Inspecting A Hive
(When, How & Why)

Keep your smoker handy

Updated on October 26th, 2020

You’ve installed your bees and determined that the queen was successfully freed from her cage. Now it’s time to start with periodic hive inspections.

The goal of these inspections is to monitor the health of the colony. You want to spot and fix problems as early as possible. Opening the hive is disruptive to the bees so you should space out your inspections based on the age of the colony and the need to address issues.

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How Often To Inspect The Hive

With a new hive, you should check its progress every 7 – 10 days for the first few months. Check to see that the queen is laying eggs, brood is developing and the colony drawing out comb and building up stores.

New colonies will expend a fair amount of time and energy drawing out comb. You shouldn’t plan on taking much, if any, honey the first year. The bees will need most of what they create to get through dearth and winter; let them work do their thing.

Once you’ve determined that the colony is developing nicely, every 2 – 3 weeks is a reasonable inspection period unless you’ve spotted a problem that needs to be addressed.

See the video below of a late-season hive inspection. You’ll see some of the techniques discussed in this article such as use of the smoker and hive tool. Also, we spotted the queen and some robbing activity.

Outside Observation

You don’t have to get into the hive to learn some things that are going. Watch the activity around the hive. With the apiary relatively close by we check them out almost every day.

A caveat: Don’t rely only on outside observation of the bees activity to determine the health of your hive. You have to get into the hive to see what’s going on in there.

Avoid standing directly in front of the hive to observe as the bees will become defensive. Watch from the sides.

As the colony becomes established, it should become evident that more bees are out foraging. That’s a good sign that the queen has been producing brood.

Look for bees returning with “pollen baskets” on their legs. You can spot what look like puff balls on them, often red, yellow or orange. This is a good sign that they are finding forage material.

Watch for signs of robbing, espeicially when you are feeding or during a nectar dearth. Any syrup spilled in the hive may set off robbing as other bees sense the food. Robbing can be indicated by:

  • Frenzied activity around the hive entrance. Your colony will defend itself by pushing out intruders. I’ve seen large bumblebees enter the hive and get driven out.
  • Wasps or yellow jackets trying to gain entrance to the hive.
  • Bees or wasps hovering around other sides or the back of the hive looking for an entrance.

If you spot robbing, reduce the entrance to the smallest size. Defending against robbing is exhausting to the colony and puts the queen at risk. Give them as much help as possible.

Dead bees are carried out of the hive. If you spot an excessive number of dead bees at the entrance, it could indicate a problem and warrant a more in-depth inspection.

On exceptionally warm days you may see bees “bearding” and “fanning” on the outside of the hive to cool off. You can do a few things to help them out in this case:

  • If you have a screened bottom board with a removable drawer, pull out the drawer to provide additional ventilation.
  • You can prop up the outer cover a little with a shim also aiding in ventilation. Do not open it too far as you may get robbing. Keep an eye on how things proceed.

Be a little careful as the bees may be a bit agitated by the heat.

This quick clip shows bees bearding and fanning to stay cool:

Inspecting the Hive

When to Inspect

We’re talking time of day here. The best time to inspect the hive is midday when bees are out foraging.

The bees will not be out if it’s rainy, very windy or if temperatures are generally below 57° or above 100°. Save your inspections for a sunny, less windy day with temperatures in the acceptable range.

Having bees out of the hive makes frames easier to move. It’s less disturbing to the bees and less likely to trigger very defensive action. You’re also less like to hurt many bees.

Never inspect at night. Never inspect in the rain or snow.

Prepare for the Inspection

Be prepared before you open the hive:

  • Light your smoker in advance and make sure it’s adequately fueled. It’s a pain to restart your smoker in the middle of an inspection (speaking from experience). Check out below where we explain lighting your smoker. Bring along some additional fuel and a lighter in case you need to restart it.
  • Gather your hive tool and bee brush.
  • If you have a frame holder, it will come in handy now.
  • Have any feeding supplies ready if you think they will be needed. Be careful not to spill the sugar syrup.
  • Put on your protective gear making sure all openings are sealed.
  • If you work without gloves because it’s easier, remove any rings. A swollen hand with a ring will not be fun.
  • In case of a bee sting, know where your relief supplies are (Benadryl, ice packs…whatever you intend to use).
  • Have a plan in mind. Is this a cursory inspection with a quick look to see that things are good? Or are you planning to look in each box, maybe inspect each frame? Don’t be afraid to change your plan based on circumstances (e.g. you spot a problem that warrants further inspection than planned or the bees are particularly defensive in which case you may want to cut it a bit short).
  • Work on the hive from the back or the side. Standing in front will disrupt returning foragers and trigger the guard bees.

Keeping good beekeeping records will help you prepare for each inspection. If your records show that the uppermost box was getting close to full on the last inspection, you’ll remember to bring a new box and frames. This becomes more important the further away your beeyard is from your supplies.

See our article Record Keeping For Beekeepers (A Guide To What, Why & How) for more information.

Step 1 – Smoke The Hive/Remove The Covers

A properly lit smoker will puff out cool smoke with a few small pumps of the bellows. The smoke disrupts the bees’ communication system foiling any alarms. It also causes them to gorge on honey so they won’t fly.

Blow a little smoke into the entrance to start. Lift the outer cover and smoke the top of the hive a bit. Set the outer cover on the ground with the bottom facing up so as not to trap and harm any bees that may be on it.

Using smoker to move the bees

Take off any top feeder you have and set it aside.

I like to lean the cover up near the entrance if possible giving bees the opportunity to get back in the hive.

Open the inner cover a bit. You need to pry it up with your hive tool if the bees have glued it down with propolis. Blow a little smoke under the inner cover and set it back down. Give the smoke a few seconds to have an impact.

Take the inner cover, scrape off the propolis with your hive tool and set it aside. Again, there may be some bees on it so be careful. I like to put this near the entrance also.

Step 2 – Remove Boxes if Necessary

If you have only one deep box, there’s obviously nothing to remove.

However, as the season goes on and the frames fill up, you will be adding boxes.

With multiple boxes, start with the lowest box you plan to inspect. Remove any supers or upper brood boxes and stack them on the side, again careful to minimize harm to the bees.

You’ll need your hive to tool to pry the boxes apart. Bee glue is surprisingly strong.

If you only plan a quick look in the uppermost box, you don’t need to do this. Exercise your judgment here.

Step 3 – Remove A Frame

If you have a frame holder, now is the time to use it. Hang it on the side of the hive as a place to hold a frame.

Frames are most likely glued together. In your very early inspections, they may not have gotten to the outer frames yet but assume they have.

Using your hive tool, pry an outermost frame away from the adjacent frame.

If you can, grab each end of the frame’s top bar with a couple of fingers and carefully lift it out. You may need to pry up at least one end with the hive tool.

Using the hive tool to lift a frame
Using the hive tool to lift a frame

As the season goes on and everything gets propolized, I typically pry up one end and grab it with my hand then pry up the other end. I lift the frame with a hand on one end and the hive tool on the other. Once it is clear of the hive, I use two hands.

With one less frame in the hive, you have more room to work without hurting the bees.

Early on, these outer frames will be empty or may have a few bees and a little bit of comb. Otherwise, you’ll be looking for nectar, pollen, and honey.

Outer frames are very unlikely to have brood. If there is brood on the outer frame, your bees need more space. Add a box with frames.

Step 4 – Inspect the Remaining Frames

Moving from where you created a space, extract one frame at a time. (I usually put the second frame removed aside also giving more space to work).

Look at each side of the frame. In a newer hive, center frames will have the most activity as the bees work out to the edges.

Replace the frame in its original spot when you’re done examining it.

Good Things You’re Looking For

On the plus side, you want to see:

  • A tight laying pattern by the queen with a combination of capped brood, larva and eggs (eggs are like tiny grains of rice and not that easy to spot). If you see this laying pattern, don’t worry if you don’t see the queen. That pattern means she’s in there and doing her job.
  • Besides brood, you want to see the bees drawing comb and storing some pollen and nectar.
  • As time progresses, you’ll start to see white-capped cells of honey alongside brood and alone on some frames.

Bad Things You’re Looking For

During the inspection you want to note problem signs that may require further investigation or steps to cure:

  • A scattered laying pattern is a sign that the queen is not healthy. You should monitor this an pay attention to the hive population. If the population is dropping, you may have lost your queen or need to replace her.
  • In the queen is not performing, you may find supersedure, or emergency, cells being formed amid the drone brood. This is the colony preparing to replace a bad or missing queen. These are oversized cells hanging on the side of the frame.
  • If you see large cells forming at the bottom of frames, these are probably swarming cells. Your hive is doing so well that the queen may leave with a bunch of the bees but leave behind enough brood, etc. that the remaining bees will continue. This might be the time to form a split to keep all the bees in your apiary.
  • If the hive is crowded, add a box to give them more room. I’d add a box once the uppermost box is about 70% drawn out. You don’t want to provide too much room too early.
  • Fix any cross-comb issues (particularly in foundationless hives) and remove burr comb with your hive tool to forestall future problems.
  • Looks for signs of pests: small hive beetles, mites, wax moths, ants, mice. Treat the problem as needed.
  • If you get down to the bottom board, use your bee brush to clear off dead bees and other debris.
  • You also want to look for general problems like broken equipment or leaking feeders and fix or replace them.
  • See if the colony’s disposition has turned aggressive. This may be a one-off thing but it can also be the sign of other problems. Monitor this over the next few inspections.

Step 5 – Put The Hive Back Together

When you finish inspecting the frames, make sure they are all back in the box. General advice is to keep them in the same order, but I’ve found a little swapping of frames doesn’t seem to matter much (as long as you’re not moving brood to the outer edges).

We sometimes place empty frames between substantially filled frames to encourage the bees to get started on them.

Replace any boxes you took off. You are going to crush a bee occasionally . Try to be careful.

Put on the inner cover, any feeder, and the outer cover.

Pick up your smoker and tools and move away.

Hive Inspection and Feeding

After The Inspection

Once you’re a safe distance from the hive, get your sweaty self out of that bee jacket. Put the smoker someplace where it can burn out safely or douse it. (Especially important if you have curious kids around.)

It’s time to make notes about your inspection. Keep track of how the hive is doing and any potential problems you want to monitor.

I admit we’ve been somewhat negligent on this front because our number of hives is not very large. Each hive is a different color; we monitor them by that (green, yellow, etc.) and memory. As we add more hives this system will not suffice so we are starting a diary.

A diary also lets you keep track of the source your bees, the age of the queen and other data that might affect future decisions.

Additional Tips

When you’re in the hive, try to move slowly and deliberately. This can be hard as a new beekeeper. A bee on your bare hand can get your adrenaline pumping and cause jerky movements.

If you stay calm, the bees are more likely to remain calm.

If the bees get particularly aggressive, I try to stand relatively still except for puffing some smoke around myself. Whatever you do, don’t flail at them to drive them away. You’ll only get them more excited.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll walk away and see how far they follow me. The further they follow, the more agitated they are. At this point, I’ll decide if I can keep going or if I should stop for the day.

A bee jacket or suit can feel like a sauna on a hot day. It’s not a bad idea to have some water handy to hydrate. Walk a good distance away before you remove your veil to drink.

If a bee gets inside your gear, especially your veil, crush it to avoid being stung. Realize that if one got in, others could get in. Walk away, check for other intruders and double check your closures.

A pencil or felt tip marker comes in handy to mark the top bar of any frames that you want to follow for some reason.

Related Question

How do I light a smoker?

The smoker has a main cylinder that holds the smoldering fuel. The fuel sits on a grill at the bottom. The bellows blow air under the grill which feeds the fuel above.

Place some paper at the bottom of the smoker and light it. Start to add your fuel which can be wood shavings, dried pine needle or small twigs. You can buy pellets if you wish.

We use pine needles and cedar shavings we pick up at a pet store. (We’ve tried other types of wood in pet store shavings but I can’t stand the smell. Burning cedar is more pleasant).

Start putting your fuel on the lit paper and periodically pump the bellows. As you add more fuel, tamp it down to fit as much as possible.

You may need to stick a match or lighter down to the bottom to relight it.

Don’t put your face over the cylinder as you pump the bellows. I’ve had flames shoot up pretty high if I pump too hard.

Let the smoker get a good burn going and close the top. If you’ve done this right, your smoker will probably last longer than your inspection.

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