I know that most beginner beekeeper books say that you must inspect often to maintain healthy hives. I have also heard many hobby beekeepers say that the part of beekeeping that is the most enjoyable for them is the hive inspection. I personally, have never understood any of this. As a hobby beekeeper, what I want most of all is to have healthy, thriving bee colonies. My bees do so much for me. They help my garden to flourish. They give me honey. They help my fruit trees and flowers. They ask for absolutely nothing in return. But if they could ask for something, it would probably be for me to invade their home less often. I have found that I can derive great pleasure from visiting my bees and simply watching them come and go from the hive entrance. My bees visit me often, everywhere on my property. I find myself stopping the lawn mower to wait for one to leave that dandelion, or waiting to turn on my tablesaw in the shop because there's a girl of mine down in there checking things out! I don't feel the need to pull their house apart just to satisfy my curiosity or cure my boredom. They mean much more to me than that.
For centuries man has kept bees. It is only since the advent of the modern beehive that man has been able to open and disassemble the bees' home and then put it back together again. This in itself can be a beautiful thing. It can be of great benefit to the beekeeper and to the bees that a beehive can be manipulated in this way. But to do regular hive inspections just for the sake of doing them is just asking for trouble. As a beekeeper, I know what it's like to wonder what's going on in the hive. I, too, get the urge to open it up and see if everything is OK. Can I find the queen? Are there eggs? Larvae? Pupae? Do I see a lot of mites? Is there evidence of disease? All of these are the concerns of a good beekeeper, one who loves his or her bees. It is perfectly natural to want to know the answers to these questions.
Unfortunately, hive inspections rarely answer all of these questions and a beekeeper is often left wondering if he or she is missing something. Or he may find something totally unexpected and not know what to do. Then there are a whole new set of questions. Am I sure there's a queen? Am I sure there's not a queen? Should I buy a new queen and introduce her? Should I destroy the supersedure or swarm cells? The beekeeper might feel pressure to act based on what he knows or thinks he knows. Interventions of this sort often lead to problems, not to mention that inspections often lead to robbing and may even spread disease from a sick hive to a healthy one.
The mere act of inspecting disrupts the bees' work. Every time a beekeeper opens and inspects a hive, the bees' work is set back 1-2 days, due to what Warré called "unnecessary and harmful overwork". In the course of the summer, inspections may lead to one's bees losing a week of productivity, which could easily amount to twenty lbs. of lost honey.
One of the biggest issues that comes up during inspections is what to do about crooked combs. Whether you are using a Warré hive, a framed hive without foundation or some other type of top bar hive, bees will occasionally build crooked combs. It's just a fact of beekeeping. Many beekeepers refer to these combs as being "incorrectly drawn". This is not the case. The combs have simply been drawn out in a way that is not what we have hoped for or expected. People who want to inspect their hives regularly are always deeply troubled by these combs, of course, because crooked combs make inspecting very difficult or impossible. Now, I want to make something very clear. Crooked combs cannot be "fixed" without causing major destruction to the nest, killing bees, crushing eggs, killing brood, jeopardizing the health of the entire colony and angering all of the bees! If inspecting your hive regularly is harmful (it is), then trying to straighten crooked combs is one of the worst things you could do. Remember that with a Warré hive, any box containing crooked combs will eventually be filled with honey and then harvested. The box can then simply be turned upside down and the combs easily removed for processing by crushing and straining. In a Warré hive, crooked combs don't hurt anyone, least of all the bees. Leave them alone!
The bottom line on inspecting is this. If your bees are foraging and bringing pollen and nectar back to the hive all day long on every nice day, they're raising brood. If they aren't, they may be queenless. But if they are queenless, they are likely in the process of replacing her. The new queen will mate and all will be well. Another outcome is unlikely. I have heard some "experts" say that 20% of colonies fail at raising a new queen. My experience tells me that this is absolute nonsense. The figure is probably more like 2% if the hive is not inspected regularly, as regular inspecting greatly increases the chance of failure.
It is important to watch for excessive varroa mite populations and to treat for varroa at least once a year. Please learn all about this by clicking here.
Now, if you have recently hived a package or a swarm into a standard Warré hive or into an octagonal top-bar hive and you're just itchin' to know what's going on, click here.
If you really want to learn about bees and the internal workings of the hive; if you want to be able to look at eggs, larvae, etc., then you want to purchase a modified Warre hive. Take a look at this video to learn more.
Remember that when bees are kept in a more natural way than the way that commercial beekeepers keep them, real problems within the hive are actually rare! I think a wise beekeeper said it best when he said "Bees need beekeepers like fish need bicycles".