What are beekeeping crimes? A beekeeping crime is a skipped step, a missed opportunity, or an unfortunate assumption about either honey bees, beekeeping, or the environment we live in. They are crimes because they often result in the death of bees, the spread of disease, or unhappy neighbors. I’ve limited my list to ten, but you certainly know of others.
The order of these beekeeping crimes is unimportant, except for the first one.
Skipping the basics: Nearly every beekeeper I know started by reading a book about beekeeping. It’s fine to read a book about beekeeping, but only after you’ve read about honey bees themselves—how they work, what they do, how they’re built—in other words, basic bee biology.
It’s hard to manage something if you don’t understand the something you are trying to manage. Beekeeping is the art of managing honey bees, so all the beekeeping books make a heck of a lot more sense after you know something about bees. Trust me on this.
My favorites include The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism by Jürgen Tautz and Honey-Maker: How the Honey Bee Worker Does What She Does by Rosanna Mattingly. If you realize that beekeeping practices are designed around honey bee biology, you will realize how much sense it makes to start at the beginning.
Not feeding soon enough or long enough: New beekeepers do not realize how disadvantaged a package of bees really is. You dump them in an empty hive and expect them to perform, but they have no home set up, they have no comb for a nursery or for food stores, and they have no food. To build comb and collect what they need—and to raise new generations of offspring—requires a ton of energy. As a beekeeper, that’s where your job begins. Feed those bees.
Folks argue that they don’t want to feed because they want “natural bees.” But in fact, nothing about that bunch of bees is natural. Those bees are most probably unrelated to each other, they never met their queen, they are far from home, and the move wasn’t their idea—not the time, not the place, not the method. You’ve done everything possible to make it hard for them, so the least you can do is give them a meal.
Natural beekeeping is something you grow into with time and experience. Natural bees don’t come out of package that was just shipped halfway across the country on the back of a truck. With a brand new colony in a brand new hive, do not be surprised if you have to feed all summer.
Ignoring Varroa mites: If you ignore Varroa mites or pretend they don’t exist, you are offing your bees. In North America, Varroa remains the number one problem that honey bees face. It is easy to blame other things for colony loss: neonics, Nosema, CCD, and yellowjackets are common fall guys when, in fact, it is most often Varroa mites that destroy the colony.
Here again, people argue against treatments because they want “treatment-free” bees. I applaud those dedicated bee breeders who are working toward treatment-free bees. But what they are doing is hard, expensive, exacting, and time-consuming work based on sound scientific principles and lots of experience. Ordering bees from large producers and letting them die every year from Varroasis is not treatment-free beekeeping. In fact, it’s not beekeeping at all—it’s the negligent and unconscionable act of a neophyte.
Furthermore, those who practice the “live-and-let-die” method are hurting those that are trying to breed true treatment-free stock. That is because a Varroa infested colony that collapses is a “mite bomb” or a ”mite factory” that releases scores of Varroa into the environment for other beekeepers to deal with. The mites are transmitted by robbers or absconding bees and can infect other colonies for miles around. Even the carefully-bred treatment-free bees can fail in the face of a massive influx of mites from a careless beekeeper.
If you want to segue into treatment-free beekeeping, you can. But you need knowledge, resources, and a plan. You can’t just install a package from California and watch it die.
Opening a hive without a plan: Each time you open a hive you are committing a home invasion; you are going in there and screwing things up. Granted, beekeepers need to manage, and to manage you need to know what’s going on. But excessive muddling through the hive is counterproductive. Temperature readings in hives skyrocket after beekeeper intrusion, and much energy is spent trying to get their lives back in order.
My rule of thumb is simple: have 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.
The most frequent objection to this advice is, “But new beekeepers have to open the hive to learn. If they never open it, they never learn.” So? Why can’t learning be a plan?
If your new beekeeper plan is “to learn to distinguish worker brood from drone brood” then go for it. Find what you’re looking for, take photos if you want, but once you’ve accomplished your goal, get out. Is that so hard to understand?
Assuming where the queen won’t be: This is an extension of Murphy’s law. If you assume you know where the queen won’t be, you will be wrong. I can tell you from personal experience that I have assumed the queen wouldn’t be in burr comb before I scraped it away. Wrong. I assumed the queen wouldn’t be in the empty super I threw in the grass. Wrong. I assumed the queen wouldn’t be on the outside of the end frame. Wrong. I assumed the queen wouldn’t be on the inside of the telescoping cover. Wrong. And most impressively, I assumed the queen wouldn’t be strolling across my bee-suited stomach. Wrong.
Please, please do not ever assume you know where the queen won’t be.
Following advice that doesn’t come with a reason: If a friend or mentor tells you to do something and they can’t give you a reason, don’t do it. Why anyone would do something to a beehive without a reason is beyond comprehension. Now, maybe it turns out to be perfectly good advice, but if there is no reason behind it, how will you learn anything? How will you know why you are doing it or if you should ever do it again? Or when? “Why?” should always be your first question.
Remember, too, that not all mentors are created equal. Some are a wealth of knowledge, some not so much. If your mentor tells you he does it that way because his father did it that way, you need a new mentor.
Cutting all queen cells: Nothing perplexes me more than the idea that if you see a queen cell anywhere, anytime, any season, you should dispatch it with vigor and malice aforethought. Why?
Queen cells are not virulent, they don’t cause death and destruction, they are not dangerous, dirty, lethal, poisonous, pathogenic or vulgar. And where are all the right-to-lifers hiding during this discussion?
How many times have I heard a new beekeeper say he destroyed all the queen cells, but can’t understand why his colony failed to raise a new queen? Really? Or “I killed all the queen cells then realized the hive already swarmed.”
This goes back to ignoring the basics and following advice without a reason. There are times to cut queen cells and times to cherish them. The beekeeper’s job is to know the difference.
Failing to recognize a nectar dearth: If you fail to recognize a nectar dearth, bad things can happen. Your colony may starve. Your colony may be robbed by bees from your own apiary or one miles away. Your hive may be invaded by wasps. Your bees may decide to up and leave.
These outcomes can be avoided by good management. You can protect your surplus honey by removing it from the hive; you can protect your bees by reducing their entrances or closing extra entrances, you can feed your bees, you can trap and kill wasps. The list of options goes on and on, but if you fail to recognize the dearth in the first place, you can lose your honey, your colony, or both in a matter of days.
Harvesting honey too soon: Of all the beekeeping crimes, this is probably the most common and it comes from beekeeper impatience. You’ve gone your whole life without homegrown honey, but now you need it immediately.
Remember, depending on how you started your hive (full hive, nuc, package) you may or may not get a harvestable crop the first year. Don’t rush it. If you do things properly and learn as much as you can, you will soon be drowning in honey. If you take honey too soon, your bees may starve and you will be starting over again.
In the meantime, I advise people who absolutely cannot wait to taste their own honey to go ahead and carve a small chunk from one of the frames. You don’t need to harvest gallons in order to have a taste. If you cut a few square inches from a frame, you can have that long awaited treat without compromising the health of the colony. Besides, nothing compares to a spoonful of honey still warm from the heat of the hive. Taste it and wait.
Attempting too much too soon: Mastering the art of beekeeping is a process. Don’t try to go treatment free, raise queens, try out six kinds of hives, sell nucs, harvest pollen, extract honey, capture propolis, and expand to fifty colonies all in your first year. There will be time enough to do those things and more, but take it slowly. There is an incredible amount to learn and you will never know it all. If you learn how to do one thing well before you add another, all of it will come out better in the end.
Honey Bee Suite
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