My advice for new beekeepers

With April comes the inevitable question, “What advice would you give a new beekeeper?” I seriously hate this question, mostly because it is fraught with undertones of philosophy.

But once again, I will attempt an answer. Please don’t write back and exclaim, “But that’s just your opinion!” Of course, it’s my opinion. If you want someone else’s opinion, you are in the wrong place.

Save the conclusions for later

First, I offer a pair of do nots. Do not spend your first year worrying about hive style (Warré, TBH, Langstroth) and defending your choice. Do not spend your first year worrying about management style (conventional, treatment-free, biodynamic) and defending your choice. You will develop your own thoughts on these issues as you gain experience, and you can always alter those choices later. A writer doesn’t develop style until he knows grammar, punctuation, and spelling. A beekeeper doesn’t develop style until he knows bees.

Begin with the basics

Instead, spend your first year learning everything you can about the two species you will be raising in your hives—honey bees and Varroa mites. By “everything” I mean biology, life cycles, population dynamics, and the interaction between these two housemates. Most new beekeepers make the mistake of underestimating the impact of Varroa on their colonies. You can’t know too much about bees or mites.

Second, learn everything you can about flowers, pollination, and the coevolution of bees and flowering plants. If you don’t understand pollination ecology, blooming cycles, flower morphology, and plant-pollinator mutualisms, you cannot be an effective beekeeper. New beekeepers often have no idea when nectar flows occur in their area nor when to expect a dearth, let alone how to prepare for them.

Learn the language

Whether you are a fashion designer, nuclear physicist, IT geek, or a beekeeper, you have to learn the words—the jargon—that go with it. Beekeepers waste a lot of time miscommunicating with each other. Beekeepers use words without knowing their meaning, they say one thing when they mean another, they use seven different terms for one item. The more they show off, the more their words devolve into mush.

No wonder it appears that ten beekeepers have fifteen answers to the same problem—since no one understands what anyone else is saying, everything sounds like a new idea. You will get better answers if you ask the right questions using the correct words.

Trust yourself

My philosophy of logic-based beekeeping is premised on the idea that you know lots about the world around you because of your own life experiences. In other words, even if you didn’t study science in school, you understand certain physical, chemical, and biological properties because you see them every day. You step out of the shower and shiver. You boil water and the steam goes up, not down. You set a cold beer on the table and it leaves a ring.

But for some strange reason, most of us forget everything we know when we open a beehive. We forget that warm air rises, we forget that living things respire, we forget that more mouths require more food, we forget that mold grows on damp surfaces. Basically, most of the “mysterious” things we see in a beehive can be explained with everyday knowledge. They’re just bees in a box, dude, not extraterrestrials.

If someone gives you a piece of advice and it doesn’t feel right, or it doesn’t makes sense, ask for an explanation. If they can’t explain their reasoning, move on. Beekeeping is not a secret society with chants, handshakes, and passwords. Advice should be transparent and logical. If it’s not, forgetaboutit.

Play with your bees

Watch your bees. Enjoy them. Talk to them. Delight in their being. For most of us, bees are pets. We can learn much by simply observing them in the hive, in the field, in a flower. Feel the tingle as they stroll up your arm. Revel in the power of their sting. I know of no better way to learn about bees than to watch them do what they do.

The beginning is not for perfection

No one expects perfection the first time they bake a cake, write a computer program, or fold into the lotus position. Yet we all expect to harvest gallons of honey our first season and overwinter without a hiccup. Put aside the idea of perfection and concentrate on learning. Beekeeping is a process. You learn as you go. You try and fail or you try and succeed. And then you try something else. Enjoy the process and don’t worry about the end. There is no end.

All beekeeping is local

This is probably the single most misunderstood fact in all of beekeeping. Your microclimate is different than the one across the street or down the road. The plants that grow in your region are different—or bloom at different times—than those in another state or province. Your seasons change at different times, you have different strains of bees, different pesticides in your environment, and different amounts of rain, noise, humidity, habitat, and agriculture. You cannot make rules for beekeeping because beekeeping for you is different than beekeeping for anyone else.

It is this single issue—localness—that makes learning bees more important than learning beekeeping. You have to understand bees so you can look inside your hive and make your management decision. Your situation is unlike any other. You can ask for advice as long as you understand that what works for Sarah might not work for Joe. Ultimately there is no recipe for success. There is no recipe for bees.


Related Posts:

Seven types of beekeeping advice to avoid

English for beekeepers

Beekeeping and the erosion of English


When can I get honey from my Flow hive?

I always wanted to be a beekeeper and now with my complete Flow Hive I can save the bees (they need us!!!) and not disturb them when I’m taking their honey and not getting stung!!! My bees will come in a little wooden box with a screen!! And I already got the jars! I live in northern Idaho and my hive comes in December!! When can I get honey??? Do you know?! –Sadie

The Flow hive certainly drives people to excess—both in dollars $$$ and exclamations!!! You might want to save some of each for later. Sure, I have some thoughts on getting started that may help, as long as you understand I have never touched a Flow hive.

What is a Flow hive?

First, a Flow hive is like any other Langstroth hive except it has a special kind of honey super that holds the Flow frames. A honey super is a place where bees store honey. The box below it, called a brood box, is where the queen bee makes her nest and lays her eggs. It is the place where the adult bees care for the young. It also contains honey and pollen.

If the bees store extra honey in a hive—more than they need for winter—the beekeeper can harvest the surplus. You say in your e-mail you want to help save the bees. If so, you must be careful not to take too much honey from them.

When can you take the honey?

When you first start your new colony, you should leave the honey super, Flow frames, and mason jars in storage; you won’t need them anytime soon.

I don’t mean to sound discouraging, but a package of bees started on brand new woodenware in Idaho is not likely to yield surplus honey the first year. Now listen up: I didn’t say impossible, just unlikely. You may not be able to crank your Flow until the summer of 2017.

I’m not making this up. The harvest you saw in the video came from an established thriving hive. The Flow frames that were tested in both the US and Canada were placed on established thriving hives. According to Kim Flottum in his book The Backyard Beekeeper (p. 94), “Your first-year colony probably won’t have a harvestable amount of honey before late summer, if then.” Dewey Caron in Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping (p. 166) writes, “Package bee colonies seldom produce a honey surplus the first season.”

How can that be? First of all, packages of bees are usually shipped to the northern areas in April, so they’ve already missed part of the nectar season. Your bees in a box will include a mated queen and perhaps 10,000 other bees. When you put these bees into your new hive, they won’t feel at home right away. There is no furniture nor any pictures on the wall. No cradles in the nursery nor shelves in the pantry. It’s just another wooden box, only bigger than the one they just left.

First they build a home

At first, the worker bees will start to build combs so the queen has a place to lay her eggs. They work fast, and if they have plenty to eat, the bees may have some small combs by the next day. As soon as space is available, the queen will begin to lay.

A queen can lay 2000 eggs per day, but not until she has a place to put them. She may have room for only 50 or 100 eggs on the first couple of days, more as time goes on. Assuming all goes well, these eggs will hatch into adult bees three weeks later. In the meantime, your colony is getting smaller because some of the original bees will die while doing their chores or collecting nectar. Remember, your average worker bee lives a mere four to six weeks during spring and summer.

I know this is hard to picture, but it takes a while for a package of bees to get started. Besides building the nursery area, they also have to build the storage combs and tend to the young. All this takes tremendous amounts of food, food which they have to collect.

Remember your bees arrived late in the spring, took a week or so to settle, and then waited three weeks for the first batch of new bees to hatch. Now it’s mid-May or later and your colony may still be decreasing in total numbers of bees even though the nectar flow is in full swing.

Also, even if your bees fill the entire brood box with brood, honey, and pollen, you may want to add a second brood box so your bees have enough room for winter stores. This decision is partly based on local conditions. I highly recommend you talk to beekeepers in your area to learn what works best. In Idaho, I suspect that most beekeepers use a double deep for overwintering. Ask around.

Nectar flows

Being new to this, you probably don’t know when nectar is readily available in your area. Most areas in North America have a lot of nectar in spring, a period of little or no nectar in the heat of the summer, and then another, although lesser, flow in autumn.

If the population of your hive isn’t large by the end of spring, the colony will be lucky to collect what it needs for the following winter, let alone provide any excess. Because of this, many beekeepers feed sugar syrup to their packages to get them going. Some feed packages straight through the first summer. But be warned: If you put the Flow frames on while feeding your bees, syrup—not honey—will fill the mason jars. Remember, bees cannot change syrup into honey.

Speeding up the process

If you are really eager to turn the Flow crank, you could speed up the process by buying a nuc instead of a package. A nuc is a small colony on drawn combs with a laying queen and brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae that are in the process of growing). Nucs (nucleus colonies) are often available locally from other beekeepers and they give you a head start. A nuc is more expensive than a package, but compared to the price of a complete Flow, it is trivial. You simply take the frames from the nuc and put them directly into your brood box.

You might also be able to buy an entire overwintered colony. If you join a beekeeping club, you can ask around and see if someone is willing to sell a complete hive.

Starting with a nuc or complete colony will give you a much better chance of getting honey your first year. Moving to a southern state or Hawaii may help as well. Still, with bees, there are no guarantees. Your local climate and weather, the health of your bees, swarms, diseases, and your own management decisions will all affect the outcome.

Business as usual

I’m going to stop here because this is a lot for a newbee to absorb. The point, though, is that starting a new colony in a Flow hive is no different than starting a new colony in any other hive. Sometimes we get lucky and can super a new hive and get honey the first year. Most times it doesn’t work that way, and if we harvest more than we should, our bees suffer.

Since you are eager to begin, why not start a colony this year? Buy a nuc, if you can, and a standard Langstroth hive. No you can’t use your Flow frames this year because you don’t have them yet, but with your current plan, you probably won’t be able to use them next year either.

Beekeeping is not a walk in the park: it is life changing. If you learn how to keep bees before your Flow frames arrive, the benefit to you and your bees will be enormous.


Related Posts:

Should you go with the Flow?

Final thoughts on Flow

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Dead bees in the snow

Here’s a question and photo sent to me by Todd Eaton. Dead bees in the snow are a common concern and I welcome any ideas that we can pass on to Todd and others who are worried about the accumulation of dead bees in winter.

I have never been so worried about the bees. It’s 19 degrees outside, no wind. The past few weeks have been brutal as far as weather and temperature and today “seems” like a warm day. Is this normal for them to do this? I expect one or two but hundreds? I can see they’re taking a cleansing flight but what is making them do it this early? We still have many weeks of sub-zero weather coming.

It is normal for bees on a warmish day to take cleansing flights even in the middle of winter. February is not early to take cleansing flights. In fact, the sooner the better, the more the better.

Sometimes the sun beats down on the hives and warms the interior, especially if the hives are dark-colored as yours are. On occasion, bees can be fooled by the warmth, fly out, and die in the cold. But for the most part they know better and just take quick flights and head back.

Also, bees die every day. In the summertime, about 1000 per day per colony are lost. In the winter, the number is much lower, but there still are many deaths. You don’t say how long it took to accumulate this many, but if it happened over several days I would completely ignore it. Remember that snow affords us an opportunity to see things we usually don’t see, and sometimes those things are surprising.

Nevertheless, a couple things could be going on here. If it really was a warmer than usual day, undertaker bees may have seen an opportunity to rid the hive of dead bodies. If that were the case, it wouldn’t take long to accumulate this many. Just yesterday I was watching bees carry out bodies and drop them four to six feet from the hive, then do a U-turn and go back home.

As I said earlier, some could have been fooled by the warmth of the sun and got caught outside, unable to fly home. On the other hand, some of these bees may have been old and about to expire anyway. Bees often elect to die away from the hive—a mechanism that helps keep the hive clean and free of disease.

More likely, the dead bees you see are a combination of old bees, cold bees, and transported carcasses. It doesn’t seem like an inordinate amount, especially when you divide it by two. (I assume both hives have bees.)

I would not be overly concerned at this point. However, your bees could be experiencing higher than average death rates if they are plagued by mites or honey bee pathogens. Often, when colonies collapse from Varroa mites, the remaining bees persist in removing the dead until the very end. Given just the photo and no other information, it is nearly impossible to say and, at this point, there is nothing you can do but wait for the weather. In the meantime, though, don’t give up hope.

I’m sure other beekeepers have thoughts on this and will share their ideas. In any case, let us know what you find when the time comes.


Dead bees accumulating in the snow near two hives. © Todd Eaton.


Spring in February

It was warm and sunny today. This is certainly not any kind of February I remember—usually it’s one of our coldest months and one of the wettest. My little patch of lamb’s ears, which I bought specifically for wool carder bees, was loaded with honey bees—several dozen at a time. They were eagerly lapping up the water that was caught on the surface of the woolly leaves. Other honey bees examined the hose bibb, but it was dry.

The south wall of the house, exposed directly to the sun, was covered with honey bees. They would land and remain motionless for several minutes, taking in the warmth. Right in the middle of maybe seventy honey bees was a big fat bumble bee queen doing the same.

The bees were collecting pollen in two creamy shades of yellow, but here is something to remember: In most areas, pollen is available long before nectar. Many plants that are wind-pollinated produce large quantities of early pollen, but the plants with showy flowers and lots of nectar usually bloom later.

So don’t sigh with relief quite yet. Make sure your bees are supplied with enough honey or sugar to get them into the spring. Most colonies that die of starvation do it in late spring when stores are low, populations are getting larger, the weather is unpredictable, and the nectar-producing plants haven’t yet bloomed. It’s very easy to lose your bees just when you think you’ve made it.


Honey bee collecting water from lamb’s ear. © Rusty Burlew.
The water gets trapped on the hairy surface of the leaves. © Rusty Burlew.
A honey bee looks for water on a dry hose bibb. © Rusty Burlew.
This bumble bee queen was sunning herself on the side of the house. © Rusty Burlew.


How to feed bees in freezing weather

My husband came home yesterday and said the local postmaster was looking for me. It seems that one of his customers just lost seven out of nine hives and wants someone to explain why. Apparently he is a new beekeeper who took over the colonies from an elderly man and neither of them know why the bees are dying.

If we ever catch up with each other I will take a look, but seven out of nine is not a happy number. Without seeing a thing, my first guess would be starvation. Without a doubt, this was one of the worst years I’ve ever seen for lack of food stores.

Too cold and too hot

Last winter’s cold was interrupted by an unseasonably warm stretch that caused the maples to bloom early. This was immediately followed by drenching rains that kept the bees inside until the bloom was over. Then, just after the fruit trees began to blossom, a deep freeze shattered the flowers.

At that point, everyone was counting on the blackberry bloom to tide them over. But soon after the berries began to open, an extended heat wave dried them up. The arid summer and brown autumn that followed produced little nectar. Robbing bees were everywhere, gathering every drop of untended sweet. A sticky frame I had left on the picnic table soon disappeared under a pulsing mass of wings.

By September I had large, vivacious colonies with virtually no stores. Although I harvested not a single drop of honey, the hives were so light I could pick up the back end of most. I knew it would be a long, hard winter.

Making up for bad weather

I started by giving the colonies syrup while the weather was still warm, something I haven’t done in years. Then I fed them the frames of reserve honey I kept just in case. After that was gone, I started feeding sugar cakes. In spite of all the feeding, I lost one in December due to a clear case of starvation.

As I said, I haven’t yet inspected the seven dead colonies, but since the owner is close by and suffered the same weather patterns, I wouldn’t be surprised if they starved. And since many places in North America had sere summers, I wanted to remind you to check on food stores the first chance you get.

Too cold to feed bees?

Beekeepers often say they want to check for stores but it is too cold to open the hive. In my opinion, if you believe they might be low and the weather is cold, there is no point in waiting for a warm day to go through the frames. Instead, go ahead and give them reserved honey if you have it or at least a sugar supplement—and do it now.

Candy boards are extremely helpful and, this year, my plan was to make candy boards for each hive. I purchased the materials I needed to make the boards, but never got to it.

But the system I use allows me to feed the bees on cold days, even down in the 20s F. This is what I do:

  1. I make no-cook candy cakes by mixing a little water into a lot of sugar. I put the wet sugar in paper plates and let it dry rock hard. (If I’m in a hurry, I dry it in the oven.)
  2. When the cakes are hard I sprinkle each one with a drop or two of essential oil, such as anise. The scent helps the bees find the sugar, if nothing else.
  3. I pop the cakes out of the plate and stack them in a bucket along with my hive tool.
  4. At the hive, I take off the lid. The bees stay warm because the quilt box holds most of the heat in, even with the lid off.
  5. With the hive tool, I crack the quilt from the feeder rim below it, but I don’t remove the quilt.
  6. I take a candy cake in one hand, lift the corner of the quilt with the other, and slide the candy cake into the feeder rim, placing it directly over the cluster.
  7. If you are ready, this takes about one or two seconds. The hive loses very little heat because you never remove the quilt. It’s like opening and closing a window on a cold day: they get a little gush of cold air, then the temperature returns to normal.
  8. Replace the lid and go to the next hive.

The idea that you shouldn’t feed your (possibly) starving bees because they might get cold in the process doesn’t make any sense to me. If they are out of food, they will die whether they are cold or not. So if you think they might be short of food, prepare in advance, and do it as fast as you can. You don’t have to go through every frame and then decide.

Nature isn’t always nice

Naturally, the best possible food for bees is the honey they stored for themselves. But it doesn’t always work out that way even if you didn’t harvest. If you think your bees may be hungry, go ahead and give them some help. Warm weather may come too late.

Remember, too, that the rate of consumption increases as spring approaches. Just when stores are lowest, they use them the fastest. Every year, thousands of colonies die in the last weeks before the first nectar flows. Remember that, and check on your bees early.


A candy board is a good alternative to sugar cakes. © Herb Lester.