How To Inspect a Beehive (or How I Happened to Inspect This Particular Hive on This Particular Day)

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 had planned to 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, which is 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.


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Second Thoughts on Reversing

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.

I added the second deep to this hive today, which has more bees than my hives with two deeps. (May 07, 2016.)

I added the second deep to this hive today, which has more bees than my hives with two deeps. (May 07, 2016.)

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). Apparently, 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.

March 2019 Postscript: This is pretty much what I do all the time now. If the bees are contained in a single deep during the first hive inspection of the year (sometime in April if I’m lucky) and I don’t see bees on all 10 frames yet, I’ll toss the second (or even third) deep and let the bees expand into that single deep before I add a second deep.

I’ve overheard many conversations about this, not with local beekeepers but online where I continue to tap into the knowledge and experience of some of the world’s best beekeepers. Some of the phrases overheard in these conversations include, “You don’t want to demoralize the bees by giving them too much to work on,” or “Small colonies do better is small hives and big colonies do better in big hives.”

Like I said, that’s pretty much how I play it these days. A colony with only 3 or 4 frames of bees seems to build up faster when it only has 6 or 7 extra frames to work on instead of 16 or 17 frames. It seems to make sense when I stop and think about it.

How to Do The First Hive Inspection of the Year

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):
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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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Reversing Brood Boxes, or Not

It’s June 2019 and I’ve significantly rewritten this post from 2014 to reflect my practice of not always reversing the brood boxes in the spring. To cut to the chase, these days I tend to reduce my hives to a single deep in the spring because the colony seems to stay warmer and expand faster when it’s restricted to a single deep. Only when the colony is close to filling the single deep with bees do I add a second deep. If the weather is still cold or the colony is more on the weak side, the second deep goes on the bottom where it’s less likely to screw up the thermodynamics of the brood nest. But if the weather is warm, the colony strong and expanding quickly, the second deep goes on top. You can pretty much skip the rest of this post now.

I used to reverse the brood boxes in my hives in early spring as soon as I had a warm enough day for it. That means at the end of winter in a typical 2-deep hive when the brood nest was usually living only in the top deep, usually some time in April, I would move the top deep (full of bees) to the bottom of the hive and then the bottom deep (mostly empty drawn comb) to the top of the hive.

The logic behind reversing is to prevent swarming by providing space above the brood nest for the colony to expand. That logic assumes honey bees always expand the brood nest upwards. Perhaps the bees have a greater tendency to expand upwards in the spring after a winter of working their way up into their honey stores. But experience tells me that most colonies will expand wherever they can find space, whether it’s up or down or sideways. So the whole argument for reversing is easily dismissed.

Aware of that, I reversed my hives anyway because reversing allowed me to assess the strength of the colony going into the new season and make adjustments on the spot if necessary. I would add drawn comb to the brood nest if the cluster needed the room. I would add frames of honey or pollen if the bees were starving for it. I would give them frames of brood from another colony if they were weak. In short, I would take whatever action was required to get the bees started on the right path for the new season.

Then for the rest of the year, because I knew exactly what condition the colony was in at the beginning of the year, I’d be able to assess the strength of the colony without having to dig much into the hive and disturb the brood nest every time I did an inspection.

Drone comb split open after lifting up the top brood box for the first time this year. (May 05, 2012.)
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Reversing a Brood Chamber

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.

May 2019 Postscript: I’m not as keen on reversing my hives like this anymore. I often reduce my colonies to single deeps in the spring when the clusters are small (3-5 frames wide) because they seem to build up faster in single deeps. But I avoid placing a deep above a small cluster because it messes up the thermodynamics of the hive and the bees are often forced to move to the empty top deep to stay warm, especially when the outside weather is still freezing. It’s not so bad once all the frames in the single deep are packed with bees, but reversing may not be the best move for colonies with small spring clusters.

Reversing Brood Boxes

April 2019 Introduction: I’d be extremely pleased to see any of my colonies in early May looking as good as the colony in this video. The colony probably got that way because I was feeding it syrup all throughout April and the population was exploding. Reversing is an okay thing to do. I don’t think it hurts the colony and it’s debatable whether or not it prevents swarming. For me, I just use it as an excuse to do a full inspection early in the year so I know exactly what shape the colony is in and can gauge its development throughout the summer by only looking into the top box. Which means the reversing / early colony assessment often ends up being my only full hive inspection of the year. I also like to knock my colonies down to a single deep early in the year instead of reversing because they seem to build up quicker when they only need to focus on 10 frames instead of 20.

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.


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First Hive Inspection of the Year

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 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.

Inspecting and Moving a Hive

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? Locally, I know more than a few a prospective beekeepers who were told that they shouldn’t keep bees if the hives can’t be in full sun all day. And 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)…

Hive on the left. Frames were inspected and moved to the empty deep on the right. (May 5, 2011.)


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