Hive management is an art, not a science. There are some basic principals I try to follow in an attempt to make hive management a more predictable and consistent art.
First off, if you are in doubt, do nothing. You can’t make the bees do anything. What you can do is provide an environment which will encourage them to behave in a way that meets both your goals and theirs. Try not to forget they will always try to meet their own goals first. Stop messing with them while they are trying to do it. Stop trying to stimulate them to produce brood when current conditions don’t support it. Stop trying to prevent them from swarming. Stop trying to run things by the beekeeper agenda rather than the bee agenda. You and the bees will be much happier and more productive.
Sit and watch the hive over several days before opening it up. Natalie has spent so much time watching the hive, casually and actively, that many times she’ll spot irregular behavior (like a pending swarm) before I will. This happens because she loves to watch the hives from her studio window. If the hive is busy, they are probably doing fine. If you do need to open them, it might just be to add another box. Hives with a top entrance seem to be bothered less by being opened up. My theory is that airflow doesn’t change as dramatically. Adding a box to a top entrance hive could take less than five minutes including pulling up a couple of full frames to serves as guides in the new box.
If your area is prone to a particular pest or disease, the best thing you can do to protect the bees is to help them stay strong. This means leaving them plenty of honey stores, keeping chemicals away from the hive and rotating out old wax so the bees can build fresh natural comb. Feeding sugar promotes disease. Chemicals reduce fertility and hurt the bees as much or more than the pests or diseases they supposedly prevent or cure. Contaminated wax promotes disease, reduces fertility and damages the bee’s long term survival prospects. When I say chemicals I also mean so-called medications. Medications have no place in a healthy hive with natural comb.
It can be useful to move frames within the hive or between hives. Keeping all boxes the same depth (all mediums) supports this. You might want to shift brood into a super to draw bees into a new box they have been hesitant to enter. Or possibly bring in brood from another hive to allow the bees to requeen. Maybe you’d like to open up the brood chamber to encourage the bees to focus on expansion rather than swarming. Sliding empty frames between full frames encourages the bees to keep it straight as the hive draws new comb. These options for hive management are only available if all boxes are the same depth. Forget the deeps. Go for medium boxes. Easier to handle all around and will save you expensive back repair long term.*
Don’t waste time hunting for the queen. Sure it is nice if you spot her, great for a photo op or to show a new beekeeper you are mentoring. But the hive is open longer and disrupted more. Look for brood, Look for eggs. If you have brood, you have a queen. Keep going. Keep your time in the hive to a minimum. Do only what you need to do and get out of there.
Stay calm. I cannot overstate this. If you are calm, then the bees will be calm. Zen beekeeper equals zen bees. The bees react to pheromones. If you are fearful, they can smell it. If you are calm and focused, so are they. The best advice I can give you is to bring someone else along. If you are focused on showing them the bees, you will forget to be nervous yourself. If they can stand just a few feet behind the hive without a suit and veil, then everything is great. If they are getting buzzed, then you are upsetting the bees and need to try again another day. The bees will warn you. They will ram your veil if they are irritated. If they are irritated, back off and try another day.
I don’t have a suit. I tuck my jeans into my socks, wear a white long sleeve shirt, my bee gloves, and my veil. Sometimes I only wear one glove, especially if doing something fussy. If I had short hair I might be able to do without the veil but they get tangled in my hair if I don’t wear it.
Choose your day to open the hive. It should be sunny. There should be very little to no wind. It should be fairly warm, too warm for the long sleeves and jeans. If most of the bees are out gathering honey and pollen, there are fewer bees to cope with during your inspection. The field bees tend to be the most aggressive component of the hive. I like late afternoon because I am not disrupting the hive during the most productive part of the day. I get the smoker going in the shade before suiting up. I don’t want to spend any longer in the full outfit than necessary. If it is too hot for the outfit, it might be too hot to mess with the hive anyway. Disrupting the temperature controls of the hive can be a disaster if it is too hot or too cold out when you open the hive.
The best proof of all this I can give you is the so-called “mean hive”. Every beekeeper I have ever known has a mean hive story. This hive will sting at the drop of the hat, but always produces loads of honey. Mostly because the beekeeper stays away from them and lets them do their thing. They also probably have a stronger reaction to the beekeeper than other hives because the beekeeper “knows” they are mean and is nervous when dealing with them. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Deal with the hive on a different day than other hives in the same yard. Try not to open more than two hives a visit unless everything is just going swimmingly. This would never work in a commercial operation, but you are not in this for the money, so what is your hurry? Maybe the mean hive is all in your head. If it really is mean, requeen from a gentle hive. You don’t want a truly aggressive hive in your backyard anyway.
More thoughts on natural hive management to come.
Incredible photo used with permission of Michael Azar a beginning beekeeper who is a fan of Backyard Ecosystem.
*I think that the first place I ever saw going to all mediums suggested was Bush Bees. I have a link in the resources if you want to learn more from this excellent website.