Brad Hogg from Faith Apiaries in Manitoba hosted a workshop for area beekeepers. This session by John Schwartz focused on OTS Queen Rearing principles, with the idea of helping beekeepers adjust their paradigm and become sustainable in their apiaries.
"How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" ―Psalm 119:103
When we set out to become keepers of honey bees, there are numerous facts, methods, tools and repeatable tasks we must master. One of the most important to get under your belt as quickly as possible is learning how to efficiently and quickly find the queen. In this blog post, I’ve compiled notes, suggestions, and advice from several different sources on how to find a queen with my comments along the way.
Like any endeavor, successful beekeeping requires paying attention, thoroughly understanding the bee, its biology, its needs and biological patterns so that one can both work along with and also manage appropriately. Too many beekeepers are either intimidated to the point of not trying, settle for hit-and-miss success or have given up altogether. This doesn’t have to be.
At the heart of beekeeping success is the well-being of the queen. Although every bee is needed, along with their many vital tasks, the colony most acutely rises and falls with the fate of the queen. A colony can lose a few hundred workers or drones and feel little ill effect. But, lose the queen, and the colony descends into an uproar in literally minutes. Even newly initiated beekeepers intuitively understand the need to at least keep tabs on the status of their queen. We set out with good intentions and even careful study, but, as is the experience for many, actually finding that elusive queen without harming her, the hive or yourself in the process can be a daunting task.
There is hope, don’t give up. You can do this if you are determined to do so. Hopefully, the following information will help you get over the hump and further along the path to becoming an excellent beekeeper!
Tips on Finding a Queen Honey Bee
I keep a wide variety of apiculture books on my shelves at home. I turned to a few of these first to find the comments below. I have attributed each with the author’s name and a link directly to Amazon if you have interest in the book.
1. “Fifty Years Among the Bees” by Dr. C.C. Miller, pages 66-70
”I have seen some attempt at rules for finding a queen, but after all is said, you must do more or less hunting for a queen if you would find her.”
Persistence and work!
”I generally begin looking on the first frame of brood I come to-hardly worthwhile to look on any frame before the brood is reached...”
This is my experience. Rarely does this not pan out.
”...as I raise the frame out of the hive I keep watch of the side next me. Then when the frame is lifted out of the hive, before looking at the opposite side, I glance at the nearest side of the next frame in the hive; for it requires scarcely any time to do this, and if she happens to be in sight it will be a saving of time...”
After reading this again I realize the impatience that typifies my usual inspection process. I need to slow down and take Miller’s advice.
”Not seeing her on the frame in the hive, I look over both sides of the frame in my hand, and continue thus through all the frames...it is worth looking for her on the comb remaining after passing over those that contain brood, for in trying to get away from the light she will go to the outside combs.”
The goal is to NOT have to go back over the comb. His next bit of advice is something of a learned art:
”This trying to get away from the light on the part of the queen, by going from one comb to the other, makes me go over the combs as rapidly as possible without looking too closely, for if I do not see her with a slight looking, the chances are that she is on another comb, and I count it better to run the chance of going over the combs again, rather than to go too slowly.”
It can be a mental hurdle learning to trust your eyes. I often find queens in my peripheral or without really “seeing” her, if that makes sense. You are training your senses to spot the typical pattern, shape, color difference, movement, etc that is the queen.
If one goes TOO slowly, then...
”...if one goes over the combs slowly enough, it is a pretty safe thing to say that the queen will be driven clear to the other side of the hive. ”
So, it is a balance of moving through the hive efficiently, with a process, but not too slowly. Not spending too much time per side of each frame but moving on and trusting the eyes. This takes practice and testing and trusting yourself.
Interestingly, and with a twinkle in his eye, Miller describes how his wife, on the other hand, likes to go very slowly and detests having to go over comb more than once. In her case, he acknowledged she was better at it than him. Either way, Miller suggests going through a colony more than twice not worth the time and better to close it up for another day. I concur.
Other ideas from C.C. Miller:
- He sometimes put comb in pairs into empty hives, then another pair set next to the first but with a gap of an inch or more. He did this to all the comb and suggests that she will find her way between comb wherever she is to get away from the light (interesting!)
- If the pairs are left long enough, those without the queen will become obviously agitated
- Sometimes (I seldom see this) you will find the queen on the sides or bottom of the hive
- A strainer can be used to search for a queen (not advised)
- Sometimes (I very rarely see this) you will find the queen on the bottom of the cover
2. “The Beekeeper’s Handbook” by Sammataro and Avitabile, page 69
“If it is necessary to find the queen, use as little smoke as possible, open the hive gently... and remove the outermost frame.”
Good advice. One need remember that you can ascertain the quality of a queen and the colony by looking quickly at a few frames to assess the presence of eggs, in a good pattern, etc. You can also sabotage their own efforts by needless jarring, noise, scents, etc when doing an inspection. We make it easier on ourselves when we are gentle, quiet, and without offending odors. Then, pulling the outermost frame or so is vital to ensure the safety of the queen. It is common for new beekeepers to injure the queen (easy to do) by rolling or crushing her between frames.
“[The queen] will seldom be found on frames with just honey and pollen or on frames with capped brood; she will most likely be found on or near frames containing eggs and uncapped larvae.”
This to me is one of the most important tactics: playing the odds. A queen’s job is laying eggs. She does this for the most part without ceasing. If you want to find the queen, find eggs that were just laid. She’ll not be far-either on that frame, those next to her or straight up or down.
“The queen can often be spotted in the midst of her encircling attendants or retinue. When a queen moves slowly along the frame from cell to cell, the other bees will begin to disperse, but the circle will re-form when she pauses...”
As you become more adept at spotting a queen, this pattern will become more readily perceived. Not just the pattern of the workers around her, but her very shape and lumbering movement.
Another idea from Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile: you can put a queen excluder between the two brood chambers if this is your setup. Four or five days later, the queenless box will have no eggs. There are other variations on this theme.
3. “The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture” by the A.I. Root Company, pages 685-686
“A queen honey bee always remains in the brood nest area except when she is moving from one side of a comb to another. However, heavy smoking...or much disturbance will cause a queen to move about in the brood chamber.”
Use the general principle to your advantage. And, as already mentioned, just smoke very lightly to calm and distract the bees but not so much as to irritate and run the queen.
”...to find the queen one removes any honey storage supers and goes directly to the brood nest...searching for the queen...on one side and...move across the brood chamber examining one comb after the other.”
Simple, but specific details that can’t be skipped.
”The first comb removed is usually one without any brood. It is placed outside the hive usually leaning up against the hive.... [and] will be placed back in its original position...”
This is my practice. It’s simple and one doesn’t need to buy any fancy equipment to hold frames. It hurts nothing to quickly scan the first frame for the queen and then lean it gently against the hive around the corner from your feet so that you don’t accidentally kick it. Do this quickly and efficiently and help yourself get to the brood area as quickly and smoothly as possible.
What’s not usually mentioned in books I read are practical next steps. I generally quickly but very gently break apart the next 3-4 frames, prying them apart a bit to give enough space to see where brood begins. I then attack that area first. This saves much time, gets me to the brood quicker, and gives less time for the queen to move about. I want to catch her before she might jump down to the deep below, for example.
A.I. Root is thinking about this scenario next:
”If there is brood in two brood chambers it may be helpful to set the top one off onto an upside-down hive cover. This prevents the queen from running off a comb in the upper chamber onto one in the bottom.”
We typically employ this tactic on our second time through the brood if we didn’t find her on the first pass. In a full-strength colony with maybe 2-3 deeps, I’d hazard a guess that we usually find her in the first pass about 75% of the time, within 3 minutes or less as a general rule, sometimes much quicker (especially if a smaller colony).
Additional thoughts from ABC & XYZ:
- Light colored queens can be easier to see than dark
- Some queens or lines of bees generally run more on the comb
- Older queens are less likely to run
- Queens sometimes hide in a ball of bees on the edges of the comb
- Marked queens are easier to find (I don’t mark our bees and have no issues and I think this possibly could become a crutch for some?)
4. “The Practical Beekeeper, Volume 1” by Michael Bush, pages 119-124
Bush reminds the reader that it’s really not necessary to find the queen every time you enter the hive. I completely agree. One searches for the queen only intentionally when you need to remove or dispatch her, etc according to pre-determined management needs.
Michael, like the others, encourages minimal smoke and then gives this helpful tip:
”The queen is usually on the frame of the brood chamber that has the most bees. This isn’t always true, but if you start on that frame and work your way from there you will find her either on that frame or the next 90% of the time.”
Additionally, he states ”The bees are calmer near the queen.”
The attributes of the queen are focused on next. We obviously look for a larger, longer bee. In addition, we should look for:
” ...larger “shoulders”. The width of her back, that little bare patch on the thorax. These are all larger and often you get a peek at them under the other bees. Also, the longer abdomen sticking out sometimes when you can’t see the rest of her.”
I think it’s worth your time to pull up photos and video of queen bees looking straight down (the typical perspective of the beekeeper) and study the form and shape of her head, thorax, and abdomen. For me, the bare patch most often gives her away, with her pointy long shape a close second, followed by her gait and movement. Notice that the queen just doesn’t normally fit in color-wise. She’s on average different in appearance than the workers around her. Look for and scan quickly for the shape and color that’s different. “One of these things is not like the other.” :)
I like Michael’s description of a queen’s movement on the comb.
”Other bees are either moving quickly or just hanging and not moving. The workers move like they’re listening to Aerosmith. The queen moves like she’s listening to Schubert or Brahms. She moves slowly and gracefully. It’s like she’s waltzing and the workers are doing the Bossanova. Next time you spot the queen notice how the bees in general move, how the bees around her move and how she moves [in contrast].”
Michael rounds off his discussion on spotting queens by encouraging the keeper to have a proper mindset. Just a cursory look for a queen without believing she’s there isn’t helpful. Trust the process and remember she’s there and you’ll find her. And, like anything else in life worth pursuing, this takes practice.
I trust this information is helpful to you. Pass it on to other new beekeepers who may be struggling with this important skill.
“Where do I start?”
I get this question several times every year when interest in bees and beekeeping spring up like so many dandelions in the front yard. Usually, the questions begin when the flowers are blooming, temperatures are rising and folks begin to pay attention to their yards. By this time, it is a bit late in the game to get started, but not all is lost. One has to start *somewhere* and now is as good a time as any.
In this post my primary goal is to help you, a beginner, get a good head-start along the path to beekeeping in excellence. In my mind, an excellent beekeeper is self-sufficient, confidently understands his bees, the plants in his locale, how to manage his colonies and how to keep most of them alive each winter. The following information below highlights key areas of information and experience that you will need to incorporate on this path to excellence.
In the process of reading this blog, you may feel like postponing your entry into beekeeping for another year. To be honest, that can be a great thing! There's much to learn and prepare for and I take great stock in Benjamin Franklin's old proverb, "If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!". Far too many jump headfirst into beekeeping without a mentor, understanding the basics or counting the cost. This can be a detriment not only to them but their bees and other local beekeepers.
Are you up for the challenge? Are you committed to excellence? Okay, great... let's begin!
Table of contents
I have added a clickable index just below to help you navigate and jump back into the post over time. ALL of this info is important for you to grasp within the first couple years of beekeeping ― much of it right away. Skip around, but please understand that none of this can be neglected in your path to becoming an excellent beekeeper.
- Getting Started: Tools and Equipment
- Getting Started: Your Apiary & Location
- Getting Started: Buying Bees
- Anatomy of a Healthy Hive
- Inspections & Colony Health
- Plants, Pollen and Flows
- The Annual Beekeeping Cycle
- Swarming & Splits
- Overwintering Bees
- Varroa Mites & Treatment
- Raising Queens & Colony Increase
- In Closing
Getting Started: Tools and Equipment
To get started with beekeeping, there are tools you'll need and tools you'll want ― the latter of which will continually grow! At a minimum, you will need the following tools that will allow you to manage and inspect your hives:
- Bee veil or jacket - Something bee tight to protect your face is the most pressing need and then something to cover your arms. I've found the middle-of-the-road jacket with integrated veil is both easy and sufficient. You don't need an astronaut suit! Conversely, all beginners should begin with at least a veil until you have gained a year or two experience. Only then try without gloves or veil. After nearly 15 years, I don't recommend it. I'm always covered and take no chances.
- Smoker, including dry fuel and lighter - Start your smoke with a half-sheet of newspaper and let it get the container hot, then add small bits of pine needles or other dry combustible material that has no chemicals or man-made materials. Once it's burning well on its own, stuff it with the material and close it up. Puff it every once in awhile to keep it rolling.
- Gloves - Nitrile gloves or animal skin gloves are all good; pick your preference.
- Hive tool - Start with the cheapest and simplest tool and work from there. I've settled on a heavy-duty tool that has a hook on one end to easily pry under frame ends.
Then, as far as hive configuration, I recommend the following equipment and thinking as you consider housing your bees:
- Standard Langstroth hives - I personally started out in 2004 in the most difficult manner by building a top bar hive from scratch. I wouldn't recommend! Start with the standard hive we call the "Langstroth" and go from there after a year or two after you've seen how things work.
- Same size frames throughout apiary using either deeps or mediums - With the OTS system, you'll especially want to also standardize on the frame size throughout your apiary. This means all frames (honey, brood, etc) will all be either deeps or mediums. Most beekeepers will buy and sell nucs with deep frames. I personally have standardized on deeps which isn't for everyone as they are quite heavy when loaded with honey. You can also consider 8-frames wide instead of standard 10-frame width to lighten the load which is fine. Just make sure all boxes you buy are "8 frame".
- Wood frames with black plastic foundation - I've started to go all plastic where I live, but I don't recommend for everyone due to issues with small hive beetle. Where I'm at, for some reason, I have little issues with beetles. I recommend wood frames, with black plastic comb that snaps in easily. This makes it easier to see larvae in sunlight. It holds up better for extracting (usually). The solid wood frames seem to provide less habitat for small hive beetles to hide compared with solid plastic frames that have little nooks and crannies.
- If you have to feed, internal frame feeders - I really don't have to feed much with how I manage my hives except overwinter with solid sugar blocks. That said, I do have to feed sometimes and I simply use internal plastic frame feeders which are simple, easy and cheap for liquid feed.
- Inner cover with an opening - I like using inner covers but it isn't absolutely necessary. I like using those with small notches on one or both ends to allow for some ventilation.
- Screened or solid bottom board - I mostly have screened bottom boards, but am moving back to solid bottom boards. My purpose was to help mitigate mites reattaching to bees when they drop but have never seen definitive proof of this. I've been housing and overwintering nuc hives with solid bottoms for years with no issues, so have finally determined to consolidate and do all solid.
- Standard telescoping cover or insulated poly covers - I have personally standardized on foam insulated covers from Beemax and use them year round. They are telescoping and are enough top insulation for sometimes harsh winters in Cleveland. They, however, also aren't absolutely necessary. I also throw 2 inches of high-density foam on top of nuc hives I have with just a wood cover (not even telescoping).
Getting Started: Your Apiary and Location
Once you place your apiary (hives), you'll find it becomes hard to move them around easily. So, choose wisely and put some thought to it first. Here's a list of considerations:
- Find a tucked away place not easily observed by neighbors or public
- Get the hives off the ground a bit with a solid base of pallets, hive stands, or cinder blocks
- Find a location with a good deal of prevailing wind protection ― you'll be glad when a storm rolls through and when cold winter winds blow
- Ensure hives are in a spot to get early morning sun to warm and wake up bees for work
- If you can, provide dappled or somewhat shaded location in afternoon during summer
- Have a bin or shed with equipment and clothing ready-to-hand in your apiary if possible
- Find a spot that doesn't flood or become inaccessible with high water
- Keep hives located as far from animals or neighbors as possible ― if in a suburban setting with neighbors close, use a corner of the yard and try to find some kind of hedge or bush setup to get the bees flying up and over rooftops quickly, and not right into a walkway or back porch
- Provide a permanent water source year-round to both provide for bees and also to keep them off neighbor water faucets and pools if possible ― I find a 5-gallon plastic dog watering bowl a great tool
Getting Started: Buying Bees
- Buy bees from local apiaries, not out of state - I've broken this "rule" myself and have done okay, but I think there is much wisdom in starting off well and giving you and your bees the most chance. I think it's far more responsible to source bees from a local beekeeper with a good track record, good overwintering success, and with whom you can shake their hand. Their overwintered bees and queens will genetically already have a leg up on bees raise far away in other climates and forage.
- If you can, obtain local nucleus colonies ("nucs"), not packages (which are likely not from your state) - Buying a nuc will give your colony a head-start. In fact, it's already a viable colony with all the resources ready-to-hand to explode with growth assuming good weather, good management, and queen & colony health. Packages, on the other hand (either from near or far), consist only of an unrelated queen added to a couple pounds of bees that will endure the stress of transport. Once installed in your hive, they first have lots of work ahead of them to build out wax and build up some brood all while they slowly are losing bees for three weeks. It's possible, and I've had success with packages, but the cost is minimally different which begs the question: why not buy a nuc?
- Don't worry too much about type of bees - Italian, Carniolan all work fine and you'll soon be raising your own open-mated queens anyways. I do like Russians but the second generation or so can get really nasty temperaments when mated with local stock and I have neighbors. ;)
Inspections and Colony Health
- Animal husbandry, not "live-and-let-bee" - As good as it sounds (and I'd love for everyone to get on this same page and give it a go), I just don't think it's reality to think that, with our current structures, laws and freedom of movement that we'll ever be able to coordinate a nation-wide effort to allow bees to fend for themselves and let natural selection do the work of straining out genetics resistant to mites and disease. On the flip side, I've seen *great* progress just in my own yard (and with other beekeepers) over the years allowing for open mating, selecting for good traits, using management practices like OTS and only treating with common-sense approaches like oxalic acid when necessary. Good management practices also *must* include consistent testing for mites - you need to know the true status of your colony health and mite counts and not rely on intuition or guesses. We should care for our bees like a good farmer would his animals or crops.
- Consistent inspections and observation - Excellent beekeepers have consistent and methodical inspection practices. I personally check on my bees at least once every other week, sometimes more often depending on the time of year. An experienced beek will be able to very quickly get into a colony and assess it without disturbing the bees too much or taking much time. This will make all the difference long-term in the health of your colonies. Unless you are actually looking at laying patterns, nectar and pollen resources, signs of disease, brood size, etc, you actually aren't taking care of your bees. There's no shortcut to this. If this is outside your comfort zone or time availability, don't become a beekeeper. A mentor is an invaluable asset to help you learn these techniques over the course of a year or two, by the way. If one isn't available, search our videos online from older experienced beekeepers and observe.
- A good inspection process - Each month is a bit different. You'll be looking for different things when you visit your yard. Settle beforehand what your main goal is for all colonies and focus on getting that one or two things done quickly. Ensure your process includes thinking and planning before you ever drive or visit which will dictate what tools and equipment and even clothing you bring. You'll want to arrange your hives and equipment in such a way that you are able to quickly move through inspections, replicating the same tasks in order and with slow, but meaningful movements. You don't want to be in a rush, yet you want to be in and out of a colony as quickly as possible. One of the main things to keep in mind, especially as you begin, is the safety of the queen. Many new beekeepers shoot themselves in the foot by injuring or killing their queens and don't even know it. Read up on how to do inspections for a few different sources which will help fill in the gaps and give you very important tips.
- Keeping records - With any beekeeping strategy or methods, record keeping is a must. With a hive or two, it's much easier to manage details in your memory, but that will only last so long and you'll find yourself making mistakes or guessing. With OTS, I find that I *must* track at every hive dates for when I notched, or added a queen cell, evidence of queen laying, etc. This takes all guesswork and mistakes out of the equation. I've personally created my own easy system using duct tape and a sharpie. I take a strip of duct tape, stick it together about 8 inches long, etc which makes a water-proof document to pin to every hive. I simply bring a sharpie with me *every* time I visit my hives and ensure I make a quick cryptic note with a date every time I do or see something meaningful. Next time at the hive, all I have to do is glance and see where I left off. Beautiful.
- In it for the long haul - Excellent beekeepers are those who stick with it for at least 3-5 years and who learn from their mistakes, not giving up. I also find they are willing to ask questions and listen. They aren't afraid to start over but not repeat past mistakes. Beekeeping is an interesting hobby: it's not one that you can just learn overnight. There are many aspects of the craft that you can only try or fail at once a year! Then, you need to take notes and try to remember not to do the same dumb thing a year later. :)
- Reading and learning - Show me a reading beekeeper and I'll show you a good beekeeper. Not all books are created equal and there are many I think aren't worth reading. So, choose wisely. Learn from the greats in the past. Remember there's not much new under the sun. Be humble enough to admit that you don't know much and won't for a few years. Here's a good post of 11 books I've found helpful, including Mel's book about OTS queen rearing.
Anatomy of a Healthy Hive
- Common diseases - It's important to get up to speed with the different diseases that can afflict bees. Let me note that, healthy queens and managing mites, in my opinion, will mitigate much (but not all) of the problems many run into with disease. The one disease that will require you to destroy your hives is American Foulbrood and I've not personally seen it any of my hives in both Oregon and now Ohio, but it does happen. It's vital that you understand the signs and know how to diagnose with helpful tools like the "sticky rope test" and the smell associated with it. I recommend highly the disease info found in the book "The Beekeeper's Handbook" but there are many online and book sources that are helpful. Warning signs in general that would indicate problems with your colony would include things like: large numbers of bees walking and wandering about on the ground, bees with strange wing configuration (k-wing, etc), shaking/glossy looking bees, low numbers of bees on the frames, spotty egg laying, excessive bee poo on the front porch or *any* inside the hive, strange sour smells, aggressive behavior, low stores of pollen and nectar, laying workers, etc, etc, etc.
- Common pests - Most beekeepers will deal with small hive beetles, wax moths, and varroa mites as the main pests to deal with. You want to learn about all of these in advance and understand signs of and how to prevent, and how to deal with. A note: ALL hives have mites to some degree or another. Not dealing with them proactively from both an education and practical standpoint will end only in high losses in the Fall and Winter (and sometimes Summer).
- Seasonal considerations - A "healthy" colony progresses through different phases and stages through the course of a year. A robust overwintering colony will look and behave tremendously different from a late summer colony and have much different needs. Be sure you are looking ahead maybe 2-3 months in advance, checking with local beekeepers or supply stores and consider what the next season requires, what a healthy colony will be looking like and what they'll be needing from you, their keeper.
- What a healthy colony looks like - This varies greatly during the course of a year. Let's pick just one point in time, say Early Spring. At this point, a healthy colony will have a queen kicking into high gear. You should see frames full of eggs with few or no missing cells. You should see a few frames fully capped with brood as well. You should see nurse bees covering open brood and some over capped brood. You should be seeing many workers coming in with both nectar and pollen. The colony should have at least a couple frames of honey, at least around the edges. A colony that's progressing well at this time should be filling up all of a box and more, requiring you, their keeper, to ensure they have enough room to lay and plenty of room above for nectar. At this time it's very common for bees to swarm. A healthy colony swarms! You have bee ahead of the game on that score and know the signs both in weather, plant sources, colony size and space needs, swarm cells, etc.
- Food stores - A healthy colony lays their brood in more-or-less an oval shape in the hive. Just next to open brood you should be seeing a minimal amount of pollen and then honey around the top edges. Above the brood nest, you should be seeing bees beginning to fill out frames with just honey. A brood nest is no larger than 8-10 frames of brood that can be spread out if not managed well. Try to keep them in 2 deep boxes and no more. A healthy colony by Fall will have both produced excess stores for you to harvest *and* filled a deep box above (unless you harvest that also and feed it back to them as sugar.) Food stores vary during the course of a year and you will need to learn the differences.
- It's all about the queen - A young healthy queen is vital. No eggs, no colony. The larger the colony, the more stores it can obtain. This is all dependent on the colony and it's queen laying enough eggs and being able to nurture this brood to maturity at a rate that keeps up with available resources near them. With OTS, all my colonies go into Fall with newly mated queens in June. The past couple decades have seen issues crop up with older mature queens - some think due to environmental exposure to pesticides both in drones and queens. I find that maintaining healthy young queens enables me to stay ahead of that issue and I have no problems. As you raise your own bees and queens, you will find increased success with overwintering and local genetics. Any beekeeper can raise quality queens in their own backyard with a minimum of effort. It just takes a measure of understanding, practice and planning.
Plants, Pollen and Flows
- Beekeeping is local - Even within the same town there are differences with forage, water and other factors. There's no way around it: beekeeping is local. It's important to learn from your experiences and learn from others nearby, limiting what you take in from outside your community. One area can experience a dearth while another is doing just fine. Keep in touch with bee suppliers, beekeepers and clubs nearby for advice and dates.
- Weather and locale - Every year of course is different when it comes to weather. An excellent beekeeper learns to pay attention to weather and act accordingly. This can mean feeding or not feeding, wrapping or not wrapping, splitting or not splitting, notching or not notching. I like to keep an eye out a week in advance and think through the implications. As well, I also think ahead a month or two about the averages and what they imply for my management.
- Find a club or old-timer - Or do both! There's so much wisdom to be had just hanging out with an old-timer who's seen it all. There's much wisdom to be gleaned (and sifted and sorted through) collectively from a club. And, all these can be obtained through books as well, to some degree. But, there's nothing like getting hands-on experience or sight.
- A good beekeeper is in tune with local pollen and nectar availability throughout the year - An excellent beekeeper is an observant beekeeper. One begins to understand and see the signs of incoming nectar, pollen or neither.
- Importance of pollen - Bees don't survive without this source of protein. They can't stay healthy without it and they can't raise brood without it. Keeping tabs on pollen availability, amount in your colonies, etc is vital.
- Caring for bees in a flow - If a flow is on, one needs to ensure there's enough space to handle the nectar. This could mean adding frames/boxes, harvesting and returning the frames, or checker-boarding, etc. You want to take full advantage of a flow. You want robust colonies peaking at this point as well. You also don't want brood nests backfilled with nectar and swarming impulses started.
- Caring for bees in a dearth - Bees in a dearth may need to be fed. They likely need water. They need good ventilation, but it needs to be "bee tight" to prevent robbing. Weak hives may need help to prevent or shut down robbing. A good beekeeper is anticipating and looking for these signs.
The Annual Beekeeping Cycle
Beekeepers are *always* busy! Even with a couple hives, once must always be thinking and preparing a few months in advance. Getting a feel for the annual cycle of things and the responsibilities each season requires is one of the fundamental aspects of good beekeeping. I’ve broken the general ebb and flow of the year into seasons below to help you think through your calendar and planning in your locale.
- New frames and boxes need to be ready, prepared and painted in anticipation of colony expansion and/or increase
- Swarm season occurs early in the Spring when conditions are right and colonies are at strength
- Newly purchased packages or Nucs are obtained and setup
- Early Spring weather can sometimes not cooperate and require you to feed your bees
- Spring honey flows can be captured depending on your locale and weather
- Those of us who use OTS methods will be making artificial swarm splits and notching to raise queens one week before our respective swarm season start; a week later we are splitting up the queen-less cell building colonies into one or more colonies depending on our goals (increase, honey production, or both)
- Honey extraction equipment and location needs to be thought through in advance
- If you aren’t raising your own queens, one must plan for purchasing from a local source in advance
- Main honey flow in your locale will likely be during the early summer or early fall; capturing this is a focal point for many beekeepers
- Paying attention to colony health and conditions is important to prevent swarming, disease and pest issues; mite treatments are likely needed for those not using OTS methods to manage mite levels
- Regular hive inspections are needed to ensure colony is queen right, healthy and mite levels are okay; learning to test mite levels with alcohol wash is important (other methods such as sugar rolling I don’t think are adequate enough)
- July/August is the typical cut-off time for splitting/increasing your colony counts; shoot for getting that done sooner than later to ensure you hive is at full-strength going into Fall
- In most locations, apiaries will experience a “dearth” in nectar availability and feeding may become necessary, especially for new colonies or those that are weak
- Those of us who use OTS methods will be dispatching all queens in our colonies and notching to raise new queens going into the Fall; this will take place around or just after summer solstice and provide a 30-day brood break in all hives thereby breaking the varroa mite cycle
- After honey removal, your goal in the Fall will be ensuring quality queens are laying in all colonies, mite levels are below 2 per 100 threshold, enough honey stores are available to get through winter
- Mite treatments are likely needed in some or all of your colonies for those not using OTS methods (even OTS’ers should be checking and treating, if needed)
- Equipment and supplies to winterize your hive need to be readied or purchased in advance
- Late Fall honey flows are possible (such as Goldenrod, etc)
- Consolidation of weak hives is desired, rather than trying to nurse them through the Fall and Winter; strive for equalization of all your colonies and don’t waste time or money on propping up poorly performing queens
- Work towards overwintering more colonies than you think you need to account for losses by Spring
- Late fall and early winter will require prepping the hives to overwinter with a focus on top insulation, light hive wraps, good ventilation, room created at top to feed dry sugar or patties, and wind breaks installed if needed
- I like to add high density foam on top for insulation, light side wraps (like tar paper), a sugar rim that gives about 2 inches of sugar block space at top just below inner cover all tied up snug and secure to endure winter winds and snow
- Sugar should be on hand for making sugar bricks or candy boards; prepared in advance and ready to place is ideal, especially late winter when colonies have moved up and may have exhausted available honey stores
- Checking bees quickly even during severe cold is okay; cold doesn’t kill bees per se: moisture buildup, mites, disease and starvation will quickly kill bees
- DON’T WAIT to Spring to order your bees, equipment, make repairs, etc - take care of these important items over winter when you have time and space to do so; waiting until spring can be a big disappointment and force one to wait another year or be unprepared to manage your existing colonies properly
Swarming and Splits
Swarming is a natural part of the honeybee lifecycle. Each year, when colonies are at full strength and weather conditions are right, they will choose to swarm with little you can do to stop them.
Your goals are:
- Know when your swarm season occurs in advance
- Take measures to control swarming before it happens without sacrificing honey harvest or colony strength long-term
- Ultimately, to keep all your bees and honey IN your yard and not landing in someone else’s ;)
Before moving on, let me address some misconceptions. I hear over and over again that if one uses OTS methods or articially swarms/splits his bees at this point, he is losing ground by weakening his hives. This is true only temporarily! What is not understood is the long-term net affect of a.) not losing bees to swarms, PLUS the ability to b.) accomplish your goals: honey, colony increase or both, ALL without losing sleep or having to constantly monitor hives for swarm cells (a great time saver).
Is your goal is honey production? Just recombine your splits a month later for power-house honey hives.
Is your goal colony count increase? You can take any overwintered hive and not only prevent swarming, but increase it easily five or six times over during the spring and summer (no kidding).
As a real-world example, here’s a brief historical accounting of my small backyard apiary in Cleveland, OH from spring 2017 to early spring 2018. My goal was to primarily sell a few nucs, increase colonies some, and harvest minimal honey:
- March 2017: 11 colonies overwintered successfully in my backyard
- Late April: 11 overwintered queens pulled from all hives and sold as overwintered nucs; remaining cell builders notched to raise queens
- Early June: 11 cell builders split a week later into 30 nucs with queen cells, with 26 successful matings with laying queens 21 days later
- Late June: sold 10 nucs to local beekeepers and dispatched ALL the rest of the queens in my yard and notched for queen rearing
- July: 32 laying colonies a month later which were overwintered
- As of Feb, 2018: 28 colonies thriving and likely to make it to Spring
- TOTAL: from 11 starting colonies, 21 were sold and 32 overwintered totaling 53 colonies. As mentioned, selling nucs was my primary goal yet I also harvested hundreds of pounds of honey in addition for my large family with some to sell to friends. If honey production were my aim, I would have kept my colony count around 10-25 by re-combining colonies throughout the season in my little yard and put effort into managing for nectar accumulation. OR, if I were going after only increasing my colony counts, I would not have sold 21 but rather used those to increase even quicker with 11 easily becoming 70+ colonies for overwintering... ALL without purchasing any queens or bees. To be honest, what keeps me back is space and money for equipment, NOT losing bees.
I will give more specifics on how to raise queens and increase colony counts via OTS in the “Raising Queens and Colony Increase” section below.
I’ve already touched on overwintering above but let me add to this more specifically in terms of colony loss. The goal for overwintering is simple: survival. Its true beekeepers are increasingly losing bees during the summer months but the vast majority of losses occurs at some point in the overwintering period from late Fall to very early Spring.
What are the main culprits for these losses?
- Moisture issues (some)
- Starvation (even more)
- Weak or underperforming queens (even more)
- Mites and related disease issues (the most)
Here’s the bottom-line way to deal with these culprits: the vast majority of these cases can be mitigated by 1) proper overwintering techniques for your area, 2) managing mite levels in your hives throughout the season (pick your methods), and 3) overwintering with young queens.
I personally have had great success using OTS to manage mites and raise queens without having to resort to miticides except on rare occasion. I actually AM leaning towards the more consistent use of oxalic acid during the complete brood breaks in my apiaries which OTS naturally gives me. This will be a great one-two punch in my opinion without sacrificing my desire for natural approaches to beekeeping too much.
Varroa Mites and Treatment
There are a few voices out there with some form of “live and let live” or similar “natural beekeeping” methods, usually with a view towards encouraging good genetics over time without using chemical or management props. I respect their opinion and agree with much of their thinking, but I’ve found OTS to be a good balance towards short and long-term sustainability. I’m both raising my own queens over time and letting nature take its course AND I’m not relying on harsh chemicals that absorb over time into my wax and food supply. As well, I think OTS is accessible to any beekeeper, new or advanced, without some of the risks and issues inherent with “live and let live”.
These folks would push back and say even brood breaks are not natural and prevent true progress, but I must counter with the fact that bees are a special kind of insect that were created to work with mankind and dependent on management by humans to thrive. Bees do best when we shepherd and tend to them. They don’t last long when left to their own devices. I think it’s a good balance.
So, I don’t suggest you don’t monitor your bees for mites. But neither should you go buy the latest fad synthetic chemical along with your RoundUp. I think the following is a responsible way to manage your bees in light of the varroa mite scourge and the diseases they vector:
- Check your mite totals in at least a sample of our total colonies in Spring, Summer and Fall using an alcohol wash
- If at any point your mite totals get above the 2 mite per 100 bees threshold, use the Oxalic or Formic acid approach (as prescribed) to treat and get back in control
- Better yet, use OTS brood breaks in June/July to knock down your mite totals without using any chemicals (this usually works as I have seen no worse than 65% survival rate the last five years with this approach with a goal of 90% or better annually by better monitoring and using oxalic if necessary)
- Raise your own local queens via OTS and have strong, healthy, young queens going into winter for every colony
* There is one caveat, something out of our control at times: chemical exposure to our bees from neonics and other agri-chemicals can decimate or slowly poison colonies over time, irrespective of your good beekeeping practices. One must be aware of corn and soy farming especially in your locale and plan accordingly. I personally seem to have little issues with this in my suburban, wooded setting.
Raising Queens and Colony Increase
The following outlines the OTS (“On the spot”) method for raising queens. Other options for obtaining queens would be either normal and difficult queen-rearing practices such as grafting or purchasing them.
Why is raising your own queens via OTS preferred?
- OTS queens are never handled or touched by a beekeeper
- OTS queens are never stressed by shipment via mail
- OTS queens are related to the bees in their colony
- OTS queens are free
- OTS queens are local bees, open mated with drones in your locale
- OTS queens are thus acclimated to your locale and have a great chance for overwintering
- OTS queens are very easy to obtain, just minutes
How do you simply raise OTS queens?
- Find and remove the old/existing queen (either dispatch her or create a split, which we’ll assume you’ll be doing) and place in a new nuc hive
- Provide the old queen with 1-2 frames of brood, 1-2 frames of honey/pollen, an empty frame of comb to lay in and a couple shakes of nurse bees and close entrances with good ventilation; move this hive a couple miles or more away later
- In the original colony, now queen less, notch just below just hatched larvae to the foundation wall and press downwards (see photo) on at least one or two brood frames (depending no how many splits you might be making)
- Come back one week later and you will find fully mature and capped queen cells on the frames you notched and possibly others. You can cull down to just two cells, or split up the frames into 2 or 3 colonies, depending on resources available. 30 days from the original notching, you will have laying queens in approximately 90% of your colonies (some queens will get eaten by birds, etc) if weather has been decent.
A very important note: You simply cannot short-cut the above steps by allowing small nucs to raise the queen cells. This is a common mistake and the cause of much misconception regarding the validity of the OTS method. Small nucs simply can’t raise high-quality queens. All the cell building and feeding of queen larvae must be done by the original full-strength colony. Splitting up the notched frames into nucs first and letting them raise cells just won’t work. Wait one week for all cells to be capped and THEN split into small nucleus colonies.
I trust this blog post will help set you off in the right direction. It is by no means exhaustive. My hope is that it will set proper context, help you get started, see some initial success and help you start asking the right questions. Some words of advice:
- Don’t spend too much money on all the gadgets, fads, and toys out there - keep things simple and cheap as possible and it will be that much more enjoyable
- Get a mentor that has been keeping bees for at least 10 years or more (more preferable)
- Test just one or two new things per year, and not on all your hives at once - beekeeping takes a lot of time to learn, process and experiment with due to it’s annual cycle and time/weather-sensitive needs
- Read, read, read and take it all with a grain of salt - lean towards being more accepting of lessons learned by the great beekeepers of the past
If you have any questions, suggestions for edits above or things you find unclear, just let me know via email or in comments below.