We want to know that our colony of bees is doing OK and for this reason we need to open the hive and check that the colony is thriving. You will be looking for different things at different times of the year so this section is split into several sections. However, you do need to be aware of various bee diseases and it’s worth reading here (link)  more than once.

I always have a marker pen in my pocket, along with a queen cage. Sometimes a pen-knife for cutting out queencells and a 'phone to take pictures if anything interesting comes along.

A point to mention, and to repeat often, is if you are not sure what to do, the advice given to me years' ago was to put the hive back together and have a cup of tea. You can then decide the next course of action at leisure rather than regret it later.

(This section is under construction - more will be added soon).

A new colony.

If you are new to beekeeping there will either be an eagerness or a degree of trepidation depending on your nervousness. If you are nervous, then ask someone the check that your bee suit is correctly zipped up first. Although you may feel “safer” in heavy leather gloves, these should only be used for pruning the roses or if you really have the colony from hell. So please put them to one side. Good quality washing up gloves should give you the protection you desire and will allow you to feel what you  are doing so there is less chance of crushing bees. As you get more confident, you can move to cheaper thinner ones and then onto disposable gloves, or go ‘commando’ and not wear any.

Assuming you have a nucleus colony, it should be well-behaved and should hardly need any smoke, however your smoker should be lit at all times in any case. Give them a small puff across the entrance (don’t jam the nozzle into the entrance and kipper them!) and take off the roof, placing it upside down on the ground. Then prize off the crown-board whilst giving a small puff of smoke under the crack as you open it. Check the underside of the crownboard for the queen and jolt the bees off the crown board over the open hive and lean it against the hive or place it on the ground. If you have a polyhive with a thin clear plastic crown board, giving it a “wobble” over the hive usually dislodges the bees.

Puff smoke around any bees on the outside frame and prize it away and lift it carefully away. It’s unlikely the queen will be on here as she will usually be in the centre of the brood nest or moving away from you – but check anyway. The outside fame can be leant against the hive and with it out of the way, you have room to slide the next frame across into the space available which will make the next frames easier to manage.

It’s good to see the queen, although not necessary most of the time. What you will be looking for is brood of all ages; no signs of disease and enough stores to last until the next inspection.

Stores: If the colony is bringing in nectar, you’ll see liquid stores in the hive. Pollen should be there too and it’s placed around the brood. (Open brood gives off a ‘feed me’ pheromone, so the pollen is placed nearby in response). An absence of liquid stores means that the colony is eating into its stored honey. Is there enough? Assume a colony needs a frame of stores as back-up at any one time.


Brood consists of eggs, larvae and sealed brood which is capped over by digestive-biscuit coloured cappings. I count frames of brood on my inspections. If there are just some eggs on a frame, it’s still a frame of brood. Make a note of how many frames (not sides of frames) of brood there are. After a queen has laid an egg, it remains as such for three days and then it hatches into a larva. It is then fed by the workers for six days before it is capped over and then it pupates for twelve days before emerging (not hatching, it’s already done that). Its worthwhile remembering the timing as its important as you can assess, for example, when a queen started to lay or how long ago it was that she stopped or flew away.

3 days: egg

6 days: larva

12 days: sealed.

If all things seem OK, then the frames can be pushed back together, blowing smoke to move the bees away, and the hive put back together. Ensure that the frames go back tight each time.

For a nucleus colony, you would not expect to see much drone brood and you should not expect to see queencells. If you do see queencells, then you need to take action and that does not mean chopping them out and hoping! (For a nucleus colony, queencells could mean that the colony doesn't have enough room). 

A nucleus colony should expand quite rapidly in early summer and if you count the frames of brood, you’ll know how quickly it’s doing it.


Spring inspection

An overwintered colony will be working hard to increase the amount of brood, so the brood may not be well-covered with bees to keep the brood warm, so if the weather is cool, the inspection should be quick to ensure the brood does not cool down too much. You do need to check for disease. This should not take too long at all.

An early March inspection might reveal only a couple of frames of brood; this is not a problem as the colony should grow rapidly as the weather improves. Spring can be a time when colonies run out of nectar/honey so it’s well-worth checking food levels. If the weather has been poor for a while, bees can also use up their pollen stores which means that they cannot rear any young. The issue usually goes away soon enough, however.

As long as there is a laying queen and the brood is pearly white, the bees should be fine. However things to look out for are:-

No brood – this could be due to a faulty queen or no queen.

Just or predominantly drone brood – the same applies. Can you find a queen – and is it the one you left in the hive last autumn?

Sometimes colonies will try to replace their queen by supercedure late in the previous season and if she doesn’t mate, she will be a drone layer. The bees don’t really want to produce drones in winter or spring, so drone eggs are removed by the workers so you might think that you have no queen present. Check for an old queencell that could be where the unmated queen came from. If you do find a non-laying queen or a queen and just scatterings of drone brood, she can be replaced soon. Whilst she is there, the workers will not develop into laying ones which would be terminal for the colony.

A small number of bees – this is most likely caused by varroa damage. A  small colony should be transferred to a smaller hive – there's less space to heat – and treated for varroa.

If there are signs of dysentery, faeces on the top bars, comb or around the entrance of the hive, the colony will need to be moved onto new comb in due course.

Sac brood, bald brood and (straight lines of) bald brood caused by wax moth, chalk brood are all possible. As are deformed wings, crawling bees and foul brood. That’s why you need to be able to recognize them there diseases.

Summer inspections.

Once the colony is growing and we are moving into April, the risk of starvation should have disappeared and the possibility of needing more space and of swarming will increase.....