Good management, pest and disease control, good nutrition, and queen quality are the keys to successful beekeeping.
How do I get started?
- There are many paths from interest in beekeeping to becoming experienced and successful, but, in general, we recommend the following:
- Start with learning the basics. This can take many forms, from finding a mentor, joining a bee club, taking an online class, taking an in-person class, reading books, and watching videos. If you supplement your learning with YouTube, there are some good educational beekeeping videos on YouTube, such as those created by: University of Guelph, Bob Binnie, Kamon Reynolds, Randy Oliver, and others. Do keep in mind that if books and videos are your only point of reference, there is as much misinformation out there as there is good information.
- After learning the basics, consider a mentor or hands on beekeeping class. This will help you avoid common mistakes that might cause you to think that it is impossible to be successful.
- Order supplies. This can be done through online vendors or local beekeeping shops. You will typically find the lowest prices locally. When ordering supplies, you’ll need to make a decision as to what “style” of hives you want to keep (for example, standard 10 frame versus 8 frame equipment, deep versus medium boxes, horizontal (“long”) Langstroth hives, top bar hives, AZ hives).
- Plan your location. A good location with as much sun as possible will help to decrease some pests, such as wax moths. Providing a water source prior to starting a colony (hive) is usually the best (so they won’t find your neighbor’s pool). They do seem to like water with minerals or some salinity/chlorine.
- If you have a chance of bears or other predators, start out with fencing (preferably some electric) rather than waiting for a problem to occur.
- Order your first bees. We always suggest starting out with (at the very minimum) 2 colonies (useful for comparison and for transferring resources back and forth). Good colony management can help you create more hives after the first year. Bees can be purchased as nucs (small starter colonies–what we usually recommend), package bees with a separate queen, or even catching a swarm (more advanced and not recommended for beginner). The earlier you can do this the winter before, the better, as many local options are sold out early in the year.
- Register your apiary. If you’re in Pennsylvania and new to beekeeping, you can register your apiary here: https://www.paplants.pa.gov/SecurityLogin.aspx. If you’re in Maryland, here is the registration information: https://mda.maryland.gov/plants-pests/pages/apiary_inspection.aspx
- Make a plan for your first year. Know what you’re going to do throughout the season so you can try to avoid some surprises and failure.
What needs to be done throughout the year?
There are a lot of variables to this answer, including your specific location and the weather each year, but here is a monthly beekeeping calendar to get a better idea of what is involved.
What about ants, wax moths, and hive beetles?
- Ant resistant barriers under the hive boxes will address most ants, but again, a healthy, strong hive won’t have real issues with ants. I have also found that switching from the combination of an inner cover/telescoping lid to no inner cover with migratory lids significantly reduces ant problems.
- Wax moth traps can be hung in spring to catch some of the moths and yellow jacket queens (jug with ac vinegar, banana, sugar, and water), but a strong hive won’t have issues with wax moths.
- For hive beetles, Swiffer pads or a beetle trap helps, but keeping a strong hive without lots of extra space and full sun is very important to reduce small hive beetle problems. Be careful to not leave pollen patties on colonies that aren’t consuming them or hive beetles will lay eggs in them.
Are pollen patties necessary?
This is a loaded question that really depends on location, weather, and the purpose of each colony. Bees prefer natural pollen, but if there is no pollen, they will shut down brood rearing. It is sometimes helpful, particularly in the spring a few weeks before natural pollen to provide some supplemental pollen. Partial pollen patties to the top of your hive versus full patties usually help avoid hive beetles. Global patties brand is good (and we carry them in our farm shop in the spring).
What about feeding bees?
- This answer depends on the colony, time of year, weather, and other environmental factors. A new colony on new, undrawn foundation will benefit from feeding. There are also circumstances where a colony is low on food for a variety of reasons, and you may want to consider feeding.
- Leave plenty of resources for winter or feed with 2:1 (or thicker) syrup in early fall. Here is a table of syrup recipe amounts. Can consider adding candy board or winter patties late in winter if they are running out of stores.
- If you need to feed during spring, early fall, or an unusual period of dearth (like we had locally in July/August 2021), a hive top bucket with tint plugs (drill a 49mm hole in the bucket lid, and punch small holes in the plug) is very effective or a simple “baggie feeder” inside of a top hive 1 ½” shim works well (as do frame feeders with cap and ladder). I also use clear plastic quart jar feeders during times of year where feeding is only for stimulation and not to add significant weight to a colony.
What about Varroa mites?
- Before going into fall, control the mites. I can’t emphasize that enough. Even with genetics that are VSH, you need to monitor for and control mites.
- Test for mites throughout season, particularly starting in July before fall. Waiting too long to treat will probably result in a lost colony over the winter. Consider a secondary early winter treatment (usually late November or December depending on the weather) for an additional treatment–when nearby colonies that are full of mites collapse in the fall, they can spread those mites to your “clean” colonies. High mite levels can result in a variety of problems/diseases in the fall and winter. The concern is the viruses and bacteria carried by mites to the bees more than the mites themselves, so it is important to keep the mite levels low prior to fall. Here is a handy tool for deciding what your treatment options are, based on time of year and other factors.
- Note that Oxalic Acid and Formic are organic, and Apiguard is considered to be organic outside of the U.S. Apivar is not organic, and if it is used, you need time before adding any honey supers. You should also note that Apivar is not a quick treatment and takes time to lower the levels, so if you have a colony with a very high mite load, it may not be the best choice at that time (it has also seemed that Apviar has various reports of showing a lack of sufficient mite control in recent years–so if you use it, verify that it has worked, and carefully follow the instructions, keeping the strips in the center of the brood nest). We prefer the organic treatments when possible, and we don’t treat while producing honey, pollen, propolis. If you are using Formic, what the temperatures carefully, introduce the treatment towards evening, and there is some evidence that laying the mylar (foil) wrapper on top of the formic pads can reduce queen loss (less of an immediate blast of formic). If you have a mite issue at that time, it’s better to pull that hive out of production and deal with the mites.
What about getting your bees through the winter?
- Before going into fall, control the mites. Consider an additional late fall or early winter treatment.
- Before late fall, make sure the hive is packed with food and pollen—at least one full deep of resources, depending on your location.
- Too much moisture in the hive can amplify existing problems over the winter. Foam insulation boards on top of the hive (under the lid) or some reflectix is helpful for reducing moisture drips. Some people also use “quilt” boxes or similar tools to absorb moisture.
Should I requeen my colonies?
Queens can last for several years, and a decision to requeen should be based on the performance of your queen. How is the laying pattern (first make sure mites are not the culprit)? How is the temperament of the colony over a period of several weeks (making sure some other external factor is not the issue)? Requeening can be done with new, mated replacement queens, queen cells, or splits with eggs (allowing them to raise a queen).
What about swarming?
Swarming is a natural instinct of honey bees when they try to reproduce their genetics or run out of space. There are many variables in controlling/managing the urge to swarm, that include making sure the colony always has additional space (undrawn foundation is not always considered to be additional space by the colony). If it is a strong nectar flow, add enough supers! Another factor is the age of the queen. A young queen is less likely to swarm. Note that sometimes you will see supercedure cells in a colony that is not planning to swarm but is planning to replace their queen (many factors can contribute to that scenario). Finally, if your start to see “charged” queen cells in a colony (filled with royal jelly or capped), know that the best option is usually to create a “managed” swarm. Simply removing the queen cells will not usually remove that swarming instinct once it begins. A “managed” swarm is where you take the existing queen with 2-3 frames of brood, and at least one drawn comb to a new box, which will make the colony believe they successfully swarmed. Then, simply allow the remaining bees to successfully raise a new queen, or add a “ripe” queen cell to complete that process. The worst case scenario at that point is that they do not successfully requeen–however, you will have the failsafe of the old queen on standby in the new box if needed.
What are some of your favorite products?
- For a jacket or suit, the 3-layer ventilated suits are more comfortable and fairly bee proof. Ultrabreeze or MannLake vented jackets or suits are good. I also like the jacket from Lyson because of its light weight and design that protects the back of your neck from sunburn. Add zippy cool or similar lubricant to your zippers for better functionality.
- Goatskin gloves are the best among traditional beekeeping gloves. Nitrile gloves also work and are better at preventing and spreading diseases. I prefer the biodegradable ones because they will be discarded.
- For woodenware (boxes and frames), finding a local supplier is usually the least expensive (for example, Martin’s Bee Supply—outside of Carlisle, PA is a good source, and we also carry wax dipped woodenware and supplies at our Carlisle, PA farm shop). Wax dipping is a good way to protect boxes, but many other options are available.
- If you choose to treat Oxalic Acid Vapor (OAV) for mites and plan to have 10 or more hives, a Provap or similar product is a good long-term investment. Johno’s Easy Vap is a good alternative to the Provap at a lower cost. Whatever you do, if you’re using OAV, wear a respirator!
- For extracting, you can find inexpensive extractors for $150-300, or you can often rent one from your local beekeeping club. A heated knife or planer from Maxant is a good investment for prepping frames.
- “Easycheck” and Ceracell are both good mite check containers. I usually try for 1% or less (no more than 3 per 300 bees), but 2-3% or less is also accepted by some beekeepers. Half cup of nurse bees (usually found on a “bee bread” or brood frame), covered in 90% rubbing alcohol (Dawn Ultra detergent solution is also an option), shake gently for 60 seconds.