The swarm we collected on Thursday, and housed in a new hive in the orchard, so far seems to be doing very well.

Honeybees at the entrance of our new hive (click any image to enlarge)

On Sunday afternoon, as the weather was warm and beautiful outside, we decided to conduct a brief cursory inspection of the hive.  As new beekeepers it’s important to curb the temptation to peek inside the hive too often, but to best judge how the bees are doing, and whether or not we are meeting their needs, we needed some baseline information about the hive.

A wise beekeeper recently told us that when you do a hive inspection, first ask yourself why you are doing it?  What do you hope to learn?  There are many reasons to inspect a hive, but “just because I want to look” isn’t one of them.

Our first inspection we hoped to gather three primary pieces of information. First and foremost, how large is this colony of bees?  The swarm looked sizable, but we weren’t sure if the current hive configuration was appropriate for the number of bees.  If we only had a few frames of bees, it might be best to reduce the size of the hive until their numbers increase.  Two other questions we hoped to answer were, can we find the Queen, and if so, is the Queen laying eggs yet?

As a swarm, it looked to us like a lot of bees, about the size of a soccer ball, but we weren't really sure how to quantify them at the time

The last we interacted closely with the bees they were still in swarm-mode, and very docile.  This would be the first time we’d be entering their new home, and their disposition, now they are no longer clustered as a swarm, could potentially be more aggressive.

As we have protective clothing, and this was just an inspection, we felt using a smoker was unnecessary.  We suited up, and gathered some basic equipment, a manipulation cloth and an extra couple of dish towels, a bee brush, and our hive tool, and set off for the hive.

When we arrived we began by simply observing the hive entrance.  How many bees are there?  Are there bees carrying pollen into the hive?  Are there ants, or other intruders lurking at the hive entrance?

We passively observed the comings and goings at the hive entrance for a few minutes before entering the hive

We then proceeded calmly and quietly toward the hive, and carefully removed the top.  The hive is currently comprised of two medium 8-frame hive bodies.

This hive currently consists of two medium hive bodies, each containing 8 frames

As we removed the roof, we were quite surprised to see a substantial cluster of bees just underneath the hole in the inner cover.

The inner cover has an oval hole in the center, and we could clearly see a number of bees on the frames underneath

Next, we removed the inner cover.  We were careful to place the cover on its edge when we set it down, as there were a few bees underneath the inner cover when we lifted it from the hive.

It's important to be aware of where bees are as you move equipment around, so you don't accidentally crush them

With the cover removed we could see that there were four frames crowded with bees in the upper hive body.  We carefully removed one of the empty frames from one end so we had a little more room to work.

Even without removing frames we could see there was quite a lot of activity in the upper hive body

As we slid the frames apart we noted the bees connected together in chains between the frames.  Bees can commonly be seen doing this during comb building, and the chaining together is known as a Festoon.  There are many theories about this behavior, but it seems nobody really knows for certain why the bees do it. [1]

As we slowly moved the frames, small chains of bees could be observed stretching from one frame to the next

This behavior, where bees connect together, is called Festooning

We removed one of the frames with the bees, being very careful to ensure we kept the frame over the top of the hive while inspecting it.  The most important task during an inspection is to avoid dropping or losing the Queen!  It’s better that if she falls from the frame, that she falls into the hive below, and not onto the ground!

These bees are clustered on a new frame in the upper hive body

We were surprised to see that the very first frame we pulled not only had drawn comb, but also already had nectar stored.  We had fitted the frames with foundation, but the bees were working very quickly to build comb on the foundation to store the food they will need while they build out the rest of their new home, and begin to raise new bees.

As the bees moved out of the way we could clearly see they had already drawn out comb on some of the foundation

As we wanted to keep the disruption to a minimum, we replaced that frame, and removed the top box, setting it carefully on the inverted lid of the hive, again, to minimize the risk of misplacing her Royal Highness.  We then covered the top of that hive body with a cloth to keep the bees calm while we turned our attention toward the other hive body.

As we removed the upper hive body it was clear there were at least as many bees in the bottom hive body.

The lower hive body seemed to be seething with bees

We noted a few bees feeding each other as we worked through the hive

Here we were most interested to see how the two old frames that had drawn comb looked.  The trouble was, it was difficult to see through the bees as they were elbow to elbow across the entire frame.

This is one of the two frames that contained drawn comb when we first hived the swarm

We’d hoped to have a better view into the cells on these two older frames, as we were curious to see if there might be any signs of eggs in some of the cells.

We didn't see any eggs, but there was plenty of stored nectar, and some occasional pollen. We also noted a few drones (males) on some of the frames.

As we didn’t inspect every frame during this inspection, we failed to see the Queen.  We didn’t necessarily expect to see eggs so soon.  As it takes three days for an egg to become a larva, we knew we would not see any larva during this inspection as it’s too early.  We’ll make more of an effort to observe eggs and/or larva during our next hive inspection though.

Bright new wax comb filled with nectar

It's amazing to us how much new comb has been drawn in just 3 days!

What we did learn from this inspection is that we had more than 8 frames of very good natured bees in the hive.  It was the middle of the day, so not everyone was home, as there were also lots of workers in the field.  To us this seems like a perfectly respectably-sized colony of bees.

A number of workers were observed returning to the hive carrying pollen

Another honeybee returns from the field

Needless to say the girls, in just 72 hours, have been much busier little bees than we expected.  We’re looking forward to our next hive inspection, and curious how different the hive will look the next time we peek inside.


[1] Tautz, Jurgen and Heilmann, Helga.  2008. The Buzz About Bees: Biology of a Superorganism. p 167.