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.

When to open bee hives in spring

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.

What is the best time to inspect bee hives in spring?

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.

When not to open a bee hive

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!

How to inspect a bee hive in spring

Let’s consider two versions of the "first inspection after winter."

  • One is intended for earlier in the spring, or when sharply cooler weather is expected afterward.
  • The other is for when spring is farther advanced or you have been a little delayed getting to the bee work.

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.

Conducting successful early spring hive inspections

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:

  • Start by removing the insulation and then opening the hive to expose the top frames and count the number of frames visibly occupied by the bees. A box with more than half the frames occupied is a satisfactorily strong colony.
  • Then, use a little smoke to shift the bees and look down at the combs below. Can you see capped brood? If you can’t see any capped brood, and the day is warm enough, you could remove some frames to check. The first work of the season is always a bit time-consuming because the bees have spent months sticking the frames down. That’s why, if you can spot capped brood without pulling frames, it’s better to just leave things as they are.
  • Look at the unoccupied frames at the edge; are they empty or still filled with honey? You can carefully use your hive tool to poke into an outer comb to see if there is honey available to the bees. (The bees will quickly fix the small divot.)
  • Next, loosen the propolis seals and tip the top box up and look at it from underneath to look for evidence of capped brood and honey stores. A flashlight may be helpful with this. Then set the box off on a temporary base, and cover it to retain the warmth and keep the bees calm. While lifting it, assess the weight.
  • Continue down, looking at each box in order, before placing it on the temporary stack. Take careful note of whether the brood nest appears to span two boxes. If the bees are not in the lower boxes, you can pull frames to see if there are remaining frames of stores that might be consolidated and made more accessible to the bees.
  • When you get to the bottom board, look over dead bees and debris accumulation for clues about their winter experience.
  • After you’ve done your inspection, scrape the bottom board clean, noting its condition and whether it needs any repair or replacement. (If you have a spare board on hand you can swap it in right now and save trouble later.)

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.

New to box-tipping?

Read more about box-tipping: It’s easier to do than you may think, and a very useful skill to master. Our article focuses on checking for swarm cells, but box-tipping can be used at any time.

Conducting later, deeper first inspections

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.

  • With only deeps on your winter stack, the brood nest is most likely to be just in the top deep.
  • With an all-medium configuration, it’s most likely to span the upper two medium boxes. Although you can separate these boxes for inspection, they should still be considered one unit when putting the colony back together.
  • If you wintered with a combination of one or more deeps and a medium (a super) above, then it’s likely you have brood in both the super on top and in the deep just below it. If this is the case, then in the same way as an all-medium configuration, you must consider the super and the deep below as one unit, at least for the time being.

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.

Reversing brood boxes

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.

How to reverse brood boxes

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. 

Reversing brood boxes is an easy, and modestly effective, anti-swarming tactic that keeps the bees brooding upward. You can repeat this tactic at least once more after they have moved up into the new top box, always allowing room overhead to expand their brood area.

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.

A note about brood box configuration

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.