Questions to ask when inspecting a colony
When inspecting a colony there is a lot to see, but there are several important things you should be checking to ensure the well - being of the colony. In his book "Guide to Bees and Honey", Ted Hooper suggests five questions you should be asking. Beekeepers have been including these points in their inspections for a long time, but to the best of my knowledge Ted Hooper was the first to list them. They have become known as "Hooper's Five" and are as follows:-
It is important to try to match your bees with the size of the brood box - you should have already decided if you want to use prolific or non - prolific bees and the hive type. If you have a prolific queen and wish to work on a small brood box, such as a WBC, Smith or National, then you can requeen the colony, add another box or remove brood. Early in the spring or summer prolific colonies can get large, and although there may not be much nectar coming in, you will need to provide space for the bees. Don't forget that one frame of brood becomes three frames of bees when it emerges.
In the development stage the brood is in the egg stage for 3 days, larva 6 days and sealed 12 days, so you know the ratios they should be in. If the colony is expanding there will be more eggs, when it is reducing, as happens towards the end of the season, there should be less.
A young queen will often lay well into the autumn. You should be aware that native type queens will often reduce and/or go off lay if there is a nectar dearth, but more prolific queens, Italians in particular, will usually carry on laying flat out.
Experience and observation should tell you much about the brood area. In general there shouldn't be empty cells in the brood area in the early and middle part of the season, apart from those that have just been vacated by emerging brood, until they are cleaned out by the workers. Towards the end of the season there will be empty cells where the queen is reducing laying. If there are empty cells in one colony when there is no reason for them and there aren't in other colonies, then you need to look for an answer.
Queen cells in the summer may not always mean the colony intends to swarm. Since Ted Hooper wrote his book we have experienced queen problems. These show in a number of ways, including queen failure, resulting in reduction in laying and the building of supersedure cells in the summer.
If you do find queen cells, you need to decide what type they are and why they are there, as they may not be swarm cells. Whatever the situation, you will need to deal with them, as a colony may swarm on supersedure and emergency cells.
Since Ted Hooper wrote his book varroa has arrived in the U.K. and Ireland. Not only should we check at each inspection, but we should be aware of the varroa levels in our colonies at all times. It is now important to look at the bees as they may have varroa mites on them, or be suffering from one of the viruses that are aggravated by varroa.
The notes after the points aren't Ted Hooper's, but mine. "Guide to Bees and Honey" has been a leading text book for some time and I would be surprised if many who read these notes haven't read what Ted had to say about the subject.
An inspection of a colony is most effective if you have gained enough knowledge to help you understand and recognise what you see. Beekeepers need to understand that all colonies and types of bees aren't the same. Some build up quicker than others, or perhaps need less food. These things are only learnt by experience and it will help to know your colonies and the conditions under which you keep them.
In the U.K and Ireland the weather must be taken into account, along with the length of time between inspections. If you are working on 7 day inspections it is easier than 14 day inspections, especially if the weather is at extremes of cold or warm. In two cool weeks when there is little nectar coming in, some colonies can consume a large amount of food, yet two weeks of warm weather can mean a couple of full supers. This becomes much more of a problem with a nucleus, because in a short time they can run short of food, or fill up the box and prepare to swarm.
Ted Hooper suggests the answers to these five questions will give you all the information required to work your colonies, but I think there is a danger that some may not be encouraged to look further. I rely a lot on observation and "reading" a colony, even before smoking the entrance - they are telling you something all the time. There is a lot going on inside a hive and a keen eye will spot it. As there are a lot more issues with beekeeping than there were when Ted Hooper wrote the book, I suspect if he was writing it today he would have added to the five points, but they are good for teaching, even if we do modify them a bit.
It concerns me that "Hooper's Five" is often used simply as a tick list and once they have been satisfied the beekeeper looks no further. In my view it should be seen as only part of a colony inspection and the handler should observe what else is going on in the colony - there is sure to be a lot more.
As I'm sure you can gather from my writings and lectures I believe that improving our bees is a very important part of beekeeping, often overlooked to the detriment of all. I encourage beekeepers to assess their colonies at each inspection, against criteria they set themselves, so they know which colonies to use queen cells from when the opportunity arises and which to cull. This takes little time and can be recorded on record sheets. In my view "colony assessment" should be added to the list and as well as "Hooper's Five", perhaps we should add "Patterson's Sixth"!