Central to successful beekeeping is regular hive inspection, which allows beekeepers to assess the health and productivity of their colonies and take necessary actions to support the well-being of their bees. Before undertaking a hive inspection, beekeeper’s ensure they have the necessary gear.
A typical beekeeper’s attire includes a bee suit, veil, gloves, and sometimes knee-high boots. The protective clothing is designed to prevent bee stings (particularly to the head) and protect the beekeeper from potential aggression during the inspection by preventing the bees from entering beneath any clothing. It’s important to understand that the aim of a bee suit is to make it harder for stingers to reach you, not to stop them in their tracks. It is also a useful way of keeping one’s clothes clean from the multitude of messy hive products, such as wax, propolis, honey etc. Additionally, beekeepers often carry essential tools such as a hive tool, smoker, and brush.
Approaching the hive cautiously is advised to avoid startling the bees and triggering defensive behaviour. Beekeepers typically approach from the rear of the hive, allowing them to work with minimal disturbance. Before opening the hive, they observe the activity around the entrance to gauge the overall health and behaviour of the colony. A bustling entrance with bees coming and going is a positive sign, indicating a robust and active colony.
After these initial inspections the beekeeper proceeds to open the hive. They use the hive tool to gently pry apart the boxes, starting with the top cover and then the uppermost supers (boxes). Each box contains frames, which are wooden or plastic structures within which the bees build comb and store honey, pollen, and brood (bee larvae and pupae).
One of the primary objectives of the hive inspection is to evaluate the health and condition of the brood. The brood pattern on the frames can provide crucial clues. A healthy brood pattern consists of well-organized, capped cells containing developing bees at various stages: eggs, larvae, and pupae. An irregular brood pattern, patchy cappings, or discoloured larvae may indicate issues such as pests, diseases, or nutritional deficiencies.
Beekeepers closely inspect the frames and bees for signs of pests and diseases. Common pests include Varroa mites, small hive beetle (not in the UK), and wax moths. The presence of these pests, along with their larvae or eggs, can significantly impact the colony’s health. Likewise, various diseases, such as American Foulbrood and Nosema, may manifest in certain symptoms that beekeepers must identify.
The queen bee is the heart of the colony, responsible for laying eggs and maintaining its population. During the inspection, beekeepers pay close attention to the queen’s presence and performance. They look for the queen on the frames and observe the overall brood production. A well-performing queen will have a solid brood pattern with healthy and capped cells, indicating her productivity. If the beekeeper cannot find the queen during their inspection they will look for day-old eggs, strongly indicating the queens presence within the hive.
Hive inspections also involve assessing the colony’s honey stores. Sufficient honey reserves are essential to sustain the bees, especially during colder months or periods of nectar scarcity. Beekeepers ensure that there is enough honey stored in the hive, and if required, they may supplement the bees with feeding (sugar syrup and bee fondant).
Beekeepers may look for signs of swarming tendencies, such as the presence of queen cells or ‘play cups’ (practice queen cells) on the frames. If they detect signs of swarming, they may take measures to prevent or control the swarming behaviour.
Accurate record-keeping is an integral part of beekeeping. Beekeepers document their hive inspections, noting any observations, issues, or actions taken. These records provide valuable insights for future inspections and allow beekeepers to track the progress of their colonies over time.
Beekeeping and hive inspection are intricate processes that demand dedication, knowledge, and careful observation. By closely examining the brood, evaluating the health of the bees, monitoring honey stores, and identifying potential issues, beekeepers can maintain thriving colonies. The art of hive inspection not only ensures the productivity of the bees but also plays a significant role in the preservation and sustainability of these vital pollinators, essential to our ecosystem and agricultural practices.