Benefits of Frequent Hives Inspections

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.

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).

Here’s a closer shot from a similar hive:

Cross-comb connecting the top bars between frames. (Oct. 12, 2015.)

Brace comb connecting the top bars between frames. (Oct. 12, 2015.) Pull one frame and all three of them want to go because they’re cemented together. Or they’re connected to the frames in the bottom box. Fun!

I’m all for leaving the bees alone as much as possible. Most problems in the beehive are caused by the beekeeper poking around and messing with the bees when they shouldn’t. Learning to read the bees by paying attention to them instead of tearing the hive apart seems like a noble goal, a practical one too. But I still think it’s more important to see what’s going on inside the hive first, to observe what the bees are doing and when they’re doing it, and then move onto the more hands-off beekeeping. If I hadn’t known what was happening inside my beehives during my first and second summers — by looking inside the hives — all my external observations would have been mostly guesswork and it would have taken me forever to learn anything (especially in a place like Newfoundland where most beekeepers have to go it alone). Watching the bees build comb and make honey and raise baby bees was the most crucial aspect of my education as a beekeeper. And I couldn’t have done it without pulling out frames at least every two weeks during my first spring and summer of beekeeping.

Postscript: After five years of good and bad beekeeping, most of my colonies are so well established that I rarely need to perform full hive inspections. My routine now is to reverse the brood boxes — basically move the brood nest to the bottom box — on a warm day in April. I clean up and inspect every frame while I’m at it and make any necessary rearrangement of the frames so the colony can grow and flourish as the spring kicks into high gear. If the queen is healthy, I won’t need to touch the bottom box for the rest of the year. I don’t do much with the second or third box either. I pull honey frames to give the queen room to lay and then I pull the occasional frame of brood to see how well she’s laying (and to check for swarm cells). I clean up the frames as well as I can whenever I pull any of them, but by the time June rolls around and the hives are exploding with bees, I’m basically done. Most of what I need to know I can tell by watching the bees outside the hive — and I can take a good guess from past experience what’s happening inside the hive. I’ll still check for swarm cells and make room for the queen to lay, but full inspections only happen when something goes wrong.

It took me three years to adopt this relatively hands-off approach to beekeeping. Before my third summer, though, I was digging into my hives all the time. I was careful to put every frame back the way I found it, to move slow and gently with the bees, to use mist instead of smoke whenever possible, in general to minimize disruptions to the bees, but yeah, I was pulling out frames at least every other week. I’ve never learned as much as I did then, or had as much fun.

3 thoughts on “Benefits of Frequent Hives Inspections

  1. Good advice about getting in there to find out what is going on. Wishful thinking doesn’t work. Early on I was into them all the time as well, it’s how you learn. Simply providing them with a home while admirable, is fraught with problems, if you don’t take care of your charges.

  2. Agreed. I’ve seen some new beekeepers over the past few years who haven’t done well with their bees, and although bad luck can play a part in anyone’s misfortunes, it’s usually because they didn’t pay much attention to their bees. At the end of the day, everyone does whatever they have time for and whatever fits within their comfort level, but I think getting in there at least once every two weeks to see what’s going on is the best way to learn. It worked for me anyway.

    On a personal note, Perry, Wolfville must be a great place to keep bees. I’m originally from Nova Scotia and I miss it every day.

  3. Nice post. And if you want to prevent swarms, for example if you live in an urban area with neighbours who don’t like bees in their chimney, frequent inspections are a good idea even for experienced beekeepers.

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