If you’re a beekeeper with an overwintered colony, you may be feeling like a kid eyeing a stack of birthday presents as you wait to open the hive to take a peek. Of course, you should never hesitate to briefly open a colony to add supplemental winter feed to prevent starvation — but that’s not quite the same, is it? A warm winter day is so tempting, but aside from feeding a hungry hive (and briefly feasting on the eye candy of your bees), delving deeper into hives is best done after spring has truly arrived. Explore these tips for spring hive inspections, including when to open your hives, what to look for when you do, and how to reverse your brood boxes.
The timing of the first spring bee hive inspection depends on how far along you are in the progress from winter to unmistakable spring. This varies by location and also varies — sometimes markedly — year to year. Don’t get hung up on a calendar date. For reference, here at Betterbee in upstate NY, we can usually expect to do a first inspection around the first of April. Your timing will vary.
While the day of the inspection should be warm (at least 60 degrees F) and calm, you should also consider the near-term weather forecast. The last warm day before a lengthy colder period is not the day for a major overhaul. Instead, opt for a more restrained first inspection.
When heading out for a springtime inspection, a midday visit (between 11am and 2pm) is ideal because the sun is shining.
One other timing factor is whether you have any winter hive insulation installed: If the insulation can be easily removed and then reinstalled afterward, you can inspect earlier. If your insulation will be destroyed by removal, then it’s better to wait and let the colony continue to benefit from the insulation for a few more weeks.
Hold off on opening your bee hive during inclement weather or cold temperatures. Wait for a warmer, sunny, not-too-windy day to do that first springtime inspection — your bees will thank you!
Let’s consider two versions of the "first inspection after winter."
The goals in both types of first inspections are the same: to check up on the brood and the food. You’ll start both types of inspections by checking out the ground around the hives, watching for signs of hive clean-outs — bee poop and dead bees — as well as signs of activity, such as bees venturing out of the hive.
What differs between the two versions of first inspections is how deeply you will examine the colony and how intensive your manipulations can be to fix any issues you find. Check out these tips for how to perform springtime hive inspections for each scenario.
For early-season hive inspections, the quicker and less invasive you can be, the better. An early first inspection may not even include pulling frames. Follow these suggested steps:
Now you’re ready to put the hive back together. Early in the season, the safest choice is just to put the stack back together in the same order and leave any other manipulations for a few weeks. If the upper box with the brood was light, you can add a shim and offer some supplemental food. If you have available, disease-free honey and resources from a deadout hive or storage, you can also simply place a box with stores on top of the colony. (Always first assess disease risk in deadout colonies prior to re-using any components.)
After you’ve reassembled your hive, wait a few more weeks, then do another, more thorough inspection, as described below.
A later inspection differs from a quick, early first inspection because you will have the opportunity to examine the colony more completely. You may also want to reverse the order of the boxes when you reinstall them.
The process begins in the same way, except you will expect to remove frames enough to examine brood patterns, rather than just checking to see if any brood can be spotted from overhead.
Keep an eye out for your queen. If she was marked, and you find an unmarked queen, she may have lost her marking, or you may be seeing a supersedure or emergency queen raised late in the season. This is important information to know.
For first inspections done a bit later in the season, reversing the boxes is likely on the agenda. As you go through the hive it’s very important to note which boxes have brood.
Continue down through the hive, removing the boxes in order and setting them on the temporary stand with a cover.
When you get to the bottom board, look over the debris and dead bees, then scrape them off. Make notes if you spot any need for repair or replacement, and if you have a spare, swap it in now — this is the easiest time of year to do this.
The next question is whether you need to reverse any of the boxes on the stack. By late winter, the bees have usually eaten their way up into the upper boxes, but they may not have consumed every frame in all the boxes below. Reversing your brood boxes puts the cluster into the lower box again, leaving space above for the colony to store honey. Providing this extra space can help delay or prevent swarming. In very cool weather, however, reversing carries the cost of repositioning the brood area into the cooler part of the hive. A strong colony can handle this, but a smaller, weaker one may be overtaxed, so it should not be reversed.
The queen laid these eggs within the last 72 hours. Look closely for the eggs which appear as a small round dot. Those were laid within the last few hours.
To reverse your hive boxes, simply swap the positions of the boxes during the inspection, with the upper box (or boxes, if the brood nest area spans two boxes) winding up in a lower position and an unoccupied box with drawn comb and stores being placed on top of it.
If you have frames of honey and pollen and drawn comb from deadout hives or in storage, they can also be mixed together with the frames from the lower box, provided you ensure they carry no disease risk. One very successful arrangement, popularized by the late Walt Wright, is to alternate frames in the reversed box using both drawn empty comb and frames of drawn comb with resources of honey and pollen. (Note that this is not alternating drawn frames and bare foundation, which won’t work.) This method offers the bees immediate room to expand the brood nest, and adjacent frames with honey and pollen resources to maximize that opportunity.
When selecting frames to put in a reversed box, choose the best quality brood frames, setting aside ones you may wish to cull or those that are not fully drawn.
Depending on your winter hive configuration, you may temporarily have a hive that looks “wrong” to a beekeeper, especially if you winter with a super on top of deep brood boxes. If the brood area spans from the super down into the top deep, these two boxes must stay together in the same order, as one unit. If you reverse the stack and place a deep on top of the two brood nest boxes, you wind up with a deep-medium-deep configuration, which may bug you, but the bees will be fine with it. After they move up into the deep on top — which they will — you can do another reverse to put the medium on the bottom creating a medium-deep-deep configuration for a short period. Once the medium is clear of brood, it will be just about the right time to return it to its "proper" role as a super.
Once you have reassembled your hive after the first inspection, consider when to resume mite monitoring. If you have a sticky board under a screened board, you can start at once. If not, then you should start doing sugar rolls or alcohol washes no later than the end of April — and even earlier in southern areas — to get early baseline numbers to begin planning your treatment strategy for the season. For more beekeeping tips and advice, explore our How to Be a Beekeeper Guide.
A reversed hive illustrating how two boxes with brood must stay together as one unit.