how to

17 costly beekeeping mistakes and how to avoid them

Beekeeping mistakes are often caused by making assumptions.

New beekeepers have a lot to learn in a short time. When you become confused or unsure, try to relax and evaluate your next steps. If you consider how your actions will affect your bees, you will avoid the biggest mistakes.

Many beekeeping mistakes are small things that can cause big problems later. If you correct the small stuff from the get-go, the entire beekeeping process will be easier in the long run. Here are 17 easy-to-avoid problems:

Easy mistakes to make:

1. Starting with just one colony

If you want to make beekeeping extremely difficult for yourself, start with just one colony. Hands down, this is one of the hardest things to do. It’s not impossible, but it’s not comfortable either.

We can often fix colony problems by borrowing resources from another colony. For example, if a queen dies you might borrow eggs, workers, or open brood from your other colony to get through the crisis. But with no second colony at hand, your options are limited.

2. Worrying too much about full sun

The idea that we must keep honey bee hives in full sun comes from commercial beekeepers. Whether they are raising bees for pollination or for honey, it is imperative for financial reasons to keep the bees working as many hours per day as possible. Hives in full sun assure the bees work long and hard.

However, the bees may feel differently about this. If you let bees live where they want, they usually pick a shady location close to a sunny area but not necessarily in it. Thomas Seeley mentions this in his recent book, “The Lives of Bees.” But you can see it yourself if you watch swarms decide on a permanent home.

All my bees are in partial shade except my top-bar hive. It contained one continuous colony for eleven years and is in deep shade for 23 hours a day.

Just remember, that the goals of the beekeeper often differ from the goals of the bees. The ideal location for both is probably early morning sun and late afternoon shade. But some other arrangement will probably work just fine, so you shouldn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it.

3. Failing to feed new colonies

New colonies, especially those started from packages, have no food stores to get them going. They need energy to do all the things they need to do, such as foraging for nectar and pollen, building comb, raising young, defending the hive, and keeping the nest warm.

If too many workers must spend their time foraging for a basic food supply, brood rearing will move at a snail’s pace and the colony will languish. And if the weather is too cold, wet, or windy, they may not begin rearing brood at all. Just mix some sugar into some water and feed, feed, feed until the colony builds some strength.

4. Making simple jobs overly complicated

A lot of beekeeping is easy-peasy. Don’t let tasks like making sugar syrup, smoking a hive, and treating varroa become ordeals.

Beware of any advice that comes with a lot of rules and cautions. Most things will work even if it all doesn’t go perfectly the first time through. Overall, bees are hardy creatures that can withstand a little mismanagement now and then. Just learn from the beekeeping mistakes you make and go on from there. You can do this.

5. Procrastinating when a tricky job lies ahead

As a beekeeper, you have very few must-do items during the year. But you must do those things on time. If you don’t do them on time, there’s really no point in ever doing them.

If you don’t treat the mites on time, they can kill your colony. If you don’t feed it on time, your colony can starve. If you don’t stop robbers and predators on time, they will destroy your bees. If you don’t inspect on time, you could miss a brood problem. The list goes on. If you need to do something, go do it right now.

6. Ignoring the signs of queenlessness

Learn the signs of queenlessness. Then, if your bees act queenless, check to see. A timely check can save your colony, so trust yourself and take a look.

If you called it wrong and she’s just fine, you’ve lost nothing. Ignoring queen health is one of the most common and costly beekeeping mistakes.

7. Using too much smoke

Smoke is very helpful for calming bees before opening a hive. But don’t overdo it. Smoking requires a light touch of smoke from a fire that burns cool as evidenced by lots of thick smoke. If the smoke is too hot, it can singe the bees’ wings, and too much smoke can have a disturbing effect.

The important thing to remember is to smoke the hive gently, then close it and wait for a couple of minutes. Give the bees a chance to respond to the smoke instead of just adding more and more.

8. Assuming a busy hive contains a healthy colony

Being busy doesn’t always equate with being healthy. Be especially wary of a not-too-active colony that suddenly becomes very active because it may not be good news. The sudden activity may be caused by robbing bees or wasps.

You should inspect your colony if you see a sudden, unexpected change in activity. If you see robbing of any type, add a robbing screen or take some other corrective measures.

9. Assuming it’s too cold to open a hive

Of all the ridiculous beekeeping mistakes I see, this takes the cake. You have a colony that’s dying of starvation, but you decide it’s too cold to open the hive to add feed. So instead of opening the hive, adding feed, and losing some bees, you decide not to open it and lose all your bees instead. Huh? How is this rational?

To open a hive in winter, prepare in advance and decide exactly what your steps will be. Make a list of equipment you will need. Review the steps and when everything is ready, just do it.

10. Assuming you know more than you do

Just because you’ve read a dozen books and watched 126 YouTubes doesn’t mean you know how to keep bees. You need to actually do it yourself. To avoid beekeeping mistakes, you need to recognize the smells, the sounds, and the movement of the bees, something you only get from hands-on experience. Years of it. Be sure to read about the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

11. Harvesting too much honey

Don’t take more than your share and remember your share may be zero. It happens. A lot.

If you are a person who absolutely cannot refrain from tasting your first crop of honey, but your crop isn’t big enough to harvest, I recommend taking a wee sample with the tip of a spoon. At least you get to taste it. And there is nothing like warm honey straight from the hive. (But keep it to once, not once per day.)

12. Assuming mites won’t be a problem your first year

I hear this all the time. “Mites aren’t usually a problem your first year.” Really? Someone’s dreaming. Mites are always a problem and most likely your new package, nuc, or swarm came with them pre-installed. Some form of mite assumption probably kills more bees than any other beekeeping mistake.

13. Opening a hive without a plan

My rule of thumb is simple: never open a hive without a plan. Know exactly why you are opening the hive and what you hope to learn. Once you have discovered what you need to know, get out.

To this day, I never open a hive without an explicit statement of purpose in my head. “I’m going to treat for mites” or “I’m checking for honey stores” or “I want to see if they released the new queen.” Once you know your plan, you can prepare the proper tools and equipment to make the job fast and seamless.

14. Taking any action if you can’t explain why you’re doing it

For example, don’t rotate your brood boxes if you don’t know why you should rotate them. If you don’t know why you’re about to do something, you can’t decide if it’s necessary.

This happens a lot with mentors. They have long lists of busy work for you do to, but they seldom explain the rationale behind those maneuvers. Ask lots of questions to assure you understand exactly why you should do these things.

15. Failing to recognize a nectar dearth

Bees can do strange things in a nectar dearth. It will help you understand what you are seeing if you know whether a dearth is happening. Also, you may need to feed your bees, but if you don’t know a dearth is in progress, you may let them starve.

When do nectar dearths occur? Any time, but especially in winter and midsummer. The presence of flowers does not mean there’s no dearth. Some flowers have no value for bees, so knowing which flowers are blooming is all-important.

16. Attempting too much too soon yields bigger mistakes

I always think of a neighbor who was so successful with this first colony (that he had for three months) that he ordered 500 hives for the next year. I tried to suggest taking it easy, but he knew much more than I did. Eight months later, he was done with bees and nowhere to be found.

At the very least, get through an entire calendar year before putting your life savings into it.

17. Using words with multiple meanings

This is my pet peeve: if you want to learn the art of beekeeping, take time to learn what the words mean. Don’t guess. If beekeepers can’t communicate with each other, all kinds of unfortunate errors occur. See this post for examples of miscommunication.

Thanks for reading, and please let me know your own ideas about costly beginner mistakes.

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    • I had a hive being managed by an amateur bee guy.

      When he took the hive off my chain link fence, his frames were open frames, he took the honeycomb placing it in the frames holding with rubber bands.

      I just bought a Langstrouth double stack with a queen excluder.

      I have 2 questions:

      1. My frames have black plastic with a honeycomb design, with this I’m unable to take a comb and place it in the frames with rubber bands, should I remove the black plastic? His hive didn’t have.

      2. I have a double stack but nothing connecting the top and bottom, with the plastic queen excluder, which makes it slippery. Seems there should be some clips, or some 1 x 1 wood centered around the seem so the top portion won’t move?

      • Mark,

        I’m unsure who you were asking, but I’ll just answer. Aram is welcome to answer as well.

        1. Yes, just remove as many of the black plastic foundations as necessary. Keep them because you can use them later.

        2. The box edges will become unslippery as the bees deposit wax and propolis on them. In the meantime, you can use a tie-down to keep them in line, the kind used in pickups, etc.

  • Dress for success. No such thing as too much proper beekeeping attire! Just because yesterday you did all your physical apiary maintenance [weed control] with gear, doesn’t mean tomorrow your bees won’t be offended by your presence. He said after day two of weed-eating around the hives was cut VERY short.

  • Take everything you hear with a grain of salt.

    At my first beekeeper club meeting, I was advised to get black plastic frames when setting up my new hives so I could more easily spot eggs and brood. I went home and ordered a s***load of black plastic frames from ML.

    Soon after, I glommed onto a nearby mentor and he said it was a ‘rookie mistake’ to use plastic since bees don’t like it. I promptly went home, packed the truck, and returned all the shiny new unopened boxes of black plastic frames I had stacked in my garage.

    Same guy is still my mentor and has taught me a lot, including how to make frames and and how to wire and burn in wax foundation. I’ve since used many different configurations of wax and plastic, and have discovered some bees actually prefer plastic over wax.

    Beekeepers are an opinionated lot, but I sure didn’t know that when I started.


  • Rusty,

    Brilliant. This should be a mandatory article for every beekeeper to read annually. Thank you for reposting and making me read it again.

    May I be naughty and presumptuous to suggest that there is an 18th rule?

    Never think you are an expert. Just because you and your grandfather have kept bees all your lives does not mean that the bees cannot surprise you. It may be the weather or other events beyond our control that dictate what the bees do or how they react. We as beekeepers make a chronic mistake by thinking we are in charge.

    Thank you Rusty, for me and all beekeepers for your erudite and clear words,

    Michael Judd

  • I hope you don’t mind… I adapted this article into a mini-talk for my beginner beekeeping class this coming weekend. I rearranged the order and reworded or reduced the comments, but it is very similar. And, yes, your website is listed as the source. 🙂 Let me know if you’d like me to email you the one-pager.

    I added one new bullet after ‘Assuming you know more than you do…’
    –Assuming other beekeepers know more than you do–

    ‘Ask 3 beeks the same question, get 5 answers.’ Understand the basic biology and pathology of the honey bee, understand there are many ways of doing the same thing, and then go with your gut. The bees will educate you on the ‘right’ way for YOU to be a good beekeeper.

    • Hi CiCi,

      That is fine. I always think of the 3 questions/5 answers thing as belonging to #17, using the right words. Since no one agrees on the meanings of the words, it sounds like they have a lot more answers than they really do. Many are saying the same thing in a different way or using different definitions for the same concepts.

  • Excellent! I think for me the most important things I’ve learned are #4 and #5 (overcomplicating things and thinking I can put off doing things when they NEED to be done).

    A lot of times #4 causes #5.

    I’ve never been confident enough for #10 (assuming you know more than you do).

  • Very helpful post. I will bring it to the attention of our local branch members. 🙂

    Greetings from a very chilly (in UK terms) southern England.

  • For years I heard the advice of give your bees early morning sun and late afternoon shade and followed it if I couldn’t give them full sun. We had one location that would always come out of the winter strong and then decline and decline in spring. We would lose hives or end up with super weak hives as all the other hives were growing. One spring we came to work that yard in the late afternoon. It was shaded and the bees had shut down for the day where the other locations were still working. We realized that in our climate where sometimes it is almost noon before the air temperature warms up for them to fly, it is better for them to be in early morning shade. It makes a great deal of difference to whether they survive and thrive if they have the flying temperatures to collect early spring pollen.

    • Karen,

      It’s a given that all beekeeping is local, but the ideal amount of sun and shade is related to your goals as a beekeeper. Most of my hives are in constant shade with only some peekaboo sun here and there. My colonies thrive, although they produce only moderate-sized honey crops. If your goal is maximum honey yields, the earlier the sun the better.

      In nature, feral colonies nest high in trees on the edge of the forest. (See The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild by Thomas Seeley.) This provides safety, near constant shade, and quick access to sunny, flower-filled areas. As a general rule, mimicking what honey bees do in the wild will yield good results. I would never give a hive of bees full, all-day sun because they never choose that option for themselves.

      You say, “We realized that in our climate where sometimes it is almost noon before the air temperature warms up for them to fly, it is better for them to be in early morning shade.” Why would you want to give morning shade to a colony that is already cold? That doesn’t make any sense because, to keep warm, they are going to eat even more of their honey stores.

      If you are having anecdotal bad outcomes with one particular spot, it could be for any number of reasons beyond the amount of sun and shade. It’s quite possible you could move that hive to another location with similar patterns of sun and shade and have better results. Don’t be too quick to blame just one factor.

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