When should I treat for mites? When should I reverse my brood boxes? Should I add honey supers in May or June? How much sugar should I feed my bees? Should I replace my queens now or in the fall?
The problem with these questions—and many similar ones—is they can’t be answered without more information, so no one can answer them easily. In fact, you should be suspicious of short answers that come quickly.
Take mites, for example. When you treat for mites has a lot to do with how many mites you have, the method you intend to use, whether you plan to harvest honey from that hive, the general health of the colony, and your local climate.
I am very much opposed to doing anything to a colony of bees unless you know exactly why you are doing it. I am equally opposed to inspecting for the sake of inspecting: if you know what you are looking for, if you know your purpose, that’s fine. If you’re inspecting because the calendar or another beekeeper says you should, you need to discuss it with yourself first.
Every time I advocate limiting inspections, the response is the same, “But doing inspections is how new beekeepers learn! If they didn’t inspect, they wouldn’t know what to look for!”
Okay, I accept that because the purpose can be stated. “I am inspecting my colony to learn what the inside of a beehive looks like.” Or, “I’m inspecting so I can learn the difference between brood comb and honeycomb.” Whatever.
But that doesn’t take all summer. It doesn’t take three years. It takes just a few times. The rest you learn by doing the necessary steps, not the unnecessary ones. Limit your interference and your bees will be better off. As Bill Reynolds showed us in his intriguing hive graphs, it takes a long time for bees to calm down from a disturbance. And his findings were seconded by other seasoned beekeepers.
Now, that’s not to say you should never open your hive. Of course, you must. But you need to know why you are doing it. I’ve written about this before in a post called “Is too much hive inspection a bad thing?” but now I’m going a step further by saying you shouldn’t do anything to a colony unless you know why you are doing it. Know why you are reversing your boxes, why you are feeding sugar, why you are replacing your queen, why you are adding an excluder. If you don’t know why, or if it doesn’t make sense to you, don’t do it.
My philosophy has nothing to do with Langstroth or top bars or Warrés or Nationals. It has nothing to do with treatment free vs conventional. It has nothing to do with Carniolans or Italians or Africanized bees. Seriously, a good beekeeper can keep honey bees in a cardboard box and they will flourish.
Instead, my philosophy has to do with common sense: every time you invade a hive, you are bugging your bees. They like privacy. They like autonomy. They like to be left alone to do bee things and think bee thoughts. To them, you are a pain in the bee-hind. All that business about, “My bees love me” is hogwash. They merely decided to give you a pass this time. That’s all.
Give your bees benefit of the doubt, think before you act, state your purpose, and use a healthy dollop of horse sense. Put the whys before the whens and whats, and you will become a better beekeeper faster.