On average this is a weekly task during the bee season and starts when the weather warms sufficiently to open the hives. Rule of thumb: if it is comfortable outside in shirt sleeves, it is ok to open a hive.
There are those who will bother their bees a great deal less. Personally I would like to check them loads more, but that would be for my personal satisfaction and would be very disruptive to the colony.
A weekly schedule is based on the potential for re-queening: The egg is laid in queen cell and is capped on day 8; the colony swarms on day 9.
So a seven day examination is part of the tool-kit of swarm prevention.
However there are many reasons for checking the colony. It is important to have thought through in advance those reasons. It will support a quicker examination, result in less disruption and involve less running around for equipment when the hive is open.
Planning is everything!
Hive records are a great asset. In fact an essential part of good bee keeping, unless you are blessed with a phenomenal memory. I confess I am awful at record keeping, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate their value.
- How was the colony last week (or last season, if this is your first check of the year)?
- What was happening?
- What is expected this time?
- What needs doing?
- What equipment is needed?
- Where are you hoping to go with this hive (and I don’t mean across the moors)?
Light the smoker. The Haynes Manual has a great guide to lighting a smoker. It's important to remember that things burn upward: So if you pack the smoker and light the top, it’s going to go out.
Light paper, feed the small flames (I use woodshavings). When a sturdy fire is going add more until there is a nice set of embers. Then add more; I use rotten wood I collect on walks.
Last Sunday I lit my smoker a 11.30, worked with it for a while then left it on its side to go out only to discover it was still alight at 9pm.
It takes a few minutes to get a good base burning. It is an absolute pain to find the smoker has gone out just when your entire colony decides to attack!
Before smoking or disturbing bees, stand and look at entrance:
- What is the activity like?
- Are there many bees or few?
- Are there many dead bees on ground?
- Is pollen being taken in?
- Any signs of wasps?
- How wide is the entrance and is that appropriate?
Smoke the bees, then leave the smoke to work its magic. A few minutes is all that’s needed. There are those who put their beesuit on at this time. The bees will be calmer and easier to examine for that delay.
If you have a nuc box or even a good sized cardboard box, it is a good thing to put any frames removed from the hive during examination inside it. This keeps the bees calmer and protects from raiding. It is usually the end frames that we remove to create space (those without brood which generally contain stores).
Choose which side of the hive you intend to stand; it’s best not to lean over or constantly reach across the top of the hive so position yourself comfortably but well.
Open the hive gently, using the hive tool to release any sticky propolis on the lid, board or queen excluder. Bees don’t react well to sudden movement or jolting. At this stage you should be able to see how many frames the bees are on.
Use the hive tool again to release the end frame (or dummy board), lift it out slowly and try not to 'roll' the bees, i.e. make use of the available space in the hive when taking the frame out.
Empty frames or those with stores can be moved out of the hive, preferably into the nuc or cardboard box already prepared. Don’t leave brood, eggs or larvae out of hive or it may chill. Look at the frame and put it back in same orientation as it was before.
Things to note:
- Temperament of bees
- Quantity of bees
- Are drones present or not?
- How many frames of brood?
- The pattern of the brood
- Does the brood include drones, workers, eggs and larvae
- Does the brood look normal?
- What is the failure rate?
- Are there gaps in the pattern?
- What quantities of stores and pollen are there and where is it?
- What colour is the wax comb and does it need changing?
- Are there dead bees on floor? A lot or just a few?
It's lovely to see the queen but if the bees are calm and eggs are present, the chances are she is there even if you can’t spot her.
Notes for your records (download a hive record sheet here):
- Queen present?
- Space for her to lay?
- Eggs seen?
- Frames of brood?
- Q cells with eggs or larva?
Essentially, that is it!
Move gently, quickly and kindly.
Have a plan!