Nothing makes me more tense and equivocal than a fall hive inspection. I am a firm believer in minimum hive disruption, yet there are compelling reasons to make a pre-winter check. But when I crack open the propolis seals and disturb the cozy nest, a pang of guilt interferes with my own judgment. Am I doing the best thing?
I usually end up doing some amount of inspection, even if abbreviated. The things I want to see at this time of the year are:
- A small amount of brood and/or the queen herself
- A brood nest that is in the lower or middle box with honey frames on both sides and above
- An absence of diseased bees
- A clean screened bottom board
- An unobstructed entrance
Basically, these are the same things your bees want, and they do their best to get there. In most cases, they will be fine if you do nothing, but sometimes a little help can go a long way toward a successful winter.
Things you may find
For example, if you find no brood, you may have lost your queen or have a failing queen. If so, you can re-queen or combine the hive with another. But it is easy to make a mistake because there may be very little brood at this time of year. You have to make a judgment call.
Usually the brood nest is right where you want it, but sometimes you need to move things around a bit. But again, it is easy to err. It doesn’t take much to damage the queen, chill the brood, and upset the cozy quarters the bees prepared for themselves. Again, you must do the minimum without doing too much, and you must remember that your compulsions may not be shared with the colony—so don’t do more than necessary.
And if you find diseased bees? Well, not good. The presence of lots of deformed wings, for example, may mean your mites are not under control, or it may mean that deformed bees hatched since your mite control measures began. Once again, you have to decide which it is. If mites are running rampant, you can take further control measures which may or may not get you through until spring. It is always best to complete mite treatments before the winter bees are born, but at this point, it is better to do something than nothing. On the other hand, if you think you are seeing a few deformed bees that hatched after mite control began, you may be okay.
Prepare for dead bees
Dead bees collect on the bottom screen during winter when the undertaker bees cannot keep up or cannot get outside. As dead bees pile up, they block the airflow through the screen and they may completely obstruct the entrance. Always turn the entrance reducer so the opening is at the top so the bees do not have to dig through bodies to get outside. But you don’t want to tear the hive to bits to get every last body. As always, judgment.
I never do a fall inspection without second-guessing myself. And the truth is I’ve erred in both directions. I’ve killed queens by doing too much and have gone queenless into winter because I didn’t do enough. I’ve weakened hives by disturbing the nest and breaking winter seals (doing too much) and lost hives because I misread the mite load (doing not enough). All of which makes me loath the whole idea of fall inspection.
Just do the fall hive inspections
So every fall as I trudge to my hives with dread and trepidation, I think of all those books they sell—books with names like Beekeeping in Six Easy Lessons, Beekeeping for Everyone, Easy Beekeeping, or Beekeeping Made Simple. Then I remind myself that if I ever write a book, it will be called, “If You Thought Advanced Differential Equations were Confusing, Wait Till You try Beekeeping.”