Based on all the talk you hear, you’d think beekeepers manhandle all their frames all the time. In truth, the idea of an inspection just for the sake of inspection is a new-beekeeper thing.
Each time I mention that inspections should be limited, I get a barrage of comments insisting that inspections are a necessary part of learning to keep bees. How else do you learn? I agree with that, but at some point more harm than good comes of excessive inspecting. In his article on Darwinian Beekeeping, Thomas Seeley reminds us to “Minimize disturbances of nest structure.” Sloppy, overzealous, or frequent inspection is a direct affront to nest structure.
When to inspect a colony
One of the most frequently asked questions is, “How often should I inspect?” Well, I believe you should inspect your hives as often as necessary, but as seldom as possible. Except for those first few months of beekeeping when you just can’t wait to see what’s going on in there, inspections should be performed when they are needed, not when your calendar says so.
Every inspection is a home invasion that agitates the bees and forces them to clean up and rebuild. And you can do damage, too. You can kill bees. You can kill your queen. You can slow down nectar accumulation. You can start a robbing frenzy. So why do it if it’s not necessary?
My one rule for hive inspections
My one rule is simple. Before you open a hive, take a sheet of paper and write these words: “The purpose of this inspection is…” Then, as clearly as possible, state your purpose.
- “The purpose of this inspection is to see if the queen is laying.”
- “The purpose of this inspection is to evaluate honey stores.”
- “The purpose of this inspection is to look for signs of swarming.”
- “The purpose of this inspection is to look for brood disease.”
Or, if you are brand new, you may write something like this:
- “The purpose of this inspection is to learn to what a brood nest looks like.”
- “The purpose of this inspection is to compare worker brood with drone brood.”
I believe that stating a purpose keeps you focused and shortens your overall visit. When you find what you’re looking for, you can back out quickly and let your bees get on with beeing.
A real-life example
I seldom do inspections except in early spring and early fall. But last week I wanted to inspect a walkaway split I had made a month earlier. At the time of the split, the colony included all stages of brood and lots of nurse bees, but no queen. My purpose was to see if a virgin queen had been raised and successfully mated.
Knowing my purpose, I removed the lid and the first outside frame. It was full of uncured nectar. I set it aside and took out the second frame, which was also full of uncured nectar. But at this point, I could see that the third frame contained a large, solid patch of worker brood. It had been more than 21 days since the split, so this had to be new brood.
Perfect. I was done at that point because my question had been answered. It was obvious that a laying queen had been successfully established in the colony. So rather than further upsetting the nest structure, I put the hive back together and closed it up.
But stopping is obvious, right?
Sure it seems obvious, but apparently it’s not. I’ve seen beekeepers with a similar mission proceed to pull apart every single frame just to see more brood, as if somehow just one frame of brood wasn’t proof of a laying queen.
If your goal was different, let’s say you wanted to see if the colony could spare a frame of brood to bolster another colony, then your stated purpose would be different. “The purpose of this inspection is to see how much brood the colony has.” In that case, you would need to look at all the frames in the nest area.
Why so picky?
If you think this suggestion is ridiculously picky, I can see your point. Do I actually write down my goals before an inspection? Not always, but sometimes. Sometimes I even take the paper with me, especially when there are several inspections to do, each with a different purpose.
It is my belief that honey bees are best left alone, but if we are going to keep bees where we want, and within the equipment we choose, certain steps must be taken. At the same time, we need to recognize that honey bees want their autonomy and prefer to be left alone. By clearly understanding why you’re about to open a hive, you can limit your interference but still successfully manage your bees.
Honey Bee Suite