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Beehive Inspection - Opening the Beehive
For any beekeeper, novice or experienced, opening a beehive creates in most cases some magic and is very enjoyable.
The slower pace that needs to be adopted when around bees transitions the beekeeper in a much more relaxed space.

Whilst opening the hive helps the beekeeper to relax from the stress of daily modern life, it has the opposite effect on the bees.
An intrusion into the bees’ home increases their stress level and every time the hive is closed again they need hours, or sometimes days to recover.
This does not help the bees’ health and productivity.

Imagine someone would come to your house and search it through, emptying wardrobes, drawers, shelfs etc., take some of your belongings away and then leave and let you clean up the mess they left behind. Once you have settled in again and everything is back to normal they come again for a new search, week after week.
One can only imagine that this increases everyone’s stress level.

So, how often should you open the hive?

Answer: Only when necessary!

Opening the Beehive – How Often?

During the Swarming Season - from September to December
To determine whether preventive steps need to be undertaken to prevent swarming the hive should be inspected every seven to ten days. This interval provides sufficient time to act if the bees have started queen cells since the previous inspection.

During the Rest of the Season - from January to March/April
Depending on the success of foraging activity, an inspection every three to four weeks should be sufficient to ensure that all is well in the hive. Should you encounter a strong honey flow, you might have to increase the frequency and take some honey off and provide more storage space.

During Off Season - from April/May to August
Provided the bees have sufficient food stores for winter in the hive, the bees should not be disturbed. Opening the hive during the cold season and inspecting frames for food is definitely not an option. Instead, simply lift the hive on one end for a weight check. A single box 8-frame hive should contain a minimum of five frames of honey; with an average net weight of 2.4 kg per frame this totals to 12 kg of honey. To be winter-ready a single-box hive should weigh approximately 24-30 kg.

When not to open the Beehive
Opening the Beehive should only be done under mild weather conditions, not too cold, not too hot and not too windy; i.e. when you would enjoy sitting outside with shorts and a T-shirt on.

Try to avoid opening the hive when windy, in the rain, with a thunderstorm approaching or during a thunderstorm. Do not lift out brood frames when windy as a cold breeze can be fatal to young brood. Remember: The brood nest temperature is always 34-35°C

Opening the Beehive - and then what?
Once we have decided it is necessary to open the beehive for inspection, being clear about the purpose of the hive inspection lets us focus on what we are going to look for.

Otherwise chances are high that we get side-tracked by what we see and may forget what we came for. And it’s so easy to get absorbed in the magic. It is like having an interesting conversation on the phone whilst driving a vehicle.

The reasons for opening the hive can vary, therefore all or only a subset of the inspection items listed below are applicable.

So, what to look for?
Be clear in your mind what you want to look for before you start.

Routine Checks at the beginning of every Beehive Inspection
The following checks should become start-up routine whenever a hive is opened for inspection; none of these checks require a frame to be lifted out of the hive. The results of these routine checks might change the objective for the subsequent Frame Inspection; if you had planned to look for the queen and her laying productivity and you now have detected a sour odour in the hive, your plan has become irrelevant, you should now inspect the hive to confirm foulbrood instead.

R1. The first thing is a check with your nose, wearing a veil of course. Whilst lifting the lid up, get your nose close above the hive and smell the air raising up from inside the hive. If you can detect a sour or foul odour, like Sauerkraut or foul eggs, it is almost certain that your hive has been infected with a foulbrood disease, either European Foulbrood (EFB) or American Foulbrood (AFB), or both.

R2. Whilst lifting the lid, check the reaction of the bees on top of the hive mat and the frames. If a great number of bees welcome you by lifting up their abdomen, exposing the Nasonov gland and eagerly fanning with their wings and a gentle puff of smoke does not change this behaviour, it is best to close the hive again and reschedule the exercise for another day. The bees are telling you “we are in a bad mood, leave us alone”

R3. The next thing to check when taking off the lid is to ensure the bee queen is not under the lid, before placing the lid upside down onto the ground. Especially when you have blown smoke into the hive entrance, there is a chance that the queen and some bees try to get away as far as possible from the entrance. By lack of attention to the bees under the lid you risk that the queen wonders off in the grass whilst the lid is placed on the ground.

R4. After having removed the lid and the hive mat, gently blow some smoke from the top down the frames. Listen to the sound of the bees buzzing, it usually is calm buzz – familiarise yourself with that sound. When one day the buzz sounds nervous, noisier and a pitch higher than the calm buzz, it is very likely the colony is without a queen! As a hobby beekeeper with one or two hives it might take many years before you experience the situation of a queenless hive. To confirm the prognosis search for the queen or evidence of her, i.e. eggs and young larvae.

R5. When lifting up the lid has revealed combs built under the lid, it is a clear sign that the bees need more space to build combs. Whatever your reason was for Hive Inspection, add an urgent action item to provide them with more space; i.e. replace some honey frames with foundation or stack a super on with frames and foundation.

Frame Inspection to establish Colony Health Status and Condition
The following checks are done simultaneously when inspecting the frames and are not listed in order of importance as they all are important. Usually, checking frames begins with the 2nd frame from the outside, revealing the honey stores first.

F1. Do the combs contain honey and pollen? Usually the outside combs are full with honey whilst the centre combs contain some honey in the top corners. On combs with brood usually a two or three cells wide line filled with pollen fills the space between the honey and the brood.  If there is little or no honey, the bees may require a feed of sugar syrup.

F2. Is there brood in all stages of development? Patches of brood vary in size from little or none on the two outside combs to large areas of brood in the centre combs, often filling almost the entire frame. Check if there is brood in all stages of development, i.e. eggs, small larvae, large larvae, capped cells and young adult bees emerging. If you see plenty of eggs and young brood, that is evidence that the queen is doing her job and there is no need to actually see her.

F3. Is the brood capping regular and slightly convex? Healthy capped brood cells are slightly convex; indication they are full. When the cappings are concave (sunken in), sometimes with little holes through the centre of the cappings, it is an indication of a brood health issue. You need to check for other signs of brood disease to identify the problem.

F4. Do some capped worker cells look like drone cells? When amongst the usual capped worker cells some capped cells are sticking out in length, like bullets, it is likely the queen is getting old or is weakened and is laying unfertilized eggs into worker cells. Not to be confused with the regular drone cells, which look like bullets but are 2mm bigger in diameter. Occasionally newly mated queens lay a few infertile eggs until they have reached their full fertility.

F5. Are the bees depositing a lot of honey among the brood? Usually every centre comb in the brood box contains a large patch of brood with honey in the top corners, if any. If the brood area is broken up by patches of stored honey the bees might need more space; replace some honey frames with foundation or stack a super on with frames and foundation.

F6. Are there no eggs or no young brood? If there are no eggs or young brood it means that there is no laying queen. No reason to panic before investigating further, here a few options:
1. If queen cells are present, the colony might be preparing to swarm and stopped feeding the queen to slim her down, so she is able to fly with the swarm – or – the swarm has already left the hive with the old queen – or -the queen got accidently killed or lost the last time you opened the hive. However, the bees are in the process of raising a new queen.
2. If there are broken-open queen cells present, in particular with the top neatly cut off, there is probably a new queen in the hive and in a week or two she will start laying.
3. If there are no queen cells, without a queen and with no young brood to raise one, the bees desperately need help. If unsure about the situation, insert a comb with eggs from another hive (without diseases) and check if the bees are raising queen cells on it a few days later.  

F7. Are there queen cells present? During the swarming season you may lose a swarm if you do not take preventive action.  At other times, queen cells may be the result of the queen being accidentally killed or lost, or the bees may have decided the queen is old and are taking steps to replace her.

F8. Are there holes in some of the brood cappings? A symptom common to all bee brood diseases is perforated cell caps, or cell caps completely opened or removed. It is an indication that something is wrong with the capped brood. Some publications describe this as a symptom for AFB – no reason to panic yet as this symptom is common to all occurrences of dead brood behind capped cells, even chilled brood that died without a disease. When the expected emergence of bees from the pupae is overdue the bees start opening some of the capped cells to investigate. Occasionally you may find there is a perfectly healthy larva inside and the bees hadn’t quite finished capping the cell over yet.

F9. Are there discoloured larvae, instead of pearly white? The appearance of healthy larvae is glistening and pearly white. Discoloured larvae indicates a brood disease.

Suspecting a Disease – what to do?

When you have discovered something is not quite right in your hive and you are suspecting your bees might be having health issues you are obliged to identify the problem. Some diseases, like AFB you must report to the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR).

By paying attention to detail, detecting that there is a bee health issue is fairly easy.

However, the correct diagnosis of a bee disease can be challenging!

To assist other beekeepers we have gathered relevant information on Bee Health Threats - Please make use of this information.

If, after studying you are still uncertain, ask a more experienced beekeeper for assistance.

By all means, get certainty about what the problem is. Don’t just keep your fingers crossed, hoping it will go away.

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