Skip to content

Hive Inspections- Part 3

By Chari Elam

We made it!

This is the last article in the series of Mastering Hive Inspections. In this final segment I’d like to focus on problem identification and subsequent solutions.

Problem solving is probably one of the most difficult pieces to the hive inspection puzzle…at least it was for us! We read and read and the more we read the less we felt like we knew…ugh! It took seeing it first hand to put those pieces together. Can anyone relate? So, let’s drill down to the “most important” problems you’ll come across and hopefully help you along the way.

Too Little Space! During spring buildup, space is the #1 reason bees swarm. They simply run out of room for the queen to lay and for all those bees to live! Keeping a very close eye on the number of frames of bees in proportion to your box space is your #1 focus. I call this your Bee to Box ratio. Refer to segment 1 in this series on how to count your bees. Once you see 75-80% of your frames full of bees, it’s time to extend their space and add a box! Waiting until you have a minute or have the woodenware on hand may be the difference in “home bees” and “gone bees!” Another indicator of bees preparing for a swarm is “backfilling the brood nest.” You have probably heard about this if you’ve been in beekeeping any length of time, but do you recognize it when you see it?

Photo: Meghan Milbrath - Michigan State Univ.

This photo show us what “used to be” a brood nest is now getting nectar placed in the cells. How can you determine whether or not it’s brood comb? First, it will be one of the center frames in the box and second, it’ll be darker comb. A word of caution, once you see this happening, you’ll have to act fast! More often than not, once this indicator is noticed, it’s too late to just add space and making a split becomes your only option.

Too Much Space! Having too little space makes so much sense…but what about TOO MUCH space? I will never forget our mentor saying, “Bees like to be crowed, but not too crowded!” What? Keeping that very same 75-80% rule in mind, the same applies with “reducing down” the box space as it does to increasing it! If your bee population has declined, for any reason, naturally or by disease or pest, the first thing you’ll want to do is decrease the amount of space they need to defend and maintain temperature. If you have a double deep brood box you may reduce it back to a single deep. To take it one step further…a single deep may need to go down to a Nuc sized box during this recovery period. Believe me, doing this will give them a fighting chance.

Nuc Box

Starvation This is one of those “if I had only known” events in beekeeping that I can almost assure you will only happen once. If and when you open a hive and find your bees starved to death, you’ll NEVER let it happen again. This is one of the easiest problems to avoid in beekeeping. Spotting a hungry colony is easy. You’ll hear the buzzing pitch increase, see the resources in the hive dwindling and most importantly – recognize the time of year you’re supposed to be feeding! February thru April (spring buildup) and July thru August (dearth!) In spring, our population is growing faster than the available foragers can keep the groceries coming in, therefore you must feed! In dearth, there is nothing for our bees to forage on and if there are no honey reserves inside the hive, your bees run the risk of starvation!

Purchase Bee Feed!

Starved bees :( Photo: Chris Kulhanek 2015

Queens – This problem can be easily “spotted” simply by using this checklist:

* Spotty brood

* Excessive drone brood

As well as "mean bees" and "high mite loads!"

Solution: Requeen! Or, if the bees are trying to requeen themselves, let them and then evaluate the results! You can always go back and replace the one they made with a mated queen with great genetics

Nutrition Any of you that have sat through one of our programs, have heard us say “good nutrition” is your main focus in maintaining healthy bees. So, it won’t come as any surprise that it would be included in this article! I wish there were a picture to show you what “poor nutrition” actually looks like. Unfortunately, it can best be described and not shown. I’m going to give you an assignment – Read “Fat Bees - Skinny Bees”

This short read will open your eyes to our honey bees nutritional requirements. It’s truly the who, what, where, when and how on Honey Bee nutrition. Although published in 2005, so much of it still applies today.

More up-to-date research is being done on an ongoing basis. A young man we met years ago at the beginning of his college study, Pierre Lau, AgriLife Research graduate assistant and a Texas A&M University doctoral candidate for Dr. Julian Rangel, is yet again involved in a research study that directly ties to this very topic. For more details CLICK HERE. I enjoy following these studies. The data that comes out of these research studies can and does affect the way we keep our bees in the future!

Varroa Mites I know, I know…are you sick of hearing about Varroa mites? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t agree. BUT the fact is the #1 cause of colony death is directly and indirectly tied to Varroa Mite infestation. Get ready – I have more homework for you! Go to and spend an hour to read this incredibly GREAT Varroa Management guide. They also have a Decision Tool that will take the guess work out of management and treatment decisions. 

Varroa Test!

Photo credit: MAAREC

This picture is showing one of the most common indicators of a high Varroa mite infestation. Seeing 1 or 2 bees with DWV isn’t cause for alarm, but definitely warrants doing a mite check.

Deformed wing virus is just one of up to 20 different viruses caused by Varroa Mites. Others include, Sacbrood, Black Queen Cell virus, Chronic Bee Paralysis… just to name a few. Here is a link to an article I have come across many times –CLICK HERE to learn more.

One of the most important aspects of beekeeping is Varroa control. There are many opinions in how we treat them, but one thing is constant – WE MUST take them seriously and we MUST do something to control them!

Overall failing colony signs This is a tough one. We’ve had 100’s if not 1000’s of colonies pass through our hands, and I can tell you what my definition of a failing colony is. It’s a colony that has very few bees, dry comb; the few bees that are there are milling around like they have nowhere to go and IF they still have a queen, she’s probably not laying or if she is it’s very sporadic. Requeening a true failing hive most often won’t resolve the overall problem. Intervention before the hive got this bad may or may not have changed the outcome. Sometimes colonies just fail…even when we do our best to manage them. In the September Texas Bee Supply Monthly magazine Edition 3, Blake Shook wrote a short article about “When to give up on a Hive” (Page 34) See video below.

In closing ~ Beekeeping can be fun, or it can be stressful – it’s all what we make of it. I challenge you to make the effort to stay informed on management techniques, resources to aid in learning and to always do your best to keep healthy thriving colonies. After-all, we’re the Bee-Keepers!