Beekeepers must regularly inspect their beehives to observe the condition of the hives and bees. By making regular inspections, beekeepers quickly learn what is normal and what is unusual.
In upstate New York, the year’s first inspection is often performed in March. Because we had a poor goldenrod flow in the fall of 2021, many colonies will be short on stores so an early March inspection should be done. This initial inspection will require 15-30 minutes, depending on whether the hive needs feeding.
Pick a day when the temperature is above 40 degrees. Put on a veil and jacket or bee suit and consider gloves. Light your bee smoker and take a hive tool. When you approach your beehive, stand to one side or the rear. Remove the outer cover and lean it against the hive, but away from where you are standing. With the hive tool, carefully remove the inner cover. If the hive survived the winter, you should see bees between the frames and perhaps on top of some frames. If you do not see bees, use your hive tool to tap one side of the hive a few times.
If you do not see or hear bees, your hive has likely died. You can confirm this by removing 2-3 center frames. If your hive died, you should consider replacing it by ordering a package or nuc. You should also inspect for the probable reason it died, but that task can be left for another, warmer day.
If you do see and hear bees, you should consider whether they have enough food to last until nectar and pollen become available in April. To determine this, use the hive tool to gently separate the box from the box or board below. Then lift the top box a couple of inches to gauge the weight. In March the weight should be at least 20-30 pounds. This is the weight of a small child or a medium-sized pet. If the hive is underweight, you should feed immediately to sustain the hive until pollen and nectar become available in April.
The easiest way to immediately feed is to buy a standard four-pound bag of sugar, put a single layer of newspaper over the top of the frames, put 3-4 slits in the newspaper, pour and spread the sugar so that it covers 4-6 frames, replace the covers and walk away. The warm moist air from the bees will liquefy the sugar and the bees will consume it as needed to prevent starvation. Check every 7-10 days and replace as necessary.
Willows, soft maples, and skunk cabbage bloom in April in upstate New York. When temperatures reach the 50’s, the bees will find the blooms. As evidence, the beekeeper will see bees entering the hive with full pollen baskets on their legs. On a day when the temperature reaches the 60’s, the hive entrance will be busy with bees leaving to forage and bees returning with full pollen baskets. This is the time for the season’s first full inspection. A full inspection will take 20-30 minutes a hive.
Remove the covers, set them aside, and give a few puffs of smoke at the hive entrance and across the top bars of the frames. If there is a considerable amount of sugar on the top bars, gently remove it with the hive tool and place it on one of the covers. If there is only a small amount, scrape it off onto the ground. Full inspections involve removing and looking at each frame. On the first inspection, the frames will have been in place for several months, so they will be difficult to remove. I start with the second frame from the side. Gently move it back and forth with the hive tool, then slowly lift it out of the box. Inspect the frame. In April, it may be largely empty of bees but have some honey and pollen. Inspect both sides. Set aside, but do not put it back in the box. Next, remove the adjacent frames next to the side of the box. Again, it should be largely without bees but may contain some honey and pollen. After inspection, put it back in the box next to the side. Then remove the third frame. This should contain more bees. Look closely for bee larvae as well as for honey and pollen. By the time you get to the fourth frame, you should be seeing bee larvae. The larvae will be in the center of the frame and surrounded by pollen and honey. The frame will also be well covered with bees. As the foragers will be largely out of the hive looking for pollen, the bees on the frame will largely be nurse bees, feeding the larvae. This should be true for the 4th through 7th frames. After inspection, put each frame back where it was. After inspecting all the frames, put them back in their original position, including the first frame which you initially put outside the hive. After inspecting the top box, separate it from the stack and set it aside, on top of one of the covers.
Remove the second box from the bottom board. It is normal for the bottom board to be covered with bees that died during the winter. Scrape those onto the ground. If you removed the bottom board, replace it, and put the hive body you inspected back on top, and on top of that put the hive body you have not yet inspected. That is called ‘reversing the hive bodies. Proceed to inspect every frame in what is now the top hive body. If you see dead bees on the frames brush them onto the ground. Do not try to remove bees that died with their heads in the cells, as survivor bees will do that quickly and efficiently.
Hives should be inspected every 3-4 weeks from April through September or October. Time requirements will vary, but warmer temperatures and added skills will make inspections after April smoother and faster.
Beginning with the May inspection, look carefully for queen cells, particularly those near the bottom of the frame. When you see a queen cell that is not sealed, look inside to see if there is an egg or larvae. If not, it is a good idea to destroy it with your hive tool or finger. If it contains an egg or larvae, it is likely that the hive is preparing to swarm. You can delay or stop swarming by destroying the cell (and all others that are similar) and making a split. If you see one or more sealed/capped queen cells, the hive has almost certainly already swarmed. In that case, it is probably best to destroy all cells but one in an attempt to prevent any after-swarm and hope the one cell you leave will result in a viable queen who will successfully mate. The notable exception to this advice involves queen cells on the face of the combs during July and August. These are likely to be supersedure cells rather than swarm cells, meaning that the worker bees have detected that the queen is failing and they are raising a new queen to replace her. I leave these cells alone, figuring that the bees know better than I do.
Inspecting Hives That Have Died
Common symptoms of dead hives in the Northeast are:
- Hive has few to no dead bees and the frames are largely empty. This is a classic sign of a hive that had a severe varroa infestation the previous fall. The workers were frail and either overcome by robbers or absconded and then the hive was robbed. Frames can be reused without question.
- Hive has many dead bees, no signs of brood, and the frames are largely empty. This is a classic sign of a hive that starved. Again, the frames can be reused without hesitation.
- Hive has an abundance of sealed honey in frames, but all bees are dead or there are few bees. This is also a classic sign of a deadly varroa infestation. All varroa died with the bees and the frames can be reused.
If your dead hive meets one of the above descriptions, they can be immediately reused with a package or nuc. But if frames have sealed brood cells or dead larvae you should consult with a beekeeper skilled at detecting diseases before reusing the equipment.