Beekeeping – Lessons From My First Year

First Year Beekeeping

Hey everyone, today I want to discuss some lessons I learned from my first year of beekeeping. Even with advice from seasoned beekeepers, I lost every one of my hives this past winter from various obstacles. Unfortunately, a few of them were preventable, had I stayed on top of my beekeeping duties.

When winter approached I felt like I had a pretty good grip on the hives, sadly I missed the signs that they were in fact struggling and needed my help. Let’s jump right in to it..

Start with Two Hives

It is highly recommended that new beekeepers start with two hives. I personally took that advice as having a second hive to closely compare to my first made perfect sense.

What I mean by that is, you’re likely going to run across a couple questions or concerns when performing you’re first few hive inspections. Is that comb supposed to be there? Is this a healthy number of bees, or should I have more? Should the bees be gathering on the outside of the box? These are just a few of the MANY questions I had when I was looking through my hives.

Having a second hive to compare with made unusual hive activity noticeably appear different, or comfortably the same. When you have what looks like all of your bees hanging from the bottom of the hive stand, it’s going to freak you out. But when you notice that both hives are identical, it seems more routine and less concerning.

I would highly recommend getting a second hive when starting out, not only to compare to, but also to pull from should one of your hives fall behind on production. For instance, you have the option to pull a frame of brood from one hive and move it to another. This will help increase numbers in a struggling hive, and hopefully assist with getting it back on track.

Watch for Varroa Mites

These little buggers not only cost me to lose all my hives, but they set me back financially as well. Going in to winter last year I had 5 hives. For the most part, they seemed strong, or so I thought. I did notice that my numbers were starting to decline in the late fall, but I thought nothing of it as the Italian honeybees are known to decrease numbers leading into winter.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case this time. These were in a heated battle with Varroa Mites and I was blind to it until it was too late. Varroa Mites are external parasites that vigorously attack both adult bees and brood. These do so by sucking the blood from both, and inevitably weaken the bee until they succumb to the parasites handiwork.

Mites that target brood, especially drone brood, will make entry into the cell before it is capped. The mites will mature and potentially mate while feeding on the developing larvae. Once the bee reaches maturity and emerges from its cell, the mature and new mites will begin looking for their next prey.

Due to the drifting and robbing nature of the Italian honey bee, the spreading of Varroa Mites from hive to hive is quite common. Not all is lost though, the mites can be managed!

When caught early enough, there a few different ways you can manage these mites. There are chemical strips that you can add to your hives to kill them off, as well as a few organic methods. I found that the chemical strips are a controversial topic among beekeepers, and personally not something I use although they are known to be effective.

A method that I intend to use this year is the powdered sugar method. By sifting powdered sugar onto the bees, it triggers them to clean themselves and each other. While removing the sugar, they will also remove the mites causing them to drop to the bottom of the hive body where most beekeepers either put a sticky board or rub a board down with Crisco causing them to stick on impact.

When I try this method this year I’ll be sure to post pictures and advise everyone how it worked…

Look for Queen Cells

Lots of bees in the hive is a great thing, if you have room for them! If you notice that the bee population inside your hive is high, you may want to add another hive body and frames to it, otherwise you could end up losing your hive due to swarming. Swarming is how honeybees naturally reproduce when colonies become too large.

Another sign you should constantly check for is queen cells. This can mean a couple different things, either the hive is about to swarm, or perhaps you’re hive is queenless. Either way it needs to be addressed. When you see queen cells and you positively identify you still have an active queen in the hive, its recommended you remove the queen cell. If that happens to you I would advise to add room for them to expand or split the hive into two (hive splitting article coming soon).

If you’re hive has already swarmed and you’re left with a virgin queen, keep in mind that it could take up to a couple weeks or more from hatching to egg laying. I personally would pursue a mated queen from a local beekeeper to hopefully speed up the process and help regain hive strength.

Leave the Honey

Lastly, leave the honey! I know, what’s the point of keeping honey bees if you can’t have the honey. This is something I must stress because I was too foolish to heed the warnings myself. The honey is THEIR food source, not ours.

To be clear, I didn’t take all the honey that was available, but when you consider the size of the colony, they need a rather large surplus of honey before we start borrowing from them. My first year starting out, the bees had to draw out every single frame in the hive. This takes work! After completing a few frames, the bees were only able to store so much nectar. Simply put, they lacked storage for the nectar during the most opportune time of the year so they could only store so much.

By the time the first nectar flow kicked off this year, I had an abundance of predrawn frames that they filled quickly and what a difference that made. Give the girls a better chance when they first start out, don’t rush to harvest the honey until you know they have more than enough to safely make it through the winter.

Some beekeepers will take the honey and feed the bees throughout the winter. I’ve even read where some take all the honey and let the bees succumb to hunger (not a fan). Take my advice, you’ll become attached to your bees and it’s rather depressing when you find them no longer living.

Stop and Pay Attention

These are only a couple of the lessons I learned, in fact I might even make a second part to this. The bees are fragile creatures, brilliant, but fragile. Take your time, study them, take care of them, and they will reward you.

You may miss a few of the signs too, but don’t worry you’ll start catching on. Learn from you’re mistakes, put a plan in place so it won’t happen again. Remember, sugar is you’re friend. You can send them into a cleaning frenzy with it, or you can feed them with it, both will save a struggling hive.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below! Thanks for tuning in to Novice Rancher.

Good Luck!


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