Brood inspections are an incredibly important part of looking after your bees – if not the most important part!
Read on for how to conduct a brood inspection – with information for newbees, or more experienced beekeepers wanting a refresher or different point of view.
In spring/summer, it is a good idea to inspect your hive more often – about every 2-3 weeks. We recommend to check in with your local beekeeping club, as the frequency will depend on the local climate and needs of your bees.
As you come to build more of an awareness of your colony, you will be able to also sense whether everything is going okay, whether the hive is bursting at the seams and in need of more room, whether they seem to be a bit weaker, or numbers are declining etc. They will signal when it comes time to do a hive inspection.
Make sure to only conduct inspections on calm, warm days (i.e. not cold, not windy, and not raining) when the outside temperature is above 15°C.
The ideal time is in the middle of the day when the majority of forager bees are out, and the outside temperature is warmest.
Get a smoker going and ensure there is enough fuel so it doesn’t go out at a crucial time.
There is a bit of an art to this – we like to use scrap newspaper and some lightweight lighting material, such as dried leaves and grass, adding a little at a time, whilst puffing the bellows, until there is quite a flame visible. At this stage add extra material, ensuring to pack it down quite a bit. Keep compressing the bellows of the smoker.
Be careful not to burn yourself.
We like to add slightly damp—or fresh—grass clippings on top to make the smoker a bit cooler.
Once lit, give a few puffs of cool smoke in the hive entrance a couple of minutes before opening to allow it to make its way through the hive, masking the pheromones and calming the bees.
Make sure to wear protective gear, and ensure it is thoroughly zipped up before cracking into your hive with your j-hive tool.
Warning.. a full super can be heavy! If you have a full super above your brood box, make sure you have a beekeeping buddy available to give you hand to safely remove it.
Before you go into your hive for a brood inspection, it’s good to have an idea of what you want to be looking for, this will ensure you are working methodically and efficiently.
When inspecting, you may like to consider the commonly used acronym FEDSS—
This is what you should be looking for when you are conducting your brood inspection.
You want to make sure the bees have enough capped honey and pollen supplies for the time of year (and the expected nectar flow) – especially for overwinter.
The number of frames of honey that you should leave depends on your climate. Please consult local beekeepers for guidance on how much they leave for their colonies over the winter. Read more about overwintering here.
Multi-colour pollen stored in naturally drawn comb.
Capped honey stored, and some uncapped nectar in the bottom center of the frame – when held up the sunlight, you will see nectar glistening in the cells.
3 day old larvae and eggs are also a sign of a recently active queen.
A view down a brood cell with eggs. When the frame is held up to the light, freshly laid eggs are easily seen. A healthy queen will lay her eggs in the center of the cell.
Check for pattern of brood – should be full and healthy looking.
A frame of very healthy looking capped brood pattern.
Identify whether there is worker brood or drone brood present.
If an excess of drone brood is present (which this photo does not depict), this could mean your queen is infertile or not present – worker bees can also lay eggs—which are unfertilised and thus become drone brood—in emergency situations when the queen has died.
Here you can see white grubs, as well capped worker-brood, and worker and drone bees:
Drone bees are generally larger overall than worker bees. They have large eyes and a fat thorax, whereas the worker bees have smaller proportioned eyes and body.
You don’t need to find the queen, however if you do, it’s always a moment of real excitement!
Can you spot the queen? She has a long, pointed abdomen – perfect for laying eggs.
You can also assess the presence of your queen by sight of eggs and approximately 3-day old larvae.
Think your hive may be without a queen? Read more about diagnosing whether your hive is queenless here.
Pest and disease – check for presence. Have a look at our Pest and Disease resource for what these may look like when manifested.
For example, sunk cells or pin-prick in the capped brood can indicate AFB or EFB.
Be aware of any cross-combing as you move through the brood box, especially when using foundationless frames. Read more about foundationless frames and cross comb here.
If end brood frames have brood, it means the colony may require more space, as typically they work from the centre-outwards. Edge frame should have honey in it, as it is part of their thermal-mass stabilisation.
Depending on your local conditions, this may be the time to add either the Flow Super or a second brood box.
Check for whether the hive is overcrowded, if there are drones and also queen cells, this could all indicate your hive might be getting ready to swarm.
Queen cells and cups on a brood frame. They are the large protrusions on the surface of the frame.
Inspecting manner: gently and deftly. There is a skill to this, which you will develop over time.
When you first open up the hive, look if there is any burr comb, or how overcrowded it is, to see which frame to first remove.
As you work methodically through the hive from one side to the other, make sure to give each frame a bit of room before you move the frame over to inspect the next. You may need to take a whole frame out to make this easier (assistants are great in this situation!).
Hold the frame over the hive, as the queen could be on the frame, and she could fall onto the ground beside the hive and you may lose her.
If it’s a really packed hive with lots of bees, you could consider shaking bees off (strong, sharp shakes into the hive) to be able to inspect the brood underfoot.
Watch (and listen) to the temperament of the bees. If they are getting a bit antsy, be aware of their source of agitation – have you been moving too quickly over the open brood box? Has the box been open for quite a while?
Try to be calm as this can calm them too. Using a few more puffs of smoke can help calm them further.
Make sure to put all the frames back in the same order, as to respect the order the bees like to arrange their eggs and brood nest.
Watch our beginner beekeeping video about brood inspection below.
At Flow, we love to hear from all kinds of beekeepers using all types of methods, but their views are their own and are not necessarily endorsed by Flow. We advise reading widely, connecting with your local beekeeping association and finding a mentor as you delve into this fascinating hobby.