Hive inspection – a learning experience

July 7, 2009

2 deeps 2 supers

In late May my son and I put the second brood boxes on the hives (2nd boxes from the bottom) and in early June we added honey supers (top two boxes) to give the bees plenty of room to expand while we were on vacation.  We may have been too late – the bees may already have had other plans.

From what we know of the bee world, when they feel too crowded they swarm – that is the queen and 1/2 the hive up and leaves.  They don’t leave the other half totally in the lurch, the hive makes queen cells – they feed some brood royal jelly, make larger peanut-shaped cells, and queen bees grow.  The first queen to emerge stings all the other queen cells and is named queen of the hive.  If two queens are in the hive simultaneously there will be fight to the death – winner gets all.

pulling frames

Last night, my son and another newbie beekeeper did a hive inspection, top to bottom of each hive.  The top part was easy – in both hives the top honey supers were still totally empty.  I already knew this from peeking since getting back from vacation.  I found this a bit surprising though, I thought in a month they would have filled the second brood box and been storing some honey in the supers – at least building comb in preparation.  My first clue that all was not as hoped.

As we started going through the frames of the front hive we found lots of comb – they had done a good job making comb in the foundationless frames.comb on foundationless They were storing honey too.  In the picture is comb with no foundation, the top part that is capped contains honey.  Many of the other cells contain honey too but it hasn’t been capped yet. so   Other cells that are empty are where bees have emerged.  One thing we noticed was many of these empty cells were larger than usual (that darker area in the center of the frame).  Drones were made in these cells.  Drones are the males.  Their only purpose is to mate with a queen.  A hive always, during the “regular” season, has drones around, but when the hive is definitely going to mate a new queen they make a bunch of drones.  This hive was literally crawling with drones – they are big bees with big eyes and no stinger so they aren’t too hard to see.  There are usually 10 – 15% drones in a hive but this seemed to have more than that.  Clue number 2.

Clue 3 was that there was a little, but not much capped brood – not many bees ready to greet the world.  If there were a queen who had been laying eggs all month then there would have been eggs, larvae, and capped brood.  The egg laying seems to have been interrupted.  I don’t know if there were eggs in the hive or not – I couldn’t see any, but then my eyes are not what they used to be and the eggs are teeny tiny.

Clue 4 – lots of queen cells.  They were all empty, which means that the queens emerged or were killed in the cell and their little carcasses were taken out by the workers (they keep a clean hive).

So far all clues suggested this hive had swarmed and this was the group left behind.  We didn’t find the queen, but there were lots of bees and we aren’t practiced yet at finding one longer bee among thousands of others.  I’m pretty confident that there was a queen though because the bees were busy building comb (a queenless hive tends to get lethargic and disorganized, or so I’ve read); and the bees were calm, and a queenless hive, I’m told, is agitated.  Still, I think I should check in a week or so for some sign of eggs, larvae and brood.

We put the front hive back together and opened the back hive.  We expected to see something totally different.  I’ve read that when you have two hives one is usually stronger than the other.  The back hive had started somewhat stronger and seemed to generally have more activity out front.  But for the past month the activity had seemed pretty equal.  Well, duh, that’s because the hives are now equal.  We saw the same situation in the back hive as in the front.  Nice comb and honey stored, building comb  but plenty of drone cells and drones (though not as many as the front hive).  I only found one or two queen cells – but that’s all that you need really. 

The cool thing though is we saw the queen.  Sorry, no picture.  She was definitely longer, no stripes, a lighter color, and generally regal.  We didn’t see her laying eggs though, but perhaps she was on break.

Long story short.  It looks as if both hives swarmed but left behind a goodly number of bees, and with any luck both hives have laying queens again.  There is still plenty of summer, 3 plus months more of flowers here in Central Illinois, so while they may not be able to provide us with much if any honey, they should (I hope) make enough to get themselves through the winter.  And the swarming isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It increases the feral bee population, and that needs a boost. Letting them swarm fits with my generally hands off bee philosophy (many beekeepers go out of their way to dissuade hives from swarming – more bees = more honey, swarming sets the hive back several weeks).  My husband may have heard one of the swarms when working on fencing, but didn’t realize that was what it was; it would have been cool (yet bittersweet) to see them swarm.  Fingers crossed that the remaining colonies do well.



  1. Wow! This is so, so interesting. Bummer that both hives decided to swarm, but how cool is must be knowing that you’ve helping the bee population!! Two healthy colonies off on their own (good job, bee Mom) and two healthy colonies left behind to grow…you should be proud of the awesome job you’ve done in your very first season.

  2. This is so fascinating. Now I know why the “Queen Bee” term is used in relation to teenage girl’s social circles! Good luck with the new colonies & queens!

  3. You have learned so much! I’m in awe, though I’m with Lynn on the ‘better you than me’ thing! 😉

    I have a not-bee-related green question for you, though…Do you have a single ‘best’ source for stupid-beginner questions on composting? A book would be great, though a website would work, too. I’m really just not sure what I MUST do and what I only COULD do…and most of the stuff I’ve seen so far doesn’t really address it from a Composting for Dummies point of view!

    • I don’t have a source off the top of my head – – but the what you “could” do is simply make a pile of scraps and do nothing with it – we have enough space and a spot out of view that this what we do – – the bottom of the pile breaks down and sometimes, in the spring usually, or sometime when the top isn’t too icky, I put the top stuff to the side and dig out the bottom for the garden.

      You can make composting as complicated as you want to – but it mostly requires some “brown” stuff (dead stuff like leaves in the fall, even small sticks or wood chips) and some “green” stuff (grass clippings are good, or weeds from the garden – though the compost then might have weed seeds – but that’s complicating things again). Some people stir the pile on occasion – or you can get a fancy composter that you can spin. I’m sure turning it speeds things up – – but a pile will decompose on it’s own too. I’d just google composting and see what comes up – you don’t need a book, just an article.


  4. Very cool. I enjoy watching/listening from a far. I don’t think I could be a bee keeper.

    Lynn P WMOMS

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