There’s an old adage that the only guarantees you have in life are death and taxes. I’m going to add mistakes to the list of inevitability.
As we gain experience, we change the nature of our mistakes, but we always make them; seasoned beekeepers and novices alike. Everyone has their gag reel.
With time, the frequency of the mistakes reduces and a lot of good practices become second nature. As we go through these common mistakes, keep in mind that if you have already made some of these, you have passed your initiation into beekeeping.
1. Inspecting The Hive Too Frequently
You just got your first package. You’ve been doing so much research and watched 154 videos about honeybees. You’ve watched the bee documentaries and you’ve replaced the narrators’ voices with yours in your mind.
You want to see that everything you have watched is actually happening in your hive. So you decide to take a peek two days after you installed them. You’re so thrilled that they are still there.
A couple of days later, you do the same thing. And so it goes until one day you open the hive and the bees are gone…
You stressed them out with your constant presence.
Bees need to feel secure. You ripping the roof off over their heads 2-3 times a week has the opposite effect. Give them time to settle in. Check in on them in a week just to make sure they have enough feed and they’ve started building comb. Then leave them be for at least 2 weeks.
If you really want to find out what’s going on with them, take a seat outside the hive and observe them. You can learn a lot from observation as well.
2. Inspecting Too Infrequently
I have found myself on this side of the spectrum.
When I first got my bees, I didn’t handle them as delicately as I should so I got stung several times. That put a serious damper on my bee enthusiasm.
I was happy to simply observe my bees from a distance. It was really easy to justify my behavior. The landing board was buzzing with activity. Lots of workers were coming and going, carrying little pollen packages on their return flights.
If something was wrong, wouldn’t they all just be curled up inside the hive in the fetal position, as I did after my stinging incident? Turns out I was wrong. During my hiatus, one of my hives became queenless but I didn’t notice until it was too late.
Although observing the hive can be educational, it cannot take the place of a proper inspection. Once or twice a month is enough. More frequent visits should only be made when necessary and with a specific intention in mind.
3. Improper Inspections
When you open up the hive, do you know what you’re looking for?
The most important part of the inspection is ensuring that you have a viable queen. Queens are masters of the shadows so they won’t make it easy for you to see them.
Fortunately, they do leave evidence of their presence in the hive in the form of eggs. The presence of eggs means that the queen is active and was at least present within the last 3 days.
Going by the presence of brood alone can be deceptive depending on the stage of development. Capped brood could signal that there was a queen three weeks ago, and a lot can happen in three weeks.
Eggs are tiny and almost translucent so they are hard to spot, but it gets easier with practice. It’s important to have an inspection checklist to guide you. This helps to ensure that your disruption is brief and effective.
4. Not Feeding Package Bees
Package bees are like teenagers going back to school after the summer. If it was up to them, they wouldn’t leave their original hive.
For the bees, it’s worse because they don’t see it coming.
One day, they are going about their business in a thriving hive with lots of food, the next day, they’re yanked from the hive, shoved down a funnel and find themselves in a tiny box that smells nothing like home.
Worse still, they can’t detect the scent mom has, but there’s an imposter in a curious looking protective box.
Unlike a swarm, they don’t have time to prepare for their trip.
Before a colony swarms, the worker bees that will accompany the queen fill up on honey. So, when they find a new place to settle in, they carry along some groceries in their bodies.
Package bees aren’t that lucky. In addition to not packing some honey, they also have to learn the new environment. It will take them a while before they can fend for themselves.
Building comb requires a lot of energy, and that can only be provided by nectar/sugar.
Since package bees need some time to secure a local food source, you may need to feed them for a few weeks, at least until they have built comb.
With reference to feed, be mindful of what you use. Although honey would be best, only feed honey if you are completely sure about its source. Honey can spread disease so when in doubt, use sugar syrup.
5. Failure to Suit Up
Bees, even docile ones can and will sting. You, a first timer are likely to anger them.
We all get clumsy when we’re starting out, and it only gets worse when you get stung. Sure, you want to feel like you are one with nature.
Chat rooms are filled with people saying things like “Guys, come on. Gloved hands aren’t real beekeeper hands.” Those are the people you need to ignore.
Beekeepers with decades of experience still suit up from time to time, so there’s no shame in it. Cover up, from veil to boots.
6. Not Using a Smoker
When you’re going to negotiate a deal you must arm yourself. You do so with information and or a negotiator to speak on your behalf.
That’s your smoker when it comes to dealings with bees. The smoker is your key negotiator.
The smoke distracts the bees by creating a false alarm.
While the bees are going through their fire drill, which entails gorging themselves on honey, they become a lot calmer to deal with.
That allows you to go about your business in the hive with fewer bees trying to chase you away.
Without your negotiator, you’re at a serious disadvantage, and the bees will be more than glad to take up that advantage.
7. Not Taking Varroa Seriously
You may be a pacifist, but there are problems that won’t go away simply because you let them be. Varroa is one of those problems.
There are many seasoned beekeepers in operation today that have had to restart their project two or three times. Losing dozens of colonies year after year has had devastating effects on the bee population in the country.
The upside is that it has gotten people to wake up and work out strategies to combat this pest. There are many options in the market, and we are advised to take an integrated approach to pest management.
You are called to combine treatments with good beekeeper practices in order to get the mite populations in the hive down. Eliminating them completely is highly unlikely.
The mite is known to evolve very quickly and has gained resistance to many of the chemicals used to kill them. This is why we employ all sorts of strategies.
Colony splits break up the brood cycle which reduces the mite count. Use of small cell foundation reduces the space available for mites to grow and reproduce while they feed on the haemolymph of brood. That too has helped to keep the mite count down. Mites do very well in big cells such as drone cells.
We also have organic treatments such as formic acid and thymol, each having its unique characteristics that kill the mites.
Mites are a reality you cannot ignore. You need to actively deal with them.
8. Starting With Only One Hive
Colonies are like cookies. Once you’ve had one, you are likely to need another.
Beekeeping offers a lot of learning opportunities, but it can be very discouraging when things go wrong.
The problem is that if one hive fails, and you only have the one, you have to begin again. If you have two and one survives, then you have something to keep that beek fire going.
If one colony starts to dwindle, you can borrow some brood from the other one that is thriving. You can start with packages from different breeders, or try different bee races and compare their suitability to your environment.
Starting with two hives gives your project a better chance at longevity.
9. Not Respecting Bee Space
Bees are meticulous. They don’t like to waste space. “Bee space” refers to the gap areas in a beehive that bees won’t fill with wax or propolis.
If it’s too tiny for them to use as a hallway, they seal it up with propolis. If it’s a wide space, they build additional storage in the form of comb. This precise gap is ideally between 4.5 mm and 9 mm.
If, in your hurry to close up a hive, you end up forgetting to put in a frame or two, they’ll build comb in the gap and fix it to the inner cover. That can be very messy especially during a nectar flow.
When they take liberties, they don’t follow your blueprints. That means that the next time you open up the hive, you’ll probably be breaking comb because the new comb they built may not be parallel to the frames.
Once I made such a mistake and went back to the hives about 4 days later and there was about 4 inches of comb hanging from the cover already. Had I waited the usual two weeks, things surely would have ended differently. I shudder at the thought.
Be careful whenever you’re carrying out any activity in the hive. Rushing your activity can cost you in the long run. The larger the space you provide, the bigger the potential mess.
10. Harvesting Too Much or Too Soon
The first year of the colony’s life is delicate. They have a lot working against them. If they started out as a package, they literally have to start over.
They have to accept the queen given to them, learn the terrain, secure a food source, build the numbers and store enough food to get them through the winter and the early days of spring.
An overzealous beekeeper can jeopardize the whole operation by wiping out all their stores, leaving them with nothing to get them through the frosty season.
The amount of honey that a colony needs varies depending on the geographical location of the apiary.
Therefore, states that get to sub-zero temperatures have colonies confined to the hive for many months at a time.
In tropical areas such as Hawaii, the beekeepers can get away with fewer stores because the weather allows the bees to forage almost all year round.
Please consult your local beekeeper’s association to learn the best practice when it comes to honey requirements for the winter to ensure you don’t starve your bees by indulging your sweet tooth.
11. Hive Placement
Unless you’re Spiderman, you want both feet planted firmly on the ground whenever you’re carrying out activities in the hive.
You may have had a swarm move in to a corner of the barn that requires access by rickety ladder. Great place to set up a bait hive, terrible for a permanent hive location.
Bee accessories can be bulky. Accessibility is paramount because hauling hive bodies and full supers of honey is harrowing even on an even surface. The risk for bodily harm and hive destruction increases when the apiary is difficult to access.
Ensure that the area around the hive allows you to perform tasks as you stand behind the hive. Clear away brush or anything that ground pests can use as a bridge to access your hive.
Where possible, being able to drive right up to the hive is a great advantage for those times you’ll have some heavy lifting to do without help.
It’s also important to face the hive away from an area that has a lot of foot traffic to avoid stinging incidences.
Accompany a beek on an inspection a few times so that you get a practical idea of what it entails. As you select a location for your apiary, you will keep that experience in mind and pick a place that works for both the bees and the beekeeper.
Mistakes can be a great learning tool.
These are just a few of the many “oops” moments beekeepers have and are in no way conclusive.
Fortunately, the bees give us time to redeem ourselves. So, if you fall, dust yourself off and keep going. That’s how we all did it.