A Year in the Apiary:
Just another Saturday morning, and the family is busy puttering around the house. Then out of nowhere, a sharp crack pierces the air, followed by a flood of bright light. In an instant the roof is gone.
After everybody’s eyes adjust to the light, a frightening form takes shape against the sky. Peering down through the space where the roof once was is a giant lumbering menace from another world.
Older members of the family have seen this before.
“Run for cover!”
“Where’s the queen?”
“Keep the children safe!”
As the guards ready their attack, an alarm sounds and the house fills with smoke.
“There’s a fire!”
Suddenly, the monster raises a steel hook and begins jabbing, and slicing, and tearing at the walls.
“They took the queen!”
“Stay with her!”
“They’re installing a tracking device!”
A violent shaking shatters their sanctuary as it cracks open to the core.
Before they know it, the nursery with all the babies is sucked into the sky where it hangs in mid-air, rotating against the sun. Soon another room is wrenched from its footings, and another.
Their world is turned upside down and inside out. And then, it’s all over.
No, just another hive inspection on a beautiful Saturday morning.
Hive inspections are invasive and traumatic for bees, and every inspection sets the colony back a notch. That means if there are many inspections, the bees don’t ever really recover. Their numbers and honey production are permanently reduced to a lower level than what would have been — unless of course, there’s a condition that requires intervention.
So how can you balance your need to know, with the bees’ need to be left alone? Some inspections are necessary, but there’s a price to pay.
How often should beehives be inspected?
So how often should you inspect your beehives? It depends on who you ask. The best advice I have found comes from Rusty Burlew at HoneyBeeSuite, who recommends, “as often as necessary, but as seldom as possible”.
Not all hive inspections are created equal, so before we go any further, let’s define what it means to inspect a hive. In the following list, typical maintenance and inspection tasks are organized into non-invasive and invasive activities:
- Light Inspection
- Medium Inspection
- Deep Inspection
Let’s take a closer look.
These are preemptive things you can do outside the hive to avoid problems or reduce their severity, such as:
- Hang a moth trap
- Set up ant traps
- Hang a swarm trap
- Use an enclosed apiary
You can learn a lot by simply observing what is happening without opening the hive. Here are a few questions to ask:
- Are foragers coming and going?
- What’s happening on the landing board?
- Do you see any robbing behavior?
- Are bees taking orientation flights?
- Is there any digging or scratching around the hive?
- What’s in the tray?
Hive monitoring systems like Arnia take non-obtrusive observation to a whole new level by capturing temperature, humidity, sound, location, and weight data and storing it in the cloud where it can be accessed from your phone or PC. We’ll explore this in more depth in another article.
During a light inspection, the hive is opened, but no frames are removed. Here are a few things you can do:
- Perform a quick visual check
- Remove cross comb
- Install or refill a top feeder
- Install a beetle trap
During a medium inspection, remove as many brood frames as necessary to verify that the queen is laying and all is well. When you find what you’re looking for, it’s time to stop. Here are some ideas:
- Examine the pattern of eggs, larvae, and capped pupae
- Look for nectar, pollen, and honey
- Make sure there is enough space for the colony to grow
- Take pictures of a couple of frames and send them to BeeScanning for a mite check and health analysis
During a deep inspection, you might examine every frame in the hive, perform seasonal maintenance, or reconfigure the hive. For example, you can:
- Reduce the hive
- Rotate brood boxes
- Add a brood box or super
- Split the colony
- Do a more invasive “sugar shake” mite check
- Treat for mites
Visualize your inspection data
For a different view of your hive inspection activity, how about entering the data into a spreadsheet and generating a chart? A visual representation of your activity over a period of time gives you a perspective that’s not possible from a pile of notes.
The first step is to go through your notes and count the number of inspections of each type that you conducted, per month, over the past year. Then, follow these instructions on your computer, using Excel or another similar spreadsheet.
Note: The instructions are written for Excel on an iPad, and might differ slightly from your system, but the idea is the same!
To generate a hive inspection chart in Excel:
- Create a new blank workbook. Then, do the following:
- In row 1, starting in column B, enter each month that you want to track.
- In column 1, rows 2 – 4, enter the following inspection types: Light, Medium, and Deep.
- In rows 2 – 4, enter the number of inspections of each type that you conducted per month.