What they don’t tell you

Synopsis: The details they don’t tell you on a ’Start beekeeping’ course are almost as important as the things they do teach. By definition these courses tend to be ‘fact heavy’. They omit some of the less tangible, and sometimes less pleasant, aspects of our hobby. These are mine, but all experienced beekeepers will have their own list of what they learnt after the course ended.

Introduction

I’ve only taken one ’Start beekeeping’ course. It was well organised, it got most of the basics right (in retrospect … I obviously no idea at the time 😉 ) and it provided a good foundation for my first season. Like many of these winter courses, it was spread over two months and timed to produce a ‘swarm’ of novice beekeepers when it was almost warm enough to open some hives for the practical sessions.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

It was held on weekday evenings and consisted of two 45-60 minute sessions separated by tea and biscuits. The refreshments were an integral and essential part of the course. Biscuits – or, better yet, cake – and tea hugely improve the beekeeping experience.

I’ll return to tea and biscuits in a minute.

The basics included talks on the biology of the honey bee, the beekeeping year, equipment, swarm control, diseases, honey and wax (and a bunch of stuff I’ve forgotten by now). It was therefore probably like most other courses that are being held up and down the country at the moment.

However, good though the course was, there are a bunch of things the course didn’t cover, but perhaps could have.

Here are some of them …

You will spend a lot more than you expect

Beekeeping can be practised relatively inexpensively, but it often isn’t.

The lure of the mail-order catalogue is strong.

The ‘must haves’ are too numerous to mention.

By the time a new beekeeper has bought a hive, a beesuit, some bees, a nuc box, frames, hive tool, smoker and one of those essential combo sugar-duster and frame-brushes, there’s probably not a lot of change out of £500 1.

And it could be a whole lot more. A cedar assembled National hive alone costs almost £500 these days.

At the beginning it makes sense to buy secondhand if you can. As long as the equipment comes from a disease-free source the bees will do just as well in a 30 year old cedar box as one purchased new. Ask around your association if there are beginners from the course last year who decided beekeeping wasn’t for them …

Thorne's budget hive ...

Thorne’s ‘bees on a budget’ hive …

… and if you have spare equipment, offer it to a new beekeeper rather than finding a corner of the shed to hide it in for another year or two. When I left the Midlands 2 I gave away lots of homemade 3 nuc boxes and other kit, much of which was perfectly serviceable and is still in use now.

And remember that although you often buy beekeeping equipment flat-packed, you can’t store it flat-packed … all those boxes take lots of space and you’re going to need a bigger shed.

Late November in the bee (storage) shed …

Remember also that the ’speculate to accumulate’ justification i.e you need more supers/nuc boxes or whatever to make money from your bees, can be easily undermined by lousy swarm control or a cool, wet summer.

It might work for a year or two … but I can guarantee it does not work for a decade 😉

Observe, think, have a cuppa, then do …

There are few things in beekeeping that need immediate attention.

’Act in haste, repent at leisure’ is an aphorism that’s worth remembering.

If 4 you’re faced with a problem you don’t understand it’s often a good idea to close up the hive and take some time to think about things.

The classic ’Aargh! panic’ situation for new beekeepers is discovering sealed queen cells in the hive and immediately squidging them all to prevent the imminent loss of a swarm.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

What else was in the hive?

Did you see the queen? No … but then you’ve not seen her for weeks, so what’s new?

But you don’t need to see the queen to be reasonably certain that the colony is queenright. All you need to see are eggs. An egg takes three days to hatch after, so if you can see eggs you can be certain that there was a queen present within the last 3 days 5.

Did you see eggs? Er, no.

What about developing larvae? You can’t remember?

Of course, the likely scenario is that the queen cells were sealed because the colony has already swarmed. There are no eggs or young larvae (or possibly any larvae) because the old queen vamoosed with the swarm several days ago.

So, by acting in haste – and crushing all those sealed queen cells – the colony is left with no developing queens and no larvae from which to produce a new queen.

In fact, the colony is now terminally queenless 🙁

Far better – on discovering the queen cells – to have a good look through the rest of the hive, close it up and have a think and a cuppa while you work out the correct course of action.

Then act …

You will make mistakes

“We learn from failure, not from success!” 6.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes when beekeeping.

I’ve had a lot of failures.

But, by thinking about where I went wrong, I’ve often learnt how to avoid doing it again 7.

Probably my first real clanger was inadvertently and unknowingly crushing the queen on my second or third ever inspection.

Oops.

But it gets worse.

At the next inspection, a week later, I (unsurprisingly) discovered a load of queen cells.

Uh oh! Swarming already?

If you re-read the section above I describe exactly how I dealt with that little conundrum 😉

D’Oh!

I knocked back all the queen cells and only retrospectively wondered why there were no eggs or larvae in the hive.

It was a useful learning experience.

Beekeeping looks quite easy, but there’s a lot to learn and the bees don’t always do quite what’s expected of them. A combination of good observation, good record keeping and retrospective thought should mean that the mistakes you will inevitably make aren’t wasted opportunities to learn how to avoid a repeat performance.

I don’t think I’ve ever left a colony terminally queenless in the same way again, but I’ve had ample other ’learning opportunities’ in subsequent years.

Perhaps fewer each year, but enough to keep me entertained … and educated.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of mentoring

Most well organised and responsible associations will ‘buddy up’ trainee beekeepers with a more experienced mentor. The idea is that the mentor is available to provide help and advice as and when needed. When it works well it’s a great arrangement.

You might get your first nuc from your mentor, and you may get some help with your first couple of hive inspections. If things go wrong, and they will (see above), your mentor should be able to provide the advice needed to avoid turning a drama into a crisis.

I wrote about Better mentoring several years ago. It’s a post that could probably do with an update.

However, the real ’benefits of mentoring’ are probably to be gained when you’re the mentor, not the mentee.

Mentor and mentee

Mentors do not need to be hugely experienced beekeepers. In fact, I’d argue that it’s sometimes better if they only have a season or two of successful beekeeping under their belt.

A very experienced beekeeper probably knows all the answers 8, but the mentee will only properly learn when they’re helped rather than told. In contrast, with one or two (successful) years experience, the mentor knows enough of the the basics to avoid disasters, but is more likely to do the ‘thinking out loud’ and work through the problem with the mentee.

And, while doing this ‘thinking out loud’ the mentor also learns.

Did I already say that tea and cake helps? It does.

I learnt more about beekeeping when mentoring others than when being mentored 9.

Lots more.

If and when you get the opportunity to mentor a new beekeeper grab it. You might feel you don’t know it all (you don’t), but you probably know enough. And, by being a mentor, you’ll get to know a whole lot more.

It can be hard physical work

Unless you’re young and fit and strong, and even if you’re young and fit and strong, beekeeping will be tough on your back. Hives are heavy, but moved relatively infrequently. Supers can be very heavy and – with luck – you’ll be lifting a lot once or twice a season.

And it’s not just your back.

Unused winter stores … surprisingly heavy

Frames, particularly frames full of stores, are heavy. Unless I’m careful I get aches and pains in my fingers from the strain of handling lots of frames during inspections 10.

I don’t remember any of this being discussed in my ’Start beekeeping’ course.

I’ve had one or two seasons spoilt by a bad back. Most recently it was due to tripping over something 11 in long grass when carrying three full supers. This is definitely not recommended. The bees were upset and I had back pains until the end of the season.

Learn how to lift properly. Make sure you have clear space around your feet and somewhere suitable to place the moved boxes. All entirely obvious and very much a case of do as I say, don’t do as I do.

But the physical nature of beekeeping doesn’t stop with lifting.

Most beesuits provide good protection against bees, but only by being made of rather thick material. Therefore, on a hot day, they can get very warm indeed. The veil reduces air movement around your head, so the natural cooling from perspiration isn’t very effective.

Sweating in a beesuit

Admittedly they’re not needed a lot in Scotland, but these gel-filled, water-soaked neck wraps are excellent. They provide cooling for hours at a time. I’ve had mine for about 20 years now and I’m not sure if there’s a UK distributor, though you can get them in Holland.

Or just leave the inspection to a cooler day 😉

You will lose swarms

In about my third season I had about half a dozen colonies. I’d done some splits the year before and had my first tentative go at queen rearing.

I was beginning to really enjoy beekeeping.

Which didn’t mean I necessarily was any good at it, or had much of a clue about what to do 😉

My swarm prevention was poor and my swarm control was hopeless (bordering on non-existent).

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

At one point in late May or early June I didn’t have a single hive with a laying queen in it. They’d all swarmed.

I had at least learned not to knock back all the queen cells. A small victory.

Queen open mating success is about 75-80% and I think all the hives were eventually queenright. However, I still felt both helpless and hopeless standing in an apiary with 6 hives and no queens.

I think the secret of swarm prevention is to start early … young queens, give them space etc.

I know the secret of swarm control is to use a method you absolutely understand and have total confidence in. Learn why it works, learn the wrinkles. Understand the timing of whatever hive manipulations are needed.

It might be something as simple as making up a nuc with the old queen and letting the colony re-queen itself. Or it might involve a Snelgrove board, a 47 page manual and visits to the apiary every 21 hours for 3 weeks to open and close all those damned doors.

Whatever floats your boat.

Whatever floats your boat

Unsurprisingly I use the nucleus method for 90% of my swarm control, and in many years use nothing else.

In my hands it’s idiot proof. It needs to be.

Since you will lose a swarm or two, set out bait hives. If you’re lucky your swarm will take up residence and you can pretend you never lost it in the first place.

Swarm arriving at bait hive ...

Swarm arriving at bait hive …

If you’re really lucky you’ll notice scout bees checking out your bait hive, realise there’s a colony thinking of swarming nearby, check your own hives and discover an unsealed queen cell.

Keep your veil on to hide that smug smile 😉

Joseph Merrick

One of the skills new beekeepers need to acquire is how to judge the temperament of a colony. Some bees are naturally feisty and, knowing this, you don your beesuit and gloves well in advance 12. Other bees are calm and stay calm whatever abuses are visited upon them. You drop a frame – or a super – they buzz around a little but remain remarkably unfazed.

But most bees are between these extremes. They’re fine until they say ’enough’s enough’.

The first secret of not getting stung is to avoid forcing the bees to become defensive. Don’t crush bees when manipulating frames or replacing queen excluders. It takes a few seconds more to do it gently having brushed/encouraged the bees out of the way. Avoid opening the hive in thundery weather.

But the other secret of not getting stung is being able to judge that the colony is getting riled up. If you realise they’re getting agitated you’ll take extra care.

You might even decide to close up the colony and start again another day.

There’s no shame in a tactical withdrawal …

If they’re really agitated the other thing to take care with is removing your beesuit. I generally don’t react to stings on the hand, forearm, ankle or upper thigh 13, but I react badly when stung on the face.

Stings around the lips, eyes or tongue can be temporarily disfiguring and, for some, dangerous or even life-threatening.

The few really bad stings I’ve received were to the face after removing my veil too soon after inspecting a poorly tempered colony 14.

This is the reason I consider ‘following’ one of the worst possible traits in bees, and something I rigorously exclude when selecting stock for queen rearing (or colonies for requeening).

You will be amazed how good your first honey is

If you get to late August with a strong queenright colony and a frame or three of honey, well done. You’re half way to becoming a beekeeper.

12ox hex jar with clear (runny) honey. The Apiarist

12ox hex jar …

Enjoy the honey. It tastes even better knowing that you worked with the colony to produce it.

You will miraculously develop a wider circle of friends, and long-lost family members will appear wanting to know all about your new hobby.

And test the honey 😉

In your first season just buy 4 oz or 8 oz jars … any larger and there won’t be enough to go round 😉

Get the bees through the winter, healthy, queenright and expanding well, and you’ll have successfully completed your first full year.

Now you’re a beekeeper 🙂


 

Footnotes

  1. I might be woefully out of date here. I try not to look at the Thorne’s catalogue/website during the winter months in case I purchase things I really don’t need.
  2. Seven years ago.
  3. i.e. rather poorly constructed.
  4. When!
  5. OK, clever clogs at the back … there might be laying workers in a queenless colony. Let’s keep it simple.
  6. Bram Stoker, Dracula.
  7. At least until my forgetfulness erases that particular lesson from the memory banks and I have to learn it all over again.
  8. Or thinks they do, which is worse.
  9. And I learnt a lot when being mentored.
  10. Do any beekeepers use those finger-strengtheners that climbers use?
  11. I’d probably dropped …
  12. Anything more than mildly feisty and they should be requeened as a priority.
  13. Don’t ask.
  14. The disfigurement was debatable, but it hurt like hell and my son called me the Elephant Man for days.

23 thoughts on “What they don’t tell you

  1. Ross Abram

    Would recommend a ‘sting proof ‘ bee suit. I bought one from Old Castle Bee Hives. Fabric is like an open mesh so no problem with over heating. No stings so far, makes beekeeping so much more enjoyable.
    P.S. I’m not on commision!!
    Ross Abram

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Ross

      My beesuit is certainly not sting proof, but I rarely get stung through the suit. It’s the fingers, wrists and ankles that are targeted. I’d prefer to have calm bees and just wear a veil.

      However, I can definitely see the benefit of a mesh suit from a keeping cool perspective, though some of the ventilated suits I’ve seen have made the beekeeper look very like Eugene Ceman (the last man to stand on the moon):

      Eugene Ceman, 1972

      I’m looking to develop a GoreTex suit for beekeeping in Scotland 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Ron Miksha

    Thank you. This was good! I help teach several beginner courses every year and we always mention the extremely hard work and we advise that getting started usually costs $2000 CAN. We also stress the importance of mentors (our club even has a program to match up our grads with mentors). But I’ll start mentioning the unbelievable taste of fresh backyard honey – that’s a great point and offsets the negatives.
    One thing that we always mention, right at the beginning, is that if a person is motivated to “Save the Bees” then they should advocate for greenspace, fewer chemicals, and less mowing in their community. They can erect bee domiciles and leave some rough space in their own yards for native bees. Plant native, local varieties of flowers. But keeping honey bees (which are not going extinct) may adversely affect native bees. Keep honey bees for the joy, exercise, and fresh honey. But not to ‘save’ them.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Ron

      I wrote a bit about the ‘Save the bees, save humanity’ nonsense a few weeks ago in a post entitled Why keep bees? $2000 CAN is about £1150 which is probably more realistic than the £500 I quoted. However, with good mentoring and a modicum of ability these are upfront costs and the ongoing outlay is much less. I bought my first hive secondhand (from someone who had abandoned beekeeping). That hive is still in use – I noticed the supers in the pic of the stuff stacked up in the shed.

      I bought my beesuit from the same person. It’s also still in use every week during the season … though it’s in a pretty disgraceful state now, with broken zips, ripped pockets and a number of fractionally smaller than bee-sized thankfully tears in the veil.

      And in another decade or so I’ll have recouped sufficient income from honey sales to pay for the rest of the essentials 😉

      I should have mentioned … on my start beekeeping course we had a ‘honey tasting’ session which was excellent.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Trey

    Can you point me to the “47 page manual” on the use of a Snelboard? I have one and don’t really know how to work it well. LOL. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Trey

      The 47 page manual is the abridged version of his book Swarming: It’s control and prevention … though in fairness, Wally Shaw has produced some more digestible instructions for those who like beekeeping kit with lots of moving parts 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Greengage

    And everyone forgets forage without forage you will have no bees and you definitely will have no honey. You can be an expert in everything bees need forage and lots of it.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      You’re absolutely right … I’m currently looking for a new out apiary and spend as much time reviewing the local trees and flowers as I do the access and shelter/aspect.

      I suspect forage was something covered in my introductory course. I forgotten I’d covered it, but certainly hadn’t forgotten how important it is.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Jorge

    Hi.
    Nice post, as usual.

    I am a new beekeeper and today, when inspecting an hive, I spot the Queen in the frame.
    Nice!

    When I was returning the frame to the hive, saw a big bee flying to the tall grass near the hive.

    Check the frame again and, horror, the Queen was not there.

    I was lucky, the Queen bee emerges from the grass and I could gently pick her and return ir to the hive.

    How often do a situation as descrived happen?
    Cheers.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Jorge

      Mated laying queens rarely fly … and, if they do, they usually crash land after a short distance. Other than in swarms obviously. Virgin queens can be quite flighty. However, if they do fly, they usually return to the hive if you just close it up and get out of the way. I’ve had that happen many times.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Patrick Lemmens

        That reminds me of the following experience I had last summer:

        I had a small mini-plus beehive with a new queen that been mated and had been laying 5* brood nicely for weeks. I decided time to mark the queen. So I put her in my glass queen marking glass tube contraption.
        However while trying to get her in position to mark her I somehow accidentally opened the marking tube just a little bit too much and there she went… flying away. She flew up and away. In a reflex I stuck up my arm with my hand in the flightpath and to my surprise she landed on my bare hand. Then, again in a reflex, I closed my hand and there she was: in my closed hand.
        However… as I didn’t want to crush her, I probably had not properly closed my hand enough and before I knew it she wriggled out again. This time she flew off in a wide berth past a tree and then I lost sight of her.

        I thought “Oh boy, I really really screwed up!” and in a grim mood I closed the mini-plus hive that was still open…

        Then a few days later I checked the mini-plus hive again and to my surprise and utter delight the queen was back and laying as if nothing had happened!

        So this queen could still fly and find back her hive after she had been laying for weeks already!

        I decided she earned her overwintering ticket and they are still doing well 😉

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hello Patrick

          I’ve only ever really tested the flying ability of virgin queens (at least in long distance flight tests). The only mated queens I’ve seen flying strongly are those in swarms, and even then they sometimes crash land – for a breather – en route to their final destination.

          The point you make about the queen returning is a valid one. If she does fly … simply close the box up and leave them for a day or two. She almost always returns.

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  6. Patrick Lemmens

    I think the ergonomics of beekeeping should be a standard part of a beginners beekeeping course.

    How to best set up beehives and the frames inside so it does not strain your back when you do inspections. How to lift (and move) heavy boxes properly.

    I learned the hard way something you should never ever do and that is:
    LIfting heavy boxes while turning with your upper body (= twisting your spine under load) to put those heavy boxes somewhere else.

    In other words: your toes should always point in the same direction as your arms and the box they carry!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Patrick

      I suspect a lot of beekeepers learn this the hard way 🙁
      I agree that basic advice on safe lifting and carrying is valuable. I also now need advice on not being able to lift as many full supers as I used to … 🙁

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. martin booth

    I got my first Bee’s last summer, and as interest for my kids. We got enough honey for around 6 small jars of the best tasting honey in the world. We only harvested around 4 frames, the others were not capped enough, then when next checked the bee’s had eaten the remaining honey and the queen laid in the super. So both supers in autumn went under the 14×12 brood box. That removed the immediate problem. But the problem remains and I need to figure out how to reverse this in the spring and return the super to being a super for honey. Thinking I might just need to reframe it.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Martin

      Just remove the super(s) early in the spring. The bees will start in the upper part of the box as it’s warmest there. They’re unlikely to have brood down below a 14×12 in March. Even if the bees have reared a round or two of brood in the super you can still use the frames in a honey super … no need to replace the frames.

      Cheers
      David

      PS The “best tasting honey in the world” … that’s precisely what all new beekeepers experience 😉 And they’re all right.

      Reply
  8. Joann Petrlak

    New beek here. Thanks to all for the very helpful material.

    I started with 8-frames in an effort to help with the weight issue, but that was too much as well. I now take out an empty deep box and set it inside the outer cover I’ve removed from the hive. This lets me remove one frame at a time, inspect, and store in the empty. When about half are removed I can then safely lift the top box on my hive over and gain access to the bottom box.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Joann

      That’s a good way to handle boxes that are too heavy. Some people here use extra deep brood boxes – often called 14 x 12’s – rather than double brood boxes, thereby saving some lifting of complete (or partially filled) brood boxes at the expense of handling much larger frames. It depends upon how prolific the bees are.

      The main problem I find is filled supers (no, I’m not complaining 😉 ) … these are really heavy and you don’t need to go through them, but instead simply remove them to get to the boxes below. In the height of the summer, with a good nectar flow, this can be a lot of work.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  9. Alan L

    This is so true, especially it will cost a lot more than you’re led to believe when you sign up for a course and the fact you need to build a double garage to house all the stuff you accumulate. The mentoring part is so accurate, we learnt so much mentoring newbies after a couple of years though we always had more experienced mentors on hand. Years later we still haven’t a clue what the bees are doing.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Alan

      Having chatted with a few beekeepers since writing the post I think my guesstimates of the starting costs are a significant underestimate (forgive me, it was a long time ago), unless you are lucky enough to find good quality secondhand equipment.

      However, on a more positive note, the majority of the upfront costs are ‘one-offs’ and the equipment can and should ‘last a lifetime’. There are obviously ongoing expenses (foundation, miticides etc.) but these are relatively minor. All of this means that – assuming you don’t keep increasing the hive number – it’s a lot less expensive to be a beekeeper than to become a beekeeper. In addition, with sufficient skill, beekeeping is one of the relatively few pastimes that enables you to recoup some of the costs from honey sales, or the production of queens or nucs.

      Perhaps I should write a post on the ‘real costs of beekeeping’?

      The mentoring you mention is of course priceless.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  10. Sam Winter (theshebee)

    Hi
    I’m just trying the vertical split for the first time. I’m in year 3 of keeping but year one was really run by my good friend with me watching.
    I really worry that I know so little about keeping my bees but I try and read up and watch ‘youtube’ and read… and read….
    Wish me luck with the split. They were pretty annoyed with me by the time I’d finished but it’s done.
    I owe the friend who set me up a swarm as they have suffered heavy losses lost year and they’ve been doing the bee keeping for decades. So hopefully I can repay them in some small way.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Sam

      Cake … the universal ‘currency’ for beekeepers. There’s nothing better at a shared apiary session than starting with tea and cake. Or, for that matter, ending with it as well. Why do you think beesuits are made so baggy?

      I think one thing to be wary of is not to get confused comparing half a dozen different variations on procedure ‘X’. Try and find one description that makes sense and follow it to the letter. Keep notes. If it works you know you have something to rely on. If it doesn’t, see if your notes help you decipher what went awry. The other thing to be careful of is instructions that specify dates originating from an area very different from where you keep your bees. There’s little point in me following the same timetable they do in southern California (or even Sussex), though the methods applied at an appropriate time are likely to work.

      Vertical splits are relatively foolproof. Perhaps not as convenient as using a nucleus method of swarm control (and involving a bit more lifting), but subsequent reuniting is easier.

      Good luck
      David

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.