Congratulations! You are a beekeeper! You have your hive equipment, installed your package bees or nuc, and are ready to start inspecting your hive. Your first spring inspection should take place after your new bees have had a week to settle in, or during the first warm spell (over 60 degrees) in March or April for overwintered hives.
There are several reasons why you need to be doing hive inspections. Your bees need to be managed for space to prevent swarming, monitored and treated for disease and pests, monitor food stores to prevent starvation, and because you need to learn. It takes practice to locate a queen, interpret a brood pattern, and achieve a basic understanding of how your bees are doing. As an added bonus, watching your bees as they go about your business can be relaxing and fun.
For this lesson we are going to focus on basic recommended practices for a spring inspection. If this is your hive’s first year, the weather is likely warm enough to inspect sometime in March or April. You should give a new hive a week after queen release to settle in before you go through the hive frame by frame. It’s ok to crack the lid and peek on them before that. If you have an overwintered hive don’t do a thorough inspection until a sunny day with the temperature at least 60 degrees. Brood frames can become chilled and damaged if they are pulled out of a hive for too long on a cool day. Frames of honey can be pulled out and set aside without problems to give you more room to work inside the hive.
What to look for during your first spring inspection:
- Do they have an adequate queen? Find her if you can. Hopefully she is marked for easy identification. with some practice you’ll be able to find even unmarked queens on a frame without much trouble. Don’t try to look at every bee on the frame, instead let your eyes slide over the frame in a Z pattern. Eventually the difference in the queen’s size and behavior compared to the other bees will make her stand out and catch your eye. I always check the edges of the frame first as I am picking it up since queens have a tendency to run to the frame’s back side to get out of the light. If you don’t see the queen in your hive that doesn’t mean you don’t have one. If you see eggs (they look like tiny grains of rice sticking up from the bottom of the cell) then you have had a queen present within the last 3 days. She is most likely still there. Unless I need to mark or capture the queen, eggs are all I am looking for. Frames of brood should have solid brood. Scattered brood with lots of empty space can indicate disease or a failing queen.
- Does any of your equipment need replaced? This shouldn’t be an issue for a beginner, but if any of your hive equipment is rotting or needs repainted, now is the time to make note of it for later repair.
- How does your hive behave? A nervous or aggressive hive may be in trouble. Maybe they have no queen, are being pestered by skunks at night, or have some other problem. If you can’t find a reason and the aggressiveness continues it may be that the queen needs replaced. A gentler queen will produce gentler bees and your hive should be back to a milder temperament within 6 weeks. A hive that tends to propolize excessively can also be requeened if desired.
- Is the hive strong and healthy enough? The Indiana Beekeepers Association recommends that hives with less than 5 frames of bees at the beginning of April be combined with another hive if possible. Foul odors may be a sign of mold or disease. Check your brood frames for signs of chalkbrood, European Foulbrood (EFB), and American Foulbrood (AFB). Look for wax moths and small hive beetles, especially in tight spots and corners. The presence of pests can indicate the hive is weak for some reason. Monitor your varroa mite levels by either alcohol wash, sugar roll, or sticky board.
- Are your bees well fed? Starvation is a very real concern in spring. The queen begins laying in earnest for the upcoming nectar flow and the hive can go through large amounts of honey and pollen while raising this new brood. If they do not have enough stores to fall back on then a cold snap or several days of rain could kill them. If they don’t have at least 3 deep frames or 4 medium frames of honey then don’t be afraid to add some 1:1 sugar syrup and a pollen substitute patty to your hive. If they don’t need it then they won’t take it, but a little extra food could be a lifesaver for a marginal hive.
- Reverse the brood chamber: Over the winter the bees begin their cluster in the bottom of the hive and work their way to the top. Taking the empty box from the bottom and moving it above the bees will encourage the queen to use both boxes for the brood nest before attempting to swarm. Wait to reverse boxes until the daytime highs are consistently above 60 degrees.
- Do you have drones? Check for drone brood or mature drones on the frames. Once you have drones you’ll know that you can make splits if desired and have a chance of getting a new queen mated. If the majority of your bees are drones, then either your queen is failing or has already failed and you have workers laying eggs. Requeen as soon as possible.
As you reassemble the hive, remember to clean off the bottom board and scrape off any burr comb or excess propolis you find in the hive. Place your full box of bees on the bottom board and your empty box on top (as long as its warm enough). Its a good idea to leave your entrance reducer in place until the hive is stronger, especially if you have added feed. A smaller entrance is more easily defended against robbing bees.