two years in and some advice on handling brood frames

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Sorry, no photos on the blog!
This is aimed at bee-keepers with one or two years experience who may feel that bee-keeping is not as easy as it appeared! None of what follows is intended as anything other than tips for an easier life. My methods will not suit everyone so please pick out the parts that are relevant to you and adapt them if necessary to suit your own situation.

The first inspection is nearly on us. If you are still wary about looking in your hives then take heart from the fact that the first inspection is usually the easiest. Your bees will tend to allow you entry with little problem however if you upset them now then they may not be so forgiving next time so it is good to start the way you mean to continue. If it is not warm enough to wear a T shirt without feeling cold then it is too cold to open the hive. Be patient, there is no rush for this first opening of the year.

To try and help you keep things calm and enjoyable I am going to explain how I would dismantle a hive with a single brood box. Take from this what you will, some of my methods may be frowned upon by others but they work for me! All my hives have frames running from front to back so if you have yours running from side to side then adjust the inspection as necessary.

Before you even get near your hive get your smoker going properly. I rarely use mine but I always have it lit just in case. It should have had a nice winter clean and be ready for use with all the holes clear and not full of tar or spiders!

I puff a small amount of smoke across the front of the entrance and whilst it has little effect it is my way of saying to the bees, ‘here I am’. These rituals help you to be methodical about what you do. I also talk to my bees, explaining to them what I am doing. It helps keep me calm, reminds me of what I am actually opening the hive for and confirms hereditary madness in my family!

Stand to the side of the hive with the sun behind you. That helps you to direct the sun into the cells so you can see eggs and larvae. Never stand in front of the entrance. Remove the roof quietly and gently and place it to one side. The next piece of equipment is the crown board. This should have no open holes in it. If it does then it is a ‘feeder board’. I block any holes with a piece of plastic or glass unless I am feeding the hive and now I can call it a ‘crown board’ again (Jargon!). After a long winter this crown board will be stuck hard to the top of the brood box. Gently break the seal on all four sides but don’t lift the crown board straight up or you may lift the frames inside too. Put your hands on two opposite corners of the board and securing the brood box underneath with the palms of your hand twist the crown board gently clockwise (or anti clockwise) with your fingers. This will break the seals between the frames and the board. Now gently start to lift the crown board from the back having a quick look underneath to make sure it is free of the frames. Don’t forget you are suddenly letting light into your dark hive so be slow. If you suddenly flood the hive with light the bees may react. At this point a gentle puff of smoke may help but resist the urge unless you need to. Free any frames with the blade of your hive tool if necessary but the twisting action should have helped to free them.

The next most important thing to do is to check the bees on the underside of the crown board to make sure the queen is not lurking there. If the queen is on the crown board gently place her back in the brood box. I then place the crown board leaning up against the front of the hive stand so that any bees can crawl upwards and back in through the hive entrance. Later in the year when using supers I will leave the crown board on top of the supers but at the moment you don’t want to leave that crown board where a missed queen cannot find her way back easily into the hive.

Don’t make any quick moves across the top of the hive. If you do you may find bees attacking your hand. Move your hands round the sides of the hive. Be calm, be slow, tell them what you are about to do! You now need to remove the end frame closest to you. I use a J hive tool. It is designed so that the J part goes under one frame and the cut out piece rests on the adjacent frame allowing you to lever the frame on the J part upwards slightly, breaking any seals. (Another thing maybe no one told you!)(Photo 4). I do this on both ends of the frame to free it up. I now gently lift the frame out taking care not to role the bees. If you have a dummy frame then remove that first which gives you even more room.

I personally do not like using frame rests that clip onto the side of the hive. I like to keep all my bees over the brood box so I lay my first frame gently over the far half of the hive with the top bar facing me. Photo (1) I have checked it for the queen and she is unlikely to be on this frame but if she was she could just crawl back onto the frames below her. Any dripping nectar keeps the bees occupied and the frame keeps half of the hive dark and calm.

On this first check of the season I would be looking for stores, eggs and any signs of disease and I must remember to do this on each frame. Seeing the queen is a bonus. (Finding the queen is for a later edition). It is easy, as a relative beginner, to just remove the frames and put them back and forget to making any observations! I carry a marker pen and can mark any frames that I am concerned about. It reminds me which frames they are on my next inspection.

I now have room to remove and check the next frame. Presuming all is well I need to return it to the hive and here I do something that I know will raise a few eyebrows. I place the second frame back where the first frame used to be against the wall of the hive. (Photo 2)As I check each subsequent frame they go back into the hive in their new position, one frame space up from where they came out. The first frame which I laid on top of the hive will need moving to the other side of the hive half way through the inspection. I simply turn it over leaving the top bar in the centre of the hive. (Photo 3) When I have checked all the frames I return this frame into the remaining space at the far end of the hive.

Why do I do the above? Each frame only gets moved once, no pushing them back to their original position risking injuring or killing a queen and disruption is minimal, As they are put back into the hive I can ensure they are pushed together properly with no gaps knowing they are not going to be moved again. These outer frames usually only contain stores. If I come across a frame that needs replacing then, when it gets to the end position, I simply remove it and replace it. Over a period of eleven inspections this ‘conveyor belt’ action lets me replace any frames I need to.

Hopefully you will have seen stores and brood in some stages if not ‘brood in all stages’ (BIAS). It is unlikely that at this stage that you will require a queen excluder or a super but if you ‘nadired’ a super (Put it under the brood box for the autumn to allow them to move uncapped stores upwards) and it is now empty of stores and brood, you may want to remove it now for cleaning and using as a super later in the year. If there is brood in this bottom super then it can be dealt with by being put above a queen excluder when the weather warms. Make sure the queen is not in the super and allow the brood to emerge and it can then be used for honey in the normal way. Early in the season there should be no problem of any emerging drone brood getting stuck above the excluder.

If you work on a double brood box system then you may chose to inspect both boxes. On removing the top box I would place it on an eke so that I would not crush the queen if she happened to be on the bottom of the frames as I put it down. If you feel that one brood box is not enough for your bees then I would always suggest you go for a double brood box rather than a brood and a half. It makes it much easier when trying to split hives or swap frames around. Keep it simple.

Finally check the floor. Clean it if necessary although I always replace mine with a nice clean one in spring.

To sum up, don’t inspect before the weather is warm enough. Be slow and methodical. Don’t forget what you are looking for and enjoy what you are looking at. Create a system that works for you and your bees and don’t over-smoke your hive.

This months tip, a self igniting blow torch for relighting your smoker is worth a thousand matches!

Next month a few tips on using supers.

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