Hive inspection is a hot topic among beekeepers. I can certainly understand new beekeepers wanting to open their hives and peruse the colony frame-by-frame. It is the very best way to learn about the social structure of a colony, the duties of individual bees, and the physical layout of pollen, honey, and brood.
Nevertheless, I believe it is easy to over inspect. I believe the integrity of the colony should not be compromised any more than necessary. An inspection is nothing less than a home invasion and before you do it, you should have a good reason for doing so.
In the United States, hives are required to have removable frames so that colonies can be inspected for disease. Although it is a good idea, it doesn’t mean that hives should be constantly violated. It means that hives can be inspected periodically or when things go awry.
So how often should hives be inspected? I can’t answer that. Speaking for myself, I seldom inspect frame-by-frame.
Most of the time you can tell everything you need know by standing near your hive and watching. You know a lot by how the colony behaves, the way it sounds, the way it smells, and the number and type of bees that come and go. You can tell even more by watching what they bring in, observing what they haul out, and assessing their temperament. If you walk by your hive on a summer’s evening and it purrs like an insulated engine room, smells like heaven, and the landing board is clean, why on earth would you open it up and disturb everything? It doesn’t make sense.
On the other hand, if the number of bees is decreasing, you see dead bees or pupae unattended on the landing board, you detect an odd odor, or your bees are unseasonably temperamental, open the hive. If you see robbers, predators, or leaking honey, open the hive. If you see lethargic, aimless, or deformed bees, open it up.
Again, speaking for myself, I inspect all my hives in late winter. Later, I open those I’ve decided to manipulate in some way like reversing, splitting, or re-queening. Although I open hives in spring and summer to add supers or remove them, I don’t actually inspect frame-by-frame unless I detect something amiss. If all goes well, I don’t inspect again until fall when I assess honey stores and queen activity just before winter. At that time, I may redistribute honey frames, combine colonies, add feed, or make other winter adjustments. In any case, I never inspect on a calendar schedule. That is, I never inspect just because two weeks has passed, or three. That’s crazy.
That said, I walk by my hives nearly every single day, both summer and winter. In the past, when I had out-yards, I checked on those once a week. There is always something to be learned about the inside of a hive by a quick check of the outside. But every time you start pulling out frames, you run the risk of killing the queen. You agitate the bees. You break propolis seals. You chill the brood. You jar the larvae or dry them. If you damage honey cells, both robbers and predators may pick up the odor and come running.
A lot of routine maintenance can be performed on a hive without pulling out all the frames. You can add feed, pollen patties, or mite treatments by just lifting the lid. You can look for swarm cells by tipping up a brood box and inspecting the bottom. You can assess honey stores by lifting the back end of a box and estimating the weight. You can check for mites on a sticky board. And if the hive is so full of bees you can’t see a blame thing, if it boils over when you lift the lid and the sky goes dark ’cause sunlight can’t get through the cloud of bees, then is it really necessary to check your brood pattern? Get real.
I realize it takes time to develop a feel for what is going on inside a hive. But I urge new beekeepers to strive for that. Compare what you see on the outside to what you find on the inside until you develop an intuition. It will happen sooner than you think. And in any case, use common sense. No animal wants its home torn apart for no good reason. So before you do it, have a clear idea of what your good reason is.