First step is just to sit quietly at the hive entry for a few minutes to observe patterns. Patterns of how many bees are coming and going to forage. How much pollen they are returning with. What color (plant type) is the pollen? How much, what kind of noise the colony is making. How many dead bees are strewn on the ground below the hive entrance, and whether it appears they may have died about the same time. Examine stain streaks on the exterior hive body walls for signs of nosema (which can involve diarrhea).
Sometimes I'll place a stethoscope gently against the sides of the hive boxes to determine how tightly clustered they are, if at all, and if so, where. That will help guide which frames to remove, or not, for examination when I open the hive in a few minutes.
(two sidebar boxes are from unsuccessful colonies)
Opening the top of the hive to examine the "super" (the third, topmost box...the bees get to keep all the honey stores they put up for winter feeding, in the lower two boxes). The super is about 1/3 full, since I used it to replace the prior super a few weeks ago. If the colony looks healthy today I'll hope to harvest this honey soon. If not, I'll leave it for winter backup panty, then take it in the spring when forest flowers bloom with pollen to make new honey.
Just a close-up view of the super box. Not much action up here because it's early and crisply cool still this morning.
I performed only a cursory examination in order not to keep the hive open too long. The Ladies seemed to be doing well, so no need to get them all upset with a detailed exploratory exam. I had prepared a 50/50 sugar/water mix, and cleaned this plastic hive-top feeder, ahead of time in case of deciding to install it. I decided to install it. Partly because the earlier entry-point observation revealed rather little pollen arriving on the bees' rear tibia (corbicula).
Aluminum (water proof) roof installed, with rock to avoid wind blowing off the roof. Note the hive tools in lower left. (One of them thinks it used to be a roof repair pry bar).
Well fed, plenty room to maneuver inside the hive, warm sun rays on a crisp fall day. What more could we do to comfort these incredibly hard working Ladies?