Bee Hive Inspection
I’ve come to find out that there is a steep learning curve with beekeeping. Although there are a few rules that most beekeepers agree on, there are many different philosophies about how to manage a bee hive. How you choose to manage your hive is up to you, and it comes down to your specific hive set-up and local conditions (climate, available forage, etc.), how intensively you want to manage your hive, and your opinions regarding management decisions such as pest and disease control. To be honest, there’s a lot that I haven’t figured out yet, but I can tell already that this is a hobby that you have to learn by doing. It’s been 2 months since we installed the bee hive, and we’ve opened up the hive a few times to provide food in the early spring before the onset of the peak flowering season. Other than that, we have kept our intrusions into the hive to a minimum since one of the basic tenets of beekeeping is not to open up the hive just because you feel like it – you should always have a specific reason to open the hive since opening the hive is an intrusion and risks disturbance or injury to the colony.
The first few times we’ve opened up the hive, my husband and I have done it together. He has lit and operated the smoker, helped me get the top cover off, and provided moral support – which is important when working around tens of thousands of bees! Hive inspections are ideally conducted on a warm, sunny day in mid-afternoon when many of the bees are out foraging. Since there are many competing priorities for our time on sunny afternoons, I decided that I needed to be able to conduct hive inspections on my own, so last weekend I did my first solo hive inspection. I had a good reason for the inspection because I’d had a bit of a scare the weekend before when I found about a hundred dead drones on the ground in front of the hive. The advice I received from a beekeeping group I belong to was to do an inspection and see if the colony appeared healthy. It was possible that I may have stopped the spring feeding too soon, in which case the hive may have decided that there was not enough food to support the drones so they were kicked out and left to starve. A hive inspection was in order, so I put on my bee jacket and veil, lit the smoker, and of course I grabbed the camera. One of the rules of hive inspection that everyone agrees upon is that you need to take your time. You should plan every action you plan to take in advance, use slow and gentle movements, and avoid sudden noises or clumsy movements that may put the hive on the defensive.
The first step of a hive inspection is to remove the top cover, which is heavy and is usually stuck to the inner cover since bees tend to glue all of the components of the hive together with wax or propolis (a sticky resinous substance they harvest from trees). Next the inner cover is pried loose from the hive box below it (which of course it is stuck to with wax or propolis), and a few puffs of smoke from the smoker are applied before removing the inner cover. The smoke encourages the bees to move deeper into the hive, and it’s helpful if there are fewer bees in the top of the hive as you go about removing and inspecting frames. Next comes the fun part (or the intimidating part, depending upon your comfort level being in close proximity to lots of bees!), because once you remove the inner cover there is nothing separating you from the tens of thousands of bees in the hive. At this point you can see down the sides of the frames that hang vertically in the hive box which are almost entirely covered in bees.
I have two hive boxes in my hive – the top box was added about 3 weeks ago when the bottom box was nearly fully occupied by bees. As soon as I removed the inner cover, I could see that there were some bees on all of the frames in the top box, a good sign that the colony was healthy and that it was expanding into the top hive box. I pried the outer frame loose from the hive box – which of course was stuck to the sides of the hive box with wax, removed the outer frame from the hive box, and hung it on the frame holder attached to the outside of the hive. Then I slid the 2nd and 3rd frames to the outer edge of the hive box so that I could inspect the middle 4th and 5th frames which is where the colony starts building comb and the queen starts laying eggs. I removed the 4th frame and could see the bees starting to build comb onto the foundation in the frame. I could see nearly solid coverage of active bees on all of the frames in the hive box below, which was further confirmation of a healthy colony.
Rather than remove the top hive box and inspect the bottom hive box and risk further disruption to the hive, I decided to close the hive up, satisfied that the colony appears to be healthy and expanding in size. I repeated the previous steps I had taken but in reverse, again at a slow methodical pace. I felt a rush of exhilaration upon closing up the hive after a successful solo inspection. I’ve learned a lot since we installed the bee hive a couple of months ago (see The Bees are Here!). As time goes on and I gain more confidence inspecting the hive, I will learn how to identify the stages of the bee reproductive cycle and hopefully see the queen (who has been named Queen Rosalind but has not been seen since we installed the bee hive). But this will take time, and for now I am content to learn slowly by observing these fascinating insects.