Beekeeping is a large subject with a myriad of different aspects to it, so you are going to make some mistakes. Don’t let this knock you off course or overwhelm you on your journey. The important thing to bear in mind is that there is plenty of help out there, and you only have to reach out to access it.
Below are some of the more common mistakes so that hopefully you can avoid those at least. Some of them we have already touched upon, but this chapter will offer you a quick place to refer to if you want to check you are not going wrong.
Many new beekeepers learn from old hands in the game. Old hands tend to have a very relaxed approach to what they wear in terms of suits, veils, and gloves. It is super tempting to try to emulate them. After all, suits are hot; they are cumbersome, and they make you look like a bit of a dork.
Worse still, they advertise immediately to more experienced keepers that you are the new kid on the block. This desire to be seen to fit in probably stems back to when we the only kids with training wheels on our bike. That may have left psychological scars, but it saved you from real flesh and blood scars.
Preventing stings in your formative beekeeping days means that you can focus on all the other things to learn, and as you have probably gathered from this book, there are plenty of those. Experienced beekeepers are calm, and this rubs off on their bees. You might have nerves of steel, but you will still make the clumsy maneuvers that people make when they are new to anything. This will agitate your bees, and they will sting. It is that simple. Just avoid the problem and put on the suit.
Not using enough Smoke
You use that smoker for a purpose. Firstly, just getting it alight and then keeping it alight is a bit of a knack. Practice a little before finding yourself in front of an open hive with no ammunition. Once you know how to use that smoke, then make sure you use it. If you don’t, the bees are going to get angry and sting, and as we all know, that is the end for the bee.
Why kill a load of your stock because you don’t want to stress your stock by smoking them a little. There are beekeepers that have stopped using smokers and instead spray the hive with a spritz bottle containing water and their choice of natural herb essence. There is probably no problem with this, but you would need to be walked through it with someone who knows what to mix with the water. Have an active smoker nearby just in case.
Wrong Hive Position
Placing a hive needs to be considered carefully. There should be enough space around that you can move comfortably, and it should be on flat ground. People sometimes perch the hives on a slope, forgetting that when working it conditions might not be the same. Positioning an empty hive is easy enough, but working a full hive in damp conditions with tools and a smoker while in a suit makes things much harder. Being on a slope or in a tight space is just something you don’t want to do.
This is common, and we have already looked at the importance of doing regular inspections. If you have just installed your stock and are new to the game, the temptation to keep checking on them can be quite high. Every ten days in the warmer months will keep you informed of any problems.
There is nothing to stop you from doing external inspections to see how much activity there is, but too much opening of the hive is stressful for the bees. Equally dangerous is failing to check on them often enough. All of the problems that can occur can usually be rectified, controlled, or illuminated if you catch them early enough. One of the problems that tend to occur here is that the new owners go away on holiday.
Peak bee inspection time does coincide with what many people regard as a holiday time. As always, the answer is to be part of an active beekeeper community of some kind. Most keepers will nor mind popping in to keep an eye on your hive once in a fortnight, and you will probably be able to repay that favor when they go away. A fresh pair of eyes might also spot a problem that you had overlooked.
Not Feeding Enough
There is nothing sadder than finding a hive full of dead bees huddles together because a beekeeper failed to supply the bees with enough supplies to get them through the winter. The reason bees don’t have supplies is that we stole the honey they made through the summer. It is beholden on the beekeeper to ensure that he replaces honey with sufficient alternative food to keep that hive in a health state. Not only can the bees not fly during the cold months, but there are generally no flowers from which they can harvest either.
Taking too much Honey
This problem is linked to the problem above. In the first year, it is accepted practice to let the bees have all the honey they produce. They are getting established, and they will need a winter reserve. How much you take over the course of the second year depends on a number of different factors.
Colder northern climates mean they will need more reserves, and the summers are probably shorter. Warmer climes mean that flowers will appear sooner, and the bees have a longer harvesting season. How much food they require during the lean months is something that you will become better at judging as your experience grows but always err on the side of the bees rather than your honey larder.
Also, with changing climatic conditions making weather forecasting more difficult, the beekeeper can’t be sure that the seasons will follow familiar patterns. Plenty of honey in the hive can only lead to healthier colonies, so think of this as long term investment over short-term gain.
Space for Rogue Comb
Bees will hang comb wherever they find space. Hives are designed so that where there is space, there is something upon which the bees can hang the comb. If you decide to leave a few frames out, that will not deter the bees from making comb, but they will do so by hanging it from the walls or the roof or anywhere else that seems suitable.
When you open the hive, this breaks the rogue comb creating not only a mess but also angering the bees.
The main reason that newbie keepers tend to leave out frames is that they think either the bees don’t need that many, or it will give them more room to move around when they come to inspect. This is not going to work. If you are finding it too difficult to work with the frames so tightly packed together, you can leave one out, but only one and only if you space all the remaining frames evenly. By way of creating a habit, it is probably better just to put in all the frames that the hive was designed to hold.
Starting with just one Hive
This is an easy one to understand. With so much to learn and a maintenance schedule to adopt, the logical thing is to keep the first step as small as possible. One hive might seem easier to manage, but it leaves the beekeeper with no fallback position if something goes wrong. If you lose a queen or your hive becomes too weak, there is no possibility of combining it, and you are condemning it to death.
With a second hive, you have options. No two hives behave in exactly the same way, even under almost identical conditions. With two hives, you are able to compare one with another, and you will learn more with very little extra effort on your part. By you have suited up and lit your smoker, you have done much of the work required on inspection days. It makes sense just to go on and open a second hive while you are kitted up.
Not Recognizing you have Lost the Queen
This is an easy mistake for the newbie to make. Fortunately, it is quite rare to lose a queen, but when you do so, you need to take action. It is very important to point out that you do not have to actually see the queen in order to know that she is there. Providing you can see fresh, healthy eggs, then she is around somewhere.
It is only when there are no eggs that you have a problem. Believing that you just must see the queen establish her presence means you may well be keeping the hive open for too long. Just holding the frame up to the light and checking that there are small white eggs at the bottom of the cells will advertise her presence.
Eggs turn to larvae within three days, so you will have at least established that she was around within that period, and when you next inspect, you can check again. Even more, experienced beekeepers won’t always see the queen. As your beekeeping improves and you learn to read what the worker bees are doing, that will normally show you where she is, but actually sighting her is not critical.
Not Keeping Records
We want to deal with bees, right? We don’t want to get bogged down with paperwork and writing things down. Record keeping is not just going to tell you what was happening in a hive a month ago or a year ago. It is part of the ongoing learning process and will reiterate things that you may have forgotten.
It gives you a season by season guide so that you know that if the bees started bringing in ivy honey in late October last year, they could well have access to that same food source this October. It lets you know the verroa count for the last year, and with that information, you will be able to assess whether it has increased dramatically this year.
These and a hundred other little bits of information all add together to help you progress as a beekeeper. Keep your notebook near your bee suit and treat it as something just as important.
As a beekeeper, you are never going to stop learning. The subject is just too vast, and it is not stagnant. Techniques evolve, equipment evolves, even the pests that you deal with evolve. More importantly, the hives that you maintain and which to a very large extent are dependent on you for their very survival evolve. The process of acquiring knowledge is steep in the beginning, but soon it will plateau off into a gentler slope that becomes one of the greatest pleasures of keeping bees.