Despite what some beekeepers may think there is always much more to learn. Many of our habits and opinions, both good and bad, are formed fairly early, usually as a result of our early teaching. The better beekeeper will always be challenging what they are told (not openly of course!) and in time will realise that some of what they are told isn’t always correct, or it may be in some situations but not others. This could be for a number of reasons including the inexperience of those telling you – all they are doing is repeating what others have told them!
Very few teachers, lecturers, writers or beekeepers for that matter, seem to understand that we all develop our techniques in different ways and for different reasons. When answering a question I try to find out as much as I can about the methods the questioner is using, as very often it has a bearing on the answer. Very often you will ask a question “X” and be told the answer is “Y”. It may be, but it may suit the way someone else works, not yours and a different answer is needed.
There are a lot of myths in beekeeping and they keep being recycled. False logic also causes problems, with even quite experienced beekeepers believing some of it. The problem is how does a beginner know what to believe? The answer I’m afraid is difficult. An example is that when leaving queen cells, such as you may do in a swarming situation, it has become common advice to leave two queen cells. The thinking is that if one is dud there is always the other one. That seems logical, doesn’t it? The problem is there is a very good chance both queen cells are O.K. then what is likely to happen? There is a very high chance the colony will swarm when the first virgin queen emerges, which is what you didn’t want to happen in the first place. Worse still, if one is dud, the colony will swarm and it will be hopelessly queenless.
If you have already got bees or about to get them, you will need to know that all bees aren’t the same. Some are much more prolific than others and will need different sized brood boxes and management techniques. There will be problems if you try to keep prolific bees in a small box or non – prolific bees in a large box. It is commonly thought that more prolific queens = more bees = more honey. It probably will in warmer climates, but not always in cooler climates, unless there is a very warm summer. There are more bees and brood to feed when the weather isn’t suitable for flying and they can deplete their stores rapidly – that’s your honey gone and they may need feeding to avoid starvation.
I suggest you source your first bees locally and they are of a type that suits your conditions. That can be a nucleus, colony or a swarm. Don’t take any notice of those who object to a beginner starting with a swarm, as many do. The usual reasons are bad temper and disease, both of which are little more than scaremongering. I have seen some bad tempered bees sold on combs and apart from one case where the beekeeper didn’t take simple precautions, I have only ever known of one swarm have foul brood, which is the main disease to worry about, yet I have seen and heard of many colonies change hands with foul brood. If you are careful about hiving a swarm you can eliminate foul brood, even if the swarm carried infection with it. Have a chat with the person in your BKA who deals with swarms and ask if there is an opportunity to help collect it. The collection and hiving of a swarm is an excellent opportunity to learn, something you would have been denied if you had taken the advice to leave it alone.
I use single brood box Langstroth hives and prolific queens. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that they gave the best return when I take equipment, time and cost into account. There is a view the “modern” bee needs more room than a single brood box and you may be advised to go for a larger sized frame and box. In my years of beekeeping the only difference I have seen in bees is they are not as tough as they were. I suggest you stick to the tried and trusted methods until you have enough experience to make your own mind up.
I find the “seconds” hives are very good value, especially the cedar ones. They are made of lower grade timber and will have knots in. If you get the chance I suggest you inspect them, as it would be better to avoid knots where nails need to go. If there are knots, just drill a hole for the nail, or put it in a slightly different place. If you are buying equipment I would allow 3 – 4 supers per hive. When assembling hives I suggest you have a sample if you can and don’t nail anything until you are certain it is correct. A lot can go wrong and it is quite difficult to get it apart. Many advise glueing, but I wouldn’t, firstly because if you get it wrong you won’t ever dismantle it and secondly, a beehive is moving all the time, either due to weather or manipulating and all the pressure is put on a tiny area. If you don’t glue, it will be able to “move” freely.
“Seconds” frames are available in packs of 50 at around half standard price. I find them more than adequate and with care will last for years. Don’t buy too much foundation, but keep it sealed up and flat to retard deterioration.
I advise beginners to get a second hive as soon as reasonably possible. If something happens to one you have another to help it out. You will also learn much quicker. I also think there is a strong case for having a nucleus as well, even if it is as the result of an artificial swarm. There is often the need for a spare queen and one can be instantly available. A two frame nuc is easy to make up and I think you will find it a very useful item.
All queen excluders are O.K. but I would only go for the framed wire ones if you have top beespace hives, otherwise either the metal or plastic ones are equally good. When buying equipment I would avoid buying online unless it is from an established supplier – there is some awful rubbish available. There are often sales, but make sure it isn’t a special purchase, because some is poor design and quality.
You may need to feed and I think there is a case for both a small rapid and contact feeders. You may use them in different circumstances and will need them anyway, so get them when you can. Although baler twine is O.K. to tie hives up for moving, I find a toggle type hive strap a useful piece of kit and I much prefer them to a ratchet type.
I would get into a routine of colony inspections, either 7 or 14 day, depending on if you clip your queens or not. Fully understanding the swarm process and queen’s life cycle will help enormously. Although marking is helpful when looking for the queen, I think there is a danger of looking for a coloured spot, rather than a queen, so I suggest you don’t until your queen finding skills are good.
When inspecting a colony have a purpose for doing it. Your records should give you an idea of what you may find. A lot of knowledge is gained by observation and “reading” the colony. Look out for things that are different or not quite right. As well as looking for “Hooper’s Five”, I advise all beekeepers to assess their colonies with a view to improving them when the opportunity arises. I think the improvement of stock is very simple and one of the most neglected area of beekeeping.
You could be confronted with a colony preparing to swarm at any time during the spring or summer. I suggest you read about swarm control and decide which will be your method well in advance. Get any equipment you need and be prepared. Fully understand the method and what it is trying to achieve.
You will need to be aware of the queen problems that have been with us for several years. Read my pages so you can recognise them. Many beekeepers are still flatly refusing to accept they exist, but the more alert beekeepers are seeing them on a regular basis.
I am still learning and I guess a few may say I’m a slow learner, but the point I’m making is if I am still seeing new things on a regular basis, then we all have a lot to learn. I think the important thing is to know and understand the topics we are likely to encounter on a daily basis. The learning of the “basics” will help you manage a colony efficiently. If you look at the syllabus for the “BKA Basic” it will give you a good idea of what you need to know at an early stage in your beekeeping. The topics can be researched on this website or other reliable sources.
Some beekeepers have become paranoid about pests and diseases. I have heard it said on more than one occasion, and from supposedly good beekeepers, that if you practise apiary hygiene and disinfect your equipment between each colony you won’t get disease. This is first class nonsense and gives the impression that you don’t have to learn about diseases, because you won’t get them. The most it will do is to slow down any spread. My approach is to teach beekeepers how to recognise disease and how to deal with it if you get it. If you know what healthy bees and brood look like and you see something that looks wrong, it usually is. Get into the habit of looking carefully at the first frame you take out of a colony with brood in all stages, look for the queen, shake the bees off and check for foul brood. If you don’t detect it, then you can forget it for the rest of the colony. I don’t practise apiary hygiene in the way that is advocated, but I am careful. I wouldn’t want to stop anyone else from doing it, as it is their choice. All I’m saying is there aren’t the benefits that we are told.
Find out at an early stage who your Bee Inspector is, or where to find details. Register with your state at the same time. This will allow the Bee Inspector to alert you to an outbreak of foul brood in your area. Foul brood is notifiable, so it is advisable to know the procedures.
If you have got this far and have read several other pages, I suspect you have detected I have a view there is a lot of garbage spoken and written about bees and beekeeping. I’m afraid there is, and some of it is being taught too! I have given one example on queen cells above.
If you haven’t already discovered there are many ways of keeping bees and many opinions, you soon will. One of the problems with beekeeping is that it is mainly done by amateurs with only a few colonies, therefore they have little experience. The more colonies you have and the longer you have been keeping bees, the more chances you get to see different things. Although in some respects bees are very predictable, in others they aren’t and the books aren’t always able to cover all possibilities. Very often you can have two colonies in the same apiary in the same condition and you treat them the same, but at the next inspection you may find they have responded differently. This is what experience teaches you.
I have no problem if someone has a different opinion and it is sound, as very often it may be a different way of achieving the same thing, but I have seen things advised that are either dangerous to humans or will harm bees. Your problem will be to sort the wheat from the chaff – not easy unless you know enough, but then you probably know enough not to ask the question in the first place! If you have your head screwed on right you will soon sort out who gives good sound advice and who doesn’t. Very often it isn’t the person who has kept bees for 20 years or has 30 colonies, it’s the newer beekeeper who has common sense and is practical.
When teaching I try to respect other peoples opinions and methods, providing they are sound. They might not suit me or my management system and if not I will usually say why. We are all trying to achieve the same thing and providing we care for our bees it doesn’t bother me how it’s done. Unfortunately there are getting a number of people in beekeeping who rubbish what others do and the only way to keep bees is their way. They are often quite forceful about it, but much of their knowledge is “straight out of the book” and isn’t what they know, but what other people know. In my opinion there is far too much intolerance in beekeeping.
I hope you have chosen your new hobby wisely, but please remember the bees must come first. Learn about them, so you can care for them in an understanding way. Beekeeping has been a major part of my life and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I have learnt from a lot of people and I hope I have taught others in return. In time I hope you can do the same. We often think of hive products being honey, wax, pollen and perhaps propolis, but as far as I’m concerned there is an extra one – pleasure.