Beekeeping Basics

My 5 Worst Beekeeping Mistakes, and How To Avoid Them

Your first year of beekeeping is a special time. There’s so much to learn, so many awesome things to see, and a hell of a lot to do. My first year was a lot of trial and error. A lot of things went well, and some things went terribly, terribly wrong. (Like that time I dropped a queen cage into a package, and had to put my hand into a little box filled with thousands of bees). It’s time to come clean about some of the moronic things I’ve done,  and hopefully you can avoid these pitfalls!

1 I left an empty super (one that had no frames) on a crowded hive.

The bees quickly filled it in with a mass of burr-comb. Actually, I did this with four hives all in the same yard, and it took an entire day to cut it all out. Yikes.

Avoid this: Always make sure that any body you put on your hive has the correct number of frames. Whether you use foundation or not, the frames will help keep the bees from going rogue.

2. I didn’t buy my woodenware until I really needed it.

Woodenware is expensive. At the time I was working as a waitress at two jobs,  and getting the time together to drive an hour and a half to my woodenware guy, and then dropping a lot of money on woodenware was difficult. The result was a lot of crowded hives, and less productive bees.

During a good flow, you can expect a strong colony to fill up several supers if you keep adding them. If you don’t, they will just fill up whatever room they have and then mellow out. This means less honey for you, and possibly not enough to get the bees through winter.

Avoid this: For each colony, buy two deeps or three mediums (I prefer to use mediums, but two deeps is standard) for the brood nest, and an extra two to four  supers for honey (I use mediums, if you opt for shallows, you will need to get a few more, to make up for the difference in volume). In my yards, we also add one extra medium super between the inner and outer covers to serve as an “attic” where we put jar feeders or fondant. It also creates a nice little buffer, keeping the hive cooler in the summer and preventing condensation from dripping on the cluster in winter time. That’s a total of 6-8 medium bodies per colony.

I  recommend buying all your woodenware at once. If you go for the assemble-your-own option, get a case of beer, and invite all your friends over for a woodenware assembly party (unless you’re under age, then get a case of cola). You can usually get all your gear assembled and painted this way, and it’s actually quite fun.

If your colony is strong, you can add several boxes at once at the beginning of nectar flow. If not, you will want to only add a new super when the one underneath is about two-thirds full. Adding too many supers to a weak colony will invite pests like Small Hive Beetle to take over the under-utilized areas. Be careful not to wait too  long to add that super though, once they’ve filled all their space, they will slow production, start in on burr-comb, or even swarm. Which brings me to:

3. I didn’t wear gloves to catch my first swarm.

The story is here, but what I didn’t mention in that post is that I didn’t wear gloves when I went to catch that swarm with my little cardboard box. I am an avid reader, and every resource on honey bee swarms talks about how the bees are extremely gentle during swarming, because they don’t have a hive to protect. That’s all well and good, but there are still a lot of bees, and when we shook the tree to knock them into the box, they became startled bees.

They rained down on me from the tree and did what startled bees do. I got stung over 50 times in twenty minutes, almost entirely in my right hand. I had to call in sick to work the next day, and I looked like Hellboy for a week.

Avoid this:  I normally don’t recommend that beekeepers wear gloves, but in circumstances where there are a lot of bees, and you’re doing something that may really piss them off, go for the gloves!

4 I murdered a hive with a piece of tape.

Oh, dear reader! This was my most shameful mistake as a beekeeper. Please, don’t judge me too harshly. Last August, I received word that I needed to move my bee-yard within a few days. At the time there were 10 hives and 4 nucs there, and it was a struggle to find another place to put them (thanks so much to the wonderful folks at Heritage Farm For taking in my wayward apiary!)

The move was last-minute and a bit disorderly, we went out in the early evening to block up the entrances of all the hives, and put ratchet straps on them to get them ready to move, but then we learned that we had another week before we had to make the move. We decided to wait a little longer, so that we could prep the site we were moving to and get our moving equipment ready. We removed the ratchet straps from the hives and unblocked the entrance – except for one. In all the confusion I forgot to pull the tape off of the entrance of one of the nucs, and in one fell swoop, murdered thousands of bees.

Avoid this: Planning ahead is the key to keeping everything running smoothly. If I hadn’t been so disorganized, I may not have overlooked that nuc.

5 I ruined a colony with powdered sugar.

It’s called a sugar shake, and it’s recommended as a useful way to combat varroa mites. Varroa mites are really nasty parasites that are unfortunately rather common, and are extremely destructive to honey bee populations, both wild and domestic. The varroa mites lay eggs inside brood cells. After the cell is capped, the varroa hatch and feed on the larval bee. A phoretic mite is one that has attached itself to an adult bee. The mite feeds on the bee’s hemolymph (this is what bees have instead of blood) and gets a free ride wherever the bee goes – this is how mite infestations are transmitted between hives.

To do a sugar shake, you basically just pour powdered sugar over the top of each hive body, so that the sugar falls between frames and gets on the bees. The bees will spend a while licking the sugar off of each other, and in so doing, dislodge phoretic varroa.

What you’re supposed to be careful not to do, is get any powered sugar on brood. the sugar can actually damage them in their squishy, undeveloped state. Wanting to be thorough, I went through frame by frame and got sugar everywhere. This severely weakened the colony, and looking back I am not surprised they didn’t make it through the winter.

Avoid this:  Always carefully research any process before you try it on your bees. The saying “A little knowledge is dangerous” is true here. It’s way better to do nothing at all than to do something badly.

In the case of sugar shakes, don’t move the frames. Use a sifter to gently sift sugar down over the top of all the frames in each hive body.


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