The skill of reading a frame is a skill that will benefit all beekeepers. To look at 1 – 3 frames and get a good sense of a colony’s being is vital.
As we have discussed in other articles, you can learn some good information by looking at the hive from the outside, examining the hive from the underside of the lower brood box and bottom board, and opening the hive to examine a few frames.
So what does a honey bee frame tell you?
Studying a frame, normally a brood frame, can help you address the following questions.
Are there adequate food sources of pollen and nectar/honey?
Good nutrition is a vital aspect of honey bee health. Nutrition can affect the colony, adults, or larval.
Within the larval cells, do you see a pool of worker/royal jelly, or is food being rationed? A spotty brood pattern can be connected to low nutrition needs, as nurse bees will cannibalize larvae or eggs at these times.
Also, the size of the colony, along with the season, will help you understand the food needs of the colony. For example, a 5 Frame NUC with a single frame of honey & pollen with available nectar and pollen sources to forage will be fine. However, if they are in a summer dearth that will last many weeks, feeding may be appropriate in this case.
Do I see evidence of diseases or pests?
Here is a list of things to look for on a frame:
Varroa on honey bees, deformed wing virus, twitching, discoloration of brood cappings (black, greasy, sunken, or punctured), webbing, feces (from honey bees or other sources), discoloration of larvae (are they purely white with a nice wet look, or are they yellow/black/green, dried, or dead).
You can reference our article for a more in-depth look into this (Honey Bee Disease Identification Chart).
How does the brood pattern of the queen look?
This is a tricky one, so don’t jump to any conclusions too quickly, or you may inadvertently kill an actual good queen. A study was published in January 2019 that indicated that brood pattern was not linked to poor queen quality (Is the Brood Pattern within a Honey Bee Colony a Reliable Indicator of Queen Quality?)
Rather, there seems to be a correlation to disease or other colony factors that are at play, but more research will be needed. A colony with good hygiene may have a spotty-looking brood pattern and live through the year, and a nice-looking brood pattern may die because of an increase in Varroa or disease.
Even subspecies plays a role in this, as Russian Honey Bee’s brood pattern fluctuates based on nutritional input into the colony; in times of dearth, poor brood patterns can be seen, and in times of a flow these brood pattern may improve (Commercial Management of ARS Russian Honey Bees).
Now, I am not saying you should ignore brood patterns, as they can indicate issues. Still, brood patterns should be linked with other indicators such as low food stores, disease, high incoming food stores (backfilling), hygienic behavior, queen supersedures/queen replacements, or colony growth. This will help you get a better grasp on the needs of your particular colony. Good notes taking of your hive is crucial to correct future potential issues.
What are the stages of the brood?
Do you see a single egg in the center of the cell in a uniform expanding pattern? Or do you see spotty egg laying, multiple eggs in each cell, or a complete lack of eggs?
These can point to issues within the colony that may need to be corrected.
Do you see all stages of brood, from eggs to capped worker cells? A queen tends to lay from the center outward, so you very well may see different stages of growth with that pattern.
Do you see drone cells in worker-size cells? This may be an indication of a drone laying queen or a laying colony.
These questions and observations should be over your mind with every frame you examine. This will take time, so don’t get discouraged if you miss some items during your inspections. Reading frames takes practice, and we are all learning.
In addition to this article, we have a video that covers this topic as well titled “Learning How To Read A Brood Frame.”