Top 10 Tips for Beginners
Every beekeeper was once a newbee, just beginning the learning curve. The initial exposure is one of fun, excitement and fascination leading to intimidation, reluctance and finally the “Ah ha” moment of confidence. How does the new beekeeper get to the “Ah ha” level of this new learning curve?
Begin with: Understanding Who You Are As a Beekeeper and Why You Want To Keep Bees.
Ask yourself: What do you expect for you and for your bees from this experience? What do you expect from you and from your bees as a result of this experience? Do you want to be a traditional beekeeper, learning by the book or do you want to learn through your own trial and error? Reinventing the wheel is never a good idea when practicing good animal husbandry. Some lessons are easily learned and some come with a price. Beekeeping should be something that is fun and not something discouraging. You can responsibly have fun beekeeping while understanding that learning takes time. There are lots of reasons to raise honeybees. Maybe you want them as pollinators for your garden or maybe for honey production. Maybe you want to be part of saving the honeybees or to make some money from the products. Regardless of the reason, understanding the “why” is a necessary part of understanding the “how.” I encourage you to adopt the following tips as you learn and pursue the “Ah ha moment.”
Tip 1: Start by learning about bees and then learn about beekeeping. The more you learn about the biology and behavior of the bee, the more you will understand about trying to manage them. Once you understand their goals, you will better understand your responsibilities as a beekeeper.
Tip 2: Two hives are better than one. Managing two colonies is not more difficult than managing one but the advantages are Great! The ability to compare colonies side by side is invaluable to spot whether a colony is surviving or thriving. How do you know if a single colony is doing great or poorly if you have no baseline to work with or compare to? Having 2 or more colonies allows you to share not only “groceries” but also bees, brood and honey!
Tip 3: Be consistent when expanding your hive equipment. Try using the same size box for all brood rearing. The same is true for honey storage. Equipment consistency is important in growing colonies, splitting colonies and in harvesting honey. Regardless of the box size used, be consistent. Deeps are usually preferred for brood rearing when using traditional Langstroth hive equipment, but medium boxes are acceptable if the colony is properly managed. The reverse is also true that mediums are traditionally used as honey supers in small scale beekeeping, but deeps can also be used. The ability to interchange equipment between colonies is both cost effective and practical.
Tip 4: Understand and practice the 75% rule of beekeeping. It’s generally accepted that any brood box or honey super must be relieved of overcrowding pressure when reaching the 75% full status on the condition that a nectar flow is in progress. Bees like to be crowded but not so much so that swarming is initiated. Randy Oliver of Scientific Beekeeping says it best in describing the Beekeepers Dilemma “The greater the population of a colony, the greater proportion of workers that can be involved in nectar foraging, comb building and converting nectar into honey.” The challenge is how to maximize colony population yet minimize the swarming urge. Take away- most colonies not given a second deep box for colony expansion will likely swarm.
Tip 5: Swarming? Let it “bee” or Stop It! Swarming is how a colony reproduces, expands or perpetuates the species. Do we have the right or responsibility to stop or influence this natural event? Expansion will occur with or without our help in all healthy colonies. Can we as beekeepers assume the responsibility of managing this expansion? The answer is absolutely and responsibly YES. We don’t want to watch our bees fly away in a swarm. As beekeepers, we can simulate a swarm by artificially making a split, effectively dividing the colony to relieve expansion pressure. In doing so, we have the benefit of not only artificially creating and managing a swarm but also keeping the bees “at home” for apiary expansion. Inside tip- First year queens are very unlikely to swarm.
Tip 6: To exclude or not to exclude, that is the question! The use of queen excluders is a topic of great disagreement. Keep the queen where we want her to be or trust that she knows what she’s doing. Once a colony is strong enough for the beekeeper to consider adding a honey super, the decision has to be made. Yes, means you allow her the opportunity to lay eggs in a box dedicated to honey storage, potentially contaminating one or more frames. No, means she may be excluded from expanding her brood nest potentially resulting in a swarm. We are of the belief that excluders should initially be avoided if wax building is just beginning in the honey supers (new foundation). Once several frames have been mostly drawn, install the excluder to protect the stored honey. Remember the inside tip, first year queens are not likely to swarm. Some beekeepers believe queen excluders slow the honey building process down referring to them as “honey excluders.” For those, consider using an upper entrance and an excluder; allowing the excluder to do its job but also giving the foragers a door above it. So, queen excluders? The answer is Both Yes and No. There is no right or wrong answer.
Tip 7: To re-queen or not to re-queen, that is the question! Honeybee queens can live really long lives – 3,4,5 and even 6 years. Young queens, those in years one and two, are at their absolute best. As a queen ages, her queen pheromone releases decline, her egg laying diminishes and brood patterns may potentially become irregular. As beekeepers, we have the ability to control not only the ages of our queens but both the positive and negative traits of the queens within our colonies. Inside Tip- The proactive approach to queen management is to initiate planned and controlled requeening. Manage your colonies and bee the beekeeper.
Tip 8: Hive inspections, what, why and when? Hive inspections are a beekeeper’s opportunity to assess the health and well-being of a honeybee colony. We classify hive inspections as hive checks or deep dives. Hive checks should occur every 7-10 days and deep hive dives should occur quarterly, 4 times a year. A hive check provides the beekeeper with an assessment of colony health by “outside observation” and a “quick peek” of a frame or two. A hive dive is the beekeepers scheduled opportunity to examine, manipulate and observe things such as brood pattern, resource needs and disease and pest management. Hive dives are 100% necessary for responsible colony management and may be warranted more often if the need arises.
Tip 9: Varroa mites are the Enemy! Learn about these parasites and be proactive in controlling them. “Doing nothing about Varroa mites is not an option. Honeybees are not capable of surviving or thriving unless the beekeeper prevents Varroa from reaching damaging levels.” (Honeybee Health Coalition)
Tip 10: Understand the rules of successful beekeeping. Bees require a warm and dry home, access to abundant food resources and pest and disease management. Meet these requirements and you are on the way to the “Ah ha” moment of becoming a successful beekeeper.