How To Inspect A Beehive

Keep your smoker handy

Updated on October 18th, 2021

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

To inspect a beehive, open it and carefully remove frames for visual examination. Inspections are best done midday in favorable weather conditions. Try to minimize the disruption to the bees’ activity. Among other things, inspections help assess the colony’s health and identify issues requiring remediation.

Your goal in a hive inspection is to check what you need to while causing as little inconvenience to the bees as possible. The bees know their job and will go about just fine without too much influence from you.

This article discusses the basic process of how to inspect a beehive in detail.

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How Often Should You Inspect A Beehive

The frequency of hive inspections can vary depending on the activity in the hive and the time of year. For example, in cold northern climates like ours, winter inspections consist mainly of ensuring entrances are not blocked with snow and occasionally checking if food is needed.

The frequency of hive inspections can vary based on the time of year, the health of a colony, and weather conditions.

In spring and early summer, checking a hive’s progress every 7 – 10 days is a good rule of thumb, especially for a new hive. Rapidly growing populations need new hive boxes. You may need to intervene to prevent swarming.

Unless you have spotted a problem that needs addressing, every 3 – 4 weeks is a reasonable inspection period for a well-established colony.

Keep in mind, however, that inspection does not necessarily mean removing every frame (which is something you will probably do when you start out and only have a few frames of bees).

Weak colonies need more frequent assessments than strong colonies to monitor their progress and assess their needs.

Some early season inspections can be completed quickly. For example, looking at a couple of frames, you can tell if the colony is drawing out comb, if the queen is laying eggs and developing brood, or if it is time to add a new box.

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

Hive Inspection and Feeding

Outside Observation

You do not have to open a hive to learn some things from the bees’ behavior. Outside observations can be important too.

A caveat: Do not rely only on outside observation alone to determine the health of your hive. You must get into a hive periodically to see what is going on.

Watch the activity around the hive. With our apiary close by, we look at our hives almost every day.

Watch Your Bees

Avoid standing directly in front of the hive to observe as the bees will become defensive. Instead, watch from the sides or even a slight distance.

As new brood emerges, you will see bees come out of the hive, turn and hover calmly around the hive’s entrance. These “orientation flights” are part of the bee learning where home is.

As the colony becomes established, you should see more significant numbers of foraging bees taking off into the distance and returning. Lots of foraging bees show good population growth.

Look for bees returning with “pollen baskets” on their legs. Pollen baskets look like puffballs; they are often red, yellow, or orange. Many pollen bags mean lots of forage material in the area, and the bees are working hard.

Pollen baskets on the legs of returning foragers.
Yellow and orange pollen baskets are visible on returning foragers.

Watch For Robbing

Honey bees and others rob honey from hives. Robbers can overrun weak colonies.

Robbing is most likely to occur when you are feeding or during a nectar dearth when natural food supplies are scarce. In addition, any syrup spilled in the hive may set off robbing as other bees sense the food.

Robbing is indicated by:

  • Frenzied activity occurring around the hive entrance. Your colony will defend itself by pushing out intruders. I have seen large bumblebees enter the hive and get driven out.
  • Wasps or yellowjackets are trying to gain entrance to the hive.
  • Bees or wasps are 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.

Learn more! See our article about summer nectar dearth and more details on how to deter robbing.

Dead Bees

Dead bees are carried out of the hive by the colony. Therefore, if you spot many dead bees at the entrance, it may indicate a problem and warrants a more in-depth inspection.

Spot An Overheated Hive

On hot days you may see bees “bearding” and “fanning” outside 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 careful as the bees may be a bit agitated by the heat.

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

Bee Culture Magazine has a detailed article about External Hive Inspection.

When Is The Best Time To Inspect A Beehive

The best time to inspect the hive is midday when bees are out foraging.

The bees will not be out if it is raining, very windy or if temperatures are generally below 57° F (13.9° C) or above 100° F (37.8° C). Temperatures between 60° F (15.6° C) and 90° F (32.2° C) are good times to inspect.

Save your inspections for a sunny, less windy day with temperatures in the acceptable range.

With foraging bees out of the hive, frames are easier to remove. In addition, fewer honey bees mean your intrusion will be less disruptive, less likely to trigger extreme defensive action, and you will be less like to hurt many bees.

Never inspect at night. Bees can be particularly defensive if you open the hive in the dark.

Never inspect if there is robbing activity. You will expose the colony to an invasion force.

Avoid opening the hive in the rain, extreme heat, or extreme cold unless some condition makes it necessary.

Prepare For Each Hive Inspection

Start each inspection with a plan in mind.

Hive intrusions disrupt the colony’s activity and carry the risk of harming some bees; having a plan keeps you focused on the goal of the inspection and minimizes your time rummaging through the bees’ home.

While your inspection may have a primary purpose, there are some things to look for every time you go in a beehive:

  • Eggs, larvae, a good pattern of capped brood, and bee population indicating that the queen is alive and healthy,
  • Indications that the colony may swarm,
  • Signs of pest infestation or disease,
  • Whether the bees are drawing out comb on frames correctly,
  • If the colony is storing pollen, nectar, and honey or consuming their food stores
Early Summer Bee Swarm

See the next article in this series for more details on what to look for during a hive inspection.

Beekeeping records help you prepare for each inspection. For example, if your records show that the uppermost box was getting close to full on the last review, you will remember to bring a new hive box and frames.

Learn more! See our article Record Keeping For Beekeepers (A Guide To What, Why & How) for information and links to free resources.

Do not be afraid to change your plan based on circumstances.

Spotting a problem that demands immediate attention may cause you to alter course during an inspection. That is okay. Correcting problems is one of the main reasons for inspecting hives.

If the bees are overly defensive, making the inspection difficult, you can cut the examination short, close the hive, and return another day.

Learn more! Check out our articles about bees smokers and hive tools for additional details on these must-have beekeeping tools and how to use them.

How To Inspect A Beehive

Follow these general steps to inspect a hive.

Step 1 – Before commencing inspection:

  • Light your smoker in advance and have it adequately fueled. It is a pain to restart your smoker in the middle of an inspection (speaking from experience).
  • Gather your hive tool, bee brush, and other tools you may need.
  • Put on your protective beekeeping clothing, making sure to seal all openings.
  • Have any supplies and equipment ready if you think you will need them. Depending on the plan, you may need items such as additional boxes and frames or feeders.
  • If you work without gloves, remove any rings. If stung, your hand could swell up before you could remove a ring.
  • Know where your relief supplies are should you get stung (Benadryl, ice packs, or whatever you intend to use).
  • Approach the hive from the back or the side. Standing in front will disrupt returning foragers and trigger the guard bees.
  • Remember to move calmly and slowly. The calmer you are, the more relaxed your colony is likely to be.

Gathering the appropriate tools and supplies for the inspection takes on added importance the further your hives are from home.

Beekeeping tip: If you are working alone, have your cell phone handy in case of an emergency.

Step 2 – Smoke the hive and remove the covers.

Blow a little smoke into the entrance and under the cover to start. The smoke causes bees to gorge on honey in anticipation of heading to a fire exit.

Blow a little smoke into the entrance and under the cover to start. The smoke causes bees to gorge on honey in anticipation of heading to a fire exit.

Smoke also disrupts alarm pheromones that cause bees to become more defensive.

Remove the outer cover and set it on its side or with the bottom facing up so as not to trap and harm any bees that may be on it.

How to inspect a beehive by smoking the bees
Using smoker to move the bees

Expect the inner cover to be glued down with propolis. Insert the edge of your hive tool between the cover and the hive box to pop it loose.

Lift the inner cover a bit. Blow a little smoke under it and set it back down. Give the smoke a few seconds to have an impact.

Take the inner cover set it aside. Again, there may be some bees on it, so be careful.

During inspections, use the smoker to move bees out of your way or calm them if you sense an increase in defensiveness.

Step 3 – Remove boxes if necessary.

If you have only one deep box, there is 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 boxes until you reach your starting point.

Using your hive tool to separate boxes, remove any supers or upper brood boxes and stack them on the side. Be careful to minimize harm to the bees.

Boxes full of bees and honey are heavy. Having some cinder blocks or a stand to place boxes might save some strain on your back.

You can also place these boxes on the outer cover you set aside in Step 2 above.

Cover the stack of boxes you set aside to keep the bees calm and off the edge of the top box. The inner cover (or and extra inner cover) serves this purpose. The cover also limits intrusion from outside bees.

You can also use a hive manipulation cloth as a cover.

A hive manipulation cloth is a piece of material, often canvas, used to cover an otherwise open hive box. The cloth is often weighted to keep it in place.

Note: When you reassemble the hive, boxes should be placed back in their original positions unless you have a reason for rearranging the order.

Step 4 – Remove one end frame first.

Removing one frame will give you more room to work. End frames against the hive wall often have the fewest bees and are the easiest to remove.

If you have a frame holder, hang it on the side of the hive as a place to hold a frame. If you do not have a frame holder, have a place where you can set a frame down gently.

Honey bees will glue frames together.

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

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 lift at least one end with the hive tool.

Once the frame is lifted high enough, grip it with both hands. Then, slowly remove the frame and avoid “rolling” the bees.

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

The combination of wax comb and bees may make frames too close together. Raising one of these frames can pinch the bees together and “roll” them. Rolling can damage the bees, including the queen.

If a frame is too tight to lift easily, do not force it. Instead, look for another frame that is easier to remove.

Outer frames are very unlikely to have brood. If there is brood on the outer frame, your bees need more space and it is time to add a new box and frames.

We find a frame holder is a big help during inspections.

The combination of wax comb and bees may make frames too close together. Raising one of these frames can pinch the bees together and “roll” them. Rolling can damage the bees, including the queen.

If a frame is too tight to lift easily, do not force it. Instead, look for another frame that is easier to remove.

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 5 – Inspect the remaining frames.

Moving across the hive, extract one frame at a time. I usually remove two frames to provide even more space. The additional space significantly reduces the risk of rolling the bees.

Once removed, hold a frame by both ends of the top bar, looking at each side by turning it slowly. Use the sunlight to illuminate the bees and the comb.

Replace the frame in its original spot after examining it.

Only inspect enough frames to achieve your goal to minimize your time in the hive.

For example, spotting new eggs, larvae, and capped brood on a couple of frames should be enough to satisfy you that the queen is healthy and productive. You do not need to see every frame in search of the queen.

Bees may draw comb outside of the frames. Using your hive tool, remove any burr comb that may hinder your work. such as comb that may connect a frame bottom to the a frame top in another box. Proceed carefully so you do not harm any bees on the burr comb.

Do not discard wax comb in the bee yard as it may attract pests. You can also add it to any wax you plan to process.

Inspecting a frame with bees and brood in beekeeping protective clothing
Inspecting a frame with bees and brood

Learn more! A queenlees colony can be lost quickly if corrective action is not taken. See how to determine if your hive is queenright and what to do if it is not.

After examining the lowest box you want to inspect, return any frames you removed. Start replacing boxes on top until you reach the next one you plan to inspect and repeat the process of pulling frames for review.

Putting boxes back on top will save you from bending over too much.

Step 6 – Close the beehive and exit.

Once you have decided your inspection is complete, reverse the process and replace all the frames, boxes, and covers.

General advice is to keep the frames in the same order you found them.

However, I often move a few frames around, especially to put some up into a new box. Sometimes I place empty frames between full frames to encourage the bees to draw them out.

I noticed no negative impact of rearranging frames.

Replacing boxes can be tricky as bees tend to gather on the top edges of open boxes. Move bees out your way with a brush or a puff of smoke to avoid crushing them.

Step 7 – Take notes for your records.

You can keep notes as you go, but sometimes it is easier to do so after closing the hive and out of your beekeeping suit.

These notes will help you plan your next inspection.

Step 8 – Stow your gear.

Once you are away 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. (This is especially important if you have curious kids around.)

Now is a good time to wipe off any propolis, wax, or honey on your hive tool.

Get in the habit of stowing your gear in a regular spot, so you do not have to search for it each time.

How Long Does A Hive Inspection Take?

A routine hive inspection should take no more than 15 – 20 minutes, assuming no complications arise. However, times can vary depending on the purpose of the inspection. For example, checking if a new box is needed takes only a few minutes. On the other hand, fixing a cross-combing problem may take longer than 20 minutes.

Your goal should be to keep the inspection as short as possible without rushing.

Additional Tips For Hive Inspections

As I said earlier, try to move slowly and deliberately, which can be challenging for 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, do not flail at the bees to drive them away. You will only get them more excited.

If that does not work, I may walk away and see how far they follow me. The further bees follow, the more agitated they are. At this point, I will 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. Have some water handy to hydrate. Walk a bit away from the hive before you remove your veil to drink.

If a bee gets inside your clothing, 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.

Conclusion

Beehive inspections are a routine task for beekeepers.

Begin each inspection with a plan in mind. Then, try to complete the task with minimal disturbance to the colony.

Keep records to track the progress of the hives and be ready for future inspections.

This article on how to inspect a beehive is part of a series on managing beehives, a beginner’s guide to basic beekeeping tasks over a year.

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