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Hive Management for Successful Beekeepers

The main task of any beekeeper is to practice good hive management. That’s what beekeeping is all about – keeping honey bees healthy and productive. Some tasks involved in managing hives of bees must be repeated throughout the year. Other beekeeper jobs might need attention once a year or less. Everyone who hopes to be a successful beekeeper must learn about all the aspects of keeping healthy colonies. There are no short cuts.

Beehive open during an inspection for proper hive management image.

Keeping Honey Bees – Starting a Hive

Anyone who imagines that beekeeping is a “hands off” endeavor, would be very wrong. Setting up some hives and putting bees in them is just the beginning. You learn really quick that they require some attention.

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.

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The new beekeeper (new beek) has a lot to learn and it can feel overwhelming. Relax, take your time – you can not learn everything in one year.

Varied opinions 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.

Beekeeper manages a new hive of honey bees with smoker image.

Basic Beekeeping Education

Read, learn everything you can. Sort through the many articles on beekeeping for beginners. They will cover many important basic facts. that you want to know.

Take a beekeeping class, or several. My online class was developed from years of teaching local beekeepers. Each teacher focuses on different things and it will only benefit your beekeeping adventure to learn from different people.

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The new beekeeper who invests time in learning basic skills is more likely to enjoy success with their hives. Yes, you can rush in and do what you think is a good idea but often that leads to problems.

Buying Bees, Beekeeping Supplies and Getting Ready

Hey, I love getting bee stuff as much as the next guy but what do you really need? Getting started with bees is not cheap – make sure you are getting the necessaries first.

Beekeeper tools and bee clothing needed to manage a beehive image.

Beekeepers order bees months ahead of Spring delivery. Once that is done, it is time to thing about the beekeeping supplies & equipment you will need.

Do not wait until the day of bee arrival to assemble and paint your beehive. Suppliers will sell out of popular components as the season progresses. Don’t be afraid to invest in quality basic tools and save the special goodies for later.

Deciding how to set up your apiary is a very important beekeeper task. Whether you have 2 hives or 10, where you place them can make your job easier or more difficult.

Over time your needs may change and you might decide to move things around. But, in the beginning, give some thought to your layout. Beehives too near the house can be a problem because bee temperament changes.

It is best to avoid moving your beehive around the yard whenever possible. But, if you do need to move a hive, it can be done with proper care. It is not as simple as picking up and go walking away.

Also, you need to be able to get to your colonies in all types of weather and have room to work around them. Honey boxes are heavy. Are your hives placed far enough apart to work comfortably?

Does your municipality participate in spraying pesticides? Many cities are considerate of beekeepers but you need to know the local policy. You need a plan for how to protect your beehives from mosquito spraying?

Feeding Honey Bees

Getting new colonies off to a good start often requires providing extra nutrition. Many beekeepers invest time and money into feeding the colonies until they are established.

Feeding bees sugar water allows colonies with small populations to grow faster. Whether you have new hives from packages, small swarms or splits, we need to understand their needs.

They are often starting with nothing. Comb must be build quickly. There are several conditions that have to be met if you are trying to get your bees to build comb faster.

A good population and ample food are the two biggest factors. Feeding can make sure they have the resource needed for optimum growth.

But, honey bee colonies need more than just sugar. Foragers collect pollen to serve as a protein source for brood rearing. In many cases, foragers are able to find ample pollen in the field.

But, beekeepers can feed their colonies extra pollen if natural sources as sparse. Dry pollen in an outside feeder is one method.

For other colonies pollen patties are made and placed inside the hive. But, this must be done with care especially in regions where Small Hive Beetles exist.

This is where good hive management methods rely on understanding the problems faced by your bees. Local conditions come into play here as well.

Homemade bee feeder used to fed sugar syrup to colonies in need image.

When & How of Regular Hive Inspections

A lot can be learned from observing the hive entrance, however you don’t really know what’s inside unless you look. Routine hive inspections are an important part of beekeeping. This is a good time to clean up any issues that need your attention.

As your experience grows, you learn how to look for things that seem wrong or off:

Even beekeepers who do not harvest honey still need to monitor the condition of their colonies. Disease, queenlessness and other issues still arise and may lead to hive failure.

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.

Seasonal Hive Management in the Apiary

While good and bad thing can happen with your hive at any time of year. Some issues tend to arrives in certain seasons.

Spring Beekeeping

A time of growth, healthy over-wintered colonies are ready to explode in population. With proper food (including pollen), these strong Spring colonies should be watched closely.

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.

To increase colony numbers or reduce the swarming urge, the beekeeper may split the hive. Splitting a beehive is an easy process but if you do it wrong or at the wrong time – both colonies are a risk.

Summer in the Bee Yard

In most regions, Summer hive management has several areas that need attention. Colony population is nearing it’s peak for most hives. Beehive inspections must focus on verifying the presence of a good laying queen and replacing her if needed.

Many problems that arise, such as a hive with laying workers, can be remedied if the problem is caught early on. However, not every hive can be saved.

Varroa mite infestations are beginning to be a big concern. Work to keep mite levels low as the Summer months go by. Otherwise, you may have a box of sick, “dead bees walking” before Fall.

Your region might experience a nectar dearth at any time – but especially in mid-late Summer. Even flowers that normally produce nectar may be dry due to drought.

Learn how to detect when a nectar dearth is occurring so you can help with supplemental feeding if needed.

Observation is one of the best ways to learn more about bee and beekeeping. Sometimes, we struggle to understand what they may be telling us.

Take time to observe your hives, you may see their mysterious washboarding behavior. It is a crazy looking dance move that bees make on the surface of the hive. We really don’t know for sure why they do it!

Sometimes, we have to protect the bees from themselves. Strong honey bees colonies will kill and rob out weaker colonies.

If you see bees fighting and wrestling at the hive entrance. It may be robbing and the beekeepers needs to take steps to stop robber bees!

Fall Beekeeping

As the season progresses, it is not unusual for the mood of your hives to change. Has that sweet gentle hive of bees in your backyard become a holy terror?

You need to consider some techniques for dealing with aggressive honey bee colonies. Hopefully, the problem will be short term. But, 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.

Honey bees that are “born” in Fall are different than Spring bees. We call these special late season individuals fat winter bees. They are special and able to live much longer than Summer bees. This helps the colony survive until Spring.

Alas, another situation that may occur in the Fall hive is bees that leave. When a beekeeper discovers an empty hive – that just a few days ago was active we call this absconding.

No bees or very few are left in the box. This is different than swarming and can occur at any time during the season. Thankfully, it does not happen often.

In spite our your best efforts, the time will come that you lose a hive of bees. 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.

Row of beehives in a winter snow image.

Winter Beekeeping Tasks

What do bees do in Winter? How do these cold blooded insects survive cold temperatures? Our bees have a remarkable system of survival if they have what they need before cold arrives

In the best hive management methods, we prepare bees before Winter cold arrives. But, sometimes you need to feed bees during Winter.

Starving bees are considered an emergency! There are several ways to provide emergency food but plain sugar cakes are a simple way of feeding bees in Winter.

Once the bees are calm in the winter hive, and extra equipment put away – what do beekeepers do? Winter beekeeping tasks involve monitoring colony food stores and preparing for the new season.

No matter how much beekeeping experience you develop, you will still be surprised sometimes. Our bees are always doing things that cause us to marvel and wonder.

FAQ Questions About Hive Management

Are beehives hard to maintain?

No, colony management is not hard but it does involve learning what to do and when to do it. And, even then – some colonies will fail

Do beekeepers always get stung?

Yes, most beekeepers do indeed experience a bee sting on occasion. However, by wearing the proper beekeeper protective wear you can avoid most stings.

Also, once a new beekeeper learns how to properly manage their bees – the frequency of being stung by decreases.

How much time is required to manage beehives?

Most resources estimate that 20-30 hours per year are needed to care for each beehive.

More important than the number of hours per hive is knowing what your bees need and when. Of course, the more hives you have – the more time is required.

How much does it cost to be a beekeeper?

In considering how much it costs to get started in beekeeping, know that initial startup costs are the largest expenditure.

Many tools, protective wear and wooden hive components last for years. Still, you can count on an average of $250 per hive for the hive and bees.

Protective wear for yourself ranges from $50 for a simple hat and veil to over $200 for a quality beekeeping suit.
beekeeper in a white bee suit

How hard is it to keep bees for honey production?

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.

When is the best time to start beekeeping?

The best time to start beekeeping with a new hive is in early Spring. This timeline gives the new colony all of the long warm months to prepare for Winter.

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.

Can I keep bees without harvesting honey?

Yes, many people keep a few beehives without every harvesting honey for themselves.

Honey bees are great pollinators for home garden and small orchards. Having a hive is a good way to learn more about nature in general and a good family project.

However, even hives not intended for honey production will require hive maintenance.

Where can I buy bees?

Honey bees can be ordered through the mail and shipped directly to your door. Your region may have a local beekeeping supply within driving distance.

Honey bee packages are sold from Fall/late Winter into early Spring for April/May deliver. Don’t wait until the last minute to order your bees.

What if I can not find my queen during hive inspections?

Learning how to find the queen does take some time and patience. You will get better at it with some experience. In the meantime, simply looks for fresh eggs – a sign of a laying queen.

Does every beekeeper use a Langstroth Hive?

No, while the Langstroth hive is the industry standard – there are other hives in use. These include: Top Bar, Warre and Flow Hive.

How often do beehives need tending?

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.

Proper colony management involves some trial and error. Mistakes happen in any beekeeping operation. Sometimes, those mistakes will cause the death of a colony. This can be very disheartening.

However, over time your skill in keeping bees will increase. A beekeeper becomes more adept at finding their queen bee, recognizing pest and disease problems and handling colony problems.

At that point, your successes will far outnumber your failures. Don’t give up learning the basic of beehive management is an attainable goal for those who learn and adapt to the needs of the bees.

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