I love spring, when we can finally get out to the beeyard and open up those beehives! This past weekend we had the right conditions to do the first full hive inspections of the year. Temperatures were in the 50’s and 60’s, nice and sunny, and not too breezy. Perfect!
5 Steps of Beehive Inspections
We basically follow the same routine for each hive, which I will outline below.
1. First we puff a little smoke into the hive, wait a few minutes, then remove the outer and inner covers. For the hives we are feeding, we remove the hive top feeder. We take a peek in the top of the hive to see how the population looks. Some of the things we look for are the size of the cluster, the gentleness (or aggressiveness) of the bees, and signs of any pests such as small hive beetles.
2. We then start looking at the frames in the top hive body. We look for the queen, or if we can’t find her, eggs and brood. The picture to the right shows a frame of worker bees on a frame of eggs and larvae. In most cases the brood, eggs, and queen are in the top hive box at this point in time. After we have inspected the frames, we take the top box off, and set it aside. We then take a look at the next hive body. In our stronger hives we tend to find capped brood in this box, but in some hives it was empty, with just some honey. We continue working our way down until we have removed all of the hive bodies. As we inspect each frame, we also scrape off any “burr comb” (comb that the bees have built above and below the frames). This will help us avoid crushing bees when we put the hive bodies back on later.
3. We then remove the screened bottom board, and brush it off outside of the beeyard to remove the dead bees and other debris that have accumulated over the winter. We also lift up the hive stand, and brush off any debris that have accumulated there. We then replace the hive stand and bottom board.
4. Now we put the hive bodies back, but not in the same order they were in. We take the top hive body that had the queen, eggs, and brood, and put that on the bottom. If there was a second box with capped brood, we put that on next. For the third hive body, we put a box that is a mix of capped honey, pollen, and empty comb. If any of the remaining boxes had mostly empty comb, we shake off the remaining bees into the hive, and remove that box. This way the queen has room to work her way upwards laying eggs. Later in the season we will add more boxes of honey supers.
5. Finally, we add a sprinkle of a pollen substitute such as MegaBee, to give the bees a boost in brood production, before replacing the inner and outer covers, (or the feeders if honey stores seem low and we think they need supplemental feeding).
For most of the hives, they are all set until we are ready to start adding honey supers. The majority of the hives had good laying pattern, calm bees, and a nice mix of brood, pollen, honey, and empty frames to fill with brood or nectar. However, we did run into a few problems that need our attention.
One hive was extremely aggressive. As soon as we took off the outer and inner cover, the bees began flying directly at our veils. We quickly closed them back up, and will try to inspect them again on another day. If this aggression continues, we may have to look at ordering a new queen for them. I like to be able to relax and enjoy my bees, and these bees did not seem happy at all!
How to Remedy Low Beehive Populations
Two of our hives had very low populations, with a cluster that is only about the size of a softball. While they do both have queens who are laying eggs, it seems as though there is not a lot of eggs and brood. For these hives we reduced them to just one medium hive body that had brood, honey, pollen, and some empty space for the queen to lay eggs. We gave them the pollen substitute, and will continue to feed them. We talked to some other beekeepers about the problem and got several suggestions, listed below.
1. Just leave them alone and see if they build up. They may have just had a hard winter, and need more time to build up to the same levels as the other hives.
2. Since there are not many eggs or brood, the queen isn’t doing her job. Kill the queen, and combine them with other hives. We can then order more queens to make splits from the hives that are doing well later this summer to replace these hives.
3. Since they did lose many adult bees during the winter, it may be that the queen is performing well, but that there are not enough adult worker bees to care for the brood. Take some frames of brood and nurse bees from other strong hives, add them to the weak hives, and see if that helps them build up.
As it turns out, we are going to try a combination of these methods. Right after we did these inspections, it got cold again (in fact, it snowed this morning). So, we will need to leave the weak hives alone until at least the following weekend. At that point we can check them and see if they are doing any better. If not, I would like to add the brood from another hive, and see if they take off. If they still don’t look good after another week, we will kill the queens and combine them with another hive. I don’t like the idea of killing a queen, but if the hive isn’t going to make it, it is better to save the worker bees that are left than to lose them all.
One more thing I want to mention – make sure you take a moment to enjoy the time in the beeyard! For me it is so gratifying to get back out in the beeyard and spend some time with the bees. I hope you enjoy it as well!
Jennifer Ford owns and operates Bees of the Woods Apiary with her husband Keith. You can visit them at www.BeesOfTheWoods.com.