Benefits of Frequent Hives Inspections

July 2019 Introduction: I still probably dig into my hives more than I should. My constant curiosity may have made me a pretty good beekeeper when I started, but it’s more likely a liability these days. I should just leave the bees alone most of the time but I don’t.

There are many arguments for and against hands-off beekeeping. For new beekeepers just starting out, for the first year (except for winter), I’d dig into those hives at least once a week. Minimum. Even if it’s just to refill a frame feeder and look down at the bees without pulling out any frames, every chance to stick your face inside a hive is a learning experience. And by you I mean me, because that’s what I did when I started and I know it put me way ahead of the game compared to other beekeepers I know who took a hands-off approach. I know hands-off beekeepers five or six years in who still can’t tell the difference between a queen cup and a drone cell. That’s not good.

I still look in my hives about once a week, but I don’t often dig deep into them. I rarely, if ever, dig into the bottom deep of a hive past the month of May. One thing I don’t do as much as I should is check for swarm cells. I do, but I don’t go crazy with it. I know beekeepers who dig down into the bottom of their hives every seven or eight days after the month of May to check for swarm cells. They see it as standard hive management, and I understand that, and I probably should do it myself, but I really don’t like disturbing the bees that much. I’ll roll the dice and leave the bees alone if I don’t think they’re likely to swarm. In my experience, the colonies that have been the most robust and have made the most honey for me are the ones I was able to leave alone. All summer long they look they could swarm any minute, but they don’t, and they make truck loads of honey for me. People don’t talk about this enough, but managing bees so they come very close to swarming and make tons of honey instead — it’s not easy.

So I guess there’s a time to dig into the hives and a time to leave them alone. Working out that fine balance may be the foundation of good beekeeping.

Hive inspections every two weeks aren’t always such a bad thing, especially for new beekeepers, because one of the best ways to learn what the bees are up to is to see what the bees are up to. (Collect that data!) I found an excuse to dig into my hives at least once a week during my first summer of beekeeping, and I learned more from my intrusiveness and observing everything up close and personal than I ever did from reading or watching the bees from a safe distance. Yes, there is a risk of disturbing the bees and killing the queen, but I was careful and gentle and made sure to put all the frames back the way I found them, and everything worked out fine.

Regular inspections also allowed me to remove comb that would have otherwise gunked up the frames and made future inspections messier. Comb connected between frames will often split open and scrape against honey in adjacent frames and spill honey all over the place. Drone comb, especially between brood boxes, is exceptionally gross when pulled apart.

Regular inspections also allowed me to remove the super glue known as propolis. Frames that are bonded to the hive box with propolis don’t move. It requires careful manoeuvring to pry out the frames with a hive tool — to snap off the propolis — and even then all the extraneous comb between the frames tends to squish bees and tear up honeycomb as well as brood comb along the way. Whereas frames that are cleaned up every two weeks can usually be pulled up with bare hands.

Regular inspections and cleaning up the frames make things less perilous for the queen. Any comb between the frames or the brood boxes can easily trap and kill the queen (along with other bees) while the frames are being pulled out. (Some refer to this as rolling the queen.) Comb between the brood boxes leaves no space for the queen. If the queen is on that comb while a frame is slid back in, she’s dead.

Here’s a photo of a hive that I haven’t touched for almost three months.

Most of the frames are stuck together with wax and propolis after three months of not being touched by humans. (Oct. 12, 2015.)

Most of the frames are stuck together with wax and propolis after three months of not being touched by humans. (Oct. 12, 2015.)


Those frames are super-glued to the hive box with propolis and are held together by brace-comb as one big solid 10-frame block. Pulling those frames will be one seriously tangly experience (an experience I’m glad to have avoided during my first summer of beekeeping).
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Extra Space Creates Burr Comb

It’s April 2019 and I’ve deleted the original post from 2013 except for this photo:

That’s about 3 inches of burr comb under the insulated inner cover (flipped upside down) — several large mounds of comb. This kind of thing can happen when there’s space above the top bars for some reason. The usual reason is that I’ve got a rim on the hive to make space for sugar cakes or protein patties. Leaving the rim on too long while the the bees are in comb-making mode can easily lead to the extra space getting filled with comb. The queen can even lay eggs up there. It’s a mess. Where I live on the eastern most portion of the island of Newfoundland, I try to have the rims removed from my hives before April, but some years the weather is so cold throughout April that there’s no danger of them hopping onto comb-making train. But either way, when there’s extra space in the hive during the warm months of the year for any reason, the bees are likely to fill it with comb of some sort.

Science Fiction Honey Comb

I scraped off a large amount of burr comb full of honey from one of our nucs during a hive inspection recently. I left it on top of the inner cover afterwards so the bees could eat up the honey. This is what the burr comb looked like a couple days later.

The bees took all the honey from the comb and then began working on the comb, sealing it to the wood and creating a set for a yet-to-be-produced science fiction film.

First Taste of Honey

It’s November 2018 as I take a second look at this post I wrote in 2010. It doesn’t make me cringe, but almost. I’m impressed by my enthusiasm and fascination for beekeeping, my attention to every little detail that I don’t understand. These days when I meet new beekeepers or people who want to get into beekeeping, I can usually tell what kind of beekeepers they’re going to grow up to be. Bad beekeepers don’t notice too much. Good beekeepers notice everything. You don’t have to tell them what to look out for because they’re already looking out for everything.

I got my first taste of honey from one of our hives this morning (5 minutes ago), and there is no doubt about it: It’s the best honey I’ve tasted in my life. This is what it looks like at the bottom of a Mason jar, a mouthful chunk of comb with honey in it.

I decided to inspect the hives this morning because it’s going to rain for the next few days and I knew I’d be too busy with my silly job next week to poke around with the bees. I wanted to look down at the frames to see how much comb has been drawn out, but I didn’t want to pull out the frames and disturb the bees too much.

Inner cover upside-down with broken comb attached in the middle. (July 30, 2010.)

I didn’t use a smoker on either of the hives because I don’t like the way smoke agitates the bees, even though it’s supposed to make the bees easier to handle. This is what I saw when I pulled off the inner cover from Hive #1. That’s broken attached to the middle. I didn’t plan on sampling any honey, but I knew I could scrape some off the top without bothering the bees too much.

Here you can see how thick the comb is on top of the frames — and it’s full of honey. I’m not sure if I should be concerned about this, if I should clean it up before it gets out of control — I don’t know. The last time I used the smoker on the bees, the whole hive lit up with a rumbling buzzing sound. Not using the smoker this time, they acted like I wasn’t even there.

Here’s a close-up of the broken comb. The bees were virtually silent during all this. Maybe they were wondering what happened to the roof and why there’s honey all over the place now. Most that were on the honey stayed on the honey, eating it up, I assume.

Bridge comb. (July 30, 2010.)

Many of the frames were connected together with comb. It’s going to be messy when I have to pull out the frames for a thorough inspection, which I have to do soon. I wonder, should I break up these connections now before it gets worse? It seems like it might be trouble.

And this is what I saw under the roof of Hive #2, a well-behaved and tidy little hive — and no honeycomb on top to sample. These bees haven’t drawn out as much comb as those in Hive #1, probably because I didn’t feed them anything for the first week. There are more bees in the hive now than there were two weeks ago, and more of the frames have been drawn out — in both hives. So the hives seem to be doing alright. I will have to give them a thorough inspection soon just so I can see exactly what’s going on — how much brood is being reared, if there are any swarm cells and so on. I’d like to find an experienced beekeeper to help me out with that, but if I have to I’ll keep doing what I’m doing: taking my best guess.

Anyway, the honey is delicious.

November 2018 postscript: That’s burr comb I had to scrape off because the inner cover was upside-down. The flat side of the inner cover is usually face down in the summer. It’s unlikely the honey I tasted from the burr comb was pure honey. It was most likely fake honey created from sugar syrup. Today I would not place empty frames between frames of brood so early in the life of a nuc colony. I would put the 4-5 frames of the nuc in the middle of the deep and probably let them build out to 7-8 frames before I’d start inserting empty frames.