After a number of years of both teaching beginning beekeeping classes and sitting in on classes taught by others, I have come to the conclusion that many of us on the teaching side are giving new and would be beekeepers a false impression about how easy it is to become a beekeeper. It’s not. What is easy is getting started: buying equipment, ordering bees, installing them in a new hive. These steps are not much more complicated than spending some money and following a checklist. What is difficult is becoming a successful beekeeper as opposed to someone who has a hive or two.
Keep your goal in mind, and it is not to make honey – this year. In many parts of the country, including Kentucky, it is difficult to make honey the first year. If you do, it’s purely a bonus. Your goal is to aid that package or nuc to become a full sized colony, one which will have a good chance of surviving the winter and making you honey the second year. In order to help it, you have to know what is going on inside the hive. You MUST do regular inspections, which means removing and examining frames, and making a written record of what you see. I suggest getting into your hives about once a week through early June. Here is a list of a few things to look for, and what to do when you see them.
1. New comb being drawn. In the first couple of days after you install your new nuc or package, you will see the bees drawing new comb. This is the foundation of the new colony, the framework on which they will rear new bees, and store food. Make a record in your notes of how many frames of comb have been drawn each time you look in the hive.
2. Nectar (or sugar syrup) in the newly drawn comb. As the bees build the new comb, they will use it at first to store nectar (or the sugar syrup you are feeding them) and pollen.
3. Brood: eggs, larvae & pupae. Shortly after package bees draw out some comb and the queen emerges from the queen cage, you should start to see eggs. If you installed a nuc, it will already contain some eggs, but you should begin seeing eggs in newly drawn comb. Within a few days of seeing eggs you will see small ‘C’ shaped larvae, and then the bees building wax cappings over the cells as the larvae mature into pupae. Record how many frames contain eggs or brood.
4. On subsequent visits, you should continue to see expansion of the brood nest: more comb being drawn, and additional frames of brood. This shows that the colony is growing. There should always be eggs and larvae. They are evidence that the queen is present and doing her job. You do not need to see her to know she is there; the eggs and larvae tell her tale. Continue to record the number of frames of drawn comb, noting how many are being used for brood rearing, and how many for food storage.
5. When you have seven or eight frames containing drawn comb, it is time to add the second box. If you started your new hive with a nuc, this will not take long.
6. You will continue to see this same growth in the second box. Remember, your goal is to see it filled with drawn comb, brood, and the nectar which will ripen into honey. This is not harvestable honey, but food stores for the colony. If the bees manage to fill the two hive boxes before the end of the nectar flow, surplus honey (your share) will go in honey supers which you place above the brood nest.
7. Feeding: Continue offering your new colony sugar syrup made of equal parts granulated sugar (either cane or beet sugar) and water, as long as they are drawing comb in the brood boxes. Stop, however, if they quit taking it. Bees tend to prefer nectar to syrup and will quit taking the later when they have an ample supply of the former. Also cease feeding if you see more than two frames of comb filled with syrup or nectar. Honey bees don’t need to store a lot of food in the spring – just enough to get them through periods of bad weather when they are not able to fly and forage. It is important that, during the spring, most of the new comb be used for rearing brood.
8. Sometime around mid to late June, you will see the bees starting to store nectar in cells which previously held brood. This is normal behavior for them as they sense the end of the nectar flow. Fewer bees will be needed to collect the diminishing nectar supply, so brood production slows and the empty cells are used to store nectar to help sustain the population through the summer dearth.
9. In late summer or early fall it is very important to treat for varroa mites. For the last thirty years, Varroa has been the greatest challenge in keeping our bees alive. Educate yourself on how to monitor for mites, but if you don’t monitor, or if you are unsure as to the level of infestation in your hive – they WILL be present – I urge you to treat any way later in the year. I have no doubt that the reason most first year beekeepers lose their bees is varroa mite infestation.
10. Having learned what normal looks like, watch for signs of abnormal appearance in your bees and brood.
11. Continue your beekeeping education. Read. Join a bee club, attend their meetings. Talk to more experienced beekeepers.
12. Feel free to email me with questions! Email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck, but know that becoming a successful beekeeper is much more than luck.