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Beekeeping with a purpose

When should I treat for mites? When should I reverse my brood boxes? Should I add honey supers in May or June? How much sugar should I feed my bees? Should I replace my queens now or in the fall?

The problem with these questions—and many similar ones—is they can’t be answered without more information, so no one can answer them easily. In fact, you should be suspicious of short answers that come quickly.

Take mites, for example. When you treat for mites has a lot to do with how many mites you have, the method you intend to use, whether you plan to harvest honey from that hive, the general health of the colony, and your local climate.

I am very much opposed to doing anything to a colony of bees unless you know exactly why you are doing it. I am equally opposed to inspecting for the sake of inspecting: if you know what you are looking for, if you know your purpose, that’s fine. If you’re inspecting because the calendar or another beekeeper says you should, you need to discuss it with yourself first.

Every time I advocate limiting inspections, the response is the same, “But doing inspections is how new beekeepers learn! If they didn’t inspect, they wouldn’t know what to look for!”

Okay, I accept that because the purpose can be stated. “I am inspecting my colony to learn what the inside of a beehive looks like.” Or, “I’m inspecting so I can learn the difference between brood comb and honeycomb.” Whatever.

But that doesn’t take all summer. It doesn’t take three years. It takes just a few times. The rest you learn by doing the necessary steps, not the unnecessary ones. Limit your interference and your bees will be better off. As Bill Reynolds showed us in his intriguing hive graphs, it takes a long time for bees to calm down from a disturbance. And his findings were seconded by other seasoned beekeepers.

Now, that’s not to say you should never open your hive. Of course, you must. But you need to know why you are doing it. I’ve written about this before in a post called “Is too much hive inspection a bad thing?” but now I’m going a step further by saying you shouldn’t do anything to a colony unless you know why you are doing it. Know why you are reversing your boxes, why you are feeding sugar, why you are replacing your queen, why you are adding an excluder. If you don’t know why, or if it doesn’t make sense to you, don’t do it.

My philosophy has nothing to do with Langstroth or top bars or Warrés or Nationals. It has nothing to do with treatment free vs conventional. It has nothing to do with Carniolans or Italians or Africanized bees. Seriously, a good beekeeper can keep honey bees in a cardboard box and they will flourish.

Instead, my philosophy has to do with common sense: every time you invade a hive, you are bugging your bees. They like privacy. They like autonomy. They like to be left alone to do bee things and think bee thoughts. To them, you are a pain in the bee-hind. All that business about, “My bees love me” is hogwash. They merely decided to give you a pass this time. That’s all.

Give your bees benefit of the doubt, think before you act, state your purpose, and use a healthy dollop of horse sense. Put the whys before the whens and whats, and you will become a better beekeeper faster.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Honey bees on a frame
Honey bees work even when we’re not looking. Pixabay photo.

Comments

Brad Raspet
Reply

I agree! lol My first year I was doing full hive inspections almost every 10 days through the summer… I learned a lot, but I also learned I could do a full inspection just every 30 days (quickly & quietly) and pop the lid for quick look to make sure hive was “queen right” the rest of the time. My bees get along with me a lot better now. :^)

ksirovy
Reply

I have to agree! They are insects and they really don’t plan on somebody messing with them if they are not having apparent issues.

JoAnne
Reply

Amen! Thanks for all your posts, but especially for this reminder to all beekeepers.

Bonnie Mogstad
Reply

Thank you for this post. I have often felt I was not doing enough with my bees. there is almost too much info out there to absorb. I like the kind of bee keeping you advocate and feel better now with my limited intervention. I did check on them yesterday tho and they are alive and moving out some dead mates and today they were actually flying.

Tom F
Reply

Great post!

Totty, England
Reply

Thank you for that, I sometimes wonder how the bees ever survived without us interfering ….. because the date said we need to. Well, my experience last year was that on 9 sites (unfortunately some visited less often) the ones I thought I’d not worked were better than the ones I did!

Conclusion, left alone is not being abandoned, or being a slack bee keeper, but letting nature work her magic!

Jeff Steenbergen
Reply

As an experienced beekeeper I couldn’t agree more that you need a purpose for every time you open a hive. However I also worry about how new beekeepers in urban environments that don’t have a “horse sense” or overwintered their first hive and now think they are experts might interpret this message.

Specifically the concern is around not taking measures to prevent swarming and not checking to often enough during swarm season to see the signs. Swarms are a growing problem in urban areas and can not only be scary for non-beekeepers but can be costly when they move into a neighbors walls or chimney to get removed. This then creates more pressure on city officials to create more beekeeping laws or to put bans into place. Because of this we tell beekeepers to inspect every 7-10 days during swarm season to make sure the queen has room in the brood-nest to lay.

These weekly inspections may seem frequent, but are generally necessary during swarm season if you are in an urban area to stay on top of things. Being a good beekeeper also requires you consider what happens when swarms cause issues for neighbors and the cascading impact it could have on other beekeepers as well.

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

This argument arises every time I mention hive inspections (see: Summer in the City).

But all I say in my post is that a beekeeper should articulate a reason for opening a hive before he does, a reason other than “the calendar says so”. To say, “I’m opening the hive to look for signs of swarm activity,” is a valid reason, so I don’t see what you are objecting to.

On the other hand, opening a hive once a week April through November has nothing to do with looking for swarm signs, it has to do with micromanagement, which I believe is a ultra-stressful for the bees.

Phillip
Reply

I wouldn’t have written my comment had Jeff’s comment and your response to it been on the page at the time. I may have slightly misread the intention of your post too.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

As I always point out, misinterpretation is due to the fault of the writer, not the reader.

john mantova
Reply

The bees I wrote about in my extension roof manged themselves. Swarming and de-queening for themselves. I only harvested small amounts of honey from time to time. It was a small colony and they kept it so themselves. I did not even have to do any cleaning of dead or dying mates; they did it all for themselves. Also they were very docile and never attempted to sting me. Very rarely even crawled on me. Seems to me to be the way to go.

Bill
Reply

Rusty,

I love reading your blog and I have learned new things from it. The pictures are great also and I have never been much of a photographer but I would like to start taking more bee and insect pictures. What would you recommend for a camera that is good but not professional grade?

Regards,
Bill

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

Everything I can tell you about bug photography is in this post: How to photograph bees. If you still have questions after you read it, write back.

Phillip
Reply

I don’t disagree, although I caution new beekeepers to pay close attention to their bees during the swarming season. I love swarms, but I still don’t think they’re much fun for new beekeepers in urban areas.

Now it took me three years to figure out when my bees are most likely to swarm, but now that I know, I don’t hesitate to poke my head inside the hives and tear them apart if necessary to make sure the bees aren’t getting ready to swarm.

Steve
Reply

“You are a pain in the bee-hind” hehehhe, love it. On warmer days I like to watch the bees using my binoculars while I sip on my favorite drink. I am about 10 feet away so I get an amazing look. My favorite are the guards.

Any stories about bee robbers? I saw about 8 bee fights yesterday, but my ladies kicked ass and took names. It seems early for this time of year. The average temperature has been high 60’s and low 70’s the past two weeks.

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