The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden (Quarry Press, 2018), by Kim Flottum gives expert advice to beekeepers of all skill levels, including those just beginning to participate in this increasingly popular hobby. The following excerpt is from Chapter 5, “Rules of Modern Beekeeping”
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1) Be aware of the rest of the pests.
2) Keep your wax clean.
3) Isolate your bees from other bees.
4) Avoid agriculture, all the time, at all costs.
5) Provide enough room for bees and brood.
6) Provide enough room for nectar and honey.
7) Manage swarming.
8) Make sure there’s enough good food all the time.
9) Remove weak and diseased colonies and combine small but healthy colonies.
10) Keep excellent records, take good care of your equipment, and have extras.
11) Take care of the bees that take care of the bees that go into winter.
12) Winter appropriately.
This group isn’t listed in any priority order because they all come in first. They are all critical to successfully raising your honey bees and keeping them alive. Nor are they listed in any calendar schedule; for most of these rules, you need to pay attention all season long.
Beekeeping Rule Number 1: Be Aware of the Rest of the Pests
Considering the many things that ail honey bees, you would think this section would be quite long. But if you know about these problems, you can easily find prevention, treatment, and recovery information, all of which will differ, depending on where you are. That said, without doubt Varroa destructor (and the virus complex it harbors and spreads) is the King of Bad in a beehive, but the other pests and diseases cannot be ignored or the fate of the colony will always be the same — dead, dying, or declining — certainly not thriving. With the exception of AFB, a colony can handle most pest and disease problems if it has a healthy, large population with a queen who produces offspring that exhibit some level of hygienic behavior but are not overly zealous about it, have enough good food all the time, live in clean wax, are situated in full sun, and are able to avoid constant, though possibly occasional, contact with agricultural pesticides. This is as basic as it gets for IPM. Next up are mechanical tricks: traps for small hive beetles, proper super storage for wax moth, good ventilation, and ongoing selection for bees that thrive when confronted with these problems. There are chemical means of controlling all these pests, even AFB, and you may choose to go that route when time and colony numbers dictate.
But AFB is different in that there’s no escaping the longevity of the spores it leaves behind. Once infected, the bees’ home is condemned. Antibiotics are available to stop an infestation but must be obtained from a veterinarian. You must still destroy with fire the frames and inner cover, if you have one or the cover if you don’t, and scorch the insides of the boxes to destroy any spores. A safer choice is to destroy the bees also, but some choose to go to the effort of saving the bees and putting them on new, clean equipment. It’s time consuming, but most often it’s worth the effort considering the cost of replacement.
Whatever choices you make, you must be able to recognize these problems, implement remedial action, and know what to do if preventative actions fail. Be aware of all the problems, expect them to arise, and know how to save your bees.
Beekeeping Rule Number 2: Keep Your Wax Clean
This has always been a rule, but it has become especially important now that beekeepers are using chemicals for Varroa control. Wax absorbs these chemicals and your bees are constantly exposed to low levels of them, whether you use them or not. If you put beeswax foundation in your hives, your bees will live with a small level of toxin their entire lives. The usual recommendation is to replace dark brown or black comb, or even if not dark, at least every three years. This is no longer a safe recommendation in my opinion. Remove and replace interior beeswax after its second season.
Beekeeping Rule Number 3: Isolate Your Bees from Other Bees
This is much easier said than done, but the fact is that you are your neighbors’ beekeeper, and if they are less fastidious than you when caring for their bees, your bees will inherit or steal their problems. This is especially true when a colony suffers a viral collapse, the bees abandon the colony and share their pain with neighbors, and neighbors rob and steal the rest. Soon, everybody has everything. Drifting especially enables problems to spread, but abandoned equipment rife with disease also is a problem. It’s not easy being clean, or green, and isolation is almost impossible, but try anyway.
Beekeeping Rule Number 4: Avoid Agriculture, All the Time, At All Costs
If you have any choice at all, keep your bees as far away from industrial agriculture as you can. Modern food production has developed technologies that poison the plants, flowers, nectar, pollen, soil, and groundwater everywhere we produce food. Not enough to outright kill you, your bees, or wildlife, but to permanently affect them with sublethal and barely lethal doses. Your bees carry these toxic groceries back to the hive and feed them to their young. This weakens the hive, lowers individual bees’ immune systems, adds another layer of stress on an already overtaxed system, and as a final kicker, gets in your beeswax and continues to dole out its deadly dose for years to come. Stay away from conventional farms.
Additionally, as industrial agriculture increases in size, diversity in the landscape — and a bee’s diet — decreases dramatically. So your bees must travel farther to maintain a balanced diet, or they simply don’t get enough good food all the time. Herbicides, no more fence rows, and infrequent alternate cropping systems have reduced plant diversity to a bare minimum.
Beekeeping Rule Number 5: Provide Enough Room for Bees and Brood
The normal cycle of population fluctuation in a honey bee colony is generally smallest in late fall, gradually but slowly increases as winter progresses, building faster as spring approaches, fastest and most in late spring, plateauing in mid- to late summer, decreasing slowly during autumn, and then back to almost no growth in late fall. Numbers are arbitrary depending on where the bees are, how much forage is available during any one season, the race of bees we are measuring, and how they are or are not managed.
A honey bee colony managed for optimum production without stressing the colony or demanding more than should be asked needs space to accommodate the growth of both juvenile and adult bees, pollen and honey in the broodnest area, and of course the hoarded stores that will get them through lean times ahead.
Providing all that space all the time can be problematic as there will be more space than the small population of the colony can safely protect from predators — wax moths, ants, roaches, small hive beetles, and the like — so additional space must be added just before it is needed. This is timing at its best.
This involves knowing how much space today’s eggs will require when they become adults in three weeks and what to continue to expect from a queen who can lay upwards of 1,800 to 2,000 eggs a day (now that you know how to measure that). But you have to know that she really does lay that many — how can you tell, and what does it mean (see Queen’s Rule No. 3) All those bees have to have some place to be, and if there’s not enough room, they’ll take matters into their own hands, and then you have to worry about swarming (see Beekeeping Rule No. 7).
You can make a quick calculation of the space that you need by looking at the amount of sealed brood (you’re doing that anyway because you are counting eggs per day from the queen). Look closely at a frame of sealed brood. A worker bee standing on that frame covers two cells. So, when you figure out sealed brood numbers, you double that space to accommodate the adults that will emerge over the next twelve days. Suddenly, you need way more room than you thought, and if the queen’s in the increasing phase, that number will double again in about three weeks. Plan ahead.
Beekeeping Rule Number 6: Provide Enough Room for Nectar and Honey
Along with the bees needing room in a hive, expansion plans must always be ready to accommodate incoming nectar and the resulting honey. As a rule of thumb, nectar is about 70 percent water and 30 percent sugars and solids, while honey is about 83 percent sugars and solids and 17 percent water. The range of sugar in nectar goes from about 10 percent to as much as 80 percent, but 30 is a good average to consider and what bees seek as the lowest concentration to chase.
How much room? If your colony is to make 125 pounds (56 kg) of honey from 30 percent sugar nectar, they will need to gather right about 300 pounds (136 kg) of nectar, or about 75 gallons (284 L) of nectar, to get 125 pounds (56 kg) of honey. That’s a significant amount of required room, and even though not all at the same time, if it’s not there when needed, production stops.
To get from mostly water to mostly sugar takes a bit of magic, chemical transformation, and room. Returning foragers hand off their collected nectar, already laced with the enzymes needed to change the disaccharide sugars (mostly sucrose) to the monosaccharide sugars (mostly fructose and glucose, but a host of others in small amounts) to house bees ready to finish the process. They, too, enhance the mix with enzymes, manipulate the droplet so it is exposed to the warm internal environment of the hive, and then hang a drop or two from the top of an empty cell, giving it maximum exposure to the drying winds in the hive and dehydrating it even further.
When that drop is dry enough, it’s honey and it is moved to a cell that will eventually be full of honey and then covered with a thin layer of wax to protect it. Some of this honey is also placed in cells about half full of stored pollen to protect the pollen. These cells are not covered in wax.
The critical task for a beekeeper is making sure there is adequate room for all those dehydrating drops. If house bees determine there’s no more room for incoming nectar, their enthusiasm for taking those nectar loads from incoming foragers drops off the edge of the comb. In a way, the message is, don’t bring any more sister, there isn’t room, at least for now. So, rather than go out and get more, those foragers take a break. And every break is that much less honey produced.
Those drops don’t remain long in those cells — overnight or maybe a day — before they are reduced to storage quality and moved to a honey cell, opening up that cell for more incoming nectar. But if all the cells are full, that time, whether it’s just a few hours or a whole day, is lost to honey production. So if you figure there’s a super full of locust nectar out there this year because the bloom is spectacular, there’s no sign or rain or cool temperatures, and you’ve got lots of bees, make certain they have a super for honey storage and at least a super for nectar storage, and two would be good insurance. You can remove the extra space when the locust flow is over.
Beekeeping Rule Number 7: Manage Swarming
Swarming is a complex behavior. The general indications are that the hive is crowded and the weather is good. In the spring, the colony is expanding at a rapid rate as the population increases by more than 1,000 bees a day, up to 2,000 if everything is going well. So there simply needs to be room for all the adult bees in the colony. But when it is clear there isn’t going to be enough space — a great deal of brood, lots of adults and a rich cache of incoming food — the trigger is pulled and the swarming process begins. The queen’s diet is curtailed so she slows then stops laying eggs and loses weight so she can fly, and food storage, too, slows to make room for all the new bees. There is a measurable break in the brood cycle when a colony swarms, which does have a positive effect on Varroa life cycle. A critical component here, however, is the concept of queen pheromone per bee.
As queens age past their second or so year, the colony-uniting pheromones begin to change and have less of an effect on the bees’ behavior. Crowding, lots of available food in the real world outside, time of year (increasing day length rather than decreasing day length), population, and an aging queen all contribute to the process. A healthy colony is supposed to swarm.
Managing that behavior can be time consuming, labor and equipment intensive, and expensive. Not managing it is simply expensive in lost bees and reduced crop, if that is your goal. So the easiest though not necessarily most efficient, productive, or bee-friendly approach is to reduce the population by making a split or two, or even three, from the original colony long before it reaches the point of making a swarming decision. Stop it before it starts. Then, provide new queens for both the mother colony (led by an older, swarm-proven queen) and the split (so you know what you will have rather than what you hope you will have). Divide and conquer is one way of looking at it, and replace the throne in all of the now new colonies made from the original.
Dividing a large colony into several smaller colonies can result in several outcomes. Right off, there may be less honey, lost queens, absconding, and slowness to build. These results need to be monitored and repaired if discovered. Not discovering them will probably mean a lost colony. But ending the season and going into winter with several new, honey-producing, healthy colonies led by young, vigorous queens can also be the result. Whatever your choice, you have to manage swarms or you will lose colonies.
Beekeeping Rule Number 8: Make Sure There’s Enough Good Food All the Time
This sounds simple: Feed your bees when they need food. It isn’t that simple, unfortunately. Actually, it’s feed your bees before they need food. You need to know when to begin building up your colony’s population to reach a peak right before a honey flow starts so they are not building on the flow but maximizing storage. You should know when honey flows are about over, when the next one starts, how much food is stored, and how much brood needs feeding for how long. The nurse bees should have access to as much food as they want when feeding young, or they begin to use the protein from their own bodies, which shortens their lives, and if prolonged, shortchanges the young they are feeding. Anticipate food shortages before they happen so when they should happen, they don’t. Use the formula that it takes a cell of pollen plus a cell of honey plus a cell of water to make a bee. And if your queen is producing that magical 1,800-2,000 eggs per day, every day, your colony will need that many more cells of pollen, honey, and water.
Beekeeping Rule Number 9: Remove Weak and Diseased Colonies and Combine Small but Healthy Colonies
A small, unproductive colony needs as much maintenance as a large colony, and, on a per bee basis, costs ten to twenty times as much to maintain. Determine why colonies that aren’t sick aren’t keeping up. Most likely, it’s the queen’s lack of performance. Unless it is early, early spring, dispatch that queen and combine that small colony — and all the resources of bees, comb, and food — with a stronger healthy one, or at least one of similar strength, to get a bigger, more productive colony. You have reduced your workload, increased your harvest, freed up equipment for other bees, and simplified overwintering.
As with healthy, small colonies, the time and energy spent per bee on sick colonies is enormous, the cost of drugs is high, and the fact that you are perpetuating a line of bees that succumbs to any of these diseases should be seriously considered.
In short, don’t waste time with runts.
Beekeeping Rule Number 10: Keep Excellent Records, Take Good Care of Your Equipment, and Have Extras
Good record keeping can be accomplished in any number of ways: a notebook, a recorder that you speak into, a smartphone — the list goes on. That’s the easy part. The harder part is getting your records into a form that can be used. Keeping them in the cab of your truck is not very useful. Writing on or using bricks on the tops of hives or, even worse, on the inner cover, is not very useful.
Record keeping is simple, easy, and extraordinarily efficient: Give every colony a number. Paint it on the cover and identify it in your records by that number. Have a page in your book or a file in your computer for each colony. When that colony expires, start a new colony in it, remove the data sheets in your book or file regarding the previous colony with that number, and begin again. But don’t discard the data sheets. Retire them to another place so you can refer to them. Why did the colony die? Where did the queen come from? What did you treat it with, and when, for Varroa?
Many beekeepers have field notes and house notes that they then expand on using a computer or another notebook when the day is over. This accomplishes several things: You are forced to relive the day and, in so doing, recall things that didn’t get written down. You can make up a to-do list to take with you next time — supers needed, check queens, requeen, weed control, replace equipment, medication needed, bring material to make new hive stand, remove drone comb Varroa traps, and other tasks. Without the to-do list, how many of these get done? Or, how many get done after you make a second trip back to the shop?
Hive scales can be complicated devices, placed under a single colony with data sent regularly to your computer or phone. A scale can be the old, reliable feed-type scale sitting on a solid base that you have to read every day or every time you visit the yard. Or it can be a hand-held spring scale you always have with you that you use on the same colony in every yard.
Take care of your tools and they’ll take care of you; it’s as true here as in a machine shop or auto repair garage. Protect wood equipment from the elements, keep your smoker cleaned out, your hive tools, suit, gloves, and bee veil tight and clean.
Boxes and frames used strictly for honey production can be cleaned pretty well when uncapping and extracting. It adds time, but keeps things fitting together. Burr, brace comb, and especially propolis build up over time and things just don’t fit right. Power wash after extracting, and separate them into piles by good riddance, repair, repaint, and okay. If the timing isn’t good, consider a cleaning session later in the year when boxes aren’t needed and can be examined, cleaned, and made ready. One beekeeper I know always has a small sledge hammer in his truck. When a piece of equipment has worn out, he smashes it, right there in the field. That way, it is absolutely no longer useful and won’t get saved to still be broken in the future.
Have extras. I always tell beginning beekeepers to buy two, better yet three, hive tools right off. You’ll leave one in the beeyard, drop one in the grass, or leave one at home. Same with brushes, smokers, and the like. As you gain experience, and beeyards, you’ll find that leaving smoker fuel, a hive tool, a brush, and maybe extra frames in an old super with a cover is a good idea.
Beekeeping Rule Number 11: Take Care of the Bees that Take Care of the Bees that Go Into Winter
Think of it this way: If your grandparents are working at less than full speed, they can’t take good care of your parents and, in turn, can’t take good care of you. Bees damaged by Varroa, the viruses, nosema, or malnutrition at any stage of the game are not firing on all cylinders, and they can’t care for those depending on them as well as they should. Nor can they care for the queen; nor do they live as long as they should. So the hurt continues for each generation, becoming worse and worse.
The final chapter is that bees dying young leave a hole needing to be filled, so just-born bees begin foraging at a younger and younger age trying in vain to support the queen and feed the young. But the damage done renders them damaged, and they fly away and do not return. You find an empty hive with brood, food, and a queen — but no bees. Or, it happens later in the winter, and come early spring, it’s the same thing: No bees in the boxes, and you wonder what happened.
What happened is that Varroa and its viruses, primarily deformed wing virus, got the best of them back in mid-summer. The viruses got hold of the grandparents and there was no turning back. Treatments for Varroa in the fall killed Varroa, but there were only dead bees in that hive by then. The grandparents were damaged, the parents were damaged, and their children are damaged. The hive is doomed, but there were only dead bees in that hive by then. The grandparents were damaged, the parents were damaged, and their children are damaged. The hive is doomed.
Beekeeping Rule Number 12: Winter Appropriately
Where your bees are makes a difference. Honey bees are semitropical to tropical insects, and although evolution has equipped them with a hoarding instinct to preserve food for lean times and the ability to form wintering clusters, winter is still a struggle.
And even these traits don’t ensure success. Several factors must be in place to get from late fall to late spring, including having enough food and enough bees. There also needs to be enough pollen to feed an increasing population as spring approaches. Research indicates there should be about 500 square inches (3,200 sq. cm) of stored pollen for a strong, healthy hive to do well over the winter. If you recall, there are about twenty-five cells per square inch (6.5 sq. cm), so that comes to between 12,000 and 13,000 cells. When looking at that much space, however, consider again the number of cells on a deep frame side equal to about 4,500, and on a medium frame about 2,700. It can also be in the form of the internally stored protein in overwintering bees. There needs to be a healthy amount of this, commonly called fat bodies, but there must be more so that when feeding the emerging population of young bees, these workers don’t completely decimate their internal stores and threaten their own longevity and survival.
In cold regions, beekeepers provide protective measures to mediate the internal temperatures and especially the internal temperature changes during the day. These include external windbreaks made of bales of straw, evergreen boughs, landscape burlap barriers, snow fences — anything that deflects winter wind around or over the hives to keep the colds blasts from directly hitting them.
But where it’s really cold, additional protection should be used, and this, unfortunately, has fallen out of favor for a couple of reasons. The first is that there is pressure to select those bees that winter the best in extreme cold, with little food and small populations — certainly admirable traits. The live-and-let-die selection approach is, in the long run, productive, but the carnage-strewn beeyards attest to the cost in bees, money, time, and energy. Perhaps a more humane approach would be to prop up those colonies for a short time, but rather than let all the bees expire, requeen with genetics selected to thrive in the environment chosen, thus saving the bees in the short term.
The other reason is technology and time. It is easy and inexpensive to simply pick up your bees and move them to a warmer place. This has become standard for most commercial-sized operations, and is growing even with smaller operations. Another technique is indoor wintering — controlled to varying degrees for ventilation, temperature, CO2 levels, and mites, but for a shorter period of time. One example is the potato-storage caves used in the American West.
But until this winter-over debate is resolved, winter protection is one good way to give bees the edge during harsh weather. These measures range from a simple roofing paper wrap, to a lightly insulated plastic coated wrap, to a simple weatherproof heavy duty cardboard sleeve that slips over the colony and folds over the top, encasing the colony completely, or at least the top half or so. The next step is a heavy-duty insulation blanket that, like the box, slips over the colony. Additional protection can be added by joining colonies together in groups of four on a pallet and treating them as a unit, wrapping them together so that each has two inside walls protected from the elements by another colony. The protection this offers is amazing.
All of these techniques have one issue in common: ventilation. When warm, moist metabolic air, similar to your exhaled breath outside on a cold day, rises through the colony, it eventually reaches the top of the cavity, which is usually the inside bottom of the inner or migratory cover. What happens then can save or kill a wintering colony. If the inside top of the hive is cold because there is no top insulation, that warm air will condense when it hits the inside surface and form liquid water. That water drips on the bees, chilling and killing them. Or, it can collect on the top bars of the top super, the comb, even the top bars of the super below, and freeze into a solid block of ice, not allowing the bees access to the honey stored there. Come spring, you will find nearly a super full of honey in the top, the dead bees below having starved because they couldn’t reach the honey covered in ice.
However, if adequate ventilation is provided, that warm, moist air rises and escapes from inside and causes no harm at all. Insulate the top of the hive even better than the sides, and that warm air never cools and escapes, causing no problems at all. Moreover, that ventilation duct provided in most inner covers, or specially made by the beekeepers, provides a top entrance for the colony when snow and ice accumulate and block the lower entrance.
In locations with less extreme weather, good ventilation is still a good idea, but protection beyond a windbreak is often not necessary.
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Excerpted from The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. Used with permission from Quarry Press, © 2018.