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.