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My advice for new beekeepers

With April comes the inevitable question, “What advice would you give a new beekeeper?” I seriously hate this question, mostly because it is fraught with undertones of philosophy.

But once again, I will attempt an answer. Please don’t write back and exclaim, “But that’s just your opinion!” Of course, it’s my opinion. If you want someone else’s opinion, you are in the wrong place.

Save the conclusions for later

First, I offer a pair of do nots. Do not spend your first year worrying about hive style (Warré, TBH, Langstroth) and defending your choice. Do not spend your first year worrying about management style (conventional, treatment-free, biodynamic) and defending your choice. You will develop your own thoughts on these issues as you gain experience, and you can always alter those choices later. A writer doesn’t develop style until he knows grammar, punctuation, and spelling. A beekeeper doesn’t develop style until he knows bees.

Begin with the basics

Instead, spend your first year learning everything you can about the two species you will be raising in your hives—honey bees and Varroa mites. By “everything” I mean biology, life cycles, population dynamics, and the interaction between these two housemates. Most new beekeepers make the mistake of underestimating the impact of Varroa on their colonies. You can’t know too much about bees or mites.

Second, learn everything you can about flowers, pollination, and the coevolution of bees and flowering plants. If you don’t understand pollination ecology, blooming cycles, flower morphology, and plant-pollinator mutualisms, you cannot be an effective beekeeper. New beekeepers often have no idea when nectar flows occur in their area nor when to expect a dearth, let alone how to prepare for them.

Learn the language

Whether you are a fashion designer, nuclear physicist, IT geek, or a beekeeper, you have to learn the words—the jargon—that go with it. Beekeepers waste a lot of time miscommunicating with each other. Beekeepers use words without knowing their meaning, they say one thing when they mean another, they use seven different terms for one item. The more they show off, the more their words devolve into mush.

No wonder it appears that ten beekeepers have fifteen answers to the same problem—since no one understands what anyone else is saying, everything sounds like a new idea. You will get better answers if you ask the right questions using the correct words.

Trust yourself

My philosophy of logic-based beekeeping is premised on the idea that you know lots about the world around you because of your own life experiences. In other words, even if you didn’t study science in school, you understand certain physical, chemical, and biological properties because you see them every day. You step out of the shower and shiver. You boil water and the steam goes up, not down. You set a cold beer on the table and it leaves a ring.

But for some strange reason, most of us forget everything we know when we open a beehive. We forget that warm air rises, we forget that living things respire, we forget that more mouths require more food, we forget that mold grows on damp surfaces. Basically, most of the “mysterious” things we see in a beehive can be explained with everyday knowledge. They’re just bees in a box, dude, not extraterrestrials.

If someone gives you a piece of advice and it doesn’t feel right, or it doesn’t makes sense, ask for an explanation. If they can’t explain their reasoning, move on. Beekeeping is not a secret society with chants, handshakes, and passwords. Advice should be transparent and logical. If it’s not, forgetaboutit.

Play with your bees

Watch your bees. Enjoy them. Talk to them. Delight in their being. For most of us, bees are pets. We can learn much by simply observing them in the hive, in the field, in a flower. Feel the tingle as they stroll up your arm. Revel in the power of their sting. I know of no better way to learn about bees than to watch them do what they do.

The beginning is not for perfection

No one expects perfection the first time they bake a cake, write a computer program, or fold into the lotus position. Yet we all expect to harvest gallons of honey our first season and overwinter without a hiccup. Put aside the idea of perfection and concentrate on learning. Beekeeping is a process. You learn as you go. You try and fail or you try and succeed. And then you try something else. Enjoy the process and don’t worry about the end. There is no end.

All beekeeping is local

This is probably the single most misunderstood fact in all of beekeeping. Your microclimate is different than the one across the street or down the road. The plants that grow in your region are different—or bloom at different times—than those in another state or province. Your seasons change at different times, you have different strains of bees, different pesticides in your environment, and different amounts of rain, noise, humidity, habitat, and agriculture. You cannot make rules for beekeeping because beekeeping for you is different than beekeeping for anyone else.

It is this single issue—localness—that makes learning bees more important than learning beekeeping. You have to understand bees so you can look inside your hive and make your management decision. Your situation is unlike any other. You can ask for advice as long as you understand that what works for Sarah might not work for Joe. Ultimately there is no recipe for success. There is no recipe for bees.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Related Posts:

Seven types of beekeeping advice to avoid

English for beekeepers

Beekeeping and the erosion of English

 

Comments

Aram
Reply

Rusty,

I admit that my knowledge of plant biology as it relates to beekeeping is linked to availability of pollen and nectar at certain times of the year. With similar weather, surrounding plant makeup, and season I sort of expect similar availability of plant materials. I pretty much expect pollen to come in the first week of March, maple nectar first week of April, main flow in the 2nd week of June, and lull before the main flow about mid May through early June.

Do you recommend learning about other plants for the sake of planting them at home, or even relocating hives when the main flow is over in your locale? Or is it for another reason altogether?

I know I oversimplified the question and sound like a bumpkin, but can you expand on the reason for your suggestion for studying plant biology and maybe site some resources for knowledge expansion?

Rusty
Reply

Aram,

Since you are an experienced and successful beekeeper, I assume you know more about plants than you think you do.

Luís
Reply

But that’s just your opinion! lol

Rusty
Reply

Luis,

I knew someone would write that!

JoAnne Sabin
Reply

Amen! Well said Rusty.

Steve
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’m a beginner and thank you for the advice. “Enjoy the process…..There is no end”. Enjoyment is in the act of doing. Sometimes you don’t need a reason for doing whatever. You just do it because it’s there.

Jim Graham
Reply

This was fabulous!! I love it !!

Steve
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you, for once again sharing your insight and knowledge. Over the last year I have thoroughly enjoyed your site and appreciate the time you invest in it to keep it informative and entertaining.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Steve.

Stephen Clay McGehee
Reply

Perfect timing for me. My wife and I just picked up our first hive parts today. Next comes putting them together and getting some bees to put in them. I’ve learned much from this blog, and this post is like the propolis that glues it all together. Thank you!

Ernie
Reply

This is the best advice I have ever heard of for new beekeepers and a great reminder for those who have been at it for a while also.

Thank you

libby
Reply

I’ve been learning bees for a year. Thank you for your advice for new beekeepers. It made more sense than anything I’ve heard in this wonderful year of beekeeping. Thanks again and have a great day!

Shari
Reply

Rusty,

This is the most common sense advice for beginning beekeeping that I’ve ever read! I’d like to share it with my beekeeping association, with your permission and acknowledgement of Honey Bee Suite, of course.

Rusty
Reply

Shari,

I am honored to share it.

Nancy Celani Baker
Reply

Really wish I had heard these words when I started beekeeping. Would have saved a lot of grief for me and the bees.

Clifford
Reply

Treat them with respect. They are all girls!

Michael
Reply

Very wonderful advice. I lost my first and only hive last year due to inexperience. I live in South Carolina and was using the first information that I found online and was not paying attention to what region that advice was for. I missed treating for mites when I was supposed to and also put the fall feeder on too late. Unfortunately my hive was weak and starved before Christmas. Trying again this year with two hives.

Rusty
Reply

Michael,

Best of luck. You will do better this time around.

Robert L. Quarterman
Reply

Rusty,

This essay was very well written full of truth, wisdom and humor for all new beekeepers and my only response to it is Amen!

Robin
Reply

I love this post and second every word. I wish I had had this advice when I was starting out a few years ago. I’m still learning about bees and weather [winter], and varroa, and my style is evolving with every failure. Failure is a powerful tool if you don’t let it get you down. I feel a bit more confident with every new colony and I’m certainly able to ask better questions and get clarification when I need it. Thank you!

Linda
Reply

I love this web site and look in regularly! Good, practical common sense!
Happy Bee Keeping!

Mike
Reply

Hello,

Couldn’t agree with you more! I’m into my 4th year of beekeeping and I still do not use chemicals of any kind simply because I’m waiting for my bees to show me their problems that they have difficulty with.

Last year I lost a hive because of excessive humidity, or so I thought. There was a very cold day in late summer and I had left on a queen excluder made of metal. Yep, it absorbed all the heat and caused the condensation to appear and froze my bees. It was such a strong hive.

So I built a moisture quilt and it works great. The chips were damp about 3/4-inch deep. The hive is very strong and doing well, and is still very heavy.

What I have been doing is incorporating plants in my hayfield that are compatible for my cattle and horses as well. It seems true that providing healthy diversity for bees works just as well as for us.

Yours,
Mike in Canada

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

You are absolutely right. The bees speak to us; all we have to do is pay attention.

Carrie
Reply

Thank you for this. I am new and have already proclaimed myself a bad steward of bees! But, I will keep trying to be better.

I got my bees on Saturday and got them installed. Both queens have been released, but they will NOT come out of the travel box. We had a cold snap (low 30’s at night), so I decided not to mess with them. It will be considerably warmer Friday, so I was planning on waiting until it was in the mid 50’s and remove the travel box. I will set it outside the hive, right in front of the entrance.

Any advice?

Thanks!
Carrie

Rusty
Reply

Carrie,

I’m not clear if you mean the bees won’t come out or the queen won’t come out. If you put a box full of bees with a free-roaming queen in front of an empty hive, my guess is they will soon leave and you will never see any of them again.

Instead, put the queen back in her little cage and attach the cage to one of the frames. The rest of the bees will follow. I would leave the queen in her cage until your bees start to build comb, otherwise they may all abscond.

cass
Reply

This is so good, so grounded, so helpful. Thank you, thank you!

Karine Pouliquen
Reply

Of course! What a great opinion!! love it.

mary
Reply

A new beekeeping friend shared this link with me and I want to thank you for the encouragement. Sadly, my first hive attempt has failed. Although the bees made it through to mid-February I think that the extended cold was too much for them. Wondering if I could get in touch with “Mike from Canada”. I could use some additional Canadian climate advice. Thanks again.

Rusty
Reply

Mike, are you out there?

rylan
Reply

Rusty,

I am a first year beekeeper. I am so glad I stumbled onto your website. I have learned a lot of valuable information and look forward to reading more of your posts. Thank you

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Rylan. And welcome to beekeeping!

Debbie
Reply

Great advice as always!

Zoe
Reply

Hi, Rusty,

Your paragraphs on “localness” are especially true for me — a year ago I moved from Colorado to Minnesota, requiring me to learn a totally new ecosystem. At first it seemed problematic because a lot of my experience didn’t apply to beekeeping in the upper Midwest.

Since my bees died during this past winter (for the first time ever) I’m starting over this spring with a changed attitude, one which is more about curiosity and excitement rather than complaining about the weather. I get to study new plants, pollinators, weather patterns, and habitats. I get to study how bee behavior is different here than in the Rocky Mountains. Every time I approach a hive now I’m reminded that no matter how much I think I know, doing it with beginner’s mind guarantees I’ll learn something new.

Julia
Reply

Morning Rusty,
I’m a new beekeeper from Victoria Australia where we are entering a cool Autumn. Unfortunately I need to move my singular hive of bees, consisting of three boxes to another area of my garden over the next week and would like your advice on how to do this please. I have read of the ‘one pace a day’ rule and the idea of putting a branch in front of the hive opening after locating the bees on the new site. I am passionate about my bees and causing them more stress than necessary gives me great angst! I would love to hear from you Rusty and also would like to tell you that I enjoy your posts immensely.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Julia,

It depends on how far it is to the other area of your garden. If it is reasonably close, I would move them all at once rather than a little at a time. Every time you move them is another disturbance to their lives. I don’t have a rule, but I’d say if it’s within 25 or 30 feet, just move them. Putting branches outside of the hive will encourage reorienting.

Shelley
Reply

Ha ha ha!! Wwell, our first little lovely bees are due to arrive here in just a couple of weeks. So, with all the information-overload and information across the internet and from other local bee keepers giving all kinds of advise, I must say that the greatest thing I have read or heard yet? “They’re just bees in a box, dude, not extraterrestrials.” LOVE IT! and yes, so much can simply be common sense and spending time with your bees. Thank you. I think I have found the one website about bees and keeping them that I will be keeping close at hand. THIS ONE! 😀

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Shelley!

Naomi
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you for expressing your opinion. I wish your words had been at my side to replace those told me at the start of my honey bee keeping journey.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Naomi!

mary
Reply

I haven’t heard from “Mike in Canada” but I’ve been doing some thinking and wanted to run it by you. My hive was doing well at the beginning of February and that’s when I did some dry sugar feeding. I checked them a few days later and there were A LOT of bees on the top. Then the weather got really cold again. In checking my frames after the funeral I noticed that there was still a lot of honey in the frames. Maybe feeding them was a mistake because they broke cluster to come up to the top? Then they got cold and died? Any thoughts? Is winter feeding a mistake?

Rusty
Reply

Mary,

Winter feeding is not a mistake. The bees don’t break their cluster to go up, instead the whole colony goes up in a unit, more or less. Going up seems to be easier than going to the sides. If the honey frames were to the sides of the cluster, but not touching it, the bees may not find it. Bees dying with lots of honey in the hive is a very common occurrence.

You say lots of bees were up top, but I don’t know what “lots” means. To determine cause of death (which often isn’t possible) you should look at the size of the brood nest, the size of the colony, the presence of a queen, the presence of guanine deposits, dysentery, predators in the hive, moisture, diseases, etc. Also, how did you treat for mites and when?

If the colony was small and the weather cold, it is possible the bees got chilled and died. Most winter colonies that don’t make it die from mite infestations, so that’s where I would begin looking. If you can eliminate mites as a cause, then look further.

Virginia
Reply

Hi, I’ve been a beekeeper for a year. We had a top-bar hive for that year. The next spring it swarmed twice. So I then had three top-bar hives. But the most prolific one (followed by the others) started to die. Lots of bees were on the bottom board, dead, and a few were outside the hive on the ground trying but unable to fly. Quite a few that were dead or dying had their heads in the cells, and the remaining bees were darker than normal (wetness perhaps?). The brood died (because there weren’t enough workers to keep them warm). Some of the larvae was partly eaten and or hanging out of cells. I didn’t smell anything stinky other than all the dead bees on the bottom board (it wasn’t sulfurous smelling) that I scooped out. By the time I thought it might be due to starvation, it was too late to save them by feeding. The queen (in each hive) also died. But was it indeed starvation? Any input would be most appreciated. I’m afraid to have a repeat with our new bees.

P.S. this happened to All three of the top bar hives.

Rusty
Reply

Virginia,

It sounds like starvation, especially since there were many dead bees in the area. The “partially-eaten” appearance can come when the live bees try to pull the dead brood out of the hive. If they have difficulty, the heads come off and give the appearance of partially eaten. The brood probably died from cold after most of the adults died from starvation and could no longer keep all the brood warm. You didn’t mention honey. Was the honey gone or was it far from the cluster?

Miro
Reply

Today I came across your site. I read some of the articles and can say that I like the simplicity of your style and the way that information is absorbed directly by the human’s brain (like honey in body).

Sorry if my English is not OK, not mother tongue. Sorry that in Bulgaria (where I come form) there are not good sources of information, but only old-fashioned magazines.

Good Luck!

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Miro. And your English is fine.

Ginny
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I was recently given a robust feral hive that had settled into a super. The donor put the super on top of my brood box which has drawn brood comb from a hive that was robbed last spring. It seems they are just walking through the deep on their way up to their familiar super but they are really crammed up there.

1. Should I reverse the two boxes by putting the super on the bottom and the deep on top since they naturally like to go up so they will populate the deep?

2. Or should I leave them alone and let them find the deep later on on their own? I want to help but I don’t want to interfere. Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Ginny,

If it were me, I would just reverse the two boxes and see if that helps.

Alan Fairhurst
Reply

I need some urgent advice ASAP. Yesterday, just as the sun went down, I found a bee clinging to my window and I new that a very cold night was closing in. I took a small box, cut a hole in is creating a flap and placed the bee on the flap. I placed the box and bee, on the flap, under the front of my car together with a saucer of sugared water. I’ve just noticed that the bee is still alive but unwilling or unable to fly. It is sunny but a cool breeze is blowing. Is there anything more I can do?

Alan Fairhurst

Rusty
Reply

Alan,

Since I don’t know what kind of bee it is, I can just give you a general answer. In most bee species here in the northern hemisphere, all the bees die at the end of the summer or fall except for mated queens. So it is not at all unusual to see bees dying at this time of year because it is the end of their natural lifespan. There is nothing you can do. See, “Why so many dead bumble bees?

Alan Fairhurst
Reply

Thank you Rusty. Pity it takes so long for them to die but, I tried.
Alan.

Charity
Reply

Any bee keeping book suggestions or must haves? Prefer something all inclusive from beginner to “expert” level. Thank you.

Charity
Reply

Resources tab. Bookshelf. 🙂

Rusty
Reply

You got it!

Edistoriverrat
Reply

I am a NewBee. 2nd year with bees. I have 4 hives set up and 3 are doing good. One is from H___.
I work in my garage which is 80 feet from the front of the hives. The bees from the one hive fly straight from the hive to where I am working, and nail me, mostly around the eyes. 9 stings just today, not doing anything to make them mad. My grandkids can’t even come out now.
Yes they have a Queen, I have checked several times, she is laying, but not very much now for some reason.
My question””s. Why do the bees go for the eyes so much, I do wear glasses.
Other main question. How do I calm this hive down some. Replace the Queen or what?
Thanks

Rusty
Reply

I suppose that going for the eyes is hard-wired into their genetics. If you need to scare away a bear or racoon, getting through thick fur is tough, but eyes are easy. I recommend re-queening. It sounds like she’s got mean genes.

Seth
Reply

The moment when I knew I was pointed to my go-to beekeeping blog:

“They’re just bees in a box, dude, not extraterrestrials.”

New here, but love what I’ve read so far. Really looking forward to reading the rest!

Rusty
Reply

Seth,

Hmm. I forget I’ve written those things until someone like you points them out!

Rob E.
Reply

I am a new beekeeper here in Bellevue, NE and received my first package on the 16th. The weather was great to hive them and I did so placing the queen in her cage on the bottom vice hanging it.

The mistake I made was not looking far enough into the forecast and seeing that there’d be a couple rainy days and the temperature dropping into the low to mid 50s. Should I be concerned for the queen’s well being?

Thank you in advance for any information.

Rusty
Reply

Rob,

“her cage on the bottom vice hanging it”? I don’t know what you’re trying to say here. But 50s and rain? If honey bees couldn’t handle 50s and rain, there would be no honey bees on the PNW coast. I assume you are feeding your package bees and, if so, you should have no problem.

Rob E.
Reply

Rusty, Thank you for the response, it gave me a little peace of mind. In explanation to what had confused in my initial query – I had placed her cage on the bottom board with the cork from the candied end taken out vice hanging it from a frame.

Rusty
Reply

Rob,

Okay, I see. As long as the workers are free to get to her, they will keep her warm. Only if they were prohibited from reaching her would it be a problem.

Janet
Reply

Newbie here: Is there a book/reference on bee nutrition that is inclusive for the US? Downloaded Fat Bees, Skinny Bees; but this is based on Australian case studies. I would like to learn more about pollen, protein, etc. Currently adding pure lemon juice and HBH to ss to get the pH closer to 5. Thoughts on this? Thank you. Just hit my 21st day here in Lincoln, NE and all looks well.

Rusty
Reply

Janet,

I used to think adjusting the pH of sugar syrup was important, but now I don’t. The principle source of honey’s acidity results from the oxidation of glucose into gluconic acid. This oxidation is catalyzed by glucose oxidase, which is secreted into the syrup when the bees ingest it, just like they do with nectar. To re-state, the bees make the nectar more acidic when they take it into their honey stomach and the same thing happens to sugar syrup.

The same applies to inversion from sucrose to glucose and fructose. It happens almost instantly when the bees consume it because they secrete invertase into the syrup (or nectar) and it is immediately inverted. Plain sucrose it really one of the best foods for bees.

Janet
Reply

Thanks Rusty. Is there a book about all this? Seems like you have great insight, so maybe you could be the author? : )

Rusty
Reply

Janet,

In the master beekeeper program I wrote a paper about glucose oxidase, which is why I’m up on that particular subject. A lot has been written about honey bee nutrition but I don’t know what is best. There are many papers, and some of the textbooks like “The Hive and the Honey Bee” (newest edition) have detailed chapters on nutrition.

Ben
Reply

Fantastic, thank you!

Lisa
Reply

So glad I came across this blog! Lots of great advice for new bee keepers like myself. Thanks so much!

Caroline
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. I for one appreciate it greatly.

I’m moving back to Washington State (Puget Sound area) later this year and am hoping to get my first hive (or two!) of bees in the spring. I’ve been studying beekeeping for about a year now and still feel like I don’t know anything…

One thing I do know, the thought of having to move a 10 frame deep hive box is daunting, so I’ve been thinking about using all medium 8 frame hive boxes. However, I can’t find any information to say if this will or won’t work. Do you have an opinion? I’d love to hear from you.

Rusty
Reply

Caroline,

I prefer standard 10-frame equipment because a variety components are more readily available, and I like the insulation factor in winter. I cannot lift a full ten-frame box (up to 100 pounds). However, I also cannot lift a full 8-frame medium (up to 52 pounds). So I just take out some frames until I can move it. But, I’m sure you can make it work either way.

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