From now on, we move onto the maintenance side of beekeeping. The learning curve that you have just been through has probably been quite steep if none of this was familiar to you. Things will get easier now, and in many ways, you have crossed a threshold. That early information acquisition is quite large, but now things will start to take a more leisurely and soothing tempo. You are working with nature, which brings with it its own rhythms and pace.
Under normal circumstances, you want to check on what is happening in your hive or hives, about once a week. These checks are an important part of bee husbandry. It lets you know what is going on in the hive and enables you to respond if there is any sort of a problem quickly.
Those inspections will also make you more familiar with open the hives and let both you and your bees get used to one another. This is important because it gives you confidence. Many beekeepers believe that the bees can sense when you are stressed and that this rubs off onto them and affects the way in which they behave.
Whether or not you subscribe to this belief, the more you interact with your bees, the better beekeeper you will be.
It has always been taken for granted that the months during which you performed weekly inspections ran from April to the end of September. Changing weather patterns mean that we can no longer make that assumption. You will need to observe local conditions and respond accordingly.
If it is warm autumn, the bees will continue searching for pollen and nectar for as long as possible, and that may mean you need to make some changes later in the season than would have been normal just a decade or so ago.
The best time of day to do your inspection is from around eleven in the morning until four in the afternoon during periods of fine weather. The reason for this is that most of the workers will be out foraging at that time so you will be disturbed as few bees as possible.
Initially, when doing inspections, you will probably want to wear a bee suit. Over time you will become more confident and more accustomed to getting stung, and you may then be able to do away with some or all of this protection. You will also be better at reading the hive and assessing whether they are agitated or not.
Regardless of what regalia you opt for, be aware that strong perfumes can annoy bees, so you might want to skip your regular ablution routine on inspection days.
Before approaching the hive, to get your smoker going properly and have your hive tool handy. If you are going to be feeding, then have a feeder prepared. Now move slowly up to the hive and give a couple of puffs at the entrance before moving to the rear of the hive and removing the lid and placing it upside down on the ground.
Carefully lever opens the top cover, which will have been glued in place with propolis. Blow in two or three puffs of smoke, then replace the lid for a second or two so that the smell of the smoke permeates the hive slightly. Bees are not calmed by smoke, which a popular misconception.
Instead, they assume that a fire is approaching and the gorge themselves with honey so that if they are forced to flee, they have some emergency supplies on hand. While they are gorging, they are too busy to pay attention to what the beekeeper is doing. After one or two minutes, open the top cover again and place it upside down in the lid.
You are going to start your inspection from the bottom box of the hive and work your way upward. Standing at the rear of the hive, take off the top super and sit it on the cover and then repeat with any other supers and then the top box placing one on top of the other in reverse order to how the hive originally was.
When you are down to the bottom box, then carefully lift out one of the frames. It will be well stuck down, so use the corner of your hive tool to lever it lose. Take the frame and examine it carefully. You are looking for capped cells, cells with larvae in, and most importantly, eggs. If there are fresh eggs, then you know that the queen is around.
A healthy queen will only lay eggs in the center and at the bottom of a cell. It would be nice to see the queen, but you don’t want to spend too long looking for her, and as long as you see fresh eggs, you know she should be there somewhere. You are also going to be looking for parasites such as wasps, moths, or beetles, but we will go into this later when we deal with the subject of hive pests.
Lift out an edge frame. You always work from one side to the other to maintain the original order of the frames. Once you have inspected it, then hang it from frame hooks on the side of the hive. This leaves you a touch more room when taking out the other frames.
You will continue with the second frame, which, once inspected, you will place directly back into the box. You continue like this until all the frames have been inspected. This ensures that each frame goes back into its original position. When you have checked the last frame in the bottom box, take the first frame off the hooks and replace it in the position it was when you removed it.
It is important not to rush this process. Move slowly and be gentle, and everything will be fine. Take a minute or two to check that all is well and then be careful when replacing each frame. They should be crawling with bees, and you don’t want to harm any of your stock. You definitely don’t want to crush your queen accidentally.
In a full hive, you may want to have a bee brush handy so that you can brush away some of the bees if they have gathered into a clump while you are doing the inspection. This just helps prevent crushing and makes sliding the frame back into place easier. Generally, it is not necessary.
When you have checked all the frames in the bottom box or deep, replace the one that was above it. When placing a box or super on a lower box, use a sliding action rather than trying to drop it directly into what will be its final resting place.
This is because there will be bees sitting on the lip by now, and you want to push them out of the way rather than crush them between the two boxes.
At the end of the inspection, all frames, supers, and boxes should be in exactly the same position as they were when you first opened the hive. You can now replace the top cover, fit a feeder if required, and close the lid.
There will be a difference in the bottom boxes to the top supers. The brood is in the bottom, so that is where the eggs and larvae should be. There is normally a guard to prevent the queen from getting into the supers so that she does not lay eggs where you are going to gather honey from.
The frames in the supers will be lighter in color as they only have honey in them. It is always a good idea to hold them up to the light to check for eggs simply to ensure that the queen has not been able to sneak up above the brood boxes. In the brood boxes, you will be looking for the queen. It is always nice to see her, but don’t let it make you waste time.
You want to keep the disturbance of your stock to the minimum. As long as there are fresh eggs, you have a pretty good idea; you have a healthy queen. Bees only stay in their egg form for two to three days before becoming larvae, so that gives a fairly reliable timetable as to when the queen was last there. She also tends to remain in the same vicinity when she is lying, so if you do need to find her, that is where she is most likely to be.
Another thing that you will be keeping an eye out for our new queen cells. These cells are much bigger than ordinary bee cells and cause an almost blister-like a bulge on the comb. Worker bees produce these so that a new queen can be reared. Sometimes they just seem to make them a sort of reserve should they need to produce a new queen quickly.
On other occasions, they do it because they sense that the existing queen is getting too old, and that means they are preparing to replace her. When you come across a queen cell, check it carefully. Providing it has no egg inside and is not capped, then you can ignore it. If it looks like a new queen is on the way, you will probably need to take action, and we will look at the procedure you follow a little later.
While you are in the bottom boxes, you will be able to gauge what the food reserves are like and decide if there is supplementary feeding needed. Normally queens lay in a pattern, and this will show if she is performing well. You will also see if the brood looks healthy and if there is crowding starting to take place. If there is, you may need to add a super or even think about splitting the hive, which we shall get to later.
Inspections are important but don’t get too carried away. Every time you open the hive, you are creating a disturbance that slows down production and adds stress to your stock. Some keepers estimate that opening the hive is the equivalent of one day’s production lost. Checking every seven to ten days during the warmer months will be perfectly adequate, providing no problems are detected that demand further action.
It is rare to inspect hives during the winter months. In the colder months, the bees huddle up to keep warm, and opening the hive instantly causes it to lose temperature. Temperature control is one of the primary requirements of a healthy hive.
Record keeping might not seem important, but it really helps you become a better beekeeper even if you only have one hive. In future years you will be able to look back and see how the hive performed, but also how you responded and whether there are things you could have done better.
There are several ways you can keep your records. Today some keepers use video, and others have a small portable voice recorder, but most keepers rely on simple old-fashioned notebooks. You might think you will remember everything, but it is highly unlikely, so try to take notes soon after closing up the hive. If you end up with more colonies, the need for records becomes even more important.
First of all, have some way of designating one hive from another. Next, note down the overall condition of the bees. Were there plenty of them, how did they look, were they foraging well. Did you see the queen? Were there plenty of fresh eggs? Was there a healthy-looking brood pattern without an overabundance of bullet brood? Bullet brood is larger, darker brood cells that indicate they contain a drone. If there are lots of them, it shows that the queen has been lost, and an unfertilized worker has taken over the laying. How much food was in the hive, and does it need to be supplemented. Does it look like the hive is preparing to swarm?
All of these are details that will help you look back and evaluate both your own beekeeping efforts and how the hive performed. Each inspection will give different results at different times of the year. What you see in the hive in late autumn will differ very much from what you see in the early summer.
Making sure that your stock has enough food is critical. Generally, you supplement food prior to the winter months when there are no flowers, and the bees are in lockdown for the winter. There may, however, be periods when you need to supplement their food supplies outside of the winter months, and one of the things your inspections will tell you is how strong their reserves are.
Bees should be given food from late autumn. They will transport this food down into their hive, where they will store it and be able to access it without leaving the hive and letting in the cold. There are numerous bee-feeding options, but here are some of the easiest and most common.
A feeder frame can be hung in the hive. It is the same size as a normal frame and can hold one gallon of sugar water, which you can mix yourself at a ratio of 2 to 1 to create thick syrup. This is a really easy solution to feeding, but it holds only one gallon, and the average hive will need four gallons to get through the whole of winter.
This leaves you in the unenviable position of having to open the hive several times to fully stock the colony at a time when the days are cooling fast.
An easier method is to top feed with a feeder bucket. The bucket is simply a bucket with a lid that has a hole in it. Open the hive and place a feeder board on top. This is simply a board like the top board that had a hole in. The bucket is then inverted, and the syrup can escape.
It forms a vacuum, so you don’t have to worry about the whole container dropping into the hive and drowning the bees. As soon as they realize that it is there, the bees will come up from the hive and start gathering it in a process that will take around four days.
Another option is the top feeder. This is almost identical to a super, but inside is a solid floor with two panels that effectively turns it into two separate containers separated by a slot. Fill the two containers with syrup, and the bees will come up and start to help themselves.
When filling the feeder, dribble a little syrup into the hive, and this will speed the time it takes for the bees to realize that there are easy pickings to be had right above their heads. Once the feeder is full, lay a few handfuls of straw on top of the syrup so that the bees can get to the food without drowning. You then close the lid, and four days later, the feeder will be empty, and you can open up and simply remove it.
The final option if you have several hives is to fill a standard forty-four-gallon drum with enough syrup to provide four gallons per hive in the vicinity. Prop the lid open slightly so that the bees can get inside and dribble a little syrup around to alert them to its presence. It won’t take them long to find the food and start carrying back to base.
This is a really straightforward method if you have several hives near to one another. If there is a risk from predators that might try to steal it, you will, of course, need to take the appropriate measures to prevent that happening.
Like so much in beekeeping, what sounds quite complicated at first, turns out to be really simple. Remember that the bees do most of the work.
Below is a seasonal checklist for you to follow now that your hive is installed.
At the moment, your hive is new, so they will focus their efforts on filling the hive and building up their supplies. Next year, however, it would be a good idea to have an empty hive nearby so that if they do swarm unexpectedly, there is another home that you will entice them not flee. By then, they will have started to gather food from the abundant flowers in the area, and there is little chance of them starving, so it would be a good time to harvest the honey. We will look at how to do that later in the book.
If you are still supplementing their diets with bee candy or syrup, you should be able to stop now. Make sure that stronger hives are not robbing yours. Continue your regular checks keeping a close eye for verroa mites. If you do not have a permanent source of water nearby, then make sure you place somewhere they can find it. You will discover the bees are thirsty at this time, especially if it is hot. Later in the summer, you will need to assess if there is enough honey to harvest.
If you have more than one hive and one is looking particularly weak, then you may want to combine the two. Check that there is food available if flowering plants go over, and there is nothing to harvest. Protect hives from the wind, but don’t forget that there must still be ventilation. The entrance can be fitted with a mouse guard and narrowed to allow for reduced use by the bees. This will help it stay warmer in the hive. Don’t harvest any honey unless you are sure that they will have adequate supplies to get them through the lean winter months. It is also a good idea to weight down the roof so that it cannot be blown off.
In the winter, you are going to open the hive as little as possible. You can take the lid off on warmer days just to ensure that they have enough food. Your main jobs at this time of year consist of checking that hives are not threatened by winds.
We have looked at the ongoing jobs that need to be done on an ongoing basis. Now we will look at other tasks that are essential to beekeeping, but which occur less regularly. Some of these we have touched on earlier in the book, but now we will look at them in greater depth.
As a beekeeper, you want your colonies to become successful at food and brood production. The problem with this is that when this success starts to be achieved, the bees’ natural instinct is to divide and swarm. This can result in the loss of a large portion of your stock. Up to sixty percent of your bees might just up sticks and fly off accompanied by the old queen. Your job is to circumvent the colony’s natural instinct.
Some colonies are more likely to swarm than others. We know that much of the bees’ behavior is influenced by the queen, and if you have a captured swarm, then it is highly likely they will swarm again. They won’t normally do this straight away, however, so there are advantages in taking a swarm if you can and if they have installed themselves in a place that would require a trapeze artist to get to.
Swarms are keen to get their new homes in order, and so they are really zealous when it comes to building new comb and producing a brood. They can be left for a while so that you can profit from their diligence. After that, you will have to replace the queen with one less inclined to swarm.
You can also combine the colony with any weaker hives that you may have. When a swarm has settled into one of your hives, pay particular attention when you do your inspections. You must ensure that they are not introducing disease or verroa mites.
If there is plenty of space in the hive, then there is less likelihood of swarming, and you can control this with the addition of new supers before crowding becomes an issue. A young queen is unlikely to lead a swarm if she is in her first year of egg-laying.
Some stock is better at staying put than others, and once you get to know your bees, you will start to recognize which ones pose more of a flight risk. You will then want to breed from that colony and expand that stable characteristic.
One way of knowing which colonies are keen to swarm is by checking for queen cells on your weekly inspections. If there are very few, then they are probably not looking to divide, but if the number starts to go up, then beware. Normally after August, the bees will not swarm. It would be very late in the year for them to establish enough food to get them through the winter.
This is a procedure that can be extremely useful for preventing your bees from swarming while at the same time creating another colony. Here we need to take advantage of the fact that bees are extremely accurate at returning to their hive. If you move the hive only a few yards, they will need to search for it again.
If you move the hive and replace it with an empty one, they will think the new hive is their original home. During the warmer part of the day, when most of the workers are foraging, move the old hive about two yards and place the new one in position. After that, open up the old hive and locate the frame that the queen is on.
You then place this into the new hive along with a full box of frames. The retuning workers will find the queen, several empty frames, and some brood on the frame from the old hive. This is more or less where they would have found themselves had they swarmed. They will immediately set about drawing out the new frames and basically expanding into their new home.
The old hive is now occupied by a number of bees, many of whom will have never made their maiden flights as well as capped cells that will soon hatch. These bees will leave the hive and fly out and then return to that position, none the wiser to the fact that they have been transferred. The problem you have is that there is no queen in that original hive.
You now perform an inspection looking for queen cells and in particular, queen cells that may already contain an egg. All of these you will destroy by crushing with your fingers or your hive tool. The workers will quickly sense there is no queen and will immediately set about making new queen cells. Into these cells, they will start placing eggs that are already in the hive and start feeding royal jelly.
We know that it takes fourteen days for a queen to hatch. What we don’t want is to find ourselves in a position of having several queens hatch at the same time. To avoid this, after seven days, you reopen the hive and destroy all but the most healthy-looking queen cell. If all goes well, seven days after that, when you do your inspection, you should find that you have a fully functioning colony under the leadership of a brand new queen. You have just doubled your hives and hopefully prevented swarming in the process.
There are a few reasons that you may need to unite two colonies to form one functional hive. The most common reason would be that one hive has become weak for some reason, and it seems unlikely that it will survive the winter. By combing tow hives, you give both colonies a better chance of survival. Another reason might be that you have captured a swarm, and you have decided to kill the queen to prevent future warming. A third reason might be that you have lost a queen for some reason.
Uniting two hives is a straightforward procedure, but there are some factors that you must bear in mind. Bees will smell if bees from another colony enter their hive and will attack them as they assume they have come to steal their honey. There is a simple way to overcome this. First place both hives beside one another.
As long as the bees are not moved more than a yard, they will easily find their way back to the hive you want them to live in. Next, open both hives. Over the stronger hive brood box lay some sheets of newspaper, then place the queen excluder over the paper and score the paper lightly in one or two places.
Now search the frames of the weaker hive and find the queen who you will kill by squashing her between your fingers. Only once you are sure that you have killed the queen should you place the second brood box on top of that which is covered in paper. Place the supers on top of that and close the hive.
The lid and bottom tray of the hive you have moved will undoubtedly still have bees crawling all over it. Just knock these guys out onto the ground, and they will eventually make their way back into the hive. The bees will take a couple of days to chew their way through the newspaper barrier you have imposed on them.
In the process, their odors will have mingled so that by the time they can get through, they will be used to one another. You will see small pieces of paper lying outside the hive, and this will let you know that they are doing their job and chewing through the paper.
In other types of hives such as top bar hives, this method cannot be used as the hive cannot be broken down into component parts. All is not lost as there is another way of getting bees from separate colonies to get along with each other.
Spray the bees from both colonies with sugar syrup and then shake the bees from the smaller colony into the stronger one. The bees will be forced to lick one another to get clean, and by the time they have achieved this, their odors have mixed, and they accept one another.
There is yet another angle to combing bee colonies, and that is when you have three colonies that are too weak to survive over winter. By shaking all the bees from the three hives into one hiver, the combination of different colony smells so confusing that it overwhelms everyone, and they just seem to get on.
It is most important that whatever method you decide to use, you only end up with one queen in the final hive. It is difficult to kill a queen at first as it goes against all beekeeping instincts and seems almost counter-intuitive. What you must remind yourself is that if the queen does not die, the whole colony almost definitely will.
Pest and Disease Control
One of the biggest problems being faced by beekeepers today is the management of pests and diseases. There are many reasons that these problems are now so pressing. One of them is that we have transported bees from different parts of the world, and in the process, we have introduced these pests or diseases to areas where they were not experienced previously.
Add to that the fact that many commercial operations transport vast numbers of bees over long distances to be used as pollinators, and you can see why the problems are being exacerbated. Transporting bees stressed them, and stressed bees are more susceptible to health issues.
Pest and disease management are some of the primary reasons why you need to do your inspections diligently. Before you can identify the problems, you need to be able to recognize what healthy bees and brood look like. After that, you will quickly be able to spot any anomalies. Brood should be a uniform light brown color and joined together in what is called pattern rather than dotted about here and there. There should also be a few empty cells within the pattern itself.
Verroa is a small red or brown mite that has caused dramatic problems in the beekeeping world and mass casualties in wild colonies. The mites attach themselves to bees and suck their bodily fluids. This in itself is not the problem as the bees seem to carry on regardless. It is in the cells where they breed that most problems occur.
This is the most widespread pest for beekeepers. It is thought to have originated in Southeast Asia and has spread to most countries other than Australia who have introduced strict control measures to try to prevent its arrival there.
The mite is visible to the naked eye, and once you have an infestation, you will probably see bees working in the hive with what looks like a brown dot attached to their thorax. Although the problem may seem insignificant, it will augment dramatically when the colony size decreases over the winter months or if there is a sudden drop in bee numbers for some other reason.
At the moment, we are still not sure to what degree this mite has played a role in colony collapse disorder, but wild colonies seem to swarm in an effort to escape the mites, and then they simply disappear. To monitor the size of the infestation, a special sticky paper is fitted to the bottom board. This holds the dead mites that drop down, and after a seven day period, the beekeeper can work out from there an approximate rate of infestation.
There are many different methods of reducing mite infection, but so far, no total cure. The objective at this stage is to keep their numbers as low as possible rather than attempting total eradication. The first method is through the use of what are called hard chemicals.
They are mainly pyrethroid based, but they come with some problems. Firstly they need to be used during periods when honey is not being gathered to avoid cross-contamination. Secondly, the mites have started to adapt to them, and they are becoming less effective, and thirdly, many beekeepers are averse to the use of any toxic chemicals in their hives.
Soft chemicals based on thymol are another option. These are the bee equivalent of homeopathic medicine. The final option is that of mechanical control. Mites are attracted to drone brood to lay their eggs, and so if bullet brood is destroyed just before they hatch, the mite numbers will be reduced.
The mites also like to lay into uncapped cells, so it is possible to restrict the queen in a limited range for a short period. The frame she lays in during that time is then sacrificed, thus helping to reduce the infestation further.
The verroa problem is far from being solved, and at the moment, the most realistic option is to try to manage it as well as possible. This can incorporate one of the solutions above or an amalgamation of them. Yet again, liaising with nearby beekeepers will encourage a transfer of information that can prove invaluable. This problem has been around for some time, and you should not let it put you off keeping bees.
These tiny mites are invisible to the naked eye. They inhabit the breathing tubes of the bee, where they suck bodily fluids until ready to breed. At this stage, they exit the bee and crawl up onto one of the fine hairs of its upper body. There they wait to climb onto a younger bee, enter the breathing tubes again, and lay their eggs with the intention of repeating the cycle.
The control consists of placing vegetable shortening patties mixed with sugar onto the top bars of the hive. When the bees come to lick the patties, they come into contact with the shortening, which prevents the mites from detecting the young bees onto which they need to climb to complete their life cycle.
Small Hive Beetle
This is a small round black to dark brown beetle about half the size of a bee. They were first detected in Florida in 1998, is thought to have originated in Africa. By 2006 they had spread too many parts of the US. They move into a hive where their larvae can turn comb into dark slimy goo. The bees are unable to tote them through there tough carapaces, and though a strong hive can tolerate them, it is the smaller weaker hives that are most at risk. If they become too established, then the risk is that the bees will swarm and abandon the hive altogether in an effort to find a clean pest-free environment.
The larvae normally establish themselves in the lower corner of frames, so you should look out for them there. They are also attracted to honey, so your honey house may be at risk if you extract honey and don’t deal with it soon afterward.
The only chemical that the beekeeper can use is the same as those for verroa. The pupa stage of their lifecycle is performed in soft sandy soil, so if you have any of that near the hive, you may be able to treat it but beware of what chemicals you use. There are traps sold commercially that allow the beetles to enter but are too small for bees.
The traps are baited, and the beetle drowns, normally in some sort of vegetable oil, after entering. These traps work to a limited extent but will not succeed against serious infestations. The main defense is to keep colonies strong and take action early if beetles are detected.
Greater Wax Moth
There are two types of wax moth, and both are a problem to the beekeeper because they live on wax, stored pollen, and the remains of bee larvae. The male moths attract female mates by emitting ultrasonic sounds. This causes the female to approach, and as she gets closer, the prospective mate will release pheromones to bring her closer enough to mate with. The female enters hives and lays her eggs within tiny cracks and crevices.
Once the eggs hatch, the larvae start to eat their way through the comb. At the same time, they produce a fine silk web that can trap emerging bees. In stronger hives, they are not generally too great a problem, but they can devastate weaker hives. It is crucial to practice strict hygiene control in an effort to eliminate these pests. None of the stages of the wax moth lifecycle can withstand extreme cold, and what some beekeepers do is freeze empty frames for a couple of hours to kill any eggs that may have been hidden on them.
If verroa is by far the widest spread and most common pest, then foulbrood is its disease equivalent. American foulbrood (AFB) is a highly infectious disease that affects capped brood. The caps of the cells will be dark and wrinkled, and the brood pattern will be erratic. In more advanced cases, there will be an unpleasant odor coming from the hive when you open it. One test is called roping out.
This involves sticking something like a match stick into one of the cells. As you slowly withdraw it, a gray sticky mucus will cling to the match stick, and this indicates a strong likelihood of the disease presence. In some of the cells, the larvae will have already become desiccated, and if you look down into it, you will notice a dark shiny object at the bottom called scale. There may be live larvae interspersed among the affected larvae.
If you believe you have an infection, you should ask a more experienced keeper to look at your bees for you. AFB is a notifiable disease, and once you are sure you have it, you will need to notify your regional bee inspector or another governing body. They will oversee the destruction of the hive, which will probably involve burning it. You will also need to pay extra attention to cleaning all your equipment as the spores of the disease are highly infectious.
EFB is an infection of the uncapped cells. As with AFB, there will be a lack of healthy patterns to the brood. Inside the cells will be distorted larvae. Instead of the usual white c shape, they will be twisted and deformed. The disease creates a UT infection that ultimately kills the pre-emergent insects.
This disease is less dangerous than AFB but can still be serious. Again you should notify the relevant authorities that will inspect. Depending on the severity of the case, they may offer options that could include ant biotic treatments. You will need to discuss your options with them, but most experienced keepers would still prefer to destroy the hive than risk having the disease spread.
These are just some of the most serious disease and parasitic threats to you bee stock. There are plenty of others, but the important thing is to be aware without being put off. You are dealing with nature here, and anything natural comes with both wonders and threats. It would be no different if you were growing vegetables or raising chickens.
All of these problems can be managed if you are aware of them and keep doing your inspections. The most important factor to take away from this is that building up strong, healthy colonies almost always enables the bees to overcome the problem. More than anything, this should be your main objective as a beekeeper. As you become more experienced, you will gain confidence, and this will be just something that you both manage and take in our stride.