Evaluating My Hive During My Recent Inspection

This is a follow-up to a recent post on mid-summer hive inspections. Previously, I discussed how to go about an inspection and what to look for. In this post, I will talk about what I saw during the  inspection and what it means.

During any hive inspection, no matter what the time of year, I’m interested in the following issues:
-Food stores in the hive
-The presence of brood in all stages
-Colony population
-Signs of disease, parasites or pests – this may include taking samples or using other monitoring techniques to spot problems which cannot be assesed by visual inspection alone.

Food stores in the hive
At this point in the season, I am not concerned that hives contain sufficient food stores (honey and/or sugar syrup) for the winter, but rather that they contain enough food to get them through until the fall nectar flow begins later in August. This is the time of year when, in Kentucky and the surrounding region, the nectar flow usually slows to a trickle or a slow drip. However, in central Kentucky at least, the bees seem to be finding nectar in spite of the dry weather. In my apiary the flow is small. Not much was being put into the honey supers (I have now removed all of them), but there is enough to cause the bees to rear more brood than I normally see this time of year. Which is a good thing. While making my recent inspection, I noted stored honey in the brood boxes, which is also good. I would be concerned if there were less than 15 pounds in the brood boxes. A hive at any time of year needs about that much to sustain itself during periods when little or no nectar is coming in – either because floweres fail to produce it during a dry spell, or because extended periods of rain keep the bees from gathering it. Fifteen pounds translates into about 3 deep frames full of honey, so it doesn’t take much.

The presence of brood in all stages                                                                                 What about the queen? In my earlier post on hive inspections, I never mentioned looking for the queen. That’s because the presence of eggs, uncapped brood, and capped brood tells me that she is there whether or not I see her, and much more besides. Abundant, healthy brood in all stages of developement is an indication of of  the general health of the hive.

Healthy capped brood

The cappings on capped brood should be constant in shape and color, and larvae should be a nice, white color. It is very important to learn what healthy brood looks like in order to recognize problems when they appear. A lack of brood may indicate the absence of the queen, an infertile queen, a shortage of food, or health or parasite issues. However, the genetic make-up of some queens causes them to slow down or stop laying during times of low nectar flow. As a result, though I am pleased to see brood and eggs, I do not immediately jump to the conclusion that their absence at this time of year is evidence of a serious problem.It just means that if I’m seeing no brood or seeing a break in the brood rearing cycle (eggs but no brood, or brood without eggs, for example) I need to try to figure out why.

Colony  population
When I open a hive, I also pay attention to the number of bees on the frames. A strong population is a good indicator of the health of a colony, especially when accompanied by ample food stores and brood. Reduced numbers call for an explanation. They could be the result of a current problem such as disease (nosema), or parasites (varroa). They could also be evidence of an earlier problem (such as the loss of a queen) from which the hive has not fully recovered. Late swarms and nucs which haven’t had time to build up exhibit low populations as well.

Signs of disease, parasites or pests?
If sufficient food stores, healthy brood, and a strong population are indications of a healthy hive, what are the signs of a problem? Take note of brood that is not constant in appearance or looks abnormal. Look for holes in abnormal capped brood which can be a sign of a brood disease or varroa mites. The most common health issues that honey bees face are varroa mites and nosema disease.  Nosema disease is common, but is difficult to detect; a lab analysis is required. I suggest that beekeepers collect samples in late summer and send them to a bee lab for testing. The alternative is to treat preventatively. Beekeepers throughout the United States may send honey bee samples to the USDA Bee Lab in Beltsville, Maryland for free testing. Go to their webpage for information. You may also be able to send samples to your state university bee lab. In Kentucky, beekeepers can send samples to Dr. Tom Webster at Kentucky State University – email Dr. Webster (thomas.webster@kysu.edu) for information on collecting and mailing samples. Beekeepers in other states should check with their beekeeping university extension program for availability of testing services in their state. Often when samples are sent for nosema testing, varroa tests will be performed at the same time. However, varroa mites can easily be monitored by beekeepers as part of routine hive inspections. While the use of sticky boards is the most accurate sampling technique, other methods can be employed, including powdered sugar rolls, solution washes with soapy water or alcohol, and merely removing pupae with forceps. I consider after Labor Day the best time of the year for varroa treatments. Watch for future posts on monitoring and treating (if required) hives for varroa.

4 responses to “Evaluating My Hive During My Recent Inspection

  1. Phil Kirkland

    Hi Phil, I still have some honey supers on my hives. They have some nectar/honey in them. Should I take them off (when) and let the bees rob them/ clean them out prior to winter? I noted you have removed yours already. I have stored up extracted and dry supers already but have the aforementioned still on the hives. Thanks, Phil

    • Paul

      You have to decide if it is worth leaving them on, we do seem to have a little bit of a nectar flow going on now. I decided that the little bit that was going into my supers was not worth leaving those not full on the hives. I did have some that were full that I wanted to get off and decided to just pull them all. I’m content to let them put any nectar they still bring in, into the brood boxes for winter storage.

      Ask yourself:
      How much of a nectar flow is left? (are you seeing much fresh nectar in the supers – are they filling frames up?)
      How much honey is in the brood boxes, do they need the nectar there?
      Are the brood boxes pretty full of nectar & brood? (Could they use the honey supers so as not to make the brood boxes honey bound?)
      Am I possibley going to be treating for nosema or varroa in the near future and do I need the honey supers off to do this?


  2. Hi Phil, have enjoyed your web site. I am nearing the end of my 3rd year as a bee keep, and every year I end up leaving supers on because they are almost full but not capped. I currently have four strong hives and a SARE nuc , which seems to be doing very well , after feeding the month of Aug. My concerns are, if I pull xtra uncapped honey off and store it in my house ,will it ferment and be wasted, or should I leave it on ? We live in a 30 acre habitat, which is now full of goldenrod and aster, just starting to bloom. This is only a hobby ,so honey is not first priority for me, though I was able to robb 100# @ 16% moisture , 4 weeks ago. Will the xtra room keep them from filling out the bottom boxes? I’ve been reluctant to do any full inspections until fall flow starts ,due to robbing, so don’t really know yet how full the brood chambers are. Thanks Chris

    • Chris
      I think it is a good idea to remove honey supers in the fall, actually before the fall, by August in Kentucky. And yes, the presence of the supers may prevent the bees from putting honey in the brood boxes. I have removed supers of honey to find limited stored honey below in the brood boxes, so you need to look in the brood boxes to see what is there. I also suggest evaluating your hives or treating for varroa mites and nosema disease. (Fumagillin, which is the only recommended control product for nosema and most varroa products require that all honey supers be removed from the hive first.)

      To store what is in the honey supers, it is best to extract it. To store honey supers inside (especially if they contain honey) you need to use para moth (paradichlorobenzene – which you cannot use if there is honey in the supers which may be consumed later by humans). It is possible to store them by freezing, if you have a lot of freezer space, but I think it better to extract it.

      And you need to look in the brood boxes to see how the bees are faring.