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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