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):

— I place a new bottom board and a new deep (or hive body) as close as I can to the hive I want to inspect, not more than a metre away (about 3 feet) but preferable right next to it with the bottom entrance facing the same direction.

— I carefully pull frames from the hive I want to inspect, working from the edge, one frame at a time. I mostly look for signs that the queen is alive and well: capped and open brood (I don’t worry about spotting the queen).

— I place each inspected frame into the new deep next to the hive, maintaining the position and orientation of each frame so I don’t mess up the brood nest.

— While I’m at it, I might scrape propolis and extraneous comb off the top, bottom and sides of the frames if the bees aren’t getting in the way.

— Once all the frames are moved to the new deep, I crack the now-empty deep off the top of the old hive, scrape away any gunk from the inside and then place it on top of the new deep.

— Then I repeat the frame-pulling process with the next deep from the old hive and place those frames in the top deep of what is now a newly-built hive right next to the old hive (or very close to it anyway). These frames are usually empty and will provide room for the queen to lay, expanding the brood next upwards.

And that’s basically it. I clean up the remaining empty deep from the old hive and scrape the dead bees off the bottom board. Then I take the bottom board and the deep and repeat the process with my next hive, weather permitting. It’s a process for first-of-the-year hive inspections that I inadvertently fell into during my first spring of beekeeping in 2011, and I’ve pretty much stuck to it ever since because it works like a charm. I get in a full inspection and possibly prevent swarming by reversing the brood nest. The bees will need to orient to the new hive location, but that won’t take long, especially if the new hive location is right next to the old hive location. Like everything in beekeeping, there are many variations of the process — sometimes I need to add drawn comb for the queen to lay, or extra frames of honey, sometimes I’ll checkerboard the hive (if I have a 3-deep hive), add a feeder of some sort, or reverse without inspecting the frames because it’s too windy or cold to do a full inspection, and so on — but the basic process is the same.

The only time I wouldn’t do it is if the brood nest is straddling the two deeps. Reversing in that case would split up the brood nest and that could be bad. I also avoid reversing later in the spring when the boxes tend to be glued together with drone brood.

July 2019 Postscript: These days when I do my first hive inspection of the year, if the bees are only occupying a single deep in the hive, I reduce them to a single deep and only add more deeps (or supers) once the bees have filled the first deep. The bees seem to do better and expand faster when they given only the space that they need.

5 thoughts on “How to Do The First Hive Inspection of the Year

  1. Thanks for this. After 3 years of keeping top bar hives, I’m venturing into Langstroth land and I’m looking for all the help I can get! Having the bees “right there” when you open a Lang is quite different than what I’m used to with top bars.

    Another snowy weekend here has kept me from checking on the queen in my Lang after installing the package. I’m starting to feel like I live in Newfoundland!

  2. Does Colorado fill with fog or mist as the snow melts? Where I live — where I can see the Atlantic Ocean from my front yard — we’ve been drenched it in all weekend. Bright sun but mist on the ground and a chill in the air. It’s a much cooler spring than the spring of 2011 (when I recorded the video).

    None of my colonies this year are as strong as the colony in this video. Just when they began to bring in pollen, they got hit with two snowstorms in two weeks. I checked them before the snow and found brood frames starting show up. I checked them again yesterday hoping to see more brood, but it hasn’t happened. My guess is two weeks of snow curbed their enthusiasm, restricted the cluster and the queen’s laying.

    We’ve barely cracked 10°C (50°F) yet this year.

    • We don’t get the mist because generally our relative humidity is pretty low. Today we have plenty of sunshine which will melt the snow quickly and it will be near 80F (28C) by Thursday after a frost this morning. You’d think we have been under a thick fog for months though, the way people are rejoicing at the sunshine even though it’s only been cloudy for 4 days. Hopefully I can get in to my Lang tomorrow to check on the queen.

      • 28°C in May is pretty damn fantastic, even with snow on the ground. We’re lucky to get 28°C in Newfoundland at any time during our entire summer.

  3. A more accurate title for this post would be “How to Do The First Hive Inspection of the Year if You’re Me,” because this is how I do it. There are 10 billion ways to inspect a hive, but this is what works for me, at least until someone shows me something better. Which is very possible because I’ve more or less been a mentorless beekeeper since I started in 2010, and I still am. Most of what I haven’t learned from my own experience, I’ve learned from online videos and beekeeping forums and blogs and through teachers I’ve developed relationships with online. And books. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been able to, in person, pick the brain of an experienced beekeeper and learn a few things. And I’ve only once been to the beeyard of a beekeeper with more experience than me who was able to show me first hand a few tricks of the trade. By and large I’ve been working without a net with no real in the flesh beekeeping mentors or friends to guide me. I suspect that’s the case for most hobbyist beekeepers in Newfoundland considering how few and how spread out beekeepers are across the province. That situation may change with the recent formation of a beekeeping association, but I don’t expect it change for me any time soon. So I could easily be overlooking something obvious that just hasn’t occurred to me like it would to someone who has regular conversations with a group of beekeeping friends.

    I should also mention that reversing a hive isn’t necessary. The bees will, supposedly, expand the brood nest down on their own without any greater risk of swarming. That’s fine. But I have my reasons for reversing my hives and, again, it’s what works for me and my style of beekeeping.

    One more thing: Having extra hive components laying around is usually all I need to deal with any crisis in my beeyard. I have extra frames, brood boxes, honey supers, inner covers, bottom boards, extra feeders and so on — and it constantly comes in handy. I learned this lesson the hard way during my third summer when I had to deal with swarms for the first time and didn’t have any spare frames or a hive body to put the bees in. I know beekeeping isn’t cheap, but even a single extra deep is enough to make even general hive inspections much easier. I always have an extra deep and extra frames on hand whenever I do any kind of inspection.

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