Successful beekeepers learn early the importance of proper beehive management. That’s what beekeeping is all about – keeping honey bees healthy and productive. Knowing when to perform certain hive maintenance tasks gets better with experience. However, you must understand the basics that must be repeated throughout the year for healthy colonies.
As a Master Beekeeper, I have met many folks who think beekeeping is a “hands off” endeavor. But wait – bees have been doing their thing for a long time without any human help, right?
Yes, but keeping bees in man-made hives is a different thing all together. The goals of the bees do not always align with the goals of the beekeeper.
How to Maintain a Beehive
The beginning beekeeper has a lot to learn and it can feel overwhelming. Relax, take your time – you can not learn everything in one year.
Each beekeeper has a different idea of how much “bee work” one should do. I’ll give you the basic recommendations for good beehive maintenance – where you go from there is up to you.
Each teacher focuses on different things and it will only benefit your beekeeping adventure to learn from different people.
Perhaps you have completed the phase of buying bees, and setting up your hives. With the most important pieces of beekeeping equipment and supplies on hand – you are ready to learn all about hive maintenance.
Inspecting Your Beehives
Routine hive inspections are a must if you hope to be successful with your hives. A lot can be learned from observing the hive entrance (this is where any hive inspection begins), however you don’t really know what’s inside unless you look.
When to Inspect the Hive
Unless you have a new colony or a hive with problems (both deserve closer monitoring), plan to inspect your hive at least once a month.
Don’t go in there every day and drive your bees crazy. If the colony is disturbed too much – they may “abscond” or leave the hive.
Honey bees are very sensitive to weather conditions. Strive to plan inspections on warm days with sunny skies.
Workers will be out in the field – these bees collect resources the colony needs. The overall hive mood will be nicer.
Time of Day
Beehive management tasks should be performed in late morning or early afternoon when possible. Fewer older bees are in the hive to “get an attitude”. Of course, we have to work when our schedule allows – but strive for mid day hive tasks.
Things to Look
As your experience grows, you learn how to look for things that seem wrong or off. Make note of anything that look different to you in your record book or – beekeeping journal.
Even beekeepers who do not take honey still need to monitor the condition of their colonies. And, for those beekeepers who do have dreams of a honey harvest – patience is a virtue.
Not every hive produces excess honey each year. And, new hives often are not productive until their second year.
Plan ahead and learn all you can about honey harvesting so you will be ready when the big day arrives.
Handling Bees Safely
Before checking your hives, gather all the needed tools. Your bee smoker, hive tool and smoker fuel are the basics.
Protect yourself. It is the beekeeper’s choice as to how much protective beekeeping clothing to wear. Be comfortable-but feel safe too. Don’t let the naysayers keep you from wearing what you want to.
Honey bees respond to sound (vibrations), movement and smell. Move slowly as you walk through the bee yard or open a hive.
Avoid jerky motions or slamming parts of the beehive together. Strong scents should also be avoided around bees – perfume, etc.
Feeding Honey Bees
Getting new colonies off to a good start often requires providing extra nutrition. New colonies are starting with nothing. Providing extra food helps your bees to build comb faster.
Many beekeepers provide sugar water for bees to allow colonies with small populations to grow faster. However, most established hives will not need assistance unless the area is experiencing a nectar dearth.
But, beekeepers can feed their colonies extra pollen if natural sources as sparse. Dry pollen in an outside feeder is one method.
This is where good hive management methods rely on understanding the problems faced by your bees. Local conditions come into play.
Seasonal Hive Management
Good and bad things can happen with your hive at any time of year. But, some issues tend to arrives in certain seasons. And certainly, you will have more beekeeper tasks to perform during the warm months.
A time of growth, beekeeping in spring fills every beekeeper’s heart with hope. Those healthy over-wintered colonies are ready to explode in population.
And, these strong Spring colonies should be watched closely to ensure they don’t run out of food.
Swarming is a natural part of beekeeping where the colony splits and becomes 2 smaller colonies. Most beekeepers hope to reduce or prevent swarming as it reduces the honey harvest. Strive to give your bees room to grow and understand the triggers of honey bee swarming.
If the beekeeper hopes wants more colonies (and hopes to decrease swarms) – this is the time of year when splitting a beehive is an easy process. But, if you do it wrong or at the wrong time – both colonies are a risk.
Summer Hive Tips
In most regions, Summer hive management has several areas that need attention. Colony population is nearing it’s peak for most colonies.
Beehive inspections must focus on verifying the presence of a good laying queen. If the queen is not performing well – requeening or replacing her might be a smart move.
Colonies with queen problems may result in a hive with laying workers. This situation can be remedied if the problem is caught early on.
As the warm months build, varroa mite infestations are beginning to be a big concern. Monitor varroa levels in your colonies. Work to keep mite levels low as the Summer months go by.
Learn how to tell when you need to treat bees for mites. Otherwise, you may have a box of sick, “dead bees walking” before Fall.
There are several approved treatment methods for varroa mite treatment and control. Oxalic acid, pads of formic acid and others can be used for varroa. And, always double check to make sure your treatment worked.
Your region might experience a nectar dearth at any time – but especially in mid-late Summer. Observe colony conditions so you know when supplemental feeding is needed.
Take time to observe your hives, you may see a mysterious action that we call bees washboarding. It is a crazy looking movement that bees make on the surface of the hive. We really don’t know for sure why they do it!
Late Summer is also the time when strong colonies will kill and rob out weaker colonies. If you see bees fighting and wrestling at the hive entrance, you should take steps to stop robber bees!
Fall Hive Management
Has that sweet gentle hive of bees in your backyard become a holy terror? This is not uncommon in Fall. You need to consider some techniques for dealing with aggressive honey bee colonies. These strong late season bees know that Winter is coming.
Early Fall is the time to begin preparing colonies for Winter. Winterizing your hive may involve very little work or some serious intervention: feeding etc. Your location and climate plays an important role in exactly the steps to be taken.
If you live in a region with a long period of wet, cold weather – your hives might benefit from a quilt box. But, not every hive will need this piece of equipment. Bees are well equipped to deal with normal cold conditions.
With best hive management methods, we prepare bees before Winter cold. It is important to feed bees that need it.
Starving bees are considered an emergency! There are several ways to provide emergency food but plain sugar cakes for bees are one simple way.
Now, kick back and make plans for next season – make read a new beekeeping book or two.
Dealing with Winter Deadouts
In spite our your best efforts, the time will come that you lose a hive of bees. This often happens in late Winter.
Dead beehives often leave the beekeeper with a sense of failure. However, even the best beekeepers lose hives.
Inspect the dead hive and try to form a theory of what you think went wrong. You won’t always find the problem but you may learn something helpful.
Proper colony management involves some trial and error. Beekeeping mistakes happen in any beekeeping operation. Sometimes, I make the same ones over and over until – “Oh, I see now.”
No, colony management is not hard but it does involve learning what to do and when to do it.
Yes, most beekeepers do indeed experience a bee sting on occasion. However, by wearing the proper beekeeper protective wear and learning how to handle bees – you can avoid most stings.
Most resources estimate that 20-30 hours per year are needed to care for each beehive.
It is not hard to keep a couple of hives of bees to make honey for your family. You will be required to invest some time and money in the project.
Hive management is not the same as putting out a birdhouse. Bee colonies require inspections and maintenance in order to become good honey producers.
The best time to start beekeeping with a new hive is in early Spring.
For the beekeeper however, bee preparation should begin in Fall/Winter. Take classes, read beekeeping books and learn everything you can before the bees arrive.
Yes, many people keep a few beehives without ever taking any honey. Perhaps, they feel that harvesting honey is bad for bees. That does not mean they can’t have a hive. However, even hives not intended for honey production will require hive maintenance.
No, while the Langstroth hive is the industry standard – there are other types of beehives in use.
This depending on the status of the hive as their may be special circumstances. In general, new colonies should be inspected every 1-2 weeks. Established colonies may be okay with once a month depending on the season.
No matter how much beekeeping experience you develop, you will still be surprised sometimes. Don’t give up. Learning the basics of beehive management is an attainable goal. The varied opinions from different beekeepers can be frustrating but they give you many different ways to do things. While 10 different answers to one question can seem maddening – they may come in handy some day.