As beekeepers, we often hear that we need to “check on our hives.”
But, what does this mean? Beginning beekeepers get left in the dark. What are they checking? What should they be looking for? How can they tell what’s wrong?
While there is always a significant learning curve when starting a new hobby, especially a complex one like beekeeping, we want to make it easier on you!
If you’ve hopped into this with no mentor, this is a great place to find some answers to the lingering questions you have.
Find Your Queen
The most important thing to find during a routine hive inspection is your queen. Look through your frames. Pull each one out until you find her. The goal is simply to ensure she is alive and well.
Here’s a clue: if there are new brood cells since your last inspection, she should be in that box somewhere. Look through your super. Look through your deep. Do you have a queen excluder between them? Check and make sure she hasn’t managed to get stuck in that.
If you cannot find your queen and you don’t see any new eggs or young larvae, it’s possible that she died. Sometimes bees dispose of the queen’s body before we find it. Watch for another one to take her place. If you don’t see the new queen in the next few weeks and you haven’t seen your original queen, it’s time to requeen the hive.
Determine Access to Food
During your routine hive inspection, you should be checking to see if your bees have proper access to food. How do you know if your hive has significant food?
There’s a quick and easy way to tell if your bees are getting enough nectar. Take a close look at the frame. Are they building comb onto it? Is that comb full? Are they building new comb into it beside or beneath the full comb? If your bees are busily building, they’re getting plenty of nutrition. If they aren’t, it’s likely time to go ahead and give them a hand with supplemental nutrition.
You can buy supplemental pollen (known as pollen patties) and nectar (known as bee feed). That said, pollen and nectar should be naturally available for bees from the first blooms of springtime until the leaves fall.
Evaluate Food Storage
Are your bees getting ready for winter? If so, your routine inspection needs to include honey and pollen storage. How do you know if they have enough?
Everyone’s winter is a different length, so everyone’s hive needs a different amount to get through the winter. If you’ve been monitoring throughout the year, you’ll know the needs of your hive; and this is something you’ll learn the longer you keep bees.
Our rules of thumb are:
- Make sure they have enough honey stored for my typical winter, and then a month or two afterward.
- If you’re not sure if yours have enough food, feed them. Don’t let your bees starve while it’s cold out.
- If they stop building comb or you see little honey or pollen stored, go ahead and feed them no matter what the season.
Monitor Brood Pattern
You can learn a lot about the health of your queen and the hive from the brood pattern (or lack thereof).
It should look consistent from frame to frame, with each cell filled (ideally). While one or two empty cells here or there isn’t a big deal, most cells should be capped or in closely related development stages.
If there are clear cells, especially a large number of them, this is a warning sign of illness or disease either affecting fertility or health of eggs/larvae.
This is a common symptom that is caused by a variety of problems, but a lack of a consistent brood is a really common thing. To address it:
Option 1: Call a local beekeeping organization. It’s likely a neighboring hobbyist would take a peek to help you diagnose. Here is a list of organizations in Murdoch’s retail footprint.
Option 2: Call your state’s regulatory body and ask for an inspection. More on that here.
Though drones and workers are found throughout the brood pattern, pay close attention to where your queen cells are. Are they along the top or the sides? That’s alright. Your bees are either practicing their queen-raising craft or considering a replacement.
But are those cells toward the bottom? Your hive is considering swarming. Start looking into splitting it before they leave to find a larger spot.
To learn how to split a hive, read this article.
One last consideration is honey and pollen. Eggs will be laid throughout cells, with pollen typically surrounding the upper part beyond those eggs. Honey is usually beyond that. If those storage cells are empty, feed your bees.
Pests, Illness, and Mold
There is a plethora of issues that may arise within your hive. Illness, distress, mold, and pests are just a few of them.
If your hive is being tackled by mold, place a salt block near the entrance.
This helps pull excess moisture out. You may also need to replace boxes if their waterproof sealing is failing.
Illness and disease are two of the largest causes of distress. Depending on what’s going on in your hive, you may be able to treat it–and you may not. We recommend a good handbook like this or this, mostly so you can identify what’s happening and figure out the best way to react to it.
Pests, on the other hand, must always be destroyed. Varroa mites are one of the biggest problems for apiaries as of this writing. We have more on this subject here, including state regulations you must file if you have pest issues.
Is there something we’re missing? Let us know if there’s something you’d like to know more about in the comments below.