Now you have your ordered, received, and hived your bees, the beekeeping begins! We all know honeybees live without or despite human intervention in the wild. Feral colonies are not manipulated or assisted by humans. As a beekeeper, much of what you do will let the bees do the jobs they are naturally good at: increasing and decreasing in population dependent on the season, pollinating the plants in their habitat, and store honey as nectar flows allow. Our job as beekeepers is to assist the bees. We help them excel at what they naturally do by doing for the bees in just minutes what it would take them weeks or even months to do for themselves. There are 3 major jobs the beekeeper can and should assist their bees with, and by doing these properly you and your bees will most likely succeed.
- The Queen: From the installation of your new bees in your hive and for every step of the way in the life of the hive, being queen right is of the utmost importance. The queen is the heart and soul of a hive. Worker bees will starve, freeze, and work themselves to death to keep the queen alive. Like the workers, you will do all you can to make sure your hive is always queen right. At first, your queen must survive transit and introduction to their new hive. She then must begin laying eggs and increasing the population of the hive (assuming you are installing your new bees in Spring or Early Summer). Hives that do not have a queen dwindle quickly. Hive pests (small hive beetle and wax moths) and robber bees seem to sense a hive that is queenless and less willing or able to defend itself against intruders. Additionally, a hive that remains queenless (and therefore broodless) for a long period of time will get laying workers. Laying workers are the death of a colony – they only lay drone brood and will kill most new queens that are installed by the beekeeper. On the rare occasion, the beekeeper can save a laying worker hive but most are not salvageable. Catching queenlessness quickly in a hive is vital and keeping a well mated, healthy queen in your hive is of the utmost importance. A freshly queenless hive left on its own can raise its own queen, but many may be unsuccessful, a beekeeper can make sure a queen is in the hive doing her job and therefore increase the chances of the bees continuing on with their lives.
- The Food: New hives and established hives can be at risk of starving depending on circumstances, and you can also over feed a hive and harm it. Finding the right balance of what to feed, when to feed, and how much to feed is vital for the hive. Again, as a beekeeper, you can do more for the bees in a few minutes than can take them weeks or even months to accomplish on their own. First, new hives are starting with nothing or nearly nothing. They have comb to draw out and need food stores immediately. Making a sugar syrup (8 lb of sugar to 1 gallon of water – or slightly thinner during the warmer months) and feeding it to the bees will give them the energy they need to move, stay warm, produce wax, and forage. Typcially, bees need fed for about 4-6 weeks. Ironically, sugar syrup is more easily converted into wax by the bees then honey is, and is the fastest, easiest way to help them draw out new comb. Once the hive has drawn comb and stores of honey/syrup you may reduce feeding. An established hive may need fed at times as well. If the hive does not have stores of honey or has very little then giving the hive feed can keep them from suffering from lack of food. Also, if you add more room to a hive and the new box is foundation only or there is no drawn comb, then feeding them at the same time will give them the energy they need to produce wax and draw out new comb. They then can begin to store honey faster. A beekeeper can feed a hive too much or at the wrong time. Overfeeding can result in frames and frames of stored syrup, leaving the queen too little room to lay. Bees may choose to swarm when they are overfed – feeling like they are out of room and must ‘divide’ to make more space. Also, there are particular times of year (in Texas it is late summer and early fall) when the heat and lack of resources increases robbing. Only feed if you must this time of year and only do so carefully. Spilling syrup, leaving syrup on the outside of the hive, or leaving your hive open too long while you feed and work the bees will alert area bees that there is a free meal and they may go on the attack. Large, healthy hives can be reduced to nothing in just hours from robbing. Finally, make sure the amount of feed you give your bees matches their population. A small cluster of bees does not need gallons of syrup. The small cluster of bees will literally work themselves to death storing all of the extra syrup they don’t really need rather than working hard at raising new bees to increase their population. A large hive with many mouths to feed, and no honey stores will need a larger amount of feed and will consume it quickly. Make sure you evaluate population and existing honey stores on a hive when choosing whether to feed or not, and how much to give the bees at each feeding. Never feed molasses or brown sugar to bees – it is toxic to them and will kill them.
- The Space: Hive size will fluctuate depending on the weather, bee population, and habitat. A beekeeper can make decisions and take action on the space he/she gives a hive and help the bees thrive. Hives that need more room and are not given it will end up swarming. Swarming can result in queenless hives and there will be fewer bees in your hive overall. Fewer bees means less honey, and decreased chance of surviving a dearth (hot dry summer, cold winter) and defending against pests and robber bees. Make sure if your queen is running out of space to lay and the honey flow will most likely continue that you give the hive more room. You can do this by adding empty boxes or bars to the hive or by harvesting some of the frames of honey and putting empty frames back on. Inversely, as bee population decreases due to lack of foraging weather and/or plants and the queen reduces laying you may need to reduce the amount of room the bees have. Keeping too much space on a hive will result in their death from pests, starvation, and/or cold. Bees, unlike most humans, only want the amount of space they need. If left with more space then they feel they can take care of they will leave a hive. This is why open bottom (or screen bottom hives) have an increase in absconding when new bees are introduced. The new swarm or package knows they will have a hard time defending an open air hive.
Keeping the queen, the food, and the space in mind with each hive check (most established colonies need about 8-10 hive checks a year) will allow you to come to the bee’s aide quickly and easily before a problem can cause their demise. There are certainly other skills and concerns for beekeepers to understand over time, but for any beginner beekeeper these 3 issues are by far the most important to understand and master.