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