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Seasonal Management - Inspections

Responsibilities - When we decide to house colonies of honeybees in hives in our apiaries, they become our 'livestock' and our responsibility (although sadly not in legal terms.. yet!). Just as farmers must care for their animals on the farm, beekeepers must actively manage the health and welfare of their honeybee livestock in the apiary. This includes being knowledgeable enough and with the skills necessary to look after them properly. Besides exercising good ethics in relation to our natural fauna, the reasons for this are many-fold and become quickly obvious when you start keeping bees. There are few areas if any in the UK today that don't have the endemic Varroa mite, not to mention the increase in foul brood diseases appearing each year, and the other pests and ailments that occur when a colony is not at its strongest. Careful inspections backed up by good knowledge, skill and vigilance are key to maintaining healthy colonies.

In nature a colony won't remain in the same nest ad infinitum but will send a swarm out in spring to find a fresh location ensuring healthy continuance of their genetic line while the parent colony remains in the old nest until it is no longer habitable. Brood and honey comb become unhygienic and unusable over time and will be abandoned and the nest vacated when it can no longer support healthy colony reproduction. General cleanliness, condition of the brood chamber, the presence of pests and disease, and structural soundness are main reasons for nest/colony demise. Similarly a colony will abandon or collapse in an unsuitable or poorly managed hive just as quick, and there is nothing more disheartening for a beekeeper than finding a hive empty with nothing but a few dead bees left knowing whose responsibility their health was!

Regulations - Besides our responsibilities for the way we keep our colonies they are also subject to regulations. The Scottish Government is responsible for Bee Health Policy in Scotland and the legislative control for the health of managed honey bees. Within these regulations there are matters that require the keepers knowledge and constant attention. This is covered in more detail in the 'Diseases' section. Similar legislation exists for the other UK areas - England, Wales, Northern Ireland.

Inspections - With all this in mind the keeper must on occasion open the hive and inspect what is going on inside without over stressing the bees. Opening up a hive naturally creates a disturbance in the colony which the bees don't greatly appreciate, and they react accordingly. The trick with inspections is to carry them out with as little disturbance as possible and to achieve this there are a few do's and don'ts that should be observed. Make it a rule that your hives are never opened up or colonies disturbed without good reason or a plan of what you intend doing.

Inspection Checklist - The main things to check for during a full inspection are colony health and living conditions, and these can be assessed by following a simple checklist.

Example Check List

  • date
  • weather / temp
  • colony strength
  • colony temperament
  • queen present
  • eggs present
  • larvae present
  • sealed brood pattern
  • stores available
  • space to expand
  • signs of pests and disease
  • condition of frames and comb
  • hive structural integrity

Each item on the inspection check list reveals important information about what is going on in the hive, what the colony health status is, what action if any needs to be taken, and on what timescale. Using a check list is important for consistency but it must be backed up by a good knowledge and understanding of how a honeybee colony works in order to interpret what you are seeing, and how to use that in your colony management planning. Take the time to make a record of your findings for each colony.

Observation First - A colony that is healthy, has a laying queen present, has eggs and brood of all stages, and is visibly industrious is known as a 'Queen-right Colony', and is also a great relief to the beekeeper! A lot can be learned about a colonies status just by observing the hive entrance for a few minutes and should be something that becomes routine procedure in all apiary visits. In favourable weather conditions a good flow of bees in and out of the hive with many carrying pollen is an indication that all is as it should be. Where there is little activity in the same conditions or when other hives are busy suggests things are not quite right, and an inspection may required.

When to Inspect - During the spring / summer season inspections should be carried out ideally on a good day with temperatures of 15℃ or over. Avoid cold, rainy, thundery or windy days where the bees would normally all be staying inside the the hive. The best part of the day to inspect is late morning to early afternoon when the majority of flying bees are out foraging, meaning the hive will be less busy and easier to work with. In the winter months when there is less management to do with the colony other than checking or topping up winter feed, pick a bright and calm day if possible and avoid getting the bees agitated and flying out as they will quickly chill and drop out of the cold air unable to fly or return to the hive.

Opening the Hive - All inspections should be planned, and everything you need for the inspection should be at hand, this will reduce the amount of time the hive is open and keep the disturbance to the bees to a minimum. All hive manipulations should be carried out slowly, carefully and deliberately avoiding sudden movements, shocks or noises. The following basic procedures should be adhered to for colony inspections:

  • Suit up a safe distance from the hives keeping in mind that guard bees will follow you back a distance from the hives after inspections just when you want to remove your beesuit. Prepare what equipment you will need then light the smoker and ensure it is smoking well before moving towards the hives.
  • Approach the hive quietly, standing to the rear of the hive, leaving the front of the hive completely clear at all times as this is the main entrance / exit to the nest and will have a constant flow of bees going in and out. Guard bees at the hive entrance will quickly detect your presence at the front and will put the whole colony on alert.
  • Remove any weights and then the hive roof and place it upside down to the side of the hive. Gently prize up a corner of the crown board and put a couple of puffs in, also reach round and put a couple of puffs into the hive entrance, then wait a minute or two to let the bees settle. The smoke pacifies the bees by making them think there is a fire nearby which will pre-occupy and distract them from what you are doing, most times! If the smoke does not pacify the bees then you might like to re-think the inspection and return another day when they are in better humour.
  • Gently remove the crown board and place it slightly diagonally on top of the upturned roof, then remove the supers placing them on top of the crown board. Lastly remove the queen excluder being careful to check for the queen on the underside of it before placing it on top of the supers. Use covers to protect the exposed supers now stacked at the side of the brood box, which should also have a cover over it at this point. The covers keep the honey stores and brood nest from being exposed to robbing wasps or bees, and to maintain a sense of security within the brood nest. At this point the bees should be reasonably peaceful and still going in and out about their business.

Inspecting the Nest - Once the hive has been opened as previously described you are ready to inspect the brood nest which entails removing brood frames that will hopefully have honey, pollen, eggs, larvae, sealed brood and bees on them. The queen will also be somewhere in the brood box and it is imperative that you can find her and know where she is to avoid accidentally crushing her or dropping her out of the hive. Much care should be taken with the brood nest inspection, using slow gentle movements avoiding crushing bees or damaging the nest. Smoke can be puffed in at intervals when the bees get agitated but don't try to overcome tetchy bees by drowning them in smoke, it that instance its better to leave them to another day.

  • Move the cover aside slightly at one end to allow removal of the end frame (right or left) from the brood box. Do this by prizing it away and up from the next frame using the hive tool and being careful not to damage the frames or crush bees. Remove the frame gripping it with both hands by the lugs and carefully inspect it both sides for condition and use before laying it against the outside of the brood box.
  • Now carefully prize the next frame into the space made by the removal of the previous frame before lifting it out as before and inspecting it both sides. Once you have made your inspection put the frame gently back into the gap in the brood box. It is important to orientate it the same way round as it was before to keep the integrity of the nest in tact. Use the hive tool to tease it right along to the side creating a gap between it and the next frame. Now you can remove and inspect the next frame in the same manner, moving through all the frames one at a time in order, and replacing them back the same way round. Use two covers to screen all but the gap during inspections, this ensures the bees remain quiet and offers the least exposure of the nest and stores.
  • Once all frames are inspected the gap will be at the opposite end of the brood box. Use the hive tool to gently tease the frames back to their original position, filling the last gap with the frame you placed outside the hive at the start. Once all frames are returned replace the queen excluder, supers and crown board by placing them on diagonally first before twisting them slowly into position to avoid crushing bees. Check that all hive components are aligned correctly and that there are no gaps to allow in robbers, wind and rain. Lastly replace the roof weights if used.

Record your Findings - Use a checklist and once the inspection is complete make a note of your findings and anything you plan to do next. It can't be emphasised enough that good records are invaluable to the beekeeper. Even if you only have a couple of hives, keep a record of what you did last inspection, what the colony status was, and what you intended to do next. This is far better than going to the apiary, opening a hive and then racking your brains for what status it was the last time you visited, and what you intending doing this time? Or discovering that you should have brought this or that if you had been better prepared, and now you will have to close the hive, go home and come back later! That's a pain!

Failures in the Apiary - These happen, even to the best of beekeepers. It's important to take the time to analyse failures carefully to identify their cause, and to adjust your beekeeping practice to ensure the same thing doesn't happen again. Equally successes should be similarly analysed and confirmed as being the result of good practice and not just a chance occurrence. Good notes will build up into a useful record of apiary and colony performance across the seasons, the good and the bad, and will inform your future management practices.

To inspect, or not to inspect! - The foregoing describes the basic procedures for a general colony inspection where the whole hive and brood nest is inspected. However this may not always be required. During the seasons there will be particular reasons for opening a hive such as checking for swarming behaviour, queen status / marking, applying varroa / disease controls, changing old brood frames, harvesting honey etc. not all of which require a full in depth inspection. The time of the season, weather conditions, previous colony status, observations and your own experience will help inform your decision to fully inspect or not, however if at all in doubt about a colony's status it is better to inspect than not as colonies can go downhill and become unrecoverable very quickly. Refer to the Seasonal Management pages for details on what goes on in the hive through the different seasons, and what inspections and actions are required.

Try the Seasonal Management Quiz (it's a big quiz for a big subject!)