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I've been keeping this blog for all of my beekeeping years and I am beginning my 17th year of beekeeping in April 2022. Now there are more than 1300 posts on this blog. Please use the search bar below to search the blog for other posts on a subject in which you are interested. You can also click on the "label" at the end of a post and all posts with that label will show up. At the very bottom of this page is a list of all the labels I've used.

Even if you find one post on the subject, I've posted a lot on basic beekeeping skills like installing bees, harvesting honey, inspecting the hive, etc. so be sure to search for more once you've found a topic of interest to you. And watch the useful videos and slide shows on the sidebar. All of them have captions. Please share posts of interest via Facebook, Pinterest, etc.

I began this blog to chronicle my beekeeping experiences. I have read lots of beekeeping books, but nothing takes the place of either hands-on experience with an experienced beekeeper or good pictures of the process. I want people to have a clearer picture of what to expect in their beekeeping so I post pictures and write about my beekeeping saga here. Along the way, I've passed a number of certification levels and am now a
Master Beekeeper Enjoy with me as I learn and grow as a beekeeper.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

What's Involved in a Hive Inspection

This weekend if the weather cooperates I'll make a video of an inspection - I'm no master of inspections, but I'll show you what I do when I do one. Meanwhile, there is a slideshow that I made last year when I went on a hive inspection of the beehives at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Here's the link.

I spend a lot of time observing my hives from the outside. I watch them when I am at home for meal times and sometimes I just sit on my sunporch and watch their comings and goings.

However, this post is about inspecting the inside of the hive.

It's important to know why you are inspecting the hive. There could be many reasons.
  • As a beginning beekeeper, inspecting the hive is the only way to know what goes on in there in the dark since the bees don't have windows!
    • You can learn to tell the difference between the drones and the workers
    • You may see the queen
    • You can observe the difference in capped brood, capped drone brood, and capped honey
    • You can observe what a queen cell looks like (even a hive that has a good queen and/or isn't going to swarm usually makes a queen cell or two for insurance)
    • You may see where the queen is laying by looking for larvae and eggs (hard to see)
    • You may see an emerging bee in the capped worker brood
  • It's also important to look for signs of problems in the hive
    • Is the queen's laying pattern a good one? That means that the capped brood is in more or less a football shape in the center of the frame. The brood is pretty solidly capped - not many skipped cells or empty cells
    • Do the workers show signs of illness? Deformed wing virus is easy to see - the wings of the workers are shriveled or malformed. You might even see a varroa mite on the back of a bee - it looks like a red tick (as in on a dog)
    • Do you have small hive beetles? If so, you might want to invest in a trap - vinegar or oil. And I smash as many as I can with my hive tool.
    • Do you have a wax moth problem? This usually only occurs if the hive is very weak. The wax moth is always present, but a strong hive keeps the wax moth from growing there. A weak hive doesn't have the resources and the hive can be overrun with wax moths.
    • Does the hive smell funny? Wax moths and SHB make a sicky sweet rotting kind of smell - otherwise the hive will simply smell of delicious honey
  • Do you need to do something to help the hive prosper?

    • Does the hive need a new hive box added? The general rule of thumb is if the hive has built out and used 80% of the top box, it's time to add a new box (that means 8 out of 10 frames in a 10 frame box).
    • If there's lots of burr comb on the tops of the frames, you may want to scrape that off. You'll see Gerard do that in the Botanical Garden hive inspection. It's not necessary, but you may want to make the hive easier for you to manipulate
    • Is the hive honey-bound? This means that above the brood box in the next brood box, instead of brood, you have a solid box of honey. Usually, at least here in the south, the bees have brood in two boxes. If the brood is stopped by a wall of stored honey, the queen usually won't pass by the honey to lay in the box above that, so you'll want to move the honey filled super and put a new brood box below it.

  • What does the hive sound like?

    • When I first open the hive and pop the top cover, I listen for the bees. If I am quiet and gentle in my movements and the hive is doing well, usually there is a humming buzz, but nothing more.
    • If there is a problem before I do anything, the hive buzzes with a roar. Sometimes the roar means there is no queen, so I want to pay attention to that
    • When I do something intrusive like a powdered sugar shake, the bees roar and grumble - I would too - who wants to have a powdered sugar shower on a perfectly lovely day for foraging?
Those are the purposes and thoughts I have for inspecting. Here are some other aspects of the hive inspection that I try to follow:
  1. I use as little smoke as possible. I always light the smoker in case I feel a need to discourage the bees from bothering me, but mostly I light the smoker and set it aside while I work. I do puff one puff of smoke at the front door of the hive when I begin the inspection - it's like knocking on the door to announce my presence. Then mostly I forget about it.
  2. Always approach the hive from the side or the back. It is disturbing to the bees to walk straight up to the front of the hive - the guard bees will greet you and you will get started on the wrong foot with the bees.
  3. Move slowly and gently. You will kill a few bees, but remember that there are up to 60,000 bees in an active hive and it's impossible to do an inspection without killing a few.
  4. Be careful in lifting the frames out of the box. I usually take out frame #2 or #3 and hang it on a frame rack while I move the other frames in the box. I don't want to risk losing the queen so for the most part I hold the frame over the box to look at it (then if she's on the frame and falls, she falls into the hive.)
  5. Don't assume that you can just grab the frame and lift it up. Most of the time the frames are propolized to the side of the box and need you to break the grip with your hive tool before lifting the frame.
  6. You only need to go through enough boxes on the hive to satisfy your reason for inspecting. For example, if you are looking to see if the queen has a good laying pattern, as soon as you find a frame that represents the good laying pattern, you can stop your inspection. You don't need to look at every frame or in every box on the hive.
  7. Always put the frames back in the box in the same orientation in which they were when you lifted them out. Unless you have a reason to manipulate the frames, put the frame back exactly where you found it. It's the bees' home and they have it arranged just the way they want it.
  8. When you replace the boxes back on top of one another, slide them onto the box below so that the bees can be gently pushed out of the way rather than squashed
Everyone has their own tragic stories - I've dropped frames, dropped the inner cover on top of the bees below, squashed bees, killed bees with my hive tool, killed a bee when I was trying to smash a small hive beetle, brushed bees badly, etc.

You'll have yours too - it's just part of bee-ing a beekeeper.

OK, those are all of my thoughts for the moment. I'm sure I'll think of more about inspecting, but I'll save it for the video if I do it this weekend.

Useful link: Mother Earth


  1. Thanks Linda! Really informative and useful. Every time I read you I learn something new. The idea of sliding rather than placing the box back on top is genius.

    I'll look forward to your video this weekend and thanks again for all the info!


  2. Good post. Good teaching! The kind of stuff the beekeeping books don't always break down for the newcomer's benefit.

  3. Matt Arrington12:29 PM

    I just installed my first package a week ago. I couldn't find queen or eggs, but the hive appears to be thriving. They hive did have gentle hum coming from it, and they were mellow, so I'm hoping the queen is in there somewhere.

  4. Hello Linda,
    I'm a brand new beekeeper in need of much knowledge. Your site is going to be a big help to me. Thanks especially for this one on hive inspections.

    I do have a question for you in regards to what woods are good for hives. And a second one on whether to paint the inside of the hive box. I am a woodworker and plan to make a lot of my own boxes, etc. If you have a link to a discussion on this topic that would be great!

  5. http://beekeeperlinda.blogspot.com/2008/01/how-to-build-hive-box.html

    Use the labels over on the side bar to help you search or you can use the search bar at the top of the blog.

    You don't paint the inside of the box. The bees cover it with propolis.


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