Beehive Management Practices for Successful Beekeepers

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How to Maintain a Beehive Successfully

The main task of any beekeeper is to practice good beehive management. That’s what beekeeping is all about – keeping honey bees healthy and productive. The individual tasks involved in beehive management are many and varied. Some 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.

Frame of honey from a beekeeper managed hive image.

Anyone who imagines that beekeeping is a “hands off” endeavor, would be very wrong. Once you become involved in raising bees, you learn really quick that they require attention.

But wait – bees have been doing their thing for a long time without any human help, right? Yes, but managing bees in man-made hives is a different thing all together.

Getting Started with Bees

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.

Take a beekeeping class, or several. Each teacher focuses on different things and it will only benefit your beekeeping adventure to learn from different people. Varied opinions can be frustrating but they give you many different ways to do things.

honey bee hive - keeping bees and hive management

Basic Beekeeping Education

Read, learn everything you can -be sure to check out my article Beekeeping for Beginners. You need tips on everything from where to put your hive to when to open it for the first time.

The new beekeeper who invests time in learning basic skills is more likely to enjoy success with their hives.

In time, hive management jobs can be completed in less time as you become more comfortable and familiar with your bees. Knowing as much as possible about your bees and your equipment makes every task easier.

Beekeeping Supplies You Really Need

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.

Learn everything you can about Beekeeping Supplies & Equipment well before your bees arrive. Do not wait until the day of bee arrival to assemble and paint your hive. Suppliers will sell out during the busy season.

You may find yourself in need of another bee box and not way to acquire one quickly. Don’t be afraid to invest in quality basic tools and save the special goodies for later.

Setting up your apiary is one of the first tasks for beekeepers. 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 change things. But, in the beginning, give some thought to your layout. Beehives too near the house can be a problem because bee temperature 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?

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

Beehive management of several hives during inspections image.

Managing Beehives in the Apiary

While a beekeeper can interfere too much with a honey bee colony, routine hive management tasks are important. You have to look inside the hive, but first you have to learn what to look for!

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

Feeding Bees Sugar or Pollen

Feeding bees sugar water allows colonies with small populations to grow faster. Colonies with small populations can be especially frustrating if they are slow to build comb. These may be new hives from packages, small swarms or splits.

In order to help them we need to understand their needs. 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 is the beginning.

Honey bee colonies need more than just sugar. Foragers collect pollen to serve as a protein source for brood rearing. Without this resource new worker bees can made be raised to adulthood.

Beekeepers often 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 beehive management methods rely on understanding the problems faced by your bees.

Challenges in the Apiary or Bee Yard

Problems (or opportunities-depending on your point of view) will arrive as you care for your bees. Thankfully, they will become easier to handle as your experience grows.

Throughout the warm months our bees are on the lookout for nectar rich flowers. However, what happens when the flowers do not contain nectar?

Even flowers that normally produce nectar may be dry due to late frost, drought or days of rain. With little or no natural nectar available, your hives may be experiencing a dearth.

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

Sometimes we have to protect the bees from themselves. In nature, survival of the fittest is the rule. Strong honey bees colonies will kill and rob out weaker colonies.

This is why we avoid spilling sugar water in the bee yard and keep entrances small on weak hives. If you do see bees fighting and wrestling at the hive entrance. It may be honey bee robbing and the beekeepers needs to take steps to stop robber bees!

Bee colony population varies throughout the warm season. It is the job of the savvy beekeeper to manage colony population and space. Our goal is a hive strong enough to produce a good crop of honey, yet not so strong that it swarms.

Swarming is a natural part of beekeeping. Most beekeepers often hope to minimize or stop swarming. Understanding how to give your bees space to grow may help in this endeavor to minimize 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.

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.

Alas, it is a said situation when a beekeeper discovers an empty hive. Why did my bees leave? Sometimes we never know but we call this “absconding bees“. This is different than normal swarming. Can a beekeeper prevent it?

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.

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

Importance of Regular Hive Inspections

One strategic aspect of modern beekeeping is the ability to inspect hives without destroying them. However, bees make use of every bit of available space. When the beekeeper opens the hive, he/she may find some unusual comb.

When bees build comb that blocks inspection or is not in the frame, the beekeeper must take action. Remove unwanted burr comb. The bees may build it back but it is good practice to remove it periodically.

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.

Types of honey bee brood on a frame from a hive image.

A queen check is the most important part of most inspections. Learn how to recognize the queen bee and verify her presence. She is essential to keeping a good colony of bees.

Check your brood pattern. Brood is the term used for baby bees. Understand the various types of brood and what they mean to the colony. Learn to identify the various stages of bee brood so you will know what you are seeing.

Any problems that arise, such as a hive with laying workers, can be remedied if the problem is caught early on.

Honey Bee Pests & Disease

Beekeeper inspecting hive for varroa mites in brood image.
Varroa mites reproduce inside the capped brood cell.

We are not the only ones who love honey bees and the products they provide. Many different honey bee pest cause problems for bee colonies. Also, bees are plagued by disease as well.

These bee pests weaken colonies and spread diseases that cause further damage. Some pests such as Wax Moths do not kill colonies. They simply take advantage of weak hives. Not every pest is a hive killer – some only cause minor damage.

How to Harvest Honey

For those beekeepers who 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. There are different ways to produce and collect a honey crop.

Winter Beekeeping Tasks

What do bees do in Winter? Do honey bees hibernate? 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

Row of beehives in a winter snow image.

Sometimes, your hives will not need extra attention in late season. However, checking to be sure the bees are ready for the cold months is the beekeeper’s job.

Winterizing hives includes preparing colonies for Winter as needed. Many colony will need little or no extra preparation from the beekeeper. Your location and climate plays an important role in the steps to be taken.

Healthy well fed colonies have several methods of getting ready for Winter. In fact, 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.

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.

In the best beehive 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.

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.

Answers to Common Beekeeping Questions

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 inspect a beehive – the frequency of being stung by honey bees decreases.

How much time is required to keep bees?

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 for beekeeping.

How much does it cost to be a beekeeper?

In considering how much is 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.

Keeping bees in a hive 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 beekeeper maintenance.

Where can I buy bees?

There are several ways to purchase bees for your hives. Check with local beekeeping clubs for members with bees to sell.

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.

There are many factors to consider when buying honey bees. Consider the reputation of the seller before putting down a deposit.

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.

Where can I put a beehive?

Beehives can be kept almost anywhere. Following the guidelines of finding the best place for a hive, you can choose the best spot on your property.

The hive should be away from areas of the yard used by humans and pets. A quite corner of a large backyard is a good location.

And of course, check to insure that you are not breaking any local laws or homeowners association rules by having bees.

What is the best breed of bees to buy?

Deciding on the best type of honey bees to purchase is a difficult task. A lot of beekeeper opinion is involved in extolling the merits of any particular breed.

In most regions, you are limited in bee selection when buying bee packages. Early bee packages come from the southern states. They are mostly Italian or Carni-Italian mixes.

This is a good type of honey bee for beginners. If you later decide to experiment with another breed of bee, it is relatively easy to order a new queen bee.

A Final Word on Beehive Management

Keeping honey bees 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 keeping honey bees is an attainable goal for those who learn and adapt to the needs of the bees.

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