Springtime Inspections

By Education Specialist

As you read this, I hope that spring has arrived in your part of the world and with the warmer days and nights, plant production is in high gear and your bees are taking full advantage of the foraging opportunities available. As you observe your hive entrances you should be seeing lots of activity as the bees perform their various tasks while building their colonies’ strength. A thorough inspection of your hives should be performed when daytime temperatures reach 50 degrees and above.

Generally I like to choose a warm sunny day in the afternoon for my inspections. I like the afternoons because a large portion of the colonies’ field force will be out foraging and the sunshine will give me a much better view into the individual cells on the foundation in my frames. Most of the time, I will smoke my hives lightly at the front entrance and under the covers prior to beginning my inspections. I believe it is beneficial for the beekeeper to have a plan prior to opening a hive. That plan may consist of the following:

Observing the bees at the bottom of the outer cover and the top and bottom of the inner cover: I am looking for my queen (rarely found on this part of the woodenware, but I have) but also for any abnormalities in my bees such as deformed wings, obvious mites, small hive beetles, odd behavior, hairlessness, trembling or just about anything that I feel is not normal and could be an indication of other problems.

Where are the majority of my bees: are they all in the top box if wintering in a two deep box arrangement or are they divided between the two boxes including the developing brood?

Drones: It is always good to know that you have mature drones in your hives especially if splitting colonies or raising queens.

How are the stores: pollen, honey and or nectar?

What does the brood, and the various stages it may be in, look like—eggs, larvae in different stages of development, capped brood and emerging brood?

How is the pattern my queen is laying? Is it solid with few holes missed or is it spotty with drones developing amongst worker brood?

Am I only seeing the obvious larger drone cells or is there the flatter cappings of developing workers?

When I observe my capped brood cells are they only slightly convex or are they sunken and perforated?

Am I seeing any white mummified larvae at the front of the hive or in the cells?

Is the uncapped larvae in my cells pearly white in color?

Am I seeing any queen cells being constructed and if so, where are they on the frame (not to be confused with emergency queen cups).

Is there room available for my queen to lay eggs in or do I have an abundance of nectar, honey or pollen filling most cells?

This list may seem daunting to the uninitiated, but as your career as a beekeeper matures this will become second nature. You will also be able to make good educated guesses as to how to deal with various problems.

Why do I observe the bees on my covers?

As stated above, I want to make sure my queen is not wandering around up here because I am going to set these covers on the ground and she is too valuable to treat this way. Also because there are fewer bees here and they are easier to examine in a quick check. That is not to say the other bees in the hive should not be examined, this for me, is just my natural starting point.

Why do I want to know where the majority of my bees are?

As the winter cluster consumes stores in the first deep brood box they will travel in an upwards direction. Sometimes the queen will establish a brood pattern that comprises part of the bottom box and part of the top box. A popular method for years (somewhat controversial) is to reverse the brood boxes—moving the top to bottom. If your brood nest is divided you should not do this as it may spread the resource of nurse bees out too thinly to adequately cover and care for the brood.

Why look for drones?

Drones are integral part of the makeup of your colony. Even though their sole purpose is to mate with queens, the abundance or lack of drones will help you to better understand your colonies workings. Drones will emerge about 24 days after the unfertilized egg has been laid and they will be sexually mature at about 35 days. Knowing these numbers will help you when doing walk-away splits or grafting queens.

How are the stores: pollen, honey and or nectar?

When bees are starting out in the spring you may not have reliable sources of nectar and pollen. In many cases supplemental feeding will be required. If using antibiotics such as Fumagilin-B for the prevention of Nosema disease this will be an opportunity to deliver it with your sugar syrup. Knowing the amount of food already available in the hive may help you to determine if they are consuming or storing this medicated syrup. In addition, if a brood nest becomes bound with pollen and honey, it can start the bees towards swarming tendencies. By monitoring your hives you will also know when you are approaching the time to add supers.

What does the brood, and the various stages it may be in, look like?

By knowing your bee math you can get a determination of hatching rates, and by recognizing healthy brood in all stages you can determine overall colony health. In a lot of cases by spotting problems early you can help your colony to thrive.

How is the pattern my queen is laying? Is it solid with few holes missed or is it spotty with drones developing amongst worker brood?

By watching what your queen is doing you will be able to spot problems with her. If I saw a spotty pattern and drones mixed with workers it would indicate to me that she is on her way out. This is the time to requeen. You do not want to miss an entire brood cycle or leave the luck of the hive to a virgin, or worse yet, develop laying workers.

When I observe my capped brood cells, are they only slightly convex or are they sunken and perforated?

While seeing perforated sunken cappings can indicate a serious brood disease (American Foulbrood, AFB) it can also be caused by chilled brood. They will present in a similar fashion in the early stages. Chilled brood is generally caused by a lack of nurse bees to keep them warm and the larvae dies and the cap sinks in on it. In AFB you will see a sunken cap and perforations where the bees have gone to remove the cap but were driven back by the fumes. If this is the case you should do the rope test by stirring the contents of the cell with a toothpick and slowly withdrawing it. If the contents rope out you may have AFB. If there is no roping it is probably not AFB. If you are in doubt you should call your state apiarist for an inspection. If the inspector suspects AFB a sample will be sent in to a qualified lab for analysis.

Am I seeing any white mummified larvae at the front of the hive or in the cells? Are the uncapped larvae in my cells pearly white in color?

White mummified larvae at the door or in the comb probably indicate Chalkbrood. Chalkbrood is generally thought not to be that serious of an issue. We normally see this in the springtime during periods of unsettled weather. In a lot of cases you will see the mummies that the bees have hauled out of the hive on the landing board and also in the comb at the fringes of the brood pattern.

If you crush one of these white mummies and it crushes easily you can be sure this is what it is. Normally as the weather and nutrition improves it will clear up on its own. In severe cases it may be necessary to requeen as some queens tend to be more prone to it.

A break in the brood cycle may help. When I observe Chalkbrood I generally will lightly tap my frame to dislodge the mummies but if these exist on a frame with brood I would resist this action. The mummies are loose in the cells and the bees can take care of them pretty easily. Uncapped larvae in a healthy hive are pearly white in color.

Any darkening of the larvae or any developing rings around them can be an indicator of a problem.

Am I seeing any queen cells being constructed? And if so, where are they on the frame? (Not to be confused with emergency queen cups)

Queen cells resemble a peanut in shape when fully developed, and have a lot of stippling on the outer surface. These can be found on various parts of the foundation and can be an indicator of what’s happening in your hive. It has been commonly observed that if a queen cell is being built in the middle to upper parts of your foundation, this is an indication of supercedure. In the case of supercedure this means that the bees currently do not like their present queen and are preparing to replace her. This may be due to the queen wearing out or an injury. If a cell or cells are being constructed at the lower parts of foundations or frames this probably indicates the bees are preparing to swarm.

Emergency queen cups are present in almost every hive I have seen. I believe the bees construct these to have a quicker way of growing a queen should the need arise. I have observed that my Russian hybrids construct a lot more of these than my other colonies. This is probably due to the fact that these bees tend to swarm more.

These are just a few of the things to look for in your colony. If you understand what you are seeing in most cases you will be able to make an educated determination if action needs to be taken.

Happy Beekeeping, Education Specialist

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