yet-to-be scanned frames (that she can’t jump across).

Once the entire chamber has been scanned, replace the previously removed frames in the same orientation they were in, and go down to the next brood chamber. Scan frames full of honey very quickly, and concentrate most of your time on those frames with eggs and emerging capped brood / empty cells within the broodnest. The first frame scan (on each side) should only take about 3 – 4 seconds. It is done in an almost ‘out of focus’ fashion – quickly from one side to the other. Then flip it over and repeat it on the other side.

With this first scan, you are merely looking for something different; DON’T look at each individual bee. The second scan (again on each side, and this time making sure to look at the bottom and edges too) is much more thorough, and may take 20 – 30 seconds.

The queen looks and acts differently from the other bees. She has a long pointed abdomen, which she may drag on the comb. She holds her wings folded over her back, not out slightly like workers do. Her wings appear shorter because her abdomen is longer. Her legs are longer, and she walks (or runs) on the comb; she doesn’t fly or even vibrate/fan her wings. She has a bald, dark thorax with no hair. She is not fat like drones and doesn’t have big eyes like they do. Her retinue nurse bees may surround her, all facing her in a circle, licking her and feeding her. They will typically part (like the Red Sea for Moses) as she walks along. She doesn’t like light, so she will quickly go to the side of the frame you aren’t looking at! And she may have her abdomen down in a cell laying an egg or be covered with nurse bees when you first scan for her.

This is the reason for two scans. Once you find her, scoop her up with a queen catcher or gently set that frame to the side, outside the hive (so she can’t move to another frame). You can determine her fate later. If you are requeening, once you’re sure you no longer need her, squish her thorax.

After looking through both chambers thoroughly, if you still haven’t found the queen, place a queen excluder between each brood chamber and come back in 4 days. She’ll be in the (only) one with eggs. You can use a queen excluder to help narrow your search for the queen like this anytime. Coming back another day seems to help too, at least with your attitude!