An early spring hive inspection. Here are my observations.

Though it is still the end of February, what with temperatures above 60°F and the sunny weather we have been experiencing this week here in Central Kentucky , I decided it was time to open my hives, remove frames, and actually see what was going on inside. What did I want to see on the frames and what were my concerns? I was looking for brood, food and bees.

First, I checked for brood, both larvae (uncapped brood) and pupae (capped brood). Due to the time of year, the nice weather, and the pollen I’ve been seeing  carried into the hive, I expected my colonies to be rearing brood. I was correct in this, and saw at least 2-3 frames of brood in all the hives (with one exception). This tells me that the spring buildup (increased population) is starting in my hives and progressing normally.

I was also concerned about food stores, both honey and pollen. This time of year I would like to see at least several full, deep frames of honey left over from what was stored last fall, as well as fresh nectar. This would be enough food to get the colonies through any cold spells that may still occur, or through any extended rainy periods when foragers cannot get out of the hive. I observed both, noting the fresh nectar near the young brood. In some of the hives, I actually counted the frames of stored, capped honey (from last fall) as I went through the top brood box. In others, I was able to determine that sufficient honey was present by the weight of the top deeps (pretty heavy) as I lifted them to check the bottom boxes. When counting frames of honey, I observed in most of the hives at least the minimum of 3-4 frames of honey per hive that I hoped to find.

In addition to honey and nectar, there were cells containing the fresh pollen that I had been observing on the bees’ legs at the hive entrances. I took note of quite a bit of pollen left over from last fall in some of the frames, which is a plus; this gives them some pollen reserves. How to tell fresh from old? Fresh pollen has a bright color, and is found adjacent to cells containing fresh nectar and near where brood is being reared on the same frames. Older pollen is duller, and may be found on frames outside where new brood is being produced, though available if needed. Pollen is a very important part of the bees’ diet when rearing larvae, so I always check for stores of it in the hive along with honey reserves.

The third thing looked for was bees. I noted the number of frames covered with bees in the top brood box in order to get an idea of hive population or strength. Most had about 7-8 frames of bees, which is good for late February or early March in Kentucky. I want full hives by April when our nectar will be in full flow and the bees will commence serious honey production. I was also glad to see nothing abnormal in the brood or the bees that were present. This indicates, along with the number of bees and the normal activities being performed, that the bees are sufficiently healthy.

All of these observations were from the top brood boxes in each hive. The bottom boxes were mostly empty, which is normal for this time of year. The typical winter procedure of the colony’s cluster (in parts of the world that have winter) is to consume all the honey in the bottom box during the winter, then move up into top prior to early spring – which is where I found my hives’ clusters and activity. In the bottom boxes, I did see bees, but bees only; all the frames were empty, which is also normal for very early spring. I was actually happy to see this condition, which gives the colonies room to expand during the next month, lessens the chances of early swarming (I hope), and allows the colonies to begin reaching full strength in April. I’ll check these hives again in a couple of weeks, if the weather cooperates, and will expect to see the brood area expanded into the bottom boxes at that time.

Some thoughts for newer beekeepers:
As I removed the frames, I was careful to put them back in the same order in which I removed them. I don’t always do this. Later in the spring I may rearrange or remove frames (replacing them with other frames) to manage brood production, to TRY to prevent swarming, or for other management reasons. But now, with many cold nights still to come, I’m very careful to not disturb the natural clustering of the colonies, which are concentrated around brood and adjacent frames of food.

I also observed that, with the exception of one weak hive, no feeding will be required in the immediate future for these hives. In fact, I’m concerned that at some time in the future I may have too many frames of stored honey in several of my hives for maximum brood production. During the next couple of months, I want the hives to rear lots of brood, and to do this they must have empty comb. Later in the spring, if I see that all the comb in a hive is being filled with nectar, stored honey, and brood, I may decide that there are more frames of honey present in the brood boxes than the hives need (or rather decide that they need more empty comb in which to rear brood). At that time I may remove some frames of honey and replace them with frames of empty comb (which I have in storage), or with empty frames with foundation. But such a decision is for the future. I would not take such a step now, since the bottom boxes contain plenty of empty comb and one never knows about the weather at this time of year. We could still have extended periods of cold in the next month when the bees will need to consume large amounts of stored honey. Never the less, in the immediate future, I will not be concerned about feeding these hives.

You may have noticed that, on my list of things to do, I did not mention looking for queens. The reason is that there was no need to. I was looking at brood, and its presence (especially that of the larvae) told me that queens were active in all of my hives. I also did not mention looking for eggs. I did check for them in a few of the hives, but it was not really necessary, and it takes longer. I was satisfied that my observations of larvae and pupae told me what I needed to know about condition of the hives. Had I not seen brood or eggs in one of the hives, I would have then looked for the queen.

So far, so good. I’m happy with my hives at this time, and I’ll let you know what I see in a couple of weeks.

11 responses to “An early spring hive inspection. Here are my observations.

  1. Tony Roberts

    Thanks for sharing your hive inspection report. I am a fairly new beekeeper (3 yrs). I don’t (at this point) have double deeps instead I wintered with one deep and one shallow. I winter two strong hives and a week one and have lots of activity in all three. I have fed dry sugar on the top board (upside down) on the weak hive and they seem to be doing great. I have also added supers to the two strong hives allow for early expansion.

    • I think it is still, despite the weather, a little early for honey supers. Until the bees have filled the boxes already on the hives they will not move into added supers, either for storing nectar or rearing brood. But there is nothing wrong with adding honey supers early, unless you are feeding. Keep in mind that if you have added honey supers, you do not want the bees to store sugar in the honey supers (if you plan to harvest honey from that super later). You want to make sure you have ONLY real nectar in the honey super. I suggest ceasing any feeding (including dry sugar) in a hive with a honey super on it. Also only a hive with sufficient food stores & nectar sources will expand. Hence, you should not need to feed any hive that is expanding or storing nectar in honey supers.

  2. John McCasland

    Do you reverse your brood boxes later in the spring?

    • Occasionally, but it is my observation that most of the time the bees expand into the bottom box on their own and reversing is not necessary. Note that I said in my post that I was seeing bees in my bottom boxes, but no brood or stored nectar. I’m certain that those bees were cleaning cells and preparing for the cluster to move into the bottom box. Also in the early spring when we still have cold weather, you must be careful about splitting the cluster. Picture the cluster of bees in the top box expanded down into the upper part of the frames in the bottom box. If you reverse the boxes at that point you will separate those two parts of the cluster. I’ll try to post a sketch of what I mean on the webpage.

  3. Greg Breetz

    Thank you again Phil for giving me the confidence for another spring to assist the bees in what they do best.
    I have not witnessed so much pollen before this year on the bees as they enter the hive on the warm day we have been experienceing in Hebron KY, (Northern Boone CO) I cannot see the where this pollen source is coming from. The pollen is a dull yellowish gold color and very consistently loaded on almost every bee I see.

    Also, a friend in Ohio asked if I would help him requeen. Do I need to search for and kill the existing qeen? I have requeened my hives in the past but didn’t bother looking for a queen that I thought was gone or dying.

    • I don’t consider myself enough of a pollen expert to identify pollen by appearance. Sometimes we can make a guess by connecting pollen by color with knowledge of what is in bloom. So a guess would be willow. There are a number of species of willow that bloom early, along with species of maple. There are also ornamental tree varieties in bloom now, I saw an unidentified cherry ornamental in bloom yesterday.

      When re-queening a hive the old queen MUST be gone from the hive. So you must be certain the old queen is gone or find and remove her. If the old queen is present the bees will not accept the new queen and will kill the new one. I will be giving a presentation titled “Installing queens & re-queening hives”, at the Bluegrass Beekeeping School on March 10th in Frankfort, where I will talk about this topic in detail.


  4. Pem Cornell

    Phil: So glad to see you doing what still needs to be done. Helping us beekeepers!! Question: While not reversing your brood boxes do you use a queen excluder to restrict queen movement into the honey supers? Thanks for info.

    • Pem

      I’m not going to place honey supers on the hive until the bees almost fully utilize the second brood box and I do sometimes reverse brood boxes, just not automatically. If they are being slow to move down I will reverse them, but not this early in the spring.

      If you’re interested, my thoughts on queen excluders. I know some beekeepers call them “honey excluders” and say to never use them. To me they are a tool for beekeepers, whose purpose is to exclude the queen from part of the hive (they are used for other purposes then for just keeping the queen out of honey supers). And with honey supers, I use them in a way that may be a little different than some beekeepers.

      When I initially place the honey supers on the hive, I don’t install queen excluders. I feel that if the bees need to expand their brood area up into the honey supers, that is fine with me. Here in Kentucky our peak nectar flow corresponds with the peak of the swarming season. On the other hand, when I extract honey, I don’t like to have brood in my honey frames. So at a future date after adding the honey supers, normally in early June when the chances of swarming are reduced, I’ll place queen excluders under the honey supers if they have brood in them. At that time I normally will take a quick look to see if the queen is in the honey supers and will look for eggs, which tells me she may be up there somewhere. If I don’t see her I’ll come back in a few days and again look for eggs in the honey supers. If I see eggs I do a though search for her and move her under the queen excluder. By placing the queen excluders on later, but while the nectar flow is still going on, any brood above the later place queen excluder will emerge and the bees will then fill those cells with nectar. So in this way I allow the bees to expand the brood box, but I still end up with brood free supers when I extract honey.

      Sometimes the bees don’t need the space for brood and when I return I find only honey or nectar in the supers, then I don’t use queen excluders at all.

      I will also normally remove the queen excluders after the bees have filled a super or two with honey, at that time the full honey supers act as natural queen excludes (usually – I have found the queen above full honey supers).

      And at this this time I’m only producing extracted honey, if I was producing comb honey I would do things differently.


  5. Karen Hughes

    What will be the feeding routine for your one weak hive? Will you use pollen patties or sugar syrup (on warm days) or both? My weak hive seems reluctant to eat the pollen patty but I can see their honey supply is low.

    • Karen

      I am doing both, but small amounts of both at a time. I put a quart of 2:1 (sugar:water) on the hive, above the inner cover and enclosed in a deep hive body (outer cover over the extra deep). I also put 1/4 of a protein patty (made from Mega Bee – but you could use other protein supplements – and sugar syrup) under the inner cover. The protein patty may not be necessary, but i have them, there seems to be a lot of pollen out there.


  6. Pem Cornell

    Thank you for info. Pem