First year beekeeping
Updated May 9, 2015. I continually update this page, so please refer to the current version. For mite treatment options, scroll down.
This page provides some quick step-by-step notes for your first year of beekeeping, written specifically for those starting with a nucleus hive or package bees purchased from me, but generally applicable.
First, educate yourself! A honey bee colony is a living animal that deserves to be cared for properly. You are beginning beekeeping at a time in which honey bees are struggling to stay alive–beekeeping is more difficult than it was prior to the parasitic varroa mite (which invaded around 1990). Although honey bees are essentially wild animals living in a box provided by their “keeper,” bees are in the midst of an evolutionary struggle due to the introduction of varroa (which completely changed colony stress and virus dynamics), as well as that of Nosema ceranae (an opportunistic parasite that can cripple a stressed colony). In addition, the bee population now faces the additional novel stressors of persistent European foulbrood, loss of forage in many areas, the effects of climate change (shorter winters), and pesticide exposure.
It is more difficult to keep healthy bees than it is to care for a pet (for which you generally need only to provide food). The more you understand the biology of colony health and dynamics, the more successful you can be at beekeeping. Bees see and respond to the world (environmental cues) very differently than do humans. In order to be a better beekeeper, I suggest that you try to learn to see the world through the eyes (and antennae) of the bee, and to “think” as does the honey bee superorganism.
There are several good beginners books.
First Lessons in Beekeeping, Dadant. Standard beginner reference.
The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro & Alfonse Avitabile. Many recommend this one.
Beekeeping for Dummies. I haven’t yet read, but several beginners have recommended.
Honey Bee Hobbyist by Norm Gary—good overall understanding, rather than how-to.
Homegrown Honey Bees by Alethea Morrison. A fun journal of the experiences of a first-year beekeeper. The author ran it by me for accuracy prior to publication, so good info.
A Book of Bees, Sue Hubble–beautiful prose about being a beekeeper
And of course, ScientificBeekeeping.com. Although I have yet to summarize my many articles into a book, I suggest that you familiarize yourself with bees, starting with how the colony manages its labor pool, feeds itself, varroa management, The Rules of Beekeeping, and finally First Year Beekeeping.
Q: What “should I do?”
A: There are no “shoulds” in beekeeping other than practicing good animal husbandry. Bees need only a dry cavity, food (nectar, pollen, or syrup and pollen supplement if lacking from natural sources), and parasite management. My basic rule is to not do anything unless you completely understand the reason that you are doing it!
You will find on the internet a plethora of opinions (often strongly expressed) on the
“right way” to keep bees. In general, the more emphatic the author, the less I’d trust the information. For a review of the rules according to the bees, see The Rules and The Rules Redux.
My advice–concentrate on (1) varroa management and (2)nutrition (in California, especially in the late summer).
I strongly suggest that you start with two deep Langstroth brood chambers, and later “medium” honey supers over a queen excluder (lots of reasons). Such equipment has truly stood the test of time (since the mid 1800’s) and is by far the easiest way to learn to keep bees. You can try other systems (top bar, Warre, etc.) later, after you’ve experienced success with “standard” equipment. If weight (of the boxes) is an issue for you, I suggest using 8-frame Langstroth equipment (same as above, but a narrower, lighter box).
Installing the bees
Congratulations, you’ve just purchased either a quality nucleus colony (“nuc”) or a shook swarm (“package bees”) with a newly-mated queen from selected stock!
Some nucs (and all packages) have the queen caged—I will let you know. If so, remove the candy cap when you get home to allow the bees to chew through the candy and release the queen. But do NOT remove the candy cap if the bees are tightly balled over the cage, indicating that they have not yet accepted the queen–wait another day until they are walking lightly over the cage.
Install the nuc in the center of a brood box with additional frames to fill the box. Keep the frames of the nuc in their original order. Be very careful not to crush the queen!
For a package, there are a zillion recommendations for specifics as to how to install the bees. It makes little difference if you are installing only a single package if there are no other hives immediately nearby (if there are, install late near dusk to avoid drift of bees to the established hive). In general, lift out the feeder can to remove the queen cage, and hang the cage (use a grocery store twist tie) from the top of a center frame. Then shake the bees out of the cage into the hive (you can temporarily remove frames). Then replace the hive cover (you can place the package with the hole next to the entrance to allow the rest of the bees to find their way into the hive.
Immediately, and consistently start feeding sugar syrup to the new colony until all the frames in the lower box are fully drawn. Feeding sugar syrup to the small colony frees the bees from the need to forage for nectar, and they can use their efforts instead to collect pollen, rear brood, produce beeswax, and draw out comb.
I recommend making a dedicated feeder lid—make it from a 16¼” x 20” piece of plywood, with an approx. 1½” hole in the center. Use this lid temporarily in place of your regular lid(s). Make a feeder bottle from any wide-mouthed quart jar, with about three small holes punched closely together in the center of the lid. To use the feeder, fill the jar 2/3rds full of white granulated sugar (feed no other sugars), then add hot tap water until nearly full. Place your finger over the holes, and shake ‘til the sugar’s dissolved. Invert the jar, centered over the hole in the feeder lid. Generally, feed a quart a day.
An example of a simple feeder jar and temporary hive cover for feeding. By making the hole smaller than the size of the lid, plenty of beespace is left above the top bars. Use a wide-mouth jar for stability.
For best queen survival, you should not disturb the new colony for a few days (other than feeding). Inspect the colony after a week. Use little smoke and minimal disturbance. If all’s well, the bees should have started drawing out fresh comb, there should be brood of all ages, including white larvae and eggs. Note that eggs are very difficult for the beginner to see, especially against new comb. The presence of any eggs, or young larvae in royal jelly, means that you have a queen, and all’s well—you need not actually see the queen!
Q: How often “should” I inspect my colony?
A: There are no “shoulds” in beekeeping. You are learning about beekeeping. You can learn some things from books, but there is nothing like the hands-on experience that you get from closely observing what is going on inside the box. So open your hive as often as you can (every other day is OK) so long as you use only enough smoke to keep the bees from looking at you, and handle the frames carefully and gently. Sure, such frequent opening is disruptive to the bees and may result in some degree of queen losses, but it is the only way you will ever become a good beekeeper. It is far easier to observe the growth of a small nucleus colony than it is to tear into a hive when it is huge. So get in there and watch your colony grow! Learn to recognize the ages of the brood, fresh eggs, the expansion of the broodnest, pollen stores, comb building, etc. It is not necessary to ever actually see the queen, so long as you see eggs or young brood.
Initial Varroa Management
Unless I tell you otherwise, any nuc that I sell has already been treated to reduce varroa levels (we use a dribble of oxalic acid syrup during a critical window of time; see Oxalic Treatment of Nucs). For packages, I suggest that you give any package a similar treatment prior to Day 8 after installation (at which time varroa can begin to “hide” in the sealed brood). If the nuc has not been treated, I suggest the application of either a Hopguard II strip (considered an “organic” treatment, but less effective), or an Apivar strip (synthetic, but highly effective).
Reading the Combs
There is little need to ask others for advice–if you learn to read the bees and the combs, the colony will tell you its exact condition, and whatever it needs. I’ve labeled the components below.
To determine colony condition, work your way to a center brood comb, an pay most attention to the interface between the honey at the top, and the brood below.
In this dynamic interface, you will be able to tell whether the colony is hungry or storing honey, and how good their protein reserves are.
You always want to see a nice band of beebread around the brood. Should this band disappear, suspect that the colony is suffering from nutritional stress (more later). There does not seem to be any benefit to feeding pollen sub patties to colonies if they are already gathering plenty of natural pollen (in the Foothills, from Feb-end of June).
Move smoothly–like you’re doing Tai Chi. Bees only sting when they feel that you are threatening their hive. So don’t do anything threatening! Fast or jerky movements appear threatening. Always use smoke, but use it sparingly. The only bees that will sting are the guard bees on the periphery of the cluster–especially at the entrance and at the top bars. Bees that are not looking at you aren’t interested in you. If you see bees looking at you, give them a little puff of smoke and wait until they turn away from you. It is only safe to pick up a frame if there are no bees looking at you.
Bees will often fly at your hands or face and give “warning bumps” prior to actual stinging. Pay attention to what they are telling you–BACK OFF! They either don’t want to be disturbed at that moment, or you have not used enough smoke, or you’ve been too rough.
If there are bees looking at you, warning bumps, stinging, or the smell of alarm pheromone, STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING! Do not keep going, or things will quickly get worse–you don’t want to go there! Give the bees a chance to calm down, and for alarm pheromone to dissipate. Give the top bars a light puff or two of smoke until there are no bees facing you. If you can’t get them to calm down, then just close the hive up for the day.
The best way to learn how to work gently with bees is to carefully watch an experienced beekeeper who doesn’t usually wear gloves (or veil). Such a beekeeper has learned how to work bees with care and respect. Those who always wear gloves and full gear often have very bad habits. I strongly suggest that you learn to work bees barehanded in good weather–thin latex or nitrile gloves are a good way to eliminate most stings, but still get a “feel” for the bees.
Helping the Bees
As the population grows, and the colony can cover more frames, the bees will draw combs of foundation from the center out, and the queen will start laying in those combs. This is your chance to watch a colony grow! (The population of bees in a nuc will expand quickly; that of a package, not until 3 weeks after installation).
You may check the colony as often as you like, but be aware that clumsy handling by beginners often results in queen loss–so handle the combs carefully.
In general, place the combs back into the same arrangement that the bees had. Always keep brood (and frames of eggs) together, honey to the outside, and pollen at the edge of the brood nest.
Exception: It’s hard for the bees to draw out the outermost combs. Once the bees draw out the inner side of the second combs in, reverse those combs, and move them to the outside (only if they contain no eggs–see illustration).
Feed the colony sugar syrup continuously, but not to the extent that the queen is unable to expand the brood nest due to excess stored syrup and nectar. If the bees store syrup in the center of the brood area, cut back on feeding.
Note that there is often a large colony-to-colony variation in buildup and honey production. Unless you have other colonies to compare to, it’s difficult to know how well your colony is doing, compared to the “norm.”
Make sure you have a queen—indicated by eggs and brood of all ages. Note that it is common for beginners to inadvertently kill the queen by inexpert handling of the frames!
Check to see that the queen is laying a regular pattern of brood in concentric rings by age. If brood pattern is spotty or uneven, the queen may have a problem, or the colony may be suffering from a brood disease.
A colony with well-fed, healthy brood.
If there are multiple eggs in a cell, or you see bullet-shaped cappings in worker brood cells, you may have laying workers or a drone-laying queen. If you see a peanut-shaped brood cell on the side of a comb, the colony is in the process of replacing (superseding) a poor queen.
If the brood is “spotty,” look for signs of brood disease—chalkbrood (white & tan “mummies”), EFB (twisted white & yellow larvae–often hard to diagnose), or AFB (sunken perforated cappings, melted brown larvae that “rope”)
If there are queen cells being formed, the colony may have lost their queen (several small, scattered emergency queen cells), may be superseding the queen (one or two very large queen cells on the side of a frame; allow the process to continue), or be preparing to swarm (large queen cells often at the bottom of the frames–colony needs more room).
Varroa is the Leading Cause of Colony Morbidity and Mortality
The leading cause of colony failure for beginners is from not managing varroa mite levels, which then allows viruses and nosema to kill the colony. If your colony was strong in summer, and then the bees suddenly disappear in fall, leaving behind plenty of honey above, and scattered sealed brood in the lower box, varroa is generally the culprit. You can diagnose by holding a brood frame horizontal with the top bar away from you. With the sun coming over your shoulder to illuminate the “ceilings” of the cells, look for the telltale white guanine deposits left by mites. If you see them, it was most likely varroa that did your colony in. Here are some photos of typical varroa deadouts:
A colony dying from varroa/DWV. Note the deformed wings on the bee, and the fully-formed adults in the cells unable to emerge–a typical sign. Note the white guanine deposits left by the mites on the cell “ceilings.”
“Treatment Free” Beekeeping
Although my goal is to develop a stock of bees that require no treatment for varroa, I do not recommend “treatment-free” beekeeping for beginners. Control varroa, or colonies will generally die an ugly and unnecessary death from the varroa/virus complex. Not only that, but when that colony crashes, it floods the surrounding colonies with varroa mites, making you a nuisance to both surrounding beekeepers, and the feral population of bees that is slowly evolving resistance to the mite. PLEASE MANAGE MITE LEVELS IN YOUR HIVES AND DO NOT ALLOW COLONIES TO COLLAPSE FROM VARROA.
Once you’ve mastered keeping colonies alive and healthy for at least three years, then you can experiment with going without mite treatments (don’t expect most commercial bee stocks to survive without treatment–you will likely have better luck with VSH, Russian, or feral survivors). There are several easy-to-use and effective “natural” mite treatments on the market that will not contaminate your combs or honey, as well as biotechnical methods such as drone brood trapping and queen caging.
Monitoring Varroa Infestation Levels
Starting in July after installing a new nuc or package, you should test it for mite level, using a sticky board or other method (I strongly recommend the “alcohol wash” or “sugar shake”). Assume that all nucs have varroa mite. You must monitor mite level, and treat if the mite level exceeds the seasonal “treatment threshold” (1 mite/100 bees prior to July 1, 2/100 July 1 through late fall). We are having great success with mite-tolerant queens, biotechnical methods, and “natural” treatments.
I recommend mite testing in early spring, before supering, again in early August, and in late September (Northern Calif).
Due to the huge variability of stickyboard counts, any single stickyboard count is nearly meaningless. However, they can be of use if done regularly.
The best test is an alcohol or detergent wash of a level half cup of bees (~320 bees), or the “sugar shake” (see http://scientificbeekeeping.com/sick-bees-part-11-mite-monitoring-methods/). Update: I’m currently favoring taking bee samples for the alcohol wash from outer or upper frames (rather than brood frames) in order to minimize colony disturbance and the possibility of killing the queen. Since bees from these frames carry only about 80% of the mites of bees from the broodnest, adjust the treatment thresholds accordingly (never more than 5 mites per level half cup of bees).
At less than 2 mites per 100 bees (6 in an alcohol wash of 1/2 cup of bees), virus transmission by mites is not a major issue. At 5 per 100 (15 in a wash), some viruses begin to go epidemic. At 15/100 (45 in a wash), colonies generally start to go into a death spiral.
The most important time to sample is between August 15 and the onset of winter.
Treatments for varroa control
Suggestion #1: Be proactive rather than reactive! It is far easier to keep the varroa level down from the start, than to later attempt to bring it down once the mites have overrun the colony.
We have very good success with Apiguard gel (thymol) or MAQS (formic acid). I also recommend a 3.5% oxalic acid dribble (applied accurately) before Christmas (Northern Calif). I’ve detailed your seasonal choices for mite treatments below.
All miticides are poisons, but some are safer than others to both the bees and to humans. The “natural” treatments are all part of our normal diet, and most are naturally found in the hive at low concentrations. I do not hesitate to use them, since the benefit of controlling varroa far outweighs any health concerns to the bees or their keeper. That said, the natural treatments are all stressful to the colony, so application instructions must be carefully followed. Proactive treatment allows you to use lower (and less stressful) doses.
Thymol: Natural and safe (25 g of Apiguard gel contains the same amount of thymol as does 1 lb of fresh thyme herb). Thymol is the only consistently effective essential oil (actually a crystal at room temperature) found to date. I suggest wearing disposable gloves (to remind you not to rub your eyes) . We’ve used Apiguard successfully from 55°F to 95°F, applying 25 g (in a lump, not spread out) on an index card laid across the center of the top bars between the brood chambers (application without the card can result in excessive colony disturbance) http://scientificbeekeeping.com/the-learning-curve-part-3-the-natural-miticides/. We adjust the dose according to cluster size and temperature—the proper dose will cause the removal of a handful of pupae onto the bottom board by the next morning (the colony will remove them from the hive soon afterward). I do not recommend applying under the lid, especially in hot weather. Repeat in a week to 10 days if mite count is not reduced adequately. Do not apply if honey supers are on.
Update 2016: recent tests of mine are showing better mite control by applying the Apiguard on top of the hive (as per mfr’s instructions) in a 1.5″ wooden rim (to provide better air circulation around the thymol). This works very well at daily high temps around 85F, and can be used up to 105F (but the colony will be somewhat stressed during treatment). We do not taste thymol residues in the honey after treatment, but the label calls for it not to be applied with honey supers on. We get high efficacy with two 50-gram doses applied 10 days apart.
Formic acid: Natural and pretty safe, depending upon how you handle it (definitely wear nitrile gloves; the respirator is generally unnecessary). The three main advantages of formic are that it effectively kills mites, is already a natural component of honey, and that it leaves zero residues in the hive. The problem is that the liquid form is somewhat dangerous to handle, and getting an appropriate release of vapors is tricky. The product Mite Away Quick Strips (MAQS) is the most user friendly http://scientificbeekeeping.com/an-early-summer-test-of-mite-away-quick-strips/, http://scientificbeekeeping.com/miticides-2011/. Works best in doubles without supers. A single-strip treatment gives decent mite “knock back.” A half strip works for singles with at least 5 frames of bees. Applied in doubles at full dose (two strips) in summer, we lose about 1 queen out of 25. Mite kill may not be consistent, so check back. MAQS may cause the loss of poorly-performing queens when applied at daily high temps above 85F.
Oxalic dribble: Natural and safe (the amount used is equivalent to that in a 3½-oz serving of spinach). This product is available at any hardware store as Wood Bleach. Follow the mixing directions at http://scientificbeekeeping.com/oxalic-acid-treatment-table/ exactly, as there is only a small margin of safety to the bees. The oxalic syrup is very safe to handle, but care should be taken not to splash it into your eyes. The treatment is by far most effective if the colony is broodless. Best use is for a single application in November, or earlier if the colony has shut down broodrearing. You can also apply in summer—3 applications, a week apart. Excellent for “cleaning up” nucs in the spring http://scientificbeekeeping.com/simple-early-treatment-of-nucs-against-varroa/.
Update Aug 2016: Others are using oxalic vaporization, which can also give very good results, but has operator safety issues–be sure not to breathe the vapor! I’m currently testing OA/glycerin strips, which appear promising. I will be publishing my results soon.
Amitraz: Commercial U.S. beekeepers have used the agricultural product Taktic, generally mixed with oil or shortening, for a number of years with consistent success (although this practice is illegal). Apivar strips are an improvement, being legal, as well as delivering a reduced and safer dose over 42 days, resulting in high efficacy of kill, and fewer residues in the hive. The strips, however, do not cause a quick kill, so may be most effective in either spring (applied at least 42 days before the honey flow), or in fall if mite levels are not too high, and there is enough time before cold weather sets in. I gave Apivar only three stars since it does leave a residue, which recent studies suggest may affect sperm viability in the queen and have other sublethal effects on the bees, as well as the EPA’s legitimate concerns about its safety to humans. There is also evidence that some mite populations have developed resistance to the active ingredient.
Hopguard: this recent addition to the arsenal is completely natural, not surprisingly tasting like bitter, concentrated hops http://scientificbeekeeping.com/miticides-2011/. You’ll want to handle it with disposable gloves due to its messiness. Its utility and effectiveness are similar to oxalic acid, but it is more costly. The new Hopguard II strips are effective in nucs, packages, or broodless colonies; just be sure not to directly hit the queen with the strip when you insert them.
Fluvalinate and Coumaphos: These first-generation synthetic miticides (along with the off-label use of agricultural products containing the active ingredients) quickly bred for resistant mites, and contaminated the entire U.S. beeswax supply. I cannot recommend their use.
Our typical mite management regime in Grass Valley is as below:
For further information, I suggest the following articles:
Adding another brood chamber
Once the bees have drawn out all the combs in the first brood box, you can add the second brood box (you may wish to add a drone frame for mite trapping). Keep feeding the colony until all the combs are drawn out. At this point, the brood chamber is complete (assuming a double deep brood chamber), and you should discontinue feeding.
A healthy colony will often create drone comb between the two brood chambers in spring. Always check such exposed brood immediately for the presence of varroa, as it is a decent indicator of brewing problems.
Adding Honey Supers
Once the colony has filled two brood chambers (this may not occur in your first year), you can then add a queen excluder (I highly recommend) and honey supers.
If the colony fails to move up onto foundation in an added box:
Lack of honeyflow or syrup feeding. Bees will not draw foundation unless they are “whitening wax” due to intense feeding or an intense nectar flow.
Don’t bother adding foundation unless you see white wax. But always add more combs if you do!
Bees do not like to draw foundation placed above an excluder (not a problem if you are adding drawn comb, which you will unfortunately not have available your first season). To encourage bees to work through the excluder, I suggest “reversing” the brood chambers if there is a band of honey across the top of the upper combs. This maneuver will place brood directly below the excluder, which encourages the bees to work upward.
Keep in mind that bees will not draw foundation unless they are producing white wax. This rule applies even more emphatically if you are trying to get them to work through an excluder onto foundation.
We have our best luck at drawing foundation by adding full boxes of 10 frames directly over the brood of strong (at least 10 frames covered with bees) growing colonies during a strong nectar flow.
But there is a major advantage of keeping your honey supers free of brood cocoons–wax moth cannot grow on stored “white” combs free of brood cocoons or beebread (not enough protein). So you face a trade off–bees like to store honey in dark combs, but then you may have a storage issue if your storage area is not cold enough.
Getting a Taste of Honey
OK, you may not get a full honey crop your first season, but you can at least steal a little from the bees so long as you replace it by feeding them heavy (2:1 sugar:water) syrup before cool weather sets in.
Let’s say that the first brood box is full, and now the honeyflow is starting, and you’d really like to get a little honey the first year. Just put on the second brood box, and stop feeding syrup. Let the bees work up and fill the box with brood and honey. Once the honeyflow’s over (usually once blackberry stops blooming at the end of June), you can pull out frames of honey and do a “scrape extraction.” Use a tablespoon to scrape the honey off the foundation into a nylon stocking hung in a gallon jar, then return the scraped frame to the hive, and resume feeding until the bees draw it out again. They will winter just fine on honey made from sugar syrup.
Your colony will generally reach its maximum size around July 1, and get somewhat smaller during the late summer and fall. Colonies winter best (in the foothills) in two deep brood chambers or equivalent, with a total weight (mainly due to honey) of about 130 lbs (you need at least two fingers to tip the hive). If the hive is not heavy by the end of September, feed heavy sugar syrup until it is.
If your apiary is located in a dry area of the foothills, there may not be enough pollen to sustain late summer broodrearing–colonies in these areas greatly benefit from late summer feeding with pollen supplement. Any of the top-tier pollen supplements work–if you don’t see pollen beebread in an arc above the brood, the colony is likely hurting for protein. We typically feed each colony several pounds of pollen supplement during August through October. This may not be necessary if you live in town or in an irrigated area.
The best indicator of protein status is how much jelly the nurse bees are feeding to the young larvae. Larvae fed generously with jelly are called “wet.”
When a colony suffers from protein deficiency, the nurses will cut back on the amount of jelly that they feed to larvae. See the photo below for “dry” brood.
There are eggs in the center cells; larvae being given minimal jelly in the cells below. When we see such “dry” larvae, we immediately feel patties of pollen substitute (see Comparative Test of Pollen Subs).
It takes a fair amount of pollen sub to provide enough protein–about one 1-lb patty per week (you can feed several pounds at one time if you don’t have Small Hive Beetle in your area).
Winter prep consists of having the hives off the ground and in a well-drained sunny location. It helps to reduce the entrance. A well-prepared colony (well fed, and low mite level) should need no care during the winter, and will begin to rebuild its population in January. An insulated cover (such as with 1″ of Styrofoam) will help the colony.
The combs I am selling you are generally at least two years old. I recommend rotating old combs out of the brood nest and discarding them when they get dark brown and rubbery hard.
Read all about beekeeping, but remember that there is no substitute for hands-on experience in the beeyard with an seasoned beekeeper. Find a mentor in your area. The easiest test for choosing a mentor is to find someone who consistently has extra bees for sale each spring (not necessarily the one who is most strongly opinionated).
Getting a colony of bees is not like getting a puppy–you expect the puppy to live to old age; this may not be the case with bees. In nature, a large percentage of colonies die each year. Even the best beekeepers may have a third of their colonies die in some years. It helps to keep more than one colony, so that you can split it in spring to make up for losses.
Good luck with your new colony—I hope you have great success this year! If you have suggestions as to how I can improve these instructions, please let me know!
For a good, standard, no nonsense summary of good beekeeping practices, see