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Ten beekeeping crimes you should not commit

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.


1

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.


2

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.


3

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.


4

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?


5

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.


6

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.


7

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.


8

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.


9

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.


10

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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Peeking-out-of-the-robbing-screen
Two honey bees crawl out from behind the robbing screen. © Rusty Burlew.

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Comments

Gary Gileau
Reply

Rusty,

I really enjoy your site.
My biggest “crime” has been #3. It’s not like I did nothing! I built screened bottom boards, fed with essential oils, pulled and froze drone frames, powdered sugar. First two winters had similar results, many dead bees. This year I have treated and I was astounded at how many mites were under the screen. Many were still moving! I’ve never seen this in the past. My instincts tell me that I’ll have better success this winter, I hope I’m right.

Carter Andrews
Reply

Did they survive?

SA Fifer
Reply

From a new beekeeper, thank you for such a clear, succinct, and useful post. I’m putting a copy where I’ll see it often.

Robert L
Reply

Drowning in honey lol. I can’t get rid of it all. I have combs of it stored, I have bottles stored, I have creamed honey and I sell it all the time AND I ran out of supers this year because I ended up with more hives than I planned on.
Good advice as always, Rusty.

Bill Hesbach
Reply

3- Those trying to raise true treatment-free stock are meeting with some limited success but, so far, it’s only at a local level after years of hard work based on sound beekeeping and lots of intelligent gene pool manipulation. Even then, they usually end up with a marginal ecotype that can’t survive without treatment outside their distinct geographic area. We have a lot to learn before we can offer no fuss treatment-free bees to folks that just don’t want to treat. So, for now, take good care of your bees and that means treat when your bees need it.

Denice Moffat
Reply

Wow. That was excellent Rusty. Thanks so much for taking the time to put that all together for us new-bees. Many, many thanks.

Paul
Reply

I have to admit in my first season I saw a queen cells in my hive and chopped them all out. Having a plan is most certainly the way to go.

Hans Gutbrod
Reply

very useful summary, thank you!

Greengage
Reply

excellent advice well done

Bill Castro
Reply

I would like to know when it became ok for a few prominent “expert” beekeepers like Spivak, VanEnglesdorp, and Oliver to call us successful treatment free beekeepers “mite farmers” and blame the spread of varroa on treatment free beekeeping? My personal and professional knowledge with bees has shown me that the single most important aspect often overlooked and rarely spoken about is quality and quantity of forage for all pollinators. Without a natural diet, the honey bee is a doomed species. All other stressors are just that, secondary problems that become exacerbated by improper and inadequate diet.

Secondly, the wholesale transport of commercial bees are what is spreading mites. Most treatment free bee keepers have stationary apiaries. Migratory beekeeping transport sick and infested colonies to every corner of the world and no matter how much they treat for varroa, it still manages to return to destroy even the most highly treated colonies. No matter how much we throw technology at the mites, ultimately we end up with even stronger and more virulent mites in the end. It’s a proven fact that can be seen in many aspects of agriculture with the advent of super weeds and super pests that become resistant to the agriculture chemicals. Varroa has proven this over again with apiary treatments.

No matter how much we futilely try and fool nature and all its rules, nature ultimately wins in the end. Driving wedges in the beekeeping community, like Spivak and others are now doing, is bad business and ultimately bad for all our honey bees

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

There is a clear distinction between true treatment-free beekeepers who select and raise their own stock (as you do) and those who buy a package from a commercial producer, let it die, and call that “treatment free.” Those packages left untreated are the mite bombs, not the bees from successful treatment-free breeders. There is a world of difference between the two, and people like Randy Oliver and others applaud those who do it properly. You should be taking this as a compliment rather than a criticism.

Pat
Reply

Do you have any helpful advice for recognizing a nectar dearth? I pay attention to when flowers are blooming, and assume when my bees get a little cranky in late Autumn that there’s a dearth then. And if you’re in the hive and see no cells full of nectar, you would assume there’s none coming in. Is there anything else?

Pat
Reply

Excellent – thanks! I must have missed that one when it was posted.

Susan Luber
Reply

Such a great, clear rundown! I didn’t do ALL those things wrong when I first started, but I confess I learned about bees after I decided to be a beekeeper. Thank goodness for several terrific and attentive mentors! I now have 4 healthy, successful hives despite our drought. Question re:#7: What DO you do when you find numerous queen cells? Thanks, Rusty. Love your site!

Rusty
Reply

Susan,

Like everything else, it depends. If I need a new queen somewhere, I will move a few into the hive that needs a queen. Sometimes, I put one in each of several two-frame nucs, just so they hatch and mate. That way I will have extra queens on hand for a while. Sometimes I just leave them where they are. I never kill all but one because how do I know which ones are healthy, which ones have birth defects, which are weak, which will never emerge. I let nature take it’s course and nature does a good job. Never had a problem with that.

Cooper
Reply

Great advice…I became a less frustrated, more efficient, confident, and successful bee keeper after taking care of #1 (2 through 10 then made more sense too). It gave purpose to my effort and reduced the stress on the bees and me.

Diana
Reply

Man, how I wish I’d had this list when I first started. Could have saved me years of failures.

willowcreekhoney
Reply

Bravo! Well said. I still do things wrong, not as serious and the girls usually come out of it to teach me something new.
Ken

Edward
Reply

Excellent Guide!
Extremely happy to stumble across your website, so much valuable information. I am so grateful for all the time and effort everyone has put in to make honeybeesuite what it is. My obsession started a year ago when I removed a colony from a chimney, to my surprise they survived and now going hard leading up to summer here in Australia. Thank you.

Will
Reply

I couldn’t say it better myself.

One thing I would add is to get to know the seasons and bloom dates (times of flows and dearths). It’s just as important as #1 where learning bee behaviour and the effects of it from the enviroment are important.

One thing I would say about #8 though is that if you have a situation where there is a dearth between two flows, taking all of the honey may be a death sentence to them too. In my area we have a dearth for about 5 weeks between flows. The hives were strong enough to fill a standard and a second one from 1/2 to 3/4 full, I leave them this until the start of the next flow and the reason is that they will need it not only to survive, but also to keep brood production up to the second (main) flow. If the hive was able to fill up these boxes with that much honey, they’ll have the strength to defend against robbers. in fact, if any robbing does happen, it’ll be these strong hives that’ll be doing the robbing (where do you think the robbers come from?). With out a source of food, the hive would have to be fed which can also lead to robbing.

Rusty
Reply

Will,

Good advice. It always comes down to “all beekeeping is local” so local conditions always need to be considered.

Stephen D
Reply

Mea culpa! Thanks for posting this.

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