The following is probably the most detailed video of a hive inspection that I’ve posted since the dawn of Mud Songs. For everyone who couldn’t attend the informal beekeeping workshop I was ready put on today, this video shows what you missed (or would have missed if I’d gone ahead with the workshop). It’s a 24-minute video, longer than my usual videos, because I left in the all the parts with me yammering on about what I’m doing — exactly the kind of yammering I’d do if I was giving a workshop.
As of today, I’m beginning to reconsider how I do my first hive inspection of the year. I like to reverse the hive (i.e., move the brood nest to the bottom), but next year if I find all the bees are contained in a single deep (which is often the case), instead of moving the bees to the bottom and putting another deep on top, I might move the bees to the bottom and leave the hive like that — as a single-deep hive. It shouldn’t be a problem as long as the bees have enough honey and the queen has some room to lay.Bees that are confined to a smaller space supposedly work that space faster and better than they would if there was more space (e.g., if there was a full deep on top of them). This is common knowledge for beekeepers who always have nucs on hand. The colonies in their nucs tend to build up quicker than those housed in full-sized deeps and hives.
I say it’s common knowledge, but it’s not something I’ve had any experience with until today, sort of, possibly. A brood nest of a colony that I reduced to a single deep a few weeks ago (instead of reversing it) is expanding at least twice as fast as the brood nest in my other colonies that were reversed. It could just mean I have a better queen in the single-deep colony. Or maybe the bees in that single-deep hive did better because they were able to concentrate on the limited space they had instead of spreading out their efforts across twice as much space.
I don’t know. But next year when I do my first hive inspection of the year, instead of reversing the hive, if the bees are in a single deep, I’ll reduce the hive to that single deep until the brood nest is ready to expand into a second deep.
For any first-year beekeepers in Newfoundland (or a similar climate) wondering what they might find during their first hive inspection of the year (which usually falls somewhere between late April and mid-May), here’s a video of my first hive inspection in 2011 that shows a fairly healthy colony coming out of winter, one that allowed me to steal a boat load of honey from it later that summer (though I may have had to feed it for a few weeks to give it a boost; I don’t remember).
I found honey on the outside frames, some pollen mixed in and then capped and open brood spread out over five or six frames in the middle. I might have been concerned with one or two frames of brood (though queenright colonies with zero brood as late as May 15th isn’t unheard of) but five or six frames of brood during the first week of May is pretty good for my local climate. (None of my colonies are doing as well this year. They’re still recovering from The Attack of The Shrews.) The hive body underneath was more or less empty.
These days I’m usually much faster with my inspections, but overall the video demonstrates how I still inspect (and reverse) my hives every spring. I have a more detailed video in the works, but for now I’ll break it down like this (assuming we’re dealing with a 2-deep Langstroth hive and it’s a warm, windless sunny day somewhere between 11am and 2pm):
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 and propolis that would have otherwise gunked up the frames and made future inspections messier, more difficult and perilous for the queen.
Messier — because 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.
Difficult — because frames that are bonded to the hive box with propolis don’t move. It requires careful maneuvering 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.
Perilous for the queen — because 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.
I’ll try to update this post in the future with more detailed photos that illustrate what I’m talking about. For now, though, here’s a photo of a hive that I haven’t touched for almost three months.
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).
When I reverse the brood boxes, usually some time in April, I don’t just pull the hive apart and reverse the positions of the deeps. (That’s an easy way to squish the queen, by the way.) I set up an empty deep next to the hive and, if it’s warm enough, carefully inspect each frame before I move it into the new bottom deep. No heavy lifting required. But more importantly, this allows me to assess the strength of the colony going into the new season and make adjustments on the spot if necessary. I will add drawn comb to the brood nest if the cluster looks like it needs room. I will add frames of honey or pollen if the bees are starving for it. I will give them frames of brood from another colony if they’re weak. In short, I will take whatever action is required to get the bees started on the right path for the new season.
Then for the rest of the year, because I know exactly what condition the colony was in at the beginning of the year, I’ll be able to assess the strength of the colony without having to dig into the bottom deep and disturb the brood nest every time I do an inspection. Are the bees filling frames in the top box with pollen? Is the brood nest straddling the deeps? I can tell a lot from looking down into a hive where the brood nest has been working its way up from the bottom.
It’s more difficult when the brood nest has been working it’s way from the top down. It’s more work, at least for me it is. I usually end up having to lift the top deep, essentially separating it from the bottom half of the hive, and potentially splitting up the brood nest, so I can see what’s going on in the bottom, to see how much the cluster has moved down and so on. In my book, that’s too much work and too disruptive. It’s much easier and less disruptive to the brood nest — if it’s seated in the bottom deep — to pull out a few frames in the top deep and look down to figure out what’s going on — and I never have to lift a deep or potentially split the brood nest if its straddling the deeps.
That’s why I reverse the brood boxes on most of my hives sometime in April. It doesn’t necessarily reduce the chances of a swarm, but it gives me an excuse to carefully inspect and assess the strength of the colony and perform future inspections with greater ease and less disruption to the brood nest.
I could be singing a different tune by this time next year, or even this time next week, but for now, this is where my experience with reversing the brood boxes has led me.
This is me reversing the brood chambers on an early spring honey bee hive to prevent swarming. But really it’s an excuse to do the first full hive inspection of the year and give the bees some honey.
I performed the first full hive inspection of the year yesterday. I also reversed the brood boxes while I was at it. Next year I plan to reverse the boxes shortly after the bees start hauling in pollen from the crocuses (instead of waiting until the dandelions bloom). Whether from dandelions or crocuses, if the bees bring in pollen at a steady pace for about a week, that’s my cue to reverse the brood boxes. Had I reversed them a few weeks ago, I might have been able to avoid the disgusting mess of scraping off drone comb between the frames of the top and bottom boxes. I could have avoided splitting up the brood nest too. Check out Honey Bee Suite for more info on reversing boxes.
February 2019 Introduction: This is a fairly boring video of a full hive inspection. Judging from the number of bees, I would say this colony is in pretty good shape for May in Newfoundland, despite the alarming number of frames with hardly any comb on them. In the video I speak about finding possible signs of wax moth. I didn’t know much in 2011. Newfoundland doesn’t have wax moth. It was just mold. It’s another hive inspection in which I essentially reverse the brood box. It doesn’t necessarily to prevent swarming, but I still do it. At the end of the video I make the mistake of installing a hive top feeder with an inner cover on top, which would allow the bees to crawl into the reservoirs of the feeder and drown. Pro tip: Don’t do that. It’s also cool to see the multi-coloured pollen the bees are bringing in, most likely from crocuses.
I did the first hive inspection for one of my hives today.
The brood boxes were effectively reversed by pulling the frames from the top box, installing them in a new box which I used as the new bottom brood box. And for the record, here’s what I found on each frame from the original top box: 1) Natural capped honey comb. 2) Natural capped honey comb. 3) Honey and pollen on a plastic frame. 4) Natural brood, drone and honey comb. 5) Capped and open brood. 6) Natural drone and open brood comb. 7) Brood comb on plastic. 8) Natural empty honey comb. 9) Honey comb on plastic. 10) Uncapped honey comb on plastic. The original bottom box was completely empty, many of the frames with mostly bare plastic foundation (which I’ll probably remove soon). I mistakenly refer to plastic frames in the video. What I meant was plastic foundation. And by natural comb, I mean comb built on a foundationless frame.
February 2019 Introduction: The well-known rule for moving beehives is “3 feet or 3 miles” (3 metres or 5km), and it’s true most of the time. Move a hive more than 3 feet and the bees get disoriented and can’t find their way back to the hive. But move the hive more than 3 miles and they recognize right away that they’re no longer in Kansas and will automatically reorient to the new hive location.
But rules are kind of for dictators, don’t you think? I’ve heard about a little dictator where I live who likes to tell prospective beekeepers that they shouldn’t keep bees if the hives can’t be in full sun all day. That’s bunk. I’ve never kept my bees in full sunshine and they’re fine. In fact, the best colony I ever had, that produced 50kg of surplus honey for me, was a hive that was kept in the woods in the shade for most of the day. They weren’t the most docile bees I’ve ever seen (because some bees get cranky when temperatures drop for any reason), but who cares? I got out of their way, let them do their thing, and I got 100 pounds of honey out of them. Which pretty much kills the full sunshine “rule.”
The “3 feet or 3 miles” rule can be bent in many ways too. I’ve bent the rule when moving hives more than 3 feet within my backyard by moving the bees while it’s dark, when the bees are done flying around for the day, and then I block the top entrance and cover the bottom entrance with a branch from a spruce tree — something that immediately confuses the bees and disrupts their normal flight patterns. The next morning, the branch causes them to reorient to the hive and we’re done.
When I know that three or four days of bad weather are in the forecast, I’ll move a hive the night before the bad weather starts (or even during the bad weather). Honey bees usually have to reorient to the hive location if they haven’t foraged for more than three days. I place a branch in front of the hive entrance just be safe. But that usually works too.
I’ve also moved hives early in the morning on a sunny day. As long as other hives are close by, the disoriented bees have the rest of the day to find their way into a hive, maybe not their original hive, but they find a place to live. I’ve only done that a few times under desperate conditions. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t catastrophic either.
This post from 2011 records the first time I tried moving a hive when I didn’t know all the fine details of the “rule” like I do now. Let’s see how it played out (I’ll jump in with extra info while I read through it all again)…