Hive Inspections: 'Level 2' & 'Level 3'

Level 2 Inspections

Level 2 inspections can be done regularly but not in cold weather. They often follow a level 1 inspection that indicates a possible problem, such as low traffic count. It can be minimally disruptive if done efficiently (more on this later).   It is a good way to assess colony population. And if you lift the top box, you can inspect for swarm cells.   

The key elements of a Level 2 Inspection are:

  • Top Inspection
      • Look down on frames
      • Check population, take a picture (look for mites on bees)
      • Smell for signs of disease (a healthy hive smells good)

    (AFB, EFB, mold, feces, death, decay)

  • Lower Box Inspection
      • Split boxes to inspect lower brood box
      • Inspect for swarm cells

    Context is critically important to inspections.  You are comparing what is normal for the time of year and time of day. Up to  1/3 of the colony might be foraging when you inspect. The inspection time window also matters.  Take at least  10 minutes for entrance observation.  

    If all the signs are good, you can have confidence in the hive enough to defer a level 3 inspection, except for swarm cells.  This is a big gap, and forces you to inspect frames.

    Some important questions to keep in mind when doing a Level 2 Inspection are:

  • Has the population dropped? 
  • If so, Why? Recent swarm? Failing queen? Brood disease? Heavy mite load? Seasonal decline?

  • Where is the brood nest?
  • Top box? Lower box? Straddling both?

  • Does it smell good?
  • A healthy hive smells good, a sick hive might smell bad (dead bees, foulbrood, dysentery, Nosema apis, fungus) but not always

  • Ratio of brood to honey?
  • Some hives are honey bound ( if so, remove honey and install drawn comb) and some hives have high bee population and low honey stores (if so, Do a split and/or feed).

  • Where are the phoretic mites? 
  • Take a picture and zoom in to inspect for phoretic mites.

  • Swarm Cells?
  • Splitting boxes to find swarm cells is not foolproof and it is easy to miss them, but it is possible.  Level 3 inspections is my preferred choice.

    Swarm Prediction is a crucial part of a Level 2 inspection. Some factors to consider are capped swarm cells, roaring hive sound, and if you are in Swarm Season (swarms often occur on the first day after a period of rainy weather.)

    Level 3 Inspections: 

    Level 3 inspections should be done least often, and not in cold weather.  Here,  the frames are inspected to look for good brood production, abundant food stores, and signs of pests and disease; they often result from a Level 2 inspection that suggested a problem with the colony.  

    My code of conduct for Level 3 Inspections:

    • Have good reason to Inspect (a plan)
      • What outcome do you want?  
    • Prepare well
      • Tools, clothing, split preparations, contingency frames, contingency brood frames
    • Use good manners
      • Move smoothly and slowly.  (How many bees did I kill?)
    • Make good notes
      • I like iphone notes and pictures

    You are looking for seasonally appropriate colony development, a good brood pattern, and brood in all three stages.  Look for signs of pests and disease.  You are also looking for queen cells of any type, drones, and lastly the queen.   Look for freshly drawn comb, and food stores, and ratio of food stores to brood (is the colony honey bound).  

    A crucial part of a Level 3 Inspection is observing the shape of the brood nest. The overall nest will shrink and expand through the seasons.

    So what does that look like?  When looking down on the frames, we should expect to see a seasonally appropriate bee coverage on the frames.  And we should also expect to see a commensurate amount of debris on the mite tray.  If we remove a frame from the center of the brood nest, it should have brood in the center, with a line of pollen around it and honey on the outer edge. 

    Some things you would hope to see are:

    • Eggs and larvae
    • Fresh wax with many contiguous eggs. Worker eggs are typically adjacent to worker larvae. 
    • Larvae in fresh cells. Larvae cells are typically adjacent to capped brood. They are curled and should be in a bath of worker jelly. 

    Another useful skill is being able to read the history of the comb on a frame. You do this by looking for honey, emerged worker cells, worker brood, and drone brood (inspect for mites). 

    While doing a Level 3 Inspection, one of the most critical aspects is the productivity and health of the queen.  If there is a queen failure, you may see eggs, but they could be unfertilized or even the result of a laying worker colony. You will also be looking fo queen cells.

    Types of Queen Cell: Queen cells generally look like an unshelled peanut hanging vertically off the frame. They typically hang from the face of the frame or at the bottom. The cells on the face are typically supersedure cells, and the cells at the edges (most often the bottom edge) are typically swarm cells.  However, cell type is context based:  If a  hive is not queenright and not full, a queen cell on the bottom might well be a  supersedure cell. Similarly, if the hive is queenright and full, a queen cell in the middle might well be a swarm cell

    Emergency (Supercedure) Cells (Figure/cell #6) are built when the queens has suddenly failed.  These cells are build from existing worker cells, not from queen cups. This causes them to be tilted from vertical, and to appear shorter. 

    Supersedure Cells (Figure/cell #1- Top) are made when the colony senses an issue with the resident queen (reduced pheremone) and goes about replacing her. This might start with a contingency queen cup or if more urgent, an emergency cell will be made from an existing worker cell. 

    Swarm Cells (Figure/cell #1- Bottom) are build as part of the colony reproduction cycle. Once a swarm cell has an egg, the swarm process has truly begun. You can preempts this by performing colony splits, but once the cell is capped, the colony might swarm even after the split. Swarm cells are easy to miss, but shaking the frame can help. Recognizing cells is important, and in your search for them you hope to also find the queen.

    A colony preparing to swarm, goes through several stages over a nominal 3 week period.  The sound of the colony changes over this period, possibly providing a clue of an imminent swarm.  It is widely believed that it is too late to stop a swarm once the cell is capped. Recognizing cells is important, and in your search for them you hope to also find the queen.

    Finding the queen:

    • Remove and inspect outside frames first, and after inspection, place them in a spare nuc hive (or frame rest).  This cuts the problem down and reduces chasing the queen from frame to frame. 
    • As you inspect the remaining frames, space them apart after the inspection to further reduce chasing the queen.
    • Combs with fresh eggs are the best bet for finding the queen.
    • Before removing a frame, look down into the space between the frame and its neighbor. You can sometimes find her this way. 
    • Look for the retinue (attendants)  pattern that surrounds the queen.
    • Virgin queens have smaller abdomens than laying queens, and they move much faster.  

    This concludes the hive inspection blog, and hopefully leaves you more confident in your approach next time you need to analyze the status of your hive.

    Back to blog