Ahh, the million dollar question. I understand the anxiety of wanting to check your hive but not sure if you should. Or, it may be that you are checking often and wondering if you’re causing too much disturbance. In short, the answer is exactly what you do not want to hear…it depends. (You owe me a million dollars, you’re welcome).
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When to check your beehive does not have to be a mystery. I’m going to lay out some simple guidelines to keep in mind. I’m also going to share with you The 7 Methods of Minimal Disturbance. By the end, you will have a much clearer picture of whether or not you should go and pop that hive cover open or to leave it alone.
The 4 Guidelines of ‘When to check your hive’
I don’t need to tell you that there are four seasons. But maybe I should tell you that each one has its own specific tasks when it comes to beekeeping. What’s more, those tasks could vary depending on your climate zone.
For example, by the time my beehives in the north Georgia mountains are having their first honey flow of the year, my Florida apiaries have already begun their second. So seasons are relative. It’s up to you to learn the seasons in your area. But here are some brief examples:
Spring– This is the time for things like spring inspections and emergency feeding. This is also when treatments for Nosema and Varroa mite should begin as the colonies grow in strength and numbers.
Summer– Honey is being made and harvested, splits are being made, Varroa treatments continue.
Autumn– Hives are getting ready for winter by foraging up till the first frost, the beekeeper must decide how they want their hives to overwinter. Varroa treatments are coming to an end.
Winter– Building equipment for next spring, repairing equipment, checking and observing hive entrances without disturbing them.
The Task at Hand
First of all, if you do not have a goal for being in the hive then you probably should leave it alone. Curiosity can kill a queen.
But if it’s the time in the season to perform a specific task, then by all means do so. If the honey flow is over then harvest the honey. If you made splits 2-3 weeks ago then check and make sure your new queens are laying.
This is actually Method of Minimal Disturbance #5 that you will read about below. Go in with a plan, otherwise let the bees do their thing without interference.
Cause for Concern
Sometimes when observing the outside of a hive, you can get a feeling if they’re doing well or not. If something gives you a cause for concern then you should probably check it out.
This could be something like seeing a lot of cut larvae from the brood nest at the hive entrance. Or it could be chalk brood. Don’t be afraid to get into a hive for a proper inspection because this is how we learn to be better beekeepers.
This last winter/spring, the majority of my hives were flying great on those sunny days in the mid-50’s. But there were 3 or 4 hives that had bees standing scattered about on the entrance reducers and doing absolutely nothing.
Upon further inspection I found that these were the hives that were starving. They had no food and were on the verge of collapse. Three days later only one of them remained even after emergency feeding.
So although I had cause for concern, I couldn’t save them in time. But now I know what to look for on the outside of the hive when a colony needs food.
Yeah I know, the 4th Guideline is actually 7 things. Fret not, these 7 Methods of Minimal Disturbance are a conglomeration of everything we have covered but in simplified form.
Method #1- Anticipate & Prepare
- Anticipating the bees’ needs ahead of time will help the Keeper to be prepared & organized
- Prepare for each season according to the appropriate in-hive tasks needing accomplished
- Prepare equipment and sites ahead of time
Method #2- Rain or Shine, do things on time
- Schedule your work according to weather conditions, blooming conditions & your unique climate
- The key to successful beekeeping is to do what needs to be done on-time, despite certain conditions (provided they do not put the bees at risk)
- Treatments must be done on-time
Method #3- Observe & Learn
- Much can be learned by observing the hive entrance to prevent unnecessary colony disturbance
- Observe what is blooming and when it blooms from year to year
- Compare the traffic of a hive to the activity of other beehives of similar strength/populations
There is a wonderful book that teaches you how to observe the hive entrance, month by month, in order to understand the colony’s condition. Click the link below to learn more.
Method #4- Smoke the hive, help them Thrive
- Smoking the hive is a ‘knock on the door.’ It is a fair warning to the bees and keeps them from unnecessary defensive posture
- Using smoke in moderation helps to keep the bees from areas they can get squished
- Smoke is also essential with overly aggressive honey bee colonies
Method #5- Go in with a Plan
- Curiosity is a high-risk reason for entering a beehive
- Have a plan if you’re going to open a beehive, and disturb its homeostatic environment
- Get in and get out
Method #6- Everything in its place
- Never separate the brood nest unless making splits
- Every inspection needs to include verification of the following: room to grow, room to store, food stores, a healthy brood nest & a laying queen
- The nucleus of the colony must be maintained in a specific structure that varies little throughout the year
Method #7- Don’t get Greedy
- Always stay informed and practice sustainable ethics when harvesting resources
- Taking too much will hurt the Beehive, the Keeper & the Community
- Responsible resource management is another key to successful beekeeping
It all boils down to two things: 1) Don’t be afraid to look into a beehive and use it as a learning experience. BUT 2) Also do not allow your curiosity to create a regrettable situation. As time and experience accrue, you will know when to inspect a hive and when not to.
I would enjoy hearing your thoughts about what we’ve covered today. Leave a comment below and I will reply soon!
Until next time remember,
~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee!~
Jonathan Hargus/Beekeeper Extraordinaire