First year beekeeping
Updated March 11,2014. I continually update this page, so please refer to the current version. For mite treatment options, scroll down.
This page is some quick step-by-step notes for your first year of beekeeping, written for those starting with a nucleus hive from me.
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.
Great beginners book free download: http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/agrs93.pdf
A Book of Bees, Sue Hubble–beautiful prose about being a beekeeper
Q: What “should I do?”
A: There are no “shoulds” in beekeeping other than practicing good animal husbandry. Bees only need 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!
1) Congratulations, you’ve just purchased a quality nucleus colony with a newly-mated queen from selected stock! You are now likely overwhelmed with advice as to how you “should” keep bees. May I suggest that you read my Rules for Successful Beekeeping articles.
2) Some nucs may 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.
3) Install the nuc in the center of a brood box with additional frames to fill the box. Feed the nuc 1:1 sugar syrup until all the frames in the 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. We 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 half 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.
4) For best queen survival, you should not disturb the nuc 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.
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.
5) You may check the colony weekly (but be aware that smoke and chilling disrupt a colony for at least a day). This is your chance to watch a colony grow! Be aware, though, that clumsy handling by beginners often results in queen loss, so it’s a trade off between observing the bees, and the chance of killing the queen—you make the decision. 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.
6) 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.
a) 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).
7) Feed 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 (see illustration), cut back feeding.
a) Note that there is often a large colony-to-colony variation in buildup and honey production.
b) 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!
c) 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.
d) 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.
e) 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”)
f) 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).
9) About a month after you get your nuc, 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.
If your colony dies in fall or winter, the usual causes are either starvation or collapse due to the varroa/virus complex. 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.”
Note: 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. 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.
I recommend mite testing in early spring, before supering, again in early August, and in late September (Northern Calif).
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 Sept 2014:
Due to their huge variability, any single stickyboard count is nearly meaningless.
The best assessment by far is by alcohol wash or sugar shake of 1/2 cup (about 315) bees. I’m currently collecting data to see whether it’s better to take the sample from the broodnest or honey frames (higher counts on brood frames, but perhaps more consistent from honey frames).
At less than 2 mites per 100 bees (6 in an alcohol wash), virus transmission by mites is not a major issue. At 5 per 100 (16 in a wash), some viruses begin to go epidemic. At 15/100, colonies generally start to go into a death spiral.
The most important time to sample is between August 15 and the onset of winter.
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 found to date (actually a crystal at room temperature). I suggest wearing disposable gloves. We’ve used Apiguard successfully from 55°F to 95°F, applying 25 g 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. I have some concern about the high residue levels sometimes reported. Do not apply if honey supers are on.
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/.
Formic acid: Natural and pretty safe, depending upon how you handle it (definitely wear nitrile gloves; the respirator is probably 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.
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 only give Apivar 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; 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:
10) 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) If the colony fails to move up onto foundation in an added box:
Lack of honeyflow or syrup feeding.
Colony weak due to disease or queen problem, or not enough time to build up population.
11) If the timing’s right for a honeyflow (mid May through June in Grass Valley), you can now add a queen excluder and honey supers.
a) If you’re adding a super of foundation above a queen excluder, the colony needs to be very strong, and there should not be a band of honey directly below the excluder. If there is one, reverse the brood chambers, top to bottom.
12) Honey crop—your colony may not build up enough the first season to make a surplus honey crop, especially if you got a late start. Be content to have a heavy, strong colony by July, ready to overwinter successfully.
a) OK, an exception: 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.
13) Preparation for winter: 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.
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.
14) 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.
15) 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.
16) 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, many 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.
17) 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!