honey bee management

How can you make your bees…


How can you make your honey bees build comb, move up into the supers, store honey, raise brood? In other words, how can you make your bees do what you want them to do? The answer is you can’t, at least not without consequences. And the consequences are usually not good.

Managing honey bees is not like teaching a dog to roll over or coaxing a dolphin to jump through a hoop. Honey bees have their own agenda and you, the beekeeper, are not part of it. They are not going to learn from you; you have to learn from them. That is why good beekeepers evolve instead of emerging fully formed from the beekeeping supply store.

All is not as it appears

For example, many people want to know how to force their bees to store honey in the supers. Well, there are ways to coerce that behavior, some of which I’ve written about. But then, if the beekeeper says, “Now I can harvest honey because they put it in the supers!” he can easily end up starving his bees.

By forcing the bees to move into the supers prematurely, you may have prevented them from storing enough in the brood boxes. An unthinking beekeeper can easily make the mistake of not looking for winter stores before taking honey for himself and, later, wondering why his bees died.

The members of a honey bee colony communicate among themselves incessantly, and they know what needs to be done and when to do it. They respond to pheromones, the weather, the available forage, and dangers in the environment. They know about the seasons and they know things we don’t.

Working with the bees

A good beekeeper works with the bees, not against them. Any parent can tell you that you can’t force a child to learn, but you can encourage them to learn by providing them with a healthful environment and plenty of resources. Children learn best when they are healthy and given toys, drawing materials, and building blocks. Similarly, a honey bee colony is most productive in a healthful environment with plenty of resources, such as flowers for nectar and pollen, water, and a hive safe from predators and poisons.

If you give your bees the resources they need, they will do the things they are famous for—they will provide you with honey, beeswax, more bees, and pollination. The old saying about “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” applies here. You can provide the resources the bees need, and they will use them when they are ready. Impatience will get you nowhere.

I encourage beekeepers to think carefully before doing anything to a colony. Even if you’ve heard the same advice fifteen times, ask yourself how the bees will respond to your actions and what the results—both negative and positive—might be. Don’t do something that doesn’t make sense to you and don’t do something just because someone else did it. Doing nothing is usually the best alternative, especially if you don’t know the “why” behind it.

The reward for waiting

Even now, if I don’t immediately know what to do, I just wait. For example, last week I had to move a hive on a moment’s notice in the middle of the day while the foraging force was out. I knew the foragers would return to the old spot, so I put an empty hive there to shelter them until I decided how to “make” them reorient to the new hive location.

By next day I still hadn’t decided what to do but I added a frame of open brood to prevent laying workers. Then a week went by and I was too busy to mess with them, so I decided to add more open brood. When I opened the hive, I was rewarded with 18 gorgeous queen cells. Really. Enough to use, to divide, to give away as party favors. That settled it. My stragglers had turned into a new colony, and all because I was undecided about how to make them do something a week earlier.

By not being impulsive and by providing them with resources (a hive and open brood) they went ahead and did what honey bees do. It’s one of the great beauties of beekeeping—the bees will surprise you if only you will let them.

Honey Bee Suite


  • Well said, Rusty! The best advice I got as a new beekeeper was, “When you’re planning to get into a hive, ask yourself ‘what good am I going to do them?'”

  • Your description of trying to force the bees to do what is not right reminds me of more than one supervisor and a few teachers I have had, too!

  • Rusty, this is excellent and I’ll be sharing it with SIX new members of our club, who heard a talk last night along the very same lines. Thank you! You must feel rich with all those queens!
    But we’ve had 4 or 5 discussions of one particular topic, and I’d like your thoughts: re-queening an “aggressive” hive.

    It seems that the curve or “bulge” in a colony’s population should move through the stages from newly emerged cell cleaners thru nurse bees, comb builders and then guards and finally foragers. At any time there should be a lot of one stage or another, am I right?

    Normally when I open a hive, 4 or 5 guards come zinging out to warn me off. But what if you happen to inspect on the day when hundreds of last month’s fine buildup brood are out exercising their new wings and learning their directions? Wouldn’t that hive seem more what is called “aggressive”?

    On top of that, of course, there are reasons like weather, humidity, noise, phases of the moon & zodiac maybe, for a colony’s mood to change.

    But there we were, with our State Beekeeper and six potential mentees along with a good crowd, and one of the old guys ended a valid point about queen-rearing with, “and then you’d have her if you need to re-queen an aggressive hive.” Argh.

    That’s why it’s so good to read “I encourage beekeepers to think carefully before doing anything to a colony.” Maybe it’s just having come to beekeeping after raising dogs and goats, training horses and teaching Middle School: but I find it easier to adjust MY attitude than theirs.

    Thanks again!

    • Nan,

      You raise a valid point, and I think new beekeepers hear a lot of hype about re-queening for so-called aggressive behavior when the bees are just having a bad day. You listed a bunch of good reasons they might be testy for a while, and I think rushing in to “do something about it” is often premature. As I said in the post, waiting is sometimes your best bet.

      There are times that re-queening may be the only answer, especially with those potentially dealing with Africanized stock. But I think the philosophy some old-timers espouse about re-queening all the time predates AHB. It comes down to “why replace a perfectly good queen just because her kids are having a bad day?” Based on the kids I’ve seen, most of us mothers would have been replaced long ago.

  • Your bees are clearly ahead of the game for April – I was wondering how things were following your post about having loads of bees to keep alive through the early Spring. On sunny days here I see one of my hives with bees struggling to enter and leave, tumbling over one another so I’ve already opened up the entrance. You must have good forage available for yours to produce so many queen cells, here (SW England) forage is still in short supply with many Spring flowering plants having flowered too early in the season. I’ve so far decided to wait for a good day to carry out first inspections, the weather being very changeable, so I hope the wait will be rewarded with a warm welcome from the bees!

    • David,

      We are in the midst of a big-leaf maple flow. The trees are loaded with blossoms, so as long as the weather holds (kind of iffy) the bees will do fine.

  • I had not considered the option before, but now, I am definitely interested to give away queen cells as party favors. 🙂 Thanks for the smile, it’s made my day.

  • I went to a bee meeting last June on nuc-making, where at the end of the meeting, the host did hand out queen cells as party favors! The cells should have come with a note that read, “When this you see, think of me,” because everyday when I see the hive that queen cell produced, I think back fondly on the event.

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