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My one rule for hive inspections

Based on all the talk you hear, you’d think beekeepers manhandle all their frames all the time. In truth, the idea of an inspection just for the sake of inspection is a new-beekeeper thing.

Each time I mention that inspections should be limited, I get a barrage of comments insisting that inspections are a necessary part of learning to keep bees. How else do you learn? I agree with that, but at some point more harm than good comes of excessive inspecting. In his article on Darwinian Beekeeping, Thomas Seeley reminds us to “Minimize disturbances of nest structure.” Sloppy, overzealous, or frequent inspection is a direct affront to nest structure.

When to inspect a colony

One of the most frequently asked questions is, “How often should I inspect?” Well, I believe you should inspect your hives as often as necessary, but as seldom as possible. Except for those first few months of beekeeping when you just can’t wait to see what’s going on in there, inspections should be performed when they are needed, not when your calendar says so.

Every inspection is a home invasion that agitates the bees and forces them to clean up and rebuild. And you can do damage, too. You can kill bees. You can kill your queen. You can slow down nectar accumulation. You can start a robbing frenzy. So why do it if it’s not necessary?

My one rule for hive inspections

My one rule is simple. Before you open a hive, take a sheet of paper and write these words: “The purpose of this inspection is…” Then, as clearly as possible, state your purpose.

  • “The purpose of this inspection is to see if the queen is laying.”
  • “The purpose of this inspection is to evaluate honey stores.”
  • “The purpose of this inspection is to look for signs of swarming.”
  • “The purpose of this inspection is to look for brood disease.”

Or, if you are brand new, you may write something like this:

  • “The purpose of this inspection is to learn to what a brood nest looks like.”
  • “The purpose of this inspection is to compare worker brood with drone brood.”

I believe that stating a purpose keeps you focused and shortens your overall visit. When you find what you’re looking for, you can back out quickly and let your bees get on with beeing.

A real-life example

I seldom do inspections except in early spring and early fall. But last week I wanted to inspect a walkaway split I had made a month earlier. At the time of the split, the colony included all stages of brood and lots of nurse bees, but no queen. My purpose was to see if a virgin queen had been raised and successfully mated.

Knowing my purpose, I removed the lid and the first outside frame. It was full of uncured nectar. I set it aside and took out the second frame, which was also full of uncured nectar. But at this point, I could see that the third frame contained a large, solid patch of worker brood. It had been more than 21 days since the split, so this had to be new brood.

Perfect. I was done at that point because my question had been answered. It was obvious that a laying queen had been successfully established in the colony. So rather than further upsetting the nest structure, I put the hive back together and closed it up.

But stopping is obvious, right?

Sure it seems obvious, but apparently it’s not. I’ve seen beekeepers with a similar mission proceed to pull apart every single frame just to see more brood, as if somehow just one frame of brood wasn’t proof of a laying queen.

If your goal was different, let’s say you wanted to see if the colony could spare a frame of brood to bolster another colony, then your stated purpose would be different. “The purpose of this inspection is to see how much brood the colony has.” In that case, you would need to look at all the frames in the nest area.

Why so picky?

If you think this suggestion is ridiculously picky, I can see your point. Do I actually write down my goals before an inspection? Not always, but sometimes. Sometimes I even take the paper with me, especially when there are several inspections to do, each with a different purpose.

It is my belief that honey bees are best left alone, but if we are going to keep bees where we want, and within the equipment we choose, certain steps must be taken. At the same time, we need to recognize that honey bees want their autonomy and prefer to be left alone. By clearly understanding why you’re about to open a hive, you can limit your interference but still successfully manage your bees.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

My rule for hive inspections: Know your mission.
My rule for hive inspections: Know your mission. Pixabay photo.

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Comments

Brad Raspet
Reply

Well stated… I check every 10 days during the growing season but that’s mainly to cull drone comb when capped beneath my short frame in #3 slot; and to make sure the hive “queen right”. I usually stop at 3rd frame in on each deep if everything ok. Once in awhile no brood and then more thorough inspection to figure out why. And of course in spring count brood frames to figure out who gets split in May.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Brad,

Some chores I don’t think of as inspections, and maybe culling the #3 slot is like that because it’s more a “have to do” than “I wonder what I mind find.” During the nectar flow, I open up every week or so to see if I need to add supers, but I don’t think of that as inspecting because I don’t remove the supers or look into the brood boxes. Does that make sense? Same with adding feed in winter. If I pop the lid and add a sugar cake, I don’t consider that an inspection.

Cathy Wilde
Reply

Thank you for this!!! I’m a second-year beekeeper and have been trying to inspect more frequently this year based on all the “advice,” but I’ve been feeling that this more-active “management” style has been really disruptive. Sure, I’ve learned some things, but overall we all seem happier when I leave them in peace. It also seems that simply monitoring the activity in front of the hive is a pretty good indicator. Again, thank you for confirming my nagging gut feeling that this year’s 10-day inspection schedule doesn’t really accomplish much except for maybe helping me understand the hive’s cycles a little better. Summer vacation, here we come! Yippee!!!

Rusty
Reply

Cathy,

You make a good point about the hive entrance. While I don’t do many formal inspections, I watch the hive entrances carefully. Nearly every day I make a circuit of the hives and just watch the bees come an go for a few minutes. You can tell right away if something is amiss, or different, and then decide whether to inspect further.

Diego
Reply

Hello Rusty,

I completely agree. I have windows on the back of every box. I had these since I started in 2015. It’s perfect for a beginner that needs to know if comb is being built, and if too much or little bees are inside. I recommend this “observation like hive” to any one starting in beekeeping. You don’t need to open the hive to see what is going on. You can check on them every day with a red led pocket light. Obviously other kinds of information needs to be gathered by opening the hive (How many frames of brood? Has the queen enough space to lay? etc). The less I open my hives and smoke the bees the better I feel.

Now, observation of the entrance is also a biggie. Observing the entrance (http://www.biobees.com/library/general_beekeeping/beekeeping_books_articles/At%20the%20Hive%20Entrance.pdf) and checking through the windows, and using a temperature sensor at the top, under the quilt box, as I do (https://www.fasttech.com/p/1169400) gives me a lot of information: Is it too hot? Do I need to put a super on? Are the bees already at the top during winter? Are they dead? etc. A few days ago I saw DWV affected bees (from my original queen of 2015) crawling in the grass in front of the hive. Observation is key. Spending half an hour at mid-day, looking what comes out or into the hive can help.

I would suggest Observe before Disturb. Disturb only if needed.

I hope this was useful.

Best regards, Diego.

Rusty
Reply

Excellent advice, Diego.

Don Rideaux-Crenshaw
Reply

As a 3rd year backyard beekeeper I’m learning to keep my nose out of the hive and have a purpose for each time I open the hive. I do a monthly mite count May through September so I’m deep in the hive once a month. Most of the time that seems to be enough. I keep reminding myself, “They’ve been bees longer than I’ve been a beekeeper. There’s little I can do for them better than they can do for themselves.”

Elena Campbell
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’m a newbie, first year, with two colonies. I have taken to heart the “leave them alone” strategy, but knew that I had one hive with cross combing. I delayed getting in there because I didn’t have another reason to open them up except to see if perhaps that might be fixed. (I observe from the outside with fascination nearly every day and all looked (looks) happy and well.) But, I felt I had waited too long and really had to get in. Boy, what a mistake. Poor things. I made a mess of a lot of their work and brood and fixed nothing because the cross combing is throughout. I apologize profusely and closed them up with a prayer that they’d recover from my abuse. I will do mite inspections below and treat if necessary. But I am simply going to be unable to inspect individual frames from now on. And of course, assuming they make it through winter, the situation will not improve next spring. Have you had this happen? How did you handle it? Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Elena,

No, I’ve never had that happen. Whenever I see burr comb getting started, I cut it off. It’s just too hard to keep bees if everything is glued together. As some of your frames come empty, perhaps you should cut out the combs and let them try again.

Alan
Reply

Great article – thank you learned much.

milou barry
Reply

PROBABLY THE MOST USEFUL INFORMATION I HAVE EVER BEEN GIVEN!. THANK YOU!

After working for a busy bee and honey company running the retail end of things, and being a backyard onlooker, living in and amongst 15 hives around a pool area and sharing coffee and news paper with the bees in the morning, I thought I was ready for my own hives. So I bought ten very settled and mature hives from a friend moving away, relocated them to a farm about 40 miles outside of town, and went home planning to return in ten days. Well that was 3 months ago. Several tropical storms,and a minor surgery that became major later, then a storm named Cindy have happened in the interim. We did go up once about 3 weeks after the move and added a box to the top of each of the ten hives. I have been consumed with guilt, worry, etc about how they were getting along. Now I know they are probably fine. I expect some of them may have swarmed if they got too crowded, but I have spent a good portion of my life chasing and recapturing swarms, so nothing new there. I will go up there Sunday with a Little less worry and a plan of action. thanks for the common sense approach to things!

Jerry
Reply

Hi Rusty, I note with interest that you have a photo of your hive using plastic frames, how did you get the bees to accept them?

I also use plastic, and have just purchased a polystyrene hive, made in “Finland” they tell me that due the bees not having to work as hard to keep warm in winter and cool in summer, they produce up to 35% more honey, plus of course the weight factor.

Have you had any experience with these hives?

Rusty
Reply

Jerry,

I do not have any plastic frames. I got the photo from elsewhere.

Rick B
Reply

Do you inspect for swarm cells during swarm season? Many advise checking every 10 days for queen cells that may indicate swarming. I admit I often don’t get this done.

Rusty
Reply

Rick,

The only time I check for queen cells is if I need some. Otherwise, no. I have lots of bait hives set up, so I usually end up catching any swarms that leave.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

And then there are the times where you gleefully check to judge the size of a swarm that moved in, right? Probably not an “inspection”, but you sure were joyous when you cracked open that lid when I was with you, just as happy as a kid nudging a wrapped present to guess the content.

Rusty
Reply

Well, Glen, they say beekeeping is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Exciting too. Rusty, I’ve read of some inspired strip shows — “… white-hot ankle bracelets”. GB

Rusty
Reply

You’re so funny, Glen.

Ken A
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Couldn’t agree more about inspections, I try to stay the heck away from my bees, some people have said “what about if something goes wrong” I usually answer “couple times a day I go down and watch my bees, I listen to them and usually some inner voice will tell me something is different”, so then I’ll do an inspection, also do my varroa count and medication at the same time. But if my bees sound happy then I’m happy. Might not be the most scientific approach but seems to work.

Ken

Tom F.
Reply

Great article!

Robin
Reply

I was wondering how this fits with checking for varroa mites. Do you slid a paper in and watch for mites.

Rusty
Reply

Robin,

Counting mites that drop through the hive is not a reliable method of mite monitoring, especially when there is brood in the colony. I recommend a sugar roll test or an alcohol wash, at least twice a year.

Charley
Reply

Rusty,

I’m in my fourth year of Beekeeping. After losing my first hive to wax moths in 2013 a friend convinced me to continue in 2014. I setup two new hives populated with girls from two swarms my friend captured. I introduced a new Buckfast queen in each. Since then, I have successfully incorporated so much of the advice and recommendations from you and your contributors. I can’t thank you enough as both hives have flourished for the past three years enduring frigid winters and extreme summer heat. Moisture control, air circulation, insulated cozies, slatted bottom boards, screened inner covers and follower boards have yielded strong colonies regardless of the extremes. Entry holes in our supers have increased honey yield by two times previous years.

Like you I watch the activity on a daily basis as our hives our right in our backyard. I rarely do an inspection unless something appears unusual and I know the girls appreciate it. They are mild tempered and I believe grateful for the environment we have been able to provide them. My wife has always filled our small suburban property with hundreds of flowering plants and added a specific spot as a pollinator garden of perennials. The PA bee inspector was here in early May and was impressed with the temperament, colony strength and the many things I have made to help them along which I credited to you and your site. He was particularly interested in the insulation I provide for winter. I did not mean to be so verbose. I guess I am trying to say that once you have a good routine and hives set up that seem to be functional, limiting inspections is easier. Thank you again.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Charley!

Nancy Baker
Reply

Ms. Rusty,

I have a round-robin form for my hive inspections. I write out on the computer what I’m looking for or what I need to do for each hive (I have 3) and when I need to do it. I print that out and take it with me on inspections and make quick notes on it as my short-term memory is quite poor. When i get back to the computer, I edit that form to reflect what I found, and that generates the next form that lists what I need to do next and when. I make a note on my calendar of when I need to do the next inspection. I keep printed copies in my Farm Operations Manual so i can quickly check information between scheduled inspections. The paperwork takes me 5 minutes tops and keeps inspections to a minimum and much more productive.

Blaine Nay
Reply

I open each hive about every 14 days. Starting with the outside, I remove just enough frames to determine whether there is disease, eggs/young larvae, adequate room for growth and storage, and gentleness.

Once a month I also do a mite check with an alcohol wash. I treat all colonies when the first colony in the apiary hits a threshold of 2% infestation.

As soon as I’m happy with the results of the above checks, I close the hive. Only at harvest time or if I suspect trouble, do I get more invasive.

Karl Valentin
Reply

I lost both my initial nucs through getting into the hives too regularly to “inspect.” The next ones I left alone and opened at most every 2 – 3 weeks. They went gangbusters after that.

Debbie Newby
Reply

I am a second winter (New Zealand) beekeeper. I write from my own experience, limited though it may be.
A lot of my hive inspections may be for my benefit as a beekeeper, not for the benefit of the hive.
(a) But what is wrong with this? I didn’t set up my hives as a conservation activity, but to have fun by learning something new and to get some honey as a reward. (b) It seems that many common and accepted beekeeping practices also are for the benefit of the beekeeper, not the hive.
(c) I don’t have a specific purpose when I open a hive unless my primary purpose is to rob the hive or install varroa treatment. Generally, I open the hive to see what I can see, to learn what I can learn. I think many amateurs work this way and there is nothing wrong with it. Its cheaper than owning a sailboat.

It would be useful information to receive when in the bee year good management requires more or fewer inspections and for what purposes.

Paula
Reply

Thank you so much for sharing all of your fantastic information..I have undertaken a 4-H honeybee project leadership role…fun fun fun!! I refer them to your site or send them relevant links to help them along in their first year. Practical, logical, helpful. Thanks.

Ernie Daley
Reply

This is absolutely spot on. I have recently adopted this approach so your article is timely. I have started keeping notes per hive now and when I do an inspection I ask my self what should I expect to see based on what I saw last time. After 6-7 years beekeeping I can’t believe it took this long to get to this point. I ask myself what am I looking for and like you said if it is brood I stop at the first frame, and close it up. I am also now relying on every other form of information I have at my disposal to see if I can avoid an inspection (which I consider pulling any frames). I will pull the boxes, feel the weight, I will observe the entrance to look for what they are bringing in or traffic or lack of it, I will listen to the sound with my ear pressed against the box, even notice tell tale smells, look for trends of activity based on the sticky board (which I have slightly below the screened bottom). If I can get what I need without opening the hive then I am satisfied, if I do need to take a closer look then I ask myself what am I looking for, and rarely it is the queen because there is so much more information there. Thank you Rusty, it is so great to have you in the beekeeping community. Love your perspective and approach

Ed Napiorkowski
Reply

Very sound advice. Thank you.

Ray
Reply

Great words of wisdom as always Rusty. Here in the UK there seems to be an almost paranoid driven inspection policy. “we must rip the poor creatures nest apart just to check things are as we are told they should be”.

Do you know the best advice I’ve heard this year? Read as many books as you like but just remember the bees have not read any of them!

IAN
Reply

Yes certainly agree with last comment/I find if activity at entrance is good then a lot of worry disappears and let well alone.

George
Reply

So, how can you tell if something is amiss, or different? What are the observable signs at the hive entrance that everything is okay inside? Thanks for all of your well informed advice!

Rusty
Reply

George,

You just keep watching and you eventually learn. Also, the Storch book “At the Hive Entrance” is a good introduction to hive watching.

Clyde Dildine
Reply

There is an excellent book available FREE online called “At the Hive Entrance” by H. Storch. In it he details signs and sounds you can see/hear at the entrance that tell you what is happening inside during each of the major seasons. Check it out.

Dave
Reply

I have a new hive and installed a 3 lb package and queen on the 21 of May. I have been feeding sugar syrup 1:1. The queen was laying on a 2 week inspection, 4 weeks after installation, I observed a lot of new bees and they were taking about 2 quarts of syrup every 5 days. It is now July 1. Two questions: when do I stop feeding syrup? and The entrance reducer (larger slot) appears to be quite crowded with bee traffic. Should it be opened to a larger slot? I also observed pictures with the reducer opening up next to the brood super and others with the opening at the bottom board. Is there a preference.

Thank you,

Dave

Ronald Lassiter
Reply

Do you put your bait hives in the bee yard and how high are they? Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Ronald,

1. yes
2. 18 inches

Emily Scott
Reply

From memory I think you live in a fairly rural area Rusty – correct me if I’m wrong. More rural than London, anyway. If I don’t inspect and miss a swarm here I feel guilty because a) that swarm might end up in someone’s chimney or shop front and inconvenience multiple people and b) that swarm might die because someone sprays them. I think beekeepers in densely populated areas have different responsibilities – if they don’t inspect regularly in swarm season arguably that is an antisocial act.

Rusty
Reply

Emily,

That works seamlessly with my rule for hive inspections. You take your piece of paper and write: “The purpose of this inspection is to check for signs of swarming.”

The point of the rule is to eliminate excess inspections. If you can articulate the purpose of your inspection, you are more apt to stay focused and less likely to sort aimlessly through your frames. If your purpose is to reduce the likelihood of swarming, you have a legitimate reason to inspect.

I don’t see a conflict and I don’t see how clearly stating a purpose is an “antisocial act.”

Bill Abell
Reply

Many new beekeepers inspect too often because they get so much conflicting information from bee books, magazines, and the internet. Many of these sources are giving advice that while it may be good advice is not relevant to the new beekeeper’s location and hive status.

That is why mentoring is so important if you can get a mentor your learning curve will be much shorter and flatter, or if you are experienced to mentor someone else. Join your local bee club you will not regret it. Join with other new beekeepers and do joint inspections alternating between your hives, which will be less disruptive to all your hives and you will learn a lot.

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

Good idea about alternating between hives. I like it!

Peter Hughes
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Thank you for being my voice of reason on all things bees. When ever I am in a spin about my bees or reading too much in online forums or otherwise stressing your blog comes to the rescue. Sensible, well reasoned and an excellent sense of humour.
Appreciate your advise on inspections especially.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Peter.

Sid Kemp
Reply

Thanks. You made your point very clearly. My wife and I are new beekeepers this month. At the same time, by coincidence, we had a roof leak that destroyed a quarter of our kitchen. Our own home is being invaded by roofers, mold inspectors, contractors, and insurance adjustors. As a result, I can really relate: I wouldn’t want to do to our bees in their home what all these folks are doing to me in mine!

Rusty
Reply

Sid,

Oh no! But you are right. That is a good comparison.

Alison
Reply

I need some advice. My husband has some beekeeping experience, I have none. This is our first year with a hive, our nuc was placed into its home in June. When they filled up the bottom box, we added another and they promptly went to town on filling that too. Then, our hive was attacked by hornets. Ruthlessly. By the time we solved the problem our numbers were down. So all fall we fed them sugar syrup to help them rebuild. It was clear though, they were not going to have enough honey for all of winter, not even one box was completely full. Maybe 6 full frames of capped honey. We had probably enough bees to cover several frames worth of a blanket of busy bees. Numbers down; but still had decent amount of bees left. Well today my husband and I decided that since it was warmish outside we would use the opportunity to put the candy board on that included some pollen patties.

We carefully opened it up only to find a tiny, completely motionless ball of bees…. maybe 100 bees at most, in a cluster, totally still. I was convinced they were dead and my husband was convinced they weren’t. But how did this happen? My number one goal is healthy happy bees, but I seem to be failing at this. Please explain what could have happened or what I did wrong? And come spring, what can I expect? Or should I be lining up a brand new nuc for spring and start over?

Rusty
Reply

Alison,

I’m sure a cluster of 100 bees can’t make it. They won’t be able to keep themselves warm or raise new bees. I don’t know what happened, but it sounds like something to do with varroa mites. When and how did you last treat them?

alison m gibbs
Reply

We treat mites by pulling and freezing two drone frames. The last time we did it was early fall. Someone said we should do it every 3 weeks but honestly, we feel like that’s disturbing the bees unnecessarily. When I say the hornets were ruthless, it’s no exaggeration. They were relentless. The only thing I can think of is that we lost huge amounts of workers thru hive defense from the hornets. Then it went cold and the drones were kicked out and now we see the true damage. We are still learning how to “know what we are looking at” during an inspection. Since the bees will die, which I’m devastated about, when is the best time to introduce a new nuc to our hive next spring?

Rusty
Reply

Alison,

Drone frames must be removed every 4 weeks, no longer. If you don’t remove them on time, you will multiply the number of mites you have instead of decreasing them. Also, drone frames work best in the spring, less so in fall.

I know how ruthless hornets can be, as well. My guess is that the colony was weaken by hornets and finished off my mites. I could be wrong, of course, but that’s what it sounds like.

Get a nuc in the spring whenever they are available. You don’t say where you are writing from, so I have no idea when that might be.

alison m gibbs
Reply

We live in New Hampshire, and will be more diligent about the mites next year for sure. We want to get drone trapping frames, and cut out drone comb as opposed to freeze. I didn’t see any bees with warped wings but I’m new to this so it could have been mites along with hornets that did it. I feel terrible about it but will learn from this. My husband’s father has owned 5 hives for 15 years and never cracked them open except to harvest honey occasionally. So that’s the approach we took, but it may not be enough to leave them alone for more than 3 or 4 weeks.

Debby Newby, Auckland NZ
Reply

Thank you for us giving your location.
Where are your husband’s father’s hives located? Why no mites?

In the past few years, Paradise (New Zealand) has been lost. First, varroa mites, then guava moth and now Myrtle Rust and Pinko Jacinda. Since these are invaders, they come without their natural predators.

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