hive inspection honey bee management

Summer in the city: urban hive inspections

Note: Today’s post was written by Karen Peteros, a beekeeper and beekeeping instructor in San Francisco. Karen took issue with my post, “Is too much hive inspection a bad thing?” and wrote a dissenting opinion. Her arguments are both articulate and valid. I thought it would be useful, especially for new beekeepers in urban and suburban areas, to read her opinion.

Thanks, Karen, for your contribution to Honey Bee Suite.

Hi Rusty:

I very much enjoy your blog posts but I do feel that your latest, “Is too much hive inspection a bad thing? is unique to (1) your beekeeping location which I assume is somewhat rural given your reference to the landscape where you keep bees, your swarm catchers posted on various trees etc; and (2) the fact that you have a few years of beekeeping experience in your location under your belt.

A different perspective — If you were beekeeping in a densely populated suburban area or in an urban environment, you would need to significantly modify your practices or you may find you have neighbor, community and legal problems on your hands.  Regular and thorough inspections, particularly for swarm control, is very important.  Losing more than 50% of your bees to swarming is bad enough, but reliable queen mating in a suburban/urban environment can be lacking.  This can result in a queenless colony that becomes pissy (e.g., hot).  Moreover, rotted trees are not generally allowed to persist in densely populated areas, even in urban parks, due to public safety and liability concerns.  Therefore, the nearest cavity a swarm is likely to find would be in someone’s wall or attic via a small area of dry rot.  Not surprisingly, colony removal is an unwelcome cost to homeowners.

Accordingly, we urban beekeepers must balance the responsibilities of being good stewards to our bees, but also being good neighbors.  I regularly teach classes for beginning beekeepers and, after having taught such classes and mentored beginners for a number of years now, I recommend that they get into the hive not less than every other week after the first 3 weeks of installing a package or a swarm, through September.  As a point of reference for San Francisco, our primary swarm season is March-June, but swarming can begin as early as mid-February depending on the weather and can continue into September (primarily, congestion swarming).  I tend to recommend this frequency of inspections for at least the first year of beekeeping.  But I also recommend this frequency of inspections through the second year because the biological goal of a colony following the year of establishment has shifted from survival to reproduction.  Otherwise, newer beekeepers simply do not gain enough experience in their first couple of years of beekeeping to understand the significance of what they are seeing, on the frames and within the hive as a whole, as it changes through the seasons and the life cycle of the colony. Unless newer beekeepers can gain this understanding through hands-on and observational experience, they are less likely to be able to manage for the success of the colony and their beekeeping experience.

I also keep bees in Ashland, Oregon on a rural property, and my practices there are much more akin to yours.  However, in my (and other people’s) San Francisco backyards where I also keep bees, my intrusions into the hive are much more frequent and regular out of the necessity to balance the somewhat competing responsibilities to my bees and immediate and nearby neighbors.

Karen Peteros
San Francisco CA


  • Checkerboarding really does prevent most swarming. But if they are going to swarm, they will. As far as keeping bees in people’s back yards, I think you are just looking for a lawsuit. I tried to keep two hives in my garden at home, but “nasty” neighbors made it more trouble than it was worth. They called the city, the county, the cops and God only knows who else. I don’t have time to mess with all that. And if they would have swarmed, and landed on their property, I know they would have sprayed them with Raid.

  • Hello Karen, inspecting frequently is also the recommended practice suggested by the government bee inspectors where I am in London (UK). It’s especially important for those keeping bees in allotments, where there is often opposition to having bees on the site.

  • There is something of a middle ground, too. You can tell if a hive is going to swarm or feeling congested without taking out any frames. I agree with Karen that it is a function of experience and careful observation, but it’s possible (maybe even preferable).

  • One of my hives absconded! This is only my second year of beekeeping. I think I saw a queen cell and freaked out and scraped it off. When I went back:no brood, not much honey, and only handful of bees. I think I may have molested them too much. This was my grumpiest hive and gave me the most stings.
    This hive, due to circumstances beyond my control, does not get morning light, but gets plenty of long summer afternoon sun. It is next to a farm field but in the brush/shade. Which condition is worse, overinspecting or funky location.
    What should I have done with the queen cell on the bottom bar?
    I’d appreciate lots of help from my beekeeping friends.

    • Ann,

      Absconding is very different from swarming and probably has nothing to do with the queen cell that you saw. Bees often abscond when they are unable to put up sufficient stores of honey. Excess heat is another reason they might leave, and you mention they were exposed to “long summer afternoon sun.”

      I don’t know where you are writing from but much of the country is in the midst of an extreme heat wave. If you are in this, your bees could be suffering from a lack of nectar or too much heat–which often go together. Frequent “molesting” could cause it as well, but the lack of honey makes me think that is the problem. Read this post about absconding for more information.

  • I believe this was absconding. The bees are on an organic vegetable farm in Northern Illinois. So can you answer the question, what would you do if you found a queen cell on a frame? Pull the frame and put in a nuc. Scrape them off?

    I put another hive in the same location, It is thriving and seems to have lots of nectar aand some capped honey. I do appreciate your reply.

    • Ann,

      In your earlier e-mail you said you scraped off the queen cell and, later, you found no brood and only a few bees. Maybe the hive went queenless and the queen cell was an attempt to replace her. It’s hard to know without seeing the situation. I can’t tell from your description whether is was a regular queen cell (supersedure cell) or a swarm cell, but based on the number of bees, I assume it was a supersedure cell. I never scrape off supersedure cells just in case a new queen is really needed. I just leave them there. Most of the time, the cell isn’t needed and the bees just destroy it. But if it is needed, it can save your hive.

      Some genetic lines produce a lot of supersedure cells just in case they are needed. This is nothing to worry about, it’s just normal. Even scraping swarm cells is questionable practice. Sometimes it can delay swarming, but if a hive swarms with the old queen and you’ve destroyed all the queen cells, there may be no new queen to take over the hive and, without a queen, the colony will die.

      It sounds like you are in a rural area which means an occasional swarm won’t hurt anything. I think you should relax about any queen cells you see, especially if it is in a weak hive.

  • You can remove all the uncapped swarm cells you can find. You can add empty supers all day and they will still swarm. Even first year package hives. Beekeepers who teach beginning beekeeper classes need to add “How to Split Hives” to their curriculum to prevent swarming.

  • I guess her opinion (in my opinion) is actually similar to what you said. New beekeepers should pay attention to what they see on the outside and correlate that with what they see on the inside.

    You also said it takes time to get a feel for it. YOU ALSO have said, it depends. But what do I know? I have been with bees for a couple weeks. Have a good one!

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