Hive Health Check List

The BeeHolder, January 2011

Over the last month or two, I have had a number of calls from new beekeepers phoning to check about problems which they have encountered with their bees this season. As always, my advice is to get to know what normal healthy bees and brood look like and check if you are unhappy or not sure about what you see in your colony - quite often Sally or I will go and have a look at them with the beekeeper.

Inspecting the brood combs of a honeybee colony is the only way to determine the health and general condition of the colony. However, you have to know what you are looking at and what it means in order to make a diagnosis.

In general, a healthy brood comb simply 'looks healthy'. The brood cappings have a ‘digestive biscuit’ colour; the larvae are white, glistening and 'fat'. The cappings of the brood cells are uniform and the overall pattern is solid, with few holes. A good queen will start laying eggs in the lower centre of the combs and radiate out from there.

Once the oldest brood emerges, the queen lays in those cells, and the youngest brood on the comb will now be in the centre. Once the brood-rearing cycle gets underway in the spring or following the introduction of a new queen, all stages of brood should be found at each inspection.


There will be a Seasonal Bee Inspector in attendance in the Training Apiary at Gregynog most Saturday mornings between April 16th and October 15th

(phone day before visit to check)

The SBI will be there to answer questions and show the working of the hives. This is a unique opportunity for both novice and experienced beekeepers to upgrade beekeeping skills. The apiary will be run to produce Nucs for sale at a discount to MBKA members.


I came across this check list recently which would be helpful when inspecting your colonies. Here are some conditions you may observe during your brood inspections and their possible causes:

No eggs, no brood present
(a) Not brood-rearing season.
(b) No queen.
(c) New queen not yet laying.
(d) Extended shortage of pollen.

No eggs, but brood present
(a) Brood-rearing ceased - end of the season.
(b) Queen has died or colony is preparing to swarm
(c) Lack of pollen curtailed brood-rearing.

Test for Presence of a Queen
If there are no eggs and you can't determine if there is a queen present, put in a brood comb with young larvae from another colony. Check back in three days; if the suspect hive starts queen cells, it has no queen.

Eggs present, but no brood
Brood-rearing has just resumed after being halted for some reason.

Wet-looking pollen - in the centre of the broodnest
If there is no queen and during the off-season, pollen may be stored in the centre of the brood nest and can take on an unkempt look - wet or glazed over. When the workers anticipate needing the pollen to feed brood, they move the pollen and freshen it up and it has a dry look.

Clean, empty cells - in the centre of the broodnest
The opposite of the wet-pollen look. When the workers anticipate that brood cells will be needed for eggs, they move nectar and pollen out of the way and give the cells a polish.

Too many eggs per cell
(a) Young, inexperienced queen, usually settles down quickly to laying one egg per cell.
(b) Something happened to queen and laying workers developed.

Scattered brood
Same-age brood scattered over the comb, not in adjacent cells, means:
(a) A failing queen running out of sperm.
(b) Something is killing the brood. In early spring, cold nights when there are too few adult bees to keep the brood warm can result in chilled brood. Sometimes pesticides or poison pollen can cause scattered patterns.

Clue: Is only one colony showing the symptoms, or are several?

Raised cappings on worker cells
The cappings look like the ends of bullets. Cause: Drone brood is developing in worker cells, because:
(a) Queen has become a drone-layer. Usually her sperm reserves are depleted, due to her age.
(b) Laying workers; lay only infertile eggs, resulting in drones.

Raised cappings in drone cells
Normal drone brood has a 'bullet' look, but not as pronounced as when it is in worker cells. Normally, queens lay unfertilized eggs in the larger (both in circumference and depth) drone cells. These are frequently found around the bottom edges of the brood comb and in areas where the comb has been damaged. The presence of some drone brood indicates a vigorous, well-nourished colony.

Queen cells
Queen cells are constructed along a vertical plane, as contrasted with the horizontal plane of worker and drone brood cells. They somewhat resemble peanuts (in the shells).
(a) Queen cells near the centre of the comb, growing out of worker brood cells – these are replacement cells the workers have developed in emergency, loss of a queen.
(b) Queen cells everywhere, particularly near bottom of comb. This is swarm preparation - the old queen will soon depart with about half the bees (called the 'prime swarm').

Tip: For a quick check of swarm preparation, in a hive with two brood boxes, break the boxes apart and look along the bottom bars and bottoms of the combs in the top box. Most colonies preparing to swarm will show cells along comb bottoms.

Dead larvae (not white)
(a) Chilled due to cold snap (usually in spring) when there are too few adult bees to keep the brood warm.
(b) Died due to lack of care for some reason.
(c) Disease: Sacbrood, American foulbrood, European foulbrood. Call the Bee Inspector.
(d) Pesticide damage.

Mummified larvae
Older stage larvae turn white and hard . This is probably Chalkbrood.

Mouldy pollen
Soft, white stuff in pollen cells - probably due to insufficient hive ventilation.

What about mites?
After some training, you can pretty easily identify Varroa mites on adult bees' abdomens and on your open mesh floor tray. Also, you can uncap pupae and pull them out of the cells and check for dark Varroa attached to the white pupae. Varroa are especially attracted to drone brood and can often be found in the bottom end of the cells from which drone pupae are extracted. They may run out of the cells as pupae are being extracted.

Adapted from the Beehive, published by Northwest Ohio Beekeepers Association.
Spotted by Somerton BKA.

Incidentally the Welsh Society of Central Ohio is the most active Welsh cultural group outside Wales!

It is worth looking at their website