It’s helpful for beekeepers to understand what they see on new colonies’ frames to know if the hives are getting established as expected. When studying the frames, you’re looking at the past, present, and the probable future of the colony. That’s because the frames are a kind of ledger, recording the progress of the hive. The “business” of a bee colony isn’t honey — it’s raising brood. Honey is just an insurance policy to make sure future brood will thrive, despite periods of frigid cold or lack of flowers.

If you’re a new beekeeper, don’t be too hard on yourself if all you can see on the frames is a layer of moving brown bugs. This is completely normal for most people, even if they’ve read books, been to Bee School, and watched dozens of YouTube videos.

New hives start at different “on-ramps” on the way to a similar point of becoming established — explore each starting method to learn what applies to your bees, what you can expert, and what it tells you about your colony.

Package bees on new (undrawn) foundation or foundationless frames

Package bees are starting, literally, at the very beginning of a colony’s life. They aren’t even a colony, yet — they often have no more than a random relationship to each other, and none of them have met their all-important queen.

For insects whose entire lives are governed by sophisticated social relations and communications, it’s remarkable that bees can be divvied up by weight, stuck in a box, arbitrarily assigned an unrelated queen, and are still able to organize into a cohesive and cooperative group — something they almost always do. After installing bee packages, check the bees’ progress to ensure they’re accepting the queen and to keep an eye on overall health.

How to inspect frames after bee package installation

After three days (or so), pull the frame that holds the queen cage and see if she has been released.

If the queen is out, this means the colony has taken its first, essential, step of accepting its assigned queen. Remove the cage, push the frames tightly back together, re-fill the feeder, and let them continue to work together undisturbed for 10 to 12 days more. Like any new family, they need time to cement their relationships without interference, even from well-meaning strangers. Your job is to keep the feeder full so there is no interruption in “nectar” which might slow comb building. The queen can’t get down to the colony’s business until her workspace is ready.

If the queen is still in her cage, but otherwise alive and being attended by the bees, the candy plug may have dried out, making it too hard for her to leave the cage. Workers near her cage should appear calm and friendly towards her, perhaps offering food or gently touching her with their antennae. This tells you that, despite the delay, the bees are now focused on her as their potential queen to get the brood factory up and running.

In this case, you can assist: Pull out the cage and puncture the candy plug with a thin wire to weaken it slightly, so the bees can remove it, then replace the cage on the frame. After a few more days, check again to make sure she has been released. Continue to feed the colony and check back in another week to see how well they’re doing at making their new home.

A swarm hived on undrawn foundation

A captured swarm, although they start “homeless” like a package, have one significant difference: the bees and the queen are already well-acquainted with each other. She may be the mother of nearly all of them, and they will go wherever she goes. Or, she may be their sister if she is a virgin queen in a secondary, or cast swarm. Virgins tend to look thinner and act more skittish on the frame. Their abdomens will lengthen and thicken after they’ve been out to mate.

A recently-hived swarm sometimes remains uncommitted for a few days and may suddenly leave for greener pastures. It is useful to provide them a frame with some open brood on it (from their hive, or another — it doesn’t matter.) The pheromones given off by open (uncapped) brood trigger the caregiving instinct in nurse bees; they will be reluctant to abandon the hive, even if the brood has no biological relationship to them.

After the swarm has been hived, let them settle in on their own for at least a week. Then, check on their progress by looking at the frame you provided. All the original brood on that frame should be capped and some empty cells may even have some new brood inside. This is the sign that the bees have adopted the new location and they are settling in for good.

A swarm is often extra-stocked with bees at the peak of their wax-making potential (8 to 12 days old). Starting them on undrawn foundation — plus a frame of brood, if you chose — is best because they will draw out new combs very quickly. The new comb is creamy-white and soft, and the queen will often start laying in it right away. This makes the early rounds of eggs and young larva hard to see, at first. But any evidence of new comb-drawing also means that the bees are resolved to stay and invest their resources in their new home.

A package or swarm on empty, drawn comb

These bees have lucked into a new home that comes already built and completely furnished. They can immediately move in and get to work raising brood and gathering nectar and pollen. Check occasionally to ensure they’re settling into the hive. 

After about 10 days, they will likely have some capped brood. Queens can lay up to 1,200 eggs per day, which are capped on the eighth day. So by the tenth day, there might be as much as 96 square inches of capped brood cells. (Roughly about the size of one side of a sheet of copy paper in all, but likely divided among two or more frame surfaces.) Capped worker brood is easy to identify in a new hive made up of empty frames. It will be groups of adjacent cells with a lightly domed top of yellow, tan, or creamy wax.

  • Look at the cells close to the capped worker brood and see if the nearby cells seem to be filled with glistening, fat, white grubs curled up inside the cell. These are late-stage larva, almost ready for pupation. If you see these, your hive is back in the brood business.
  • Look at the frame surrounding the brood areas. The colored cells are pollen and the ones that are shining with moisture are filled with nectar. You may see an arc of nectar and pollen cells surrounding the brood areas. This is a temporary pantry to save the nurse bees some steps as they feed the brood. Once the pantry is empty, the brood area will expand into its space.

Starting with a nucleus (nuc) colony

A nuc is already a functioning colony, albeit on a smaller scale. It is established and has all the features of a big hive, so there’s much to learn from its frames. After installing the nuc, give the bees time to orient to the new location and begin to forage. A few days are enough; a week is better. Plus, the longer interval will help reveal important information, even to beginners. Then, inspect the nuc frames and watch for these key factors.

Whenever you open any hive, the main question is, “How’s business?” As brood-raising is the hive’s business, you can think of the brood as economic indicators. If the brood looks good, then the hive and the queen are likely doing well, and the outlook is optimistic.

The essential bee for brood-making is the queen. If you can easily spot her because she’s marked, you’ve answered one of the most important questions: is the hive queenright? If you can’t see her, but want to know when she was last there, the brood developmental stages will tell you. If you see capped worker brood, she was last alive and laying between 8 to 21 days ago. You know that because worker brood is capped on the eighth day from when the egg was laid and it stays capped until the 21st day.

This chart provides the important information, at a glance:

If you see…



Queen was alive 3 days ago

Small larvae

Queen was laying 5 days ago

Fat, white, grub-like larvae

Queen was alive about a week ago

Capped worker brood

Queen was alive and laying 8–21 days ago

Beginners may need practice spotting “good-looking brood.” Follow these quick tips for identifying brood and determining health.

  • If you can’t yet reliably spot the younger larvae and eggs, each time you look at a brood frame, find the largest brood that you can easily identify and look at the cells near it for even younger brood.
  • Is there enough brood, of the right ages, and does it look healthy? There is a simple, rough calculation you can do: There should be twice as many cells of open brood as there are cells with eggs and twice as much capped brood as open brood. This is because brood is in the egg stage for three days, open brood for six days, and capped for an additional 12 days. You don’t have to count cells, but start to think about the relative amount of the stages which you do recognize.
  • The health of the brood is roughly correlated to how large and uninterrupted the patches of similar age-stages are. In general, larger patches, or continuous swathes are better than scattered cells of the same age.
  • Next, check out the resources of the colony: Do they have the stores of pollen, nectar, and honey needed for all that hungry brood? You always want to see frames with honey, open nectar, and colorful cells of pollen. It’s great when these are arced around the margins of the brood areas as temporary pantries to save the nurse bees some steps.
  • You also want to be sure there are empty expansion areas in both the brood areas and the storage areas. If not, you need to add some more frames or boxes, or both.
  • If you see patches of the bullet-tipped drone cells, your hive is able to go beyond mere subsistence and replacement of aging bees. Drone brood is like the big, shiny pick-up truck you don’t really need, and would only splurge on during good times. Drones’ only purpose is reproduction, and the laying queen in the hive is already mated, so the hive doesn’t need more reproduction. Drones are a sign that resources are plentiful enough so some can be spared to raise individuals with no direct benefit to the colony itself.

And finally, in any strong colony, there is always the chance of a swarm — that’s where drones may come in handy! Keep an eye peeled all the time (even in a new nuc) for the signs the bees are starting queen cells. These will be strongly vertical cells (all other brood is in horizontal cells). Single cells in the middle of a frame may be supersedure cells. But a group of vertical cells, especially along the bottom edge of a frame is a sign that swarm preparations are underway. Don’t ignore this: You may only have days before the swarm leaves.

Bonus Tip: If the frame is covered with bees, how do you even see the brood underneath? Good question! Make sure your jacket and veil are zipped and closed. Then lightly breathe on the frame. You zipped your jacket up because it’s likely your “light breath” is still too strong and will put lots of bees up in your face. Try again, only this time, just exhale with very little force. When you can herd the bees around on the frame, you’ve got it right and the brood underneath will be revealed.

Studying your frames can provide a historical look and information about the potential future of your colony. For more information about keeping hives healthy, explore our Beekeeping Guide.