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The First Inspection - Bees in Spring

Cover Photo

Paul Metcalf N.D.B.

Beekeeping in a Nutshell

The First Inspection - Bees in Spring


The first inspection is a time when a beekeeper can assess the overall state of the colony. However, there are some important observations and points to look for before even opening the hive.

Bees crawling in front of the hive and excreta deposits near the entrance may indicate the presence of a disease such as nosema. If this is the case, a sample of bees should be taken and examined microscopically. If nosema is found to be present, the earlier Fumidil B is fed the more likely it is that the progress of the disease can be arrested.

On fine days the amount of flying activity from a colony can be observed together with whether or not pollen is going in. The collection of pollen by worker bees in late winter and early spring may indicate that brood rearing is taking place, but not necessarily worker brood.

Water sources should be provided early in the season because once bees have located a source they are reluctant to move and their chosen supply may not be convenient later in the year, [i.e a swimming pool!]. Water can be provided in any container, for example an upturned dustbin lid with stones in the water to allow the bees to walk over them and not drown. An old sink with wood floating in to act as rafts would also be very suitable. Water sources should always be placed in the sun to prevent the bees from taking on water at a lower temperature than that of the air, - which would result in them becoming chilled and unable to fly.


The timing of the first inspection is dependant on weather conditions, it may be possible in late February/early March but is more likely to be towards the end of March or early April. For this first opening up of the hive, bees should be flying freely and the air temperature must be in the region of 14C, any lower than this will put the brood at risk from chilling.

This is a good time to either change or clean the hive floor board and is best done before actually opening up. After smoking the entrance remove the roof and place it upturned in front of the hive, break the propolis seal between floor and brood chamber then lift the brood chamber off and place it diagonally across the roof. You can then inspect the floor board for any items of interest such as excessive debris, dead bees etc. Make sure the queen is not on it and remove it from the site and place the clean floor board in its place. The dirty floor can be taken back to the workshop, scraped and scorched clean with a blow lamp. If you do not have a spare board the old one can be cleaned off and put back immediately, but on no account should the debris be scraped onto the ground of the apiary as this could be a potential disease source and may encourage robbing. It should be taken away from the apiary and examined for varroa mites and then destroyed.

In this first inspection there are a number of questions which are of interest and importance: -

1. Is the colony still alive? If so, what is its size? If it is reduced in size, what is the cause?

If the number of bees in the colony is small but there is evidence that there were recently far more bees present, then there may have been a sudden loss of bees from Nosema disease. If the quantity of bees remaining is very small it is unlikely that the colony will survive even after treatment. The brood combs can be used again later but should be sterilised with 80% acetic acid fumes to kill nosema spores.

Death of the colony if not from disease could be from insufficient stores being provided in autumn or by a weak colony being robbed of its food by a stronger one. Bees which have died of starvation are often found headfirst in the empty cells. Occasionally, when brood rearing has got under way in early spring, a spell of cold weather will cause the bees to cluster tightly on the developing brood and they are unable to reach honey stores and the colony can be lost from starvation even though there is food present.

2. Is the colony queenright? In order to ascertain this you need to see eggs and worker brood.

It is not necessary to locate the queen on the first inspection as the presence of eggs and worker brood is sufficient to confirm her presence. However, at some time in the early part of the season [maybe early April] though preferably not at this first opening, the queen can be clipped and marked. This enables the beekeeper to keep track of a queen's age and to know whether she has been replaced by swarming or supersedure.

Clipping wings also helps to extend the period between inspections for swarm control. It will not prevent swarming, but the queen will be unable to leave with the swarm and therefore give the beekeeper more time to take preventative action. If you have never clipped a queen's wings before, practice on drones when available, rather than risk fatally damaging a queen.

If brood is present but has domed cappings over worker cells it could indicate either laying workers or a drone laying queen, that is, a queen which is having problems fertilising eggs and is unknowingly producing drones. In this case the brood patten would be as with a normal queen showing continuous even patches of brood. In the case of laying workers, due to prolonged queenlessness, the drone brood would be in small irregular patches and sometimes many eggs will be found in one cell, often being placed on the sides of the cells.

If there is no brood present at all, you must consider what is happening in any other colonies in the apiary. If there is brood present in others then this colony may be queenless or has a queen with a laying problem. Not being able to visually see the queen on the combs does not necessarily mean she is not there, queens can be very elusive! A "test comb" from another colony may be the only way to be sure. A comb of eggs and young larvae from another healthy colony should be inserted in the suspect one and left for a few days. When you next open up, if there are emergency queen cells on the test comb you will know the hive is queenless. If not, the faulty queen will need to be found and maybe destroyed, though sometimes the test comb will prompt her to start laying, so be sure to examine the combs thoroughly. In all these problem cases the colonies concened can be united to others, maybe to boost the numbers of a weak one. In the case of a drone laying queen be sure to destroy her first. The best way to unite colonies together is to place a sheet of newspaper between the two brood chambers, make a few pinpricks and allow them to eat through to each other. It is essential that both colonies are disease free before uniting.

If a number of colonies in an apiary are without brood but there is an indication that they may have done so recently and the colony is of a reasonable size capable of covering any brood area, then it is just possible that there is a shortage of pollen. Check for visible signs of pollen in the cells. Pollen starvation does not regularly occur these days but can be a condition of cold wet springs. You can help to overcome this problem by feeding pollen substitute. The most commonly used formula is:-

3 parts Soya bean flour

1 part dried brewers yeast

1 part dried skimmed milk

Mix into a patty with sugar syrup and place on top of the frame bars on a piece of greaseproof paper. It will be more attractive to the bees if 50% natural pollen is added to the mix, this would have been trapped from a colony in the previous season and stored in a freezer. Only use pollen from your own bees to minimise disease risk.

3. Is the brood healthy?

Whilst health of colonies is one of the things beekeepers should always be monitoring, attention to it in the early part of the year is most important. All stages of brood should be checked for disease. Look for signs of distorted or discoloured larvae and any moist, dark and sunken cappings to sealed brood. These could be signs of European or American Foul Brood. If you are not sure that brood is healthy, seek advice.

4. Is there sufficient food?

The amount of food at this stage can be visually checked and if there is less than 2 British Standard brood combs of stores then the colony needs to be fed immediately with sugar syrup mixed at the rate of lkg of sugar to 1.2 litres of water fed in a contact feeder.

5. What condition are the brood combs in?

The early part of the year is an ideal time to remove poor or damaged combs from the brood chamber. During the active season it is a good idea to work any sub-standard combs to the outer side of the hive so they can be removed when more or less empty in spring. They can be replaced with foundation or clean drawn comb. Foundation is best placed one comb in from the outside. Never split the brood nest with these new combs. If there is any food in the old combs to be removed you can place these horizontally over the feed hole for the honey to be cleaned out by the bees.


I. Make sure that a suitable source of water is available.

2. Change floor and check debris for varroa.

3. Assess size and overall condition of the colony,

4. Check for presence of queen and her egg laying ability.

5. Observe health of brood.

6. Check food situation, honey stores and pollen.

7. Ensure combs are in good condition.