I have a beekeeping buddy with slightly different ideas than I do about hive management. But that pretty much describes every beekeeper doesn’t it? There’s a humorous but accurate phrase that goes something like this, “If you ask 10 beekeepers the same question you’ll get 11 different answers.” Too true, but that’s what makes beekeeping unique, eh?
So anyways this buddy told me one day why he loved beekeeping so much. He said you can pretty much just put the honey bees in the hive, leave them there, NOT treat them for pests and disease, and they’ll take care of themselves.
My response to this was to politely disagree. In my head. Without saying anything. You see, when we first met I asked him how many beehives he manages. He told me he had four top bar hives and one Langstroth style beehive. But that they were all dead now. Naturally my brain always reads the underlying stuff. This time was no exception as I surmised that if in fact a beekeeper could indeed ‘leave the bees alone, not treat them and they’ll take care of themselves,’ as my Keeper friend believes, then why were all of his beehives dead?
I must give him some credit though. I believe that his way of beekeeping did work; 60+ years ago before AFB, before Varroa mites. And it would also work in an environment that had yet to be devastated of honey bee forage like today’s.
It all boils down to something that all beekeepers can agree on: we all want to know what we CAN do for our bees. What we’re about to cover is similar, but only on opposite day. But sometimes it’s what we DON’T do for our bees that helps them the most.
The 3 Don’ts of Beekeeping
Don’t Neglect your Bees Beekeeping just isn’t what it used to ‘bee.’ In the good ole’ days, seasons came on-time, plants bloomed on-time for the honey flow, honey bees made honey, swarmed and multiplied. There were still feral colonies back in them days, yes sir.
Nowadays, Varroa mites grow exponentially and their population explodes in summer. If the beekeeper takes no action against mites, the hive has a very poor chance of winter survival. Check out a visual graph of bee vs. mite populations here. Also, if honey bees are unable to gather enough stores for the winter due to lack of forage or adverse weather conditions, their chances are grim.
Now I understand that there are always exceptions to the rules. One time we got a call that one of our beehives had been knocked over. You see, this apiary was a 45 minute drive on a friend’s property. We had not been there in an entire year. Yes, we had neglected treating or even inspecting these bees. It was an apiary located in a horse pasture near an orange grove. When we arrived, sure enough there was our beehive on its side and had been so for three days, (the neighbors were a little slow to let us know.)
Amazingly, not only was that beehive still alive but the rest of the yard was too. What’s more, we had a honey crop to harvest. The only thing I can say about our neglect in this case is this: it’s a good thing that honey bees are so awesome! They are resilient buggers indeed and I feel we were fortunate. But honey bees still need our help.
Don’t Disturb your beehives Too often Is that vague enough for you? Probably one of the number one questions I hear from beginner beekeepers is, “How often should I check my bees?” A valid question indeed! And the answer is, yes. What I mean to say is that the frequency of in-hive work is always going to vary depending on two things: the tasks at hand and the season. Here’s a great resource about hive inspections.
When it comes to specific tasks, you may have to work in-hive three times a week. When I’m grafting queen cells, I check how my cells are coming along fairly often until they are capped. Plus I have to make sure to eliminate any rogue cells, which are any queen cells that the hive has created other than on my grafting bar. If their queen is just a few hours older than my grafted ones, she could emerge sooner and kill all of mine. Nope.
But let’s say it’s time to harvest your honey. You pull your honey off your hives in one day and then put the ‘wet,’ extracted boxes of comb back on them the next. If this was a summer pull then you may not need to do any in-hive work for another 2-3 weeks.
The main thing to understand is this- know what you have to do and when you have to do it. Any unnecessary in-hive work puts the queen at risk. A risk that is not worth it. Do what you need to do with the utmost care and then let them be. Each time a colony is disturbed could take hours for them to settle back to order. A hive undisturbed is an efficient hive. Read here to know what to keep in mind when opening your beehives.
When I first started beekeeping I was anxious and excited. I checked them o’ wee bit too often and in hindsight I now understand why they were not more productive during a honey flow; ‘I killed them with kindness.’
Don’t stop Learning, Ever The challenge that every beekeeper faces is thinking that their way is the only way. This in no way excuses bad beekeeping practices. There’s definitely wrong ways to keep bees. Don’t do that. Keep track of your beekeeping experiences in a Beekeeper’s Journal and learn from your own ‘happy’ mistakes and what works best for you.
Anymore though, beekeeping is looking a lot better by way of method and practice. There are so many beekeepers trying to find ways to manage their hives naturally and organically. Bravo to each of you. And thank you for what you’re doing and contributing to make beekeeping better than it has been and something that will last.
I would like to know what you think. Please share in the comments below. Perhaps there’s one or two things you have learned that changed everything for you. What is it? I’m sure there’s a beekeeper or two that would benefit from what you have to share. And if you’re feeling brave, share a time when you really screwed up. It happens to us all.
Until next time remember,
~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee.~
Jonathan Hargus/Beekeeper Extraordinaire