Beekeeping Tips I Wish I’d Known
The world of beekeeping is magical, immense, and a little overwhelming. I’ve been keeping bees for over a decade, and I’m still learning things constantly. A common complaint is that there’s so much information out there that it’s hard to know where to start. What’s more is that if you ask one-hundred beekeepers a question, you will likely get a hundred answers. No wonder new beekeepers are overwhelmed. For you, I say, let the bees be your guide. Here are ten beekeeping tips I wish I’d known when I first picked up the smoker.
Beekeeping Tip 1: Bees’ First
Before picking up a beekeeping book, find a good book or course on honeybee biology, evolution, and behaviour. Start by learning about bees, especially honeybees in the wild, then learn about beekeeping. The more you learn about honeybees, the better you’ll be at tending to them. A good beekeeper asks, what are the bees trying to do, and how can I help them? I can not emphasize this tip enough. If you can understand honeybees, you can spot lousy beekeeping advice from a mile away. You will make mistakes, but at least you’ll understand why it was a mistake.
Resources on Honeybee Biology and Behaviour
- Online Course, All About Honeybee, Dustin Bajer
- Book, The Lives of Bees, Thomas D Seeley
- Book, The Bee: A Natural History, Noah Wilson-Rich
Beekeeping Tip 2: Mind Your Bee Space
Ninety percent of the hive you see on the market will use frames. Frames are removal components on which the bees build their comb. Without frames, the bees attach their comb to the hive itself, rendering inspections impractical, if not impossible. Movable frames were conceived by Lorenzo Langstroth when he noticed that bees wouldn’t build in spaces that are 3/8 of an inch wide. Langstroth called this gap bee space. This discovery allowed Langstroth to design a frame with a 3/8″ gap around it – preventing them from getting glued to the hive. The invention of the movable frame was the moment that the practice of tending bees moved from bee-having to bee-keeping. Movable frames enable hive inspections, swapping frames between boxes, creating splits, and using an extractor.
Frames are designed for optimum bee space, so you’ll get the best results when you keep frames tight together and centred in the box. The gap between frames is bee space, resulting in straight comb with less bridging (when bees connect adjacent comb).
Bee space also comes in handy when building components. Anything you don’t want the bees to glue down should be 3/8 of an inch from the nearest component. The distance between the top of the frames and the inner cover – bee space. The gap between the floor and the nearest frame – bee space. The bees tend to fill gaps greater than bee space with comb and gaps less than bee space with propolis.
Beekeeping Tip 3: Go Foundationless (Eventually*)
Foundation is a ridged sheet of wax or wax-coated plastic that sits within a frame and forces the bees to build straight comb of uniform size, direction, and thickness. Uniformity ensures that the comb aligns with the frames and is easy to remove and inspect. All foundation will have a stamped honeycomb pattern sized for worker brood, though drone foundation does exist. Sounds great, right? Well, yes, but there are some disadvantages too.
Given a choice, honeybees prefer building combs from scratch rather than on a plastic or wax foundation. When building comb in nature, honeybees hang from each other in a process called festooning. This process orients bees vertically and stimulates wax production. In my experience, bees draw out comb faster without foundation – which is ironic because one supposed advantage of foundation is that the bee “don’t have to work as hard.”
The real advantage of letting the bees draw their comb is that they have total control over what to build. Remember the stamped honeycomb pattern on the foundation? It attempts to force the bees into making more productive worker comb. When bees draw out their own comb they can decide whether to draw worker or drone brood and where. According to Dr. Thomas D Seely, in The Lives of Bees, honeybees want to dedicate about twenty percent of their comb to drones. Worker foundation forces the bees to add drone cells wherever they can – typically between frames, along the walls, and under the lid. Foundationless beekeeping removes all of that and lets the bees build drones where they want them. A big advantage is that natural worker and drone cell patterns appear to be better at regulating the hive’s internal temperature.
Transitioning to Foundationless Beekeeping
I say eventually* because foundation has its advantages – specifically the straight and uniform comb that results. You can get beautiful comb on foundationless frames, but bees are less concerned with straight lined than we are. To encourage honeybees to draw out uniform comb on foundationless frames, place empty frames between dawn-out frames. Being sandwiched between straight comb encourages more straight comb. But, this is difficult to do when you’re starting out and don’t have any comb to begin with.
For this reason, I recommend starting with foundation and transitioning to foundationless beekeeping by adding empty frames between two drawn-out frames.
Foundationless In the Bottom, Foundation In The Top
Another advantage of foundation is that it holds up better in an extractor. Cell size and thermoregulation aren’t as important in honey supers, so using foundation in honey supers and foundationless frames in the brood might be the best of both worlds.
Beekeeping Tip 4: Use A Single Box Size
Using deep boxes for brood and medium boxes for honey supers is standard practice, but you can save yourself some hassle by using one size for everything. When you’re using the same size box, the only difference between a brood box and a honey super is what’s in them. This is an approach I’ve taken in the design of the Beecentric hive.
- Only one size of box and frame to worry about.
- You can pull resources from every part of the hive when making splits or nucs.
- In the fall, I can replace empty brood combs with frames of honey to ensure the bees have enough food for winter. This reduces my reliance on feeding.
- I can also prevent colonies from swarming by moving frames of honey up, making more room in the brood.
- Using different sizes for brood and honey can help prevent treatments from contaminating the honey by distinguishing between frames used for brood and those used for honey. Moving frames from the brood area to the honey super isn’t advisable if the brood frame was treated at any point. If you’re using one size of frame, it’s important that frames and boxes exposed to treatment are marked and not allowed to be used for honey.
If you’re using one size, should you use deep or medium boxes? I like medium boxes because they’re lighter and more manageable. A downside is that standard nucs a made on deep frames. I have made an adapter to convert a medium box into a deep.
Beekeeping Tip 5: Simulate Swarming
A swarm occurs when a hive runs out of space and divides in two like an amoeba. When this happens, the queen and order bees leave to find a new home. Swarming is how a colony reproduces, is one hundred percent normal, and is something the bees want to do. In addition to making more bees, swarming increases genetic diversity and causes a brood break that limits the growth capacity of many pests and diseases.
Fortunately, I do not need to let my bees swarm to get the benefits. As a beekeeper, I can simulate swarming by making splits or creating nucleus (nuc) colonies from my strongest hives. In my experience, strong colonies that aren’t split are extremely susceptible to diseases – especially varroa mites. For this reason, I consciously keep small colonies.
Swarm Simulated Split
Any split is going to reduce the amount of brood in the colony, but a swarm-simulated split is going to give you the largest possible brood break while ensuring you have strong colonies. Letting the bees requeen themselves introduced new genetics into my apiary.
- Wait until colonies have been producing drone bees for at least a week. This suggests that surrounding colonies should also be producing drones with which queens can mate.
- Move brood frames to a second hive box, and replace them with empty (ideally drown-out) frames.
- Find the queen and leave her in the original, now bloodless hive.
- Divide honey resources between the two colonies.
- Move the second hive to a new location.
One hive will have a queen and all the foraging bees but no brood. This colony is equivalent to a swarm of bees that has just moved into an empty hive. The second colony, the split, will be queenless but have tonnes of brood and resources. This colony is the daughter of the first and will have to make a new queen from one of the eggs they have.
The first hive won’t have any capped brood for 8 or 9 days, and the second won’t have any capped brood around day 20. Without caps to protect them, varroa mites are exposed and vulnerable to treatment.
Beekeeping Tip 6: Tending Mutt Bees
Most of our queens are bred for honey production and come from New Zealand and Hawaii. However, I’m fond of local mutts – genetic stock from surviving local bees. A mutt may never outperform a greyhound, but they tend to have fewer health problems.
You can breed mutts by splitting your strongest hives and letting them raise new queens, such as with the method above. When the new queen emerges, she’ll mate with up to twenty drones in your local areas.
Beekeeping Tip 7: Two Hives Is Better Than One
Setting up two hives may be more expensive, but it will give you more management options. If one hive goes queenless and has no eggs, you can supplement them from your healthy hive. A second hive lets you transfer honey, pollen, or brood from a stronger to a weak colony.
It’s important to remember that a colony is a living thing with a finite lifespan – winter and diseases are real. Zoning permitted, try for more hives than you want to keep. If you wish to have one hive, keep two. If you want ten colonies in the spring, go into winter with fifteen. But you can also have too many hives. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Beekeeping Tip 8: Keep Colonies Close But Not Close Together
The closer you can keep your hives, the better. I’m frequently tempted by land outside of the city where I can keep bees to my heart’s desire, but I know that the added travel time will mean that I won’t be checking them as often as I’d like. The more accessible your colonies are, the better care you’ll give them. I prefer my backyard, where I see them every day.
At the same time, avoid putting too many hives at a single location. According to a study done by Dr. Thomas D Seeley, wild hives tend to be about a kilometre apart. This distance probably helps prevent the spread of diseases such as varroa mites and foundbroods. As it turns out, when hives are next to each other, bees are bad at returning to the correct hive (a process called drift). Thus, the more hives in a location, the more susceptible all the hives are. Painting hives with different colours or patterns, facing them in different directions, or staggering them in the field are all strategies for reducing honeybee drift.
Beekeeping Tip 9: Consider the Meta-Hive
The health of your bees is intricately tied to the health of the bees in your surrounding area. Honeybee pests, diseases, and genetics drift between colonies. Thus, we have an ethical responsibility to maintain the health of our bees and to increase their genetic diversity.
An extension of this is keeping a clean bee yard. Unattended equipment can turn into a feeding frenzy for nearby colonies and an opportunity for diseases to spread; not only from the unattended equipment but also between colonies robbing the resources.
Beekeeping Tip 10: Join a Bee Community
As overwhelming as it may seem at times, know that there are people out there to help. Your region will likely have a beekeeper association or group of hobbyists that get together to troubleshoot and talk about their bees. I can not overemphasize how valuable a supporting community of beekeepers can be.
There are lots of forums for commercial beekeepers, but I couldn’t find many that cater to hobbyists. That’s why I created BeeComm, an online community to support beekeepers small-scale and backyard beekeepers. Learn more and join for free.
If you’re in Edmonton, check out 13 Steps to Start Keeping Bees in Edmonton.