First Hive Inspection – What to Look For

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So you made it through the install. Maybe you’ve seen your ladies making treks out into the great wide open for resources, returning home with pollen baskets full. And now you’re ready to take a look under the hood to see what is going on inside the hive.

Every inspection is a disruption to your bees and sets your hive back, but if you’re a new beekeeper, you should know that regular hive inspections (especially your first several years) are critical to your learning curve.  There is no substitute for holding a frame of bees in your hand and just watching.

During your first few hive inspections, if at all possible, ask a more experienced beekeeper to accompany you.  But even if a guide isn’t available, you can do this.

When 

For me, waiting to inspect a newly installed hive is really difficult.  I just want to get in their & watch them!  But realistically, you should wait a week or so after installation for your first inspection. If you last more than a few days before inspecting, I’ll be impressed.  My brother installed his first hives two weeks ago.  He’s inspected roughly 157 times.

Gear

Make sure you’ve got all of your gear together!  You’ll want:

  1. Your smoker, fuel, and a lighter.
  2. Your hive tool.
  3. Frame rest – not strictly necessary, but I think it makes life easier. 
  4. Brush?  I really don’t use a brush often anymore, but it can make gently brushing bees off of the edges of your deep much easier.
  5. FOOD!  If you’re using an in-hive feeder, take this chance to fill it up.  Unless you’re in the middle of a nectar flow, feed, feed, feed!  Make it as easy as possible for your newly established hive to build strength.
  6. All of your protective gear!

What To Look For

The queen cage and new wax build up 1 week after installation
One of my queens, a week after installation.

The first and most critical thing you want to see is what’s going on with the queen.  Has the queen been liberated from her cage or are they still working on it?  How are the workers treating the queen if she’s still caged?  Are they tending to her or harassing her?  If she’s free, you want to put eyes on her if at all possible.  If not, don’t worry about it, but you need to see if she’s starting laying.  Look towards the middle frames for eggs or young larvae (a sunny day or a bright flashlight will really help see the eggs).  How is the brood pattern?  Has she filled the frame(s)? There is generally an arc around the brood frame for pollen & nectar storage.  It may take the queen a few days after being released to start laying.

Don’t forget to remove the queen cage!

Empty queen cage. Notice they’ve attached it to the frame with wax, and the rubber bands securing it are missing!
She’s laying!

Wax build-up – I find this to be one of the most fascinating parts of starting a new hive – seeing how quickly the bees draw out the frames with new wax.  How are they building out the wax on the frames?  This is one of my favorite parts of setting up new hives – watching their progress as they build the wax out.  It really gives you a visual idea of how industrious these insects are.

Look at that brood pattern. Sexy!

Food stores.  You also want to check out how the hive is doing storing food.  Generally around the brood you’ll find stores of pollen, of varying colors, and nectar.  During the honey flow, you’ll find nectar stored in the levels above the brood nest, and possibly on the frames off to the side.

Health Check

It takes time, but there are several health problems you should learn to recognize, depending on your geography.  We won’t cover them all here, and all of them are unlikely in your first hive inspection, but start to look for warning signs. Failing queen – Is the brood pattern spotty?  Is there more than 1 egg/cell?  Do you see queen cells (learn the difference between queen cells & cups)?  If there are queen cell(s) in your first inspection, you have a problem.  Learn the egg-worker timeline backward & forwards – if you have a failing queen, you need to take action quickly.

On a recent inspection, I found this. See all those supercedure cells on a brand new package? The queen is gone!

Pests – for me, small hive beetles are my most visible pest, but the biggest problem facing beekeepers and their charges are varroa mites (Varroa Destructor).  Wax moths, mice, wasps, etc… can also be problematic. Realistically, you aren’t going to have to deal with in hive pests this soon, but you will have to deal with them.

A weak colony.  This is why you always start with at least two hives near each other – you want to be able to compare them.  Is one hive much stronger (more bees) than the other?  Is one hive more aggressive?  It could be personality, it could be one queen is just better, or it could be something more serious.

What Are They Doing?

As a new beekeeper, just watch them on the frame.  What are they doing?  Do you see a waggle dance?  Do you see a bee hatching (not on your first inspection, but in subsequent inspections)?  Drones?  Did you see the queen?  Are the cleaning cells, tending to larvae?  The most important thing you can do as a new beekeeper is to watch your bees & learn.  It’s really rewarding, and when you realize that they aren’t particularly bothered by your presence, it will really build your confidence.

After your first year, checking the hives weekly is on the upper end of a necessary cadence, but your first year, open them up, watch them, learn from them, and enjoy!

Ben

Ben is a lifelong lover of honeybees, and a moderately experienced backyard beekeeper, who is constantly working on getting better. This site is dedicated to helping backyard beekeepers improve their management practices, reduce hive loss, and improve yield. We want to provide you with scientifically grounded information to help your hives thrive.

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