October 10, 2016

Removing the Queen Cage from a Package of Bees and First Inspections.

Having installed a package of bees for the first time it can often be hard for new beekeepers to resist the temptation of checking what is happening inside their new hive. We are often asked when you should inspect your hive after installing your packaged bees? You must wait at least 5  days any sooner and the bees may not have had a chance to accept the queen and she may be rejected or killed.
After 5 to 7 days, you can open the hive and check to see if the queen has been released from her cage. There will likely be bees on the queen cage and quite possibly they will have started to build comb on the bottom of it. Be very gentle when examining the cage and attached comb as the queen may be on the outside of the cage or on the attached comb. If she is on it gently brush her onto a frame and then shake the remaining bees off, before discarding the queen cage and any attached comb. If the queen has not been released, then you will need to carefully release her. Do not leave the queen cage in the hive longer than is necessary as the bees will cover it with comb and make it difficult to remove without damage to the frame and foundation it is attached to.
If the queen has been released and she is not on the outside of the cage, look for her. By this time, 1 or 2 frames should be drawn and you should be able to see some eggs in the cells. If you don’t find the queen but you do see eggs in the cells, don’t panic, your queen is alive and doing her job. If, however, you cannot find the queen or any eggs in the cells or if you find that your queen is dead within her cage, then you will need to place an order for a new queen, as soon as possible. If the queen is present close the hive and wait another week before inspecting again. Ensuring once again then that the queen is present and laying.
You should continue feeding the colony sugar syrup until you are certain there is a strong nectar flow and the bees are beginning to build up their honey stores.
Note: On the third week you may be concerned to notice a significant reduction in the population of the adult bees. Don’t worry, this is natural as the average life span of a worker bee during the spring and summer months is only 3 weeks and so the newly laid brood has not had a chance to replenish the colony. But as long as your queen is laying properly and you are seeing the cells being filled with brood, you have nothing to be concerned about. You should see the population increasing again within the next 2-3 weeks as the new bees begin to emerge.

The equipment from any colonies lost over winter should be taken apart and cleaned thoroughly, especially if you suspect death was due to disease. Please refer to our disease and pest section for how to spot and deal with specific diseases and pests.

April in the Western Hemisphere is when hives should be thoroughly inspected and cleaned up where necessary. It can still be cold, so do be careful not to chill the brood, which will kill it. When the tempera­ture is above 50°F (10°C) and there is little or no wind, you can examine brood, but do not expose it to the atmosphere for more than a minute or two. When the temperature is 65°F (18°C) and there is little or no wind, you can then safely remove and thoroughly examine the frames.

In addition to checking for food stores, you should look for brood as this will indicate whether or not the queen is present and productive. You should at this time also clean out the hive entrance and scrape clean the bottom board or floor.

Remove excess propolis and comb from the frames and top board. All old or damaged comb should be replaced with new foundation. Old comb should be replaced on a regular basis to prevent the build-up of disease organisms. Cell size is also reduced over time due to the build-up of parts of cocoons left in the cells by pupating bees, this will result in smaller adult bees. If, when held up to the sun, no light passes through a comb, it should be replaced with new foundation or new drawn comb. As a rule we suggest replacing at least 25% of all comb per year. If you use frame spacers, using different colours to represent the year the comb was first used is helpful.

It is often a good idea to reverse the hive bodies, as a queen located in the upper hive body may be slow to expand her brood nest if adjacent frames are filled with honey and she is often reluctant to move downward. However this should not be done too early, in case it results in a split brood nest. Under these circumstances if there is a sudden drop in temperature it may make it difficult for the bees to maintain the correct brood cell temperature.

This is also now the time that you should be thinking about varroa mite control. As varroa is now so widespread it is safe to assume that varroa mite monitoring and control is necessary even if you cannot see any (for more details see our Varroa Control section).

Typically, colonies are treated for varroa mites in the late summer or early fall, after the honey harvest. However any colonies not treated in Autumn may need to be treated in Spring.  All chemical control treatments must be completed well before the honey flow begins and any supers are put in place.

If you decide as we would recommend to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques as a means of varroa mite management, many of these techniques will need to be put in place early on in the season.

More about Bee Colony Management

Inspecting or Going Through Your Bees

As long as you have a well lit smoker and suitable protective clothing you should have no problems inspecting or ‘going through ’ your bees.

After correctly lighting your smoker and putting on at least a veil, approach your hive from the rear, so as to avoid walking through the bees flight path as they exit and enter. You should ideally stand at the sides of the hive, switching sides as necessary as you work through the frames. Again avoid standing in front of the entrance at any time. If several colonies or rows of colonies face the same direction, examine the front hive or row first so that you later work behind the disturbed colonies. This way you will greatly reduce your chances of getting stung.

When beginning to inspect a colony, blow two or three puffs of smoke across the entrance and under the lid to discourage the guard bees. Then use a puff or two every time a piece of equipment is removed or replaced. This keeps the bees under control and out of the way so few bees are killed as you work.

Once the cover or a hive body is lifted up, remove it gently making sure it does not fall back down in place. Always try to avoid bumping or jarring the hive during inspection, this way, you crush fewer bees and alarm the colony less. If you do accidently jar the hive and the bees become very agitated it is a good idea to calmly put everything back together and leave the inspection to later on or to the next day.

If possible inspect the bees when a lot of the older workers will be out collecting nectar or pollen, this is most likely on clear, warm days between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. . Bees are easiest to handle during a nectar flow as they will be happier and less defensive. Again always handle the bees slowly and with care, unnecessary heavy handed movements leads to more confusion and potential stings.

After removing the outer telescoping cover or roof, place it underside-up on the ground close beside you near to the hive. This will then serve as a place to put the upper hive bodies when you are examin­ing the lower brood chamber of the hive. Bees on the crown board or inner cover when it is removed can be knocked off at the hive entrance or left if there is only a few. Check carefully before you do this that the queen is not on the board. If you have a queen excluder on lower down this is unlikely but not completely unknown. Then set the inner cover out of the way or use it as a temporary cover for boxes that have been removed as you are examining the lower boxes.

Bees like to seal the inner cover to the hive boxes and the frames together with propolis at every point of contact. Gently use the straight end of your hive tool to pry them apart, starting with the second frame in on the side you are working from. Pull the frame slowly out of the hive and look for the queen while holding the frame over the top of the hive. If she is not on the frame, set it on end against the opposite side of the hive away from your feet near to, but not blocking, the entrance.

If the queen is on the frame, carefully replace the frame and remove the frame next to it making sure that you know where the queen is to avoid crushing her. Once you have removed one of the frames it is easier to remove the remaining frames as the propolis seal has been broken. Move them towards the space, lifting them to examine and then replacing them in order. Keeping the combs in their original positions is desirable as it is less disruptive to the bees. However as you become more experienced you may wish to change the order to improve to try for example to speed up the drawing out of the frame foundation.

To see eggs and young larvae, you should tilt the frame slightly so the light comes over your shoulder and falls into the cells of the comb. To look at the opposite side of the comb or frame, raise or lower one end until the top bar is vertical, pivot the frame 180° and bring the top bar back to a horizontal position. Repeat the process before replacing the comb in the hive. When you finish examining the combs of a hive body, replace the first frame that was removed into its original position.

When reassembling the hive, smoke the bees so that they move down and pause slightly before replacing hive bodies or covers, in doing so most of the bees will move out of the way.

While the incidences of stings can be greatly reduced with good colony manipulation techniques some stings are unavoidable. Most will occur on your hands as a result of squashing a bee as you lift out a frame. If you are stung, scrape the stinger away with your fingernail, hive tool or other sharp object, don’t try and pull it out as this will only leave the poison sac behind. Lightly smoke the area of the sting, as this will reduce the alarm odours left by the sting which may cause others to sting in response. Always launder gloves and suits that have received multiple stings as the alarm odours can remain in these for long periods of time.

More about Bee Hive Inspection

Lighting and Using a Bee Smoker

The smoker is one of the most important pieces of beekeeping equipment and is essential for controlling the bee’sbehaviour. Moderate amounts of smoke applied to a bee colony will repel any aggressive bees and reduce defensive behaviour in general.

Smoke makes the colony believe there is a fire and they rush to save their honey stores by ingesting it into one of their stomachs. As well as occupying the bees attention, as their stomachs become full of honey they become less flexible and as a result less able to sting.

Lighting the Smoker

Light a small quantity of fuel, such as dried dead wood, starting it off with some lit paper or card and puff the bellows until the material flames. Continue adding more fuel slowly, packing it down with a hive tool while puffing the bellows, until the fire-pot is full. When the smoke is hot add a handful of green grass or damp leaves on top to cool and increase the quantity of smoke emitted. Always check that the smoke is not too hot so as to burn the bees, damaging their wings and body hair. A properly lit and well-packed smoker should provide enough smoke to inspect several colonies.

Using the Smoker at the Hive

As you approach the hive to be inspected, blow several puffs of smoke into the hive entrance and underneath the bottom of the hive if you are using an open meshed floor. Wait for about 30 seconds and then remove the roof of the hive and inner cover or crown board, puffing some smoke over the top as you do so.

While you remove frames for examination and as you separate the hive bodies, direct more puffs of smoke onto the top bars to repel bees downward. One application of smoke usually lasts several minutes and as bees move back up to the tops of the frames, it is normally possible to direct them back down with a couple of puffs of smoke. Use the same procedure when reassembling and closing up the hive to help avoid unnecessarily crushing bees..

As you gain more confidence you should aim to reduce the amount of smoke you apply to your hives as the less that is used the less disruptive it will be to the bees. Experience will help you judge the mood of your bees better and allow you to judge the smoke levels accordingly.

The amount of smoke needed will vary with the strain of bees kept, the weather conditions and the nectar flow. On warm, sunny days when a nectar flow is in progress, very little smoke may be needed. More smoke than usual will be needed during cool, cloudy weather. If you apply too much smoke the bees will start to pour or boil out of the hive. Smoke is not usually needed when installing packages of bees or collecting swarms and only small amounts of smoke should be used when removing honey supers and searching for the queen.

More about Bee Hive Inspection

Painting and Maintaining the Hive

The basic parts of the hive traditionally have been made out of pine, cypress or redwood. However today all hive components are available in plastic. Plastic hive components and plastic frames that snap together are durable, strong, lightweight, easy to assemble, and require little maintenance. While plastic frames and foundation are becoming increasingly popular, plastic hive covers, bottom boards, and hive bodies have not proved to be as useful because plastic does not breathe and does not allow easy moisture ventilation. Plastic also warps easily and it has also been found that some types let in too much light, which the bees do not like.

Painting the Hive Parts

Since most bee hive boxes are made from wood they will start to quickly decay if not frequently treated. So all parts of the hive exposed to the weather should be protected with paint or wood preservative. Do not paint or treat the inside of the hive, the bees will varnish the inside themselves with propolis (a mix of plant sap and wax) and the paint may be harmful to the bees, especially as most paint today comes with factory added fungicides.

You should use a good low VOC (volatile organic compounds) latex or oil-based, exterior, white paint.  A light colour is desirable because it prevents heat buildup in the hive during summer as the suns’ rays will be reflected off a light surface. Although white is a traditional colour, various combinations of colours will it is believed actually help reduce drift of bees between colonies.

If you prefer the original wood colour then a preservative such as linseed oil can be used. Make sure that you use raw linseed oil and not boiled linseed oil as the latter will be much less effective. Some people use a mix of beeswax and linseed oil but be warned, this can get messy.

More Bee Hive Information

Picture: W. Virginia farmer David Brammer’s amazing bubble gum hive colours