As a brand new beekeeper with lots of newbie questions, I learned pretty quickly there is no one right answer to most of my questions. Questions like:
How much should I feed my new bees? It depends — folks say you don’t want them to weaken and starve just as they’re getting established, but you do want them to have an incentive to forage on their own. Knowing the right amount to feed takes watching the bees — are they actively foraging and are they coming back heavy with pollen and nectar? Is the activity of the hive increasing, diminishing, or staying about the same? When you’re an inexperienced beekeeper like I am, you have to accept there will be a learning curve as you gain experience about what an adequate amount of foraging is, or what levels and patterns of activity indicate a healthy hive. I ended up feeding each hive 2 quarts of syrup twice over the last couple of weeks (part of which they stored in the comb they built in the top feeder). Was it the right amount? They seem to be doing well and have lots of forage blooming locally, so I’m going to guess it was adequate.
How often should I check on my new bees? That, too, depends — most agree you want to check frequently enough to ensure the queen is present and laying eggs, new frames are being drawn out, there is brood a different stages, and honey and pollen are being stored. However, you don’t want to check so much that you’re stressing out the bees unnecessarily. Some recommend checking a few times a week in the beginning to get to know what’s normal for your bees. Some say a couple times a month is sufficient. I’ve been watching mine from the outside every day to see if there is any change in their behavior, so decided checking inside the hive once a week is enough. So far I’ve seen both queens both times, new frames are being drawn, I’ve seen capped brood, honey, and pollen stored. I haven’t yet seen eggs or uncapped larvae — mostly because there are so many bees covering each frame. Since both queens seem to be doing well, I’m not going to worry about it. I’ll likely check again in another week, and if everything looks good go to every two weeks.
Should I treat my bees for mites and disease? The answers to this question appear to be controversial and aren’t simple. On one hand, bee populations are under a lot of stress from varroa mites, pesticides, nosema, foul brood, and other diseases and predators. On the other hand, by treating bees we give weaker bees a chance to survive when they otherwise would have been taken out of the gene pool. If we want to give bees the best chance of survival, is it better to continue to intervene with treatments, or is it better to let the strong survive and strengthen the overall gene pool over time — of course risking the loss of entire hives in the process? Are natural treatments that give bees a short-term leg up on survival with no known long-term effects okay since bee populations are in jeopardy and need the help until they’re stronger? To me, treating with chemicals as a preventative would create a downward spiral of increasingly weaker bee populations overall. I think I’ll have to keep an eye on the hives, pay attention for signs of mites or disease, and deal with those as naturally as possible on a case-by-case basis.
Other random things I’ve learned so far are:
- A good bee suit is worth the investment. An experienced beekeeper talked me into the Ultrabreeze, and I love it. It breathes, it’s comfortable, easy to put on, and I have yet to be stung wearing it. I tried a standard canvas suit, and there is no comparison.
- Start with all medium 8-frame hive bodies, if you can. I learned by picking up just one full deep frame filled with brood and honey that it is heavy — there is absolutely no way I’d be able to pick up and move an entire deep hive body filled with 10 frames. Since the nucs I received were started on deep frames, I needed to start with a deep hive body on the bottom. Once that’s filled, I’ll add a medium body and frames, and hope the queen starts building that one. If the hive is strong enough next spring, I’ll remove the bottom deep. All this could have been avoided if I started with a medium body and frames (though I’d have to find a beekeeper willing to sell medium frame nucs or start with a package). I’ll have to stick with a 10-frame for now, too, but for my next hives I’m moving to an 8-frame. It’s also easier to move frames around if they’re all the same size.
- Mind your “bee space.” Langstroth (the inventor of the Langstroth hive) determined bees like just enough room between combs to move around — about 3/8 of an inch or less. More than that, and they’ll build extra comb to span the gap and/or glue gaps together with propolis. So, if you’re using a Langstroth hive and frames, fit those frames tightly together. I didn’t at first, and ended up with a bit of cross-comb I had to destroy. My bees are also building comb hanging from the bottom of the frames where there is extra room between the frame and the screened bottom board. It doesn’t seem to be in the way, so I left that for now.
- Bees know how to build comb without a foundation. The comb hanging from the bottom of my frames is straight and beautiful. It might get out of control at some point when I’ll have to deal with it, but for now it looks great. I’ve read and heard a lot about combs getting all wonky when bees are left to build without foundation. I’m going to try transitioning to foundationless and see what happens. I plan to provide a starter strip at the top of the frame to get them started straight, and I might add a couple of wire or fishing line guides across the frame to keep the comb in place. Other than that, I’m going to trust the bees know what they’re doing until they prove otherwise. We’ll see what happens.