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A hive check or hive inspection is an important part of beekeeping. This is when you visit your beehives and look for any signs that something may be wrong or that your bees need attention from you. Checking on your hives in the summer is especially important because this is when they are most active. There are several things you should be looking for during a hive check. In this blog post, we will discuss what these things are, and how you can keep track of them!
How often should you do a Hive Check of your Bees?
It is a good idea to do a hive check / inspection at least once a month, and more often during the summer when bees are more active (we do a weekly hive check in the summer and fall). You may also need to check your hives more often if something seems wrong or if you are experiencing problems with your bees. Likeiwse, inspect your hive more often when the bees are producing a lot of honey. If you miss them filling up a box, they are likely to swarm and you could lose a significant portion of your hive.
If you are beginner beekeeper, checking your hives is a great way to learn. If you check regularly, you’ll begin to understand the cycle that your bees go through each season and get better and better at spotting things you need to track in your hives.
Just getting started? Click here for our beginners guide to getting started with beekeeping.
What Equipment do you need to do a hive check?
In order to do a hive check, you will need a few basic pieces of equipment. You will need a bee suit and veil, a smoker, a hive tool, and your inspection checklist (and a pen or pencil to make notes). You can also bring your cell phone to take pictures if you want to document what you see.
While advanced beekeepers may be able to get away with wearing just a veil over their head, we always recommend a full bee suit for the most protection possible. Remember, honey bees are normally quite harmless but you will be invading the home of thousands of them. Better safe than sorry, we say.
You’ll use the smoker to calm the bees and the hive tool to pry open the hive and check the frames. The inspection checklist will help you keep track of what you are looking for during your hive check.
You may also want to bring a super (a box that goes above the lower deep) with you with some frames that are ready to go. If the bees have filled or almost filled their deep or a super on top of that, you’ll be ready to add a new one.
What to look for during a hive check
When performing a hive inspection, it is helpful to use a Hive Check or Hive Inspection Checklist. This list reminds you what to look for each time and can help you to keep track of changes over time. You can also use it to jot down things you need to look out for, or next steps in your beekeeping process.
We have a hive inspection checklist available in our Etsy shop that can be instantly downloaded
and printed as many times as needed. Click here to download our hive inspection checklist.
Can you find a queen?
A healthy and thriving queen is one of the most important components of a healthy beehive. You should look for her during each hive check or inspection you perform. How can you tell if your queen is there?
One option, of course, is finding the queen bee herself. You can recognize her by her larger size and by the fact that she is usually surrounded by workers. If you search your entire hive and you cannot find the queen, the next thing to do is look for signs of her activity instead.
Are there eggs or larvae present in the hive?
Queens produce eggs, which will be visible as white grubs in capped cells. There should also be evidence of brood production, such as young bees or larvae. Eggs in your beehive look like small, white spheres. When they hatch, the larvae will be small and clear with a black head.
If you see eggs or larvae in your hive, this is a good sign that all is well. If you see these present, this is a good sign that the queen is doing her job. If there are no eggs or brood present, it may be an indication that the queen has died or been replaced. In this case, you will need to take appropriate action.
Do you see evidence of “Supercedure” or Queen Cells?
Supercedure is the process by which bees create a new queen bee if they are unhappy with their current one. Supercedure normally happens in response to issues such as poor egg production or lack of pheromones being produced by the queen herself. If you see supercedure cells, this is not necessarily bad news for your hive. This is simply the bees trying to replace their current queen with a new one. However, if you see this happening too often in your hive, it may be an indication that something else is going on. If you see the supercedure cells, but no new queen is produced, this may be a sign that your hive has become “queenless.”
Are there bees storing pollen and nectar?
Pollen and nectar are the two main food sources for bees. If you see evidence that your bees are storing pollen and nectar, this is a good sign. It means they are healthy and have enough food to sustain them. You will know that your bees are storing pollen and nectar if you see it in the hive. How can you tell? Pollen looks like yellow or orange dust that is stored by bees in honeycomb cells. Nectar, on the other hand, will be a clear substance stored inside these same cells.
Do you see any capped or uncapped honey?
Capped honey simply means that the bees have started to put a wax cap on the cells to seal them. How will you know if there is honey in your hive? You can tell by looking at the color of the substance in each cell. If it’s clear and has no capping, it’s probably nectar. If it’s a darker color with capping, then it’s honey. How much honey should you be looking for? How much is normal? The amount of honey in your hive will depend on the time of year and other factors such as weather conditions.
You will start to get to know your hive and watch as honey production continues throughout the warmer season. If you see honey production suddenly stop or slow down, this can be a sign that something has happened within your hive.
You may also see some uncapped honey. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that the bees are still working on it!
How many frames are full of capped honey?
If you see a lot of capped honey in your hive, this is a good sign. It means the bees are doing well and are progressively filling frames with honey. As you see one of your boxes beginning to look almost full of capped frames, this means it is time to consider adding an additional box to your hive. This will give the bees more space to work and store their honey. You will do this progressively over the course of the summer.
If you see very few capped frames, this may be a sign that the bees are not doing well or there is not enough food available for them. In this case, you may need to take some action to help your bees out, especially if winter is coming soon and you need to make sure they have enough food stored. You can provide a boost in honey production for your bees by adding a frame of pollen substitute or by feeding them sugar syrup.
What kind of hive activity do you see? Do you see swarm cells?
Bees swarm when they leave their hive to create a new colony. This can happen because there are too many bees in the hive or because they need more space. How will you know if your bees are swarming? If you see swarm cells, this is a sign that the hive may be preparing to swarm soon. Swarm cells look like queen cells and are normally located on the bottom of frames at one corner facing outwards. How can you prevent your bees from swarming? If space is the issue, the best way to help prevent your hive from swarming is by adding more space for them by adding another box of frames.
Bees may also decide to swarm if there is no queen or if the quality of the existing queen is poor. How can you tell? If you see swarm cells, but no new queens are produced, it may be a sign that your hive has become “queenless.” In this case, the bees will need to create new queens in order to survive. Your option here is to either wait and see if the bees produce a new queen (look for signs of Supercedure), or to replace the queen yourself.
Do you see signs of Illness, Disease, or Pests in your hive?
(Note that we will not be able to cover all signs of illness, disease, and pests in this article. You’ll likely need to do more research on your specific issue. This guide from Penn State Extension has some great images to help you understand what you are seeing.)
If you see any signs of pests or diseases in your hive, it is important to take action right away. How can you tell if your bees are sick? One sign is that the bees may be “absconding.” This means they are leaving the hive en masse and usually happens when the colony is diseased or there is a lack of food. How can you tell if this is happening? You will see a lot of dead bees around the hive entrance and little activity inside the hive. If there is not enough food available for them, then adding more honey supers or providing syrup may help to keep them in their hive longer until they can find more food.
Another sign of illness or disease is if the bees are “dying out.” How do you know if this is happening? You will see dead bees all over the hive and on your frames, with no activity inside at all. If there are a lot of dead bees around your hive, it may be a sign of poor genetic quality or disease. Replacing the queen may help with poor genetic quality and is one option for addressing the issue. However, you’ll also want to check for signs of hive diseases like foulbrood and mites.
You may also see signs of Pests in your hive. How do you know if there are pests in your hive? One pest is the Small Hive Beetle (SHB ). One sign that the SHB is present is that you will see a lot of honey stored in the brood nest. This is where the SHB likes to lay its eggs. How can you prevent this from happening? If you see signs of the Small Hive Beetle, it is important to take action right away by using a trap to capture them before they lay eggs and multiply.
How is your hive doing overall, or in comparison to last year?
Finally, you should keep track of how your hive is performing overall. How many new frames did they build this week? How much honey do they have stored up now compared to last year? How many of those frames are full with comb and how many contain pollen or nectar only? By keeping track of these things, you will be able to see if there is anything wrong in your hive that needs attention right away. If you see a trend of declining hive health, you will be able to take action before it’s too late!
How to keep track of your hive’s progress and concerns:
Keeping track of what you find and see during your hive checks will not only help you maintain your hives, it will also help you to become a better beekeeper. It will help you to keep track of your learning and be better at spotting issues sooner each time you check on your bees.
One way to track your hive’s progress and concerns is by using a hive journal or a hive inspection checklist. You can find a printable copy of our Hive Checklist here. You can download this check list and use it every week to help you notice changes over the course of the season, as well as year-by-year.
Another way to track your hive health is by taking pictures throughout the year. This will help you see changes in the hive over time. It will also help you keep track of what certain things “look like” – brood patterns, supercedure, evidence of disease, etc. If you do notice something wrong, it will be easier to go back and look at your pictures to try and find out what may have caused the issue.
Performing regular hive checks is an important part of beekeeping. By looking for signs of disease, pests, and lack of food, you can troubleshoot any problems that may arise and keep your bees healthy and happy. Best luck, and here’s to happy bees and happy humans!
Carrie Williams Howe is an educational leader by day and an aspiring homesteader by night and weekend. She lives on a small homestead in Vermont with her husband, two children, and a rambunctious border collie. She blogs about her family's homestead life at The Happy Hive.