Beekeeping Tips I Wish I Had When I Started Keeping Bees
When it comes to keeping honeybees there’s a lot of contradictory advice. There’s an old saying that if you ask 100 beekeepers a question you’ll get 101 answers. A long time beekeeper even told me that bees can’t consumer honey – so I’m not sure why they’re making so much of the stuff. So how do you cut through the noise to find the beekeeping tips and tricks that will work best for you? Careful research and some trial and error. Here are 11 beekeeping tips I’d give anyone interested in keeping bees:
Beekeeping Tip 1: Bees First
Before you ever pick up a beekeeping book, pick up a book on honeybees biology, behaviour, and ecology. Learn about the honeybees – where they’re from, their behaviours, the three difference casts, their lifecycles. The more you can learn about bees the better the beekeeper you’ll make. Once you understand what bees do in the wild you’ll know how to manage them. You’ll also be able to spot bad beekeeping advice a mile away (remember the example from above).
Entire textbooks have been written about honeybees but I link these two – The Bee: A Natural History by Noah Wilson-Rich and Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley. Once you’re feeling confident with honeybee biology move on to a good beekeeping book. My favourite is The Practical Beekeeper by Michael Bush.
Beekeeping Tip 2: Use Frames
There are a lot of different hive designs out there but I’m going to strongly suggest you pick one with movable frames – such as those found in Langstroth hives. Why? Because the comb will stay secure and supported within the four sides of the frame. More importantly, you’ll be able to conduct proper hive inspections, swap frames between boxes or hives, and use an extractor.
Beekeeping Tip 3: Go Foundationless (eventually)
Honeybees build comb from glands on the underside of their abdomens. In my experience, bees prefer to build their own honeycomb – likely due to to the fact that it gives them more versatility in comb type (worker vs drone) and size (they’ll naturally build smaller cells). No foundation means one less expense.
The benefit of using foundation is that you get straight comb every time. To accomplish this without foundation, add a few drawn-out frames or frames with foundation in each new box. Or, start with foundation but add in foundationless frames as you expand.
Beekeeping Tip 4: Use One Size For Brood and Honey
Conventional hives use deep boxes for brood and medium or shallow boxes for honey supers. Save yourself the hassle and simplify your beekeeping practice by using one size of box for everything. One size of box means one size of frame. I find this especially helpful for splitting colonies or making nucs. When you’re using the same size of box for everything the only difference between a brood box and honey super is what’s in them.
If I can make one more suggest – use medium boxes. Queens love laying in them and they’re not too heavy to lift when full of honey. Even better – use 8 frame medium boxes as bees overwinter better in narrower boxes.
Beekeeping Tip 5: Don’t Exclude
Remember when I said 100 beekeepers would have 101 opinions? There’s at least that many thoughts on using a queen excluder. What’s my opinion? You don’t need it and neither do the bees. It might be important if you’re using different sizes of boxes for brood and honey but you’re not – so it isn’t. If you added a box above the brood and the queen moved into it than she clearly needed the space. Queen excluders artificially suppress the size of the brood and can lead to unnecessary swarming.
Beekeeping Tip 6: Swarming Is Natural All living thing want to reproduce – for honeybees, that’s swarming. A swarm occurs when a hive splits itself in two and half of the bees leave to find a new home. As a beekeeper, it’s not great to watch your queen and half your bees fly away. Fortunately, beekeepers can simulate this division by making a split or creating nucleus colonies. I split my strongest hives in the spring or whenever I see signs or swarming (swarm cells) early in the year. I tend to keep smaller hive as a result but it’s much easier than chasing after swarms. I also love watching queenless hives make new queens.
Beekeeping Tip 7: Don’t Be Afraid Of Local Mutts It’s not a secret that most of our queens come from breeding programs in New Zealand or Hawaii. Store bought queens are bred for honey production and (more recently) disease resistance. However, I’m fond of local mutts – genetic stock from surviving local bees. A mutt will never outrun a greyhound they tend to have fewer health problems.
I breed my own mutts by splitting my strongest hives and letting them raise their own queens. When the new queen emerges she’ll mate with drones in the local area. Unfortunately, you’ll won’t have any control of which drones she mates with – luck of the draw.
Beekeeping Tip 8: Two Hives Is Better Than One
Setting up two hives may be more expensive but it will give you the most options. A second hive gives you the option to transfer honey, pollen, or brood from a stronger or a weaker hive. If one hive goes queenless and doesn’t have any eggs to make a new queen you can supplement it from your healthy hive.
Beekeeping Tip 9: Keep’em Where You’ll See’em
The closer you can keep your hives the better. People temp me with land outside of the city where I can erect hives to my heart’s desire but the truth is that it’s less than ideal. The more accessible your hives are the better care they’ll get. I prefer my backyard where I see them every day.
Beekeeping Tip 10: Inspect Every 7-10 Days
A strong hive can run out of space, make queen cells, and swarm in less than two weeks. That’s why I inspect my bee regularly from spring to fall. An inspection includes opening the hive, checking that the bees have enough space, and physically removing and inspecting each frame of brood. I’m looking for eggs, larva, capped brood, queen cells, and any signs of stress or diseases. If I don’t see a healthy brood pattern, I start looking for the queen. I budget 30-45 minutes per hive but it generally doesn’t take me that long. You’ll get quicker and more efficient with practice.
Beekeeping Tip 11: Don’t’ Love Them To Death
If you’re anything like me you’ll want to peek inside your hive 10 times a day. Don’t. Needlessly opening the hive lets all the heat out and stresses the bees – especially when they first trying to get established.
As an extension of this tip – resist over-insulating your hives in winter. Ventilation over insulation. Wrapping a hive too tightly will cause moisture to build up inside the hive. Wet bees are dead bees. I’m convinced that an under-insulated hive will outsurvive an under-ventilated hive ever time. Fortunately, you can do both with a Warre-top quilt box.