Some Beginner Beekeeping Mistakes

This article will try to help you avoid some of the most common beekeeping mistakes we have seen. If you are beginning beekeeping, you are going to make mistakes and lots of them. Of course, you are, you are a beginner and you cannot be expected to have expert knowledge already. Of course, experts make mistakes too, after all, we are all human. So don’t worry because in general bees are surprisingly tolerant of our goofs.

This list is not in order of importance. They are all important though some of these mistakes can cause serious problems for your bees up to and including the loss of the hive.

  1. Not Feeding Your Hives When They Need it Most (e.g. in a dearth)
  2. Not Feeding Your Bees for Long Enough
  3. Doing a Full Inspection too Often
  4. Not Doing Routine Inspections
  5. Not Checking the Status of the Queen When Inspecting the Colony
  6. Not Having Enough of the Right Equipment on Hand
  7. Think That You Have Failed if Your Hive Swarms
  8. Failure to Recognise and Control Varroa Mites and Other Pests and Diseases
  9. Trying to Take Everyone’s Advice
  10. Locating Beehives in the Wrong Place
  11. Not Using a Smoker When Opening and inspecting a Hive
  12. Not Installing a Mouse Guard in Time
  13. Not Using Hive Stands for Your Hives
  14. Ignoring the Bee Space Rule – Not Filling the box Properly
  15. Harvesting too Much Honey

1. Not feeding your hives when they need it most. During any given year there will be times of plenty and times when bees struggle to find enough to feed themselves and their larva. We call the times of plenty a Flow because there is plenty of nectar flowing and of course there will also be pollen at this time since they both come from flowers. We call a time of scarcity a Dearth. This of course means that there are fewer plants blooming or the weather is too wet or windy to allow the bees to forage.

People are sometimes surprised to see lots of flowers around an area and the bees still seem to be short of food. This is often caused by occasional showers washing the pollen and nectar from the flowers so that it is mostly dry enough for the bees to fly but nothing left to gather, causing a dearth.

There are some times of the year in Ireland when we expect a dearth and we should plan for it. It usually comes in June, but varies depending on weather conditions in that year and month. The duration of the dearth also varies for the same reasons. It can also depend on the flora in your area since your location may be dominated by flowering plants that bloom at different times from those in another area and whether it is a sheltered spot of exposed etc.

2. Not Feeding Your Bees for Long Enough, or more precisely not feeding them correctly. The correct way to feed bees in the summer dearth is with a one to one sugar and water syrup. This should be given to them “little and often”. If you try to take a shortcut by giving them huge amounts in one go so that you will not have to think about them again until it is convenient for you to do so, they will want to store it. This means that they will fill every available cell in the hive with the syrup in order to dry it and make it ready for long term storage and the queen will have nowhere to lay her eggs.

This is a disaster for the hive because these eggs are the bees of the future and stopping the queen from laying means there is a gap in the production of bees that may very well leave the colony short going into winter or weaken it in the struggle against Varroa or wasp attacks or other threats.

It is better to feed the bees only as much as they can handle in one or two days. While doing so check the hive and see what they are doing with the syrup. (no need for a full inspection for this) If they are storing it in large quantities, you should stop and check back in a couple of days.

Keep a check on the environment and watch out for the return of the flow or at least an improvement in the supply of natural food. You can stop feeding immediately that the flow returns. Bees prefer nectar to syrup anyway, so you are not doing them any favour by leaving the syrup in the feeder, it will just ferment and become inedible before long and the bees that do eat it will become ill. Think of it this way. During a famine, you would be glad to have bread and water. But when normal supplies resume, you would run away from it. Bees need a balanced diet just like we do.

The reason you feed one to one syrup in the summer is that it has a similar consistency to nectar. At the end of the year, you would feed them two to one syrup. This has a consistency closer to honey and they are more likely to store it for winter supplies. Also, they will not need to dry it out as much and will be less likely to use up the queen’s laying space.

During the winter you will need to make sure that your bees have a ready supply of water, making sure that it does not freeze and render it unavailable to them. They need the water to use the honey, especially if it is Ivy Honey, which will have crystallised shortly after storage.

3. Doing a Full Inspection too Often. We have all done it. We have done the course and waited impatiently for our first hive and finally, we have our own beehive in our back garden or a friendly and environmentally aware farmer’s field. So we rush out every couple of days to do the beekeeping thing. We want to make sure that they are okay and that we are looking after them properly. So we keep checking on them, again and again, and again.

Believe it or not, this is not good for the bees. They see this as an intrusion from an enemy, e.g. bear or a stoat. You wouldn’t want them nosing around in your hives and neither would the bees and they have more to lose than you do. It leaves them stressed and it takes a few days to recover. And what do you do then? Open the hive again and stress them some more.

Granted there are times when you need to open the hive roughly weekly. E.g. if the hive is likely to swarm and you are looking for queen cells or increased numbers of drones etc. But, there is usually no need to do a full inspection, pulling out all of the brood frames every few days. There is also an increased likelihood of you accidentally killing the queen. Every time you do an inspection you are likely to kill a few workers. They keep moving and will from time to time get in the way when you are not looking. No biggie. But you do not want to kill the queen. It will be at least a month before the workers can produce a new laying queen, between building the queen cell, hatching out, learning to fly, meeting drones and mating and then developing into a laying queen.

Also, if you leave the hive open too long on a less than warm day, you may chill the brood. The larvae need to be kept at a fairly steady temperature of around 35°C. If left at lower temperatures for longer than a few minutes they will die.

4. Not Doing Routine Inspections. This is the opposite of the previous one. Surprisingly ignoring your bees is not good either. You do want to make sure that they are safe and healthy. So, you need to make sure that their hive has not

  • been blown over in a storm
  • been knocked by large animals
  • been raided by smaller animals
  • been infected by pests or diseases
  • hungry
  • under attack from large numbers of wasps
  • No wear and tear on the hives, cracks that need to be filled etc.
  • poisoned by farmers in the area spraying

These are just the basics of a quick inspection. You will also need to do a full inspection from time to time to ensure that your bees are

  • Healthy
  • Queenright
  • Queen laying in a good pattern
  • Eggs and larva of all ages indicating a current queen and consistent laying.
  • Storing honey and pollen.
  • Well behaved (not likely to go around stinging the neighbours etc.)

5. Not Checking the Status of the Queen When Inspecting the Colony. This one is similar to the above in some ways. But, sometimes beginners are so nervous or excited that they don’t think of looking for the queen or signs of the presence of a queen. It’s simple if you struggle to find the queen, relax you do not always need to see her or mark her, (though if you are confident that you can handle the marking, it will make finding her the next time much easier) just check for new eggs. If there are new eggs in the brood frames, you have a queen.

But you also need to check if she is laying a good pattern. If the area is overly spotted with empty cells, it is likely that she was not well mated and the workers have had to dump a lot of the larva that would not have survived. A few empty cells are normal since she will have mated with around ten to twenty drones and they cannot all have been perfect.

If she is a new queen you can expect to see more than one egg in a cell. This is common for new queens and she will get the hang of things before long and continue to lay one per cell from there on. If there are multiple eggs in most or all of the brood cells with some of them halfway down, it is likely that you have at least one laying worker on your hands and that is a topic for another article, but I will say that these eggs are not fertilised so cannot produce workers or queens, only drones if they even hatch and survive.

It is also possible that your queen can become a drone layer. i.e. all the eggs she lays become drones instead of workers. This happens when the queen runs out of sperm and can no longer fertilise the eggs as she lays them. Unfertilised eggs become drones. Usually, the workers will spot this and replace the queen themselves, but sometimes they slip up and it is too late for them to deal with it.

When it has gone on for more than three or four days the larvae are too old to make queens. The older they are the less suitable they are for making queens and they only turn into low quality queens. You will have to replace the queen yourself.

6. Not Having Enough of the Right Equipment on Hand. There are a few basic tools and equipment that all beekeepers need to get started. Most beginners do have them, but what did they forget or not plan for?

Basic equipment:

  • Beekeeping Suit (for protection)
  • Smoker (to calm the bees)
  • Hive Tool (to separate the boxes and frames and scrape off wild comb etc.)
  • A Hive full of bees

In theory, you are all set. But not really. These should also be on the list of basic equipment, though you can borrow an extractor from a friend or even share the cost and buy one together with other beekeepers. Or you may be able to use your association’s extractor. But some beekeepers are not interested in honey. They keep bees because they simply want to help the bees and the environment. As good a reason as any for keeping bees.

  • So you have a hive, what happens if you know your hive is considering swarming? Do you have a second hive or nuc to put split them into?
  • You have just discovered that there is a dearth. How do you feed the bees? Do you have a feeder? Do you have sugar or one of the feeds?
  • The flow just started. Do you have supers and frames ready to go?
  • You noticed that the base of the hive is a bit damp all of the time and is being invaded by slugs and beetles etc. Do you have a hive stand to get them off the ground?
  • You have just removed a super or two of honey from your hive/s. Now what. How will you extract the honey? Do you have an extractor? Or will you use the crush and strain method? Do you have a strainer?
  • You were just about to remove a super and you notice that about a third of it is filled with brood. Now, what do you do? You should have used a queen excluder to stop her from getting into the super.
  • You opened your hive in late spring or early summer and a startles mouse bolted out at lightning speed. How could you have prevented this? A mouse guard on the entrance.
  • So you have just crushed and strained your honey and have of buckets of it in your kitchen. Now what? Do you have jars and labels?

7. Think That You Have Failed if Your Hive Swarms. You may get a hard time from some beekeepers if they hear that your hive swarmed. If this happens, walk away from them. There is nothing wrong with your hive swarming out in the countryside. You did nothing wrong. It is what bees do to procreate.

What is a swarm? A swarm is when about half of the bees in a hive gather together with the queen and head out to start a new colony. They leave behind either a new unmated queen or a queen cell or cells about to hatch. This is not usually a problem in the country, but in a city where suitable homes for bees are scarce, they are more likely to choose to move into your attic. Really that is the only reason you might want to prevent swarming.

Of course, if you have hives nearby, people will blame you, though the swarm could have come from another beekeeper or a wild hive. A swarm usually fly less than 100m when it first leaves the hive and when moving to the new home they can travel as much as a mile to get a cavity that they like.

When the swarm leaves the hive it will first gather on a bush, tree or wall while they finalise the decision on where their new home will be. This is the stage local beekeepers start getting calls, partly because people think it might be their bees and partly because they think it is their duty to remove any bees in the area without charge. In fact it is at this stage that beekeepers prefer to get these calls. This is because if the bees have established themselves in the roof or wall of somebody’s home, they can be difficult to shift. Not to mention the dangers of wrestling with angry bees while balancing equipment as you stand at the top of a ladder.

8. Failure to Recognise and Control Varroa Mites and Other Pests and Diseases. Most beekeepers in Ireland are part of an association. So they will be well aware of diseases and Varroa and the problems this pest causes in the hive. They will be told how to check for it and how to deal this it.

But if they do not take the threat seriously they may not bother to treat it. Most beekeepers believe that this is a mistake, though there are some beekeepers who run the gauntlet every year and hope that the bees learn to deal with the Varroa mites themselves.

But Varroa is not the only threat to a hive. There are many diseases in Ireland today, though they are not very common. There are fungal infections, bacterial infections, viral infections and mites that can threaten and it appears that we may soon have the Asian Hornet here soon.

It really is a mistake to ignore the threats to your hive if you don’t want to have to replace it next year and if you are hoping for honey, think again. It is not usually possible to get a good harvest of honey from a hive in its first year, though you can be lucky.

9. Trying to Take Everyone’s Advice. You may have heard the saying of beekeeping, “ask ten beekeepers a question and you will get twelve answers”, well, it’s true. Most beekeepers learn from their association’s beginners classes or from a local mentor. What is usually taught at an association will be the “party line” the general consensus among the major beekeepers in the association. A local beekeeper who is not part of an association may have been doing things his own way for many years and may not be keeping up with the new systems or latest techniques. So it is always a good idea to join an association for lots of reasons, if for no other reason than to get another perspective on things. You can still work with your local mentor. After many years of beekeeping, s/he will know a thing or two to say the least and you may be able to teach them a thing or two that you have picked up at the association.

But beekeepers are entitled to keep their bees in whatever way they see fit. When these beekeepers find something that works for them they tend to think that it is the only way it should be done and are often quite keen to have others do the same. Nothing wrong with that, but what do you do if you meet several beekeepers with opposing views on the best technique to achieve something? You do the same thing they did take all the advice you can get and do what you think is best.

You can’t take everyone’s advice. It’s impossible. So don’t worry about keeping everyone happy. In general, we are a friendly helpful bunch of people who love nothing better than to talk about bees. What you do with that information is up to you.

10. Locating Beehives in the Wrong Place. One of the first questions people learning beekeeping ask is where will I put my new hive when I get it? So, it is always a mystery to me how they so often end up placing it in the wrong place. So, a few points to watch out for

  1. Residential Areas. You need to keep your bees as far from people as possible, particularly children.
  2. Face it South East. Make sure the entrance doesn’t face into the prevailing wind or they will have it blowing in their door in winter.
  3. Make sure it is level or very close to level. Some beekeepers tilt their hives slightly forward for the winter by putting something about the size of a pencil under the back of the base. The idea is that if there is any condensation in the hive over winter it will run down the front of the hive and out rather than dripping on the bees, which is quite damaging.
  4. Keep away from areas likely to be sprayed with insecticide or other damaging chemicals if possible.
  5. Avoid places that are difficult to access. The last thing you want is to have your hive at the top of a building that you can only access using a ladder. Easy enough to deal with when setting up empty boxes. But what if you have to move your have? You will not be able to carry a full hive down a ladder. The same goes for supers filled with honey.
  6. Even if they are on the ground you need to plan ahead. Setting up the hive a hundred yards in at the back of a field might seem like a good idea in the summer when you drive in. But, if that field turns into a mud bath in the winter rain, you may need to borrow a tractor to work those hives until the summer sun dries out that field again. Think Irish summers.
  7. If possible try to give your hive shelter in summer and winter. In the summer sun bees can struggle to keep the hive cool and their/your honey can leak out of the hive if placed in direct sunlight where there is no cooling breeze. In the winter they will need some shelter from high winds that can blow them over, or blow the heat out of the hive if it is not properly sealed causing them to use more of their stores to stay warm. Wherever it is strap it down tight. Ratchet straps are good for this if your hives are wooden. If they are poly, be careful not to over-tighten. They can crush a poly hive. But if the hive is blown over it may remain in one piece and the bees may survive until you come to put them upright again.

11. Not Using a Smoker When Opening and Inspecting a Hive. You should always use your smoker when opening a hive. The smoke has a strangely calming effect on bees. The smoke blocks the attack pheromones and they are far less likely to attack you. This is particularly important if you have your hives near a residence. You are wearing a bee suit (at least you should be) but the neighbours and their children and pets are not. When you go home, they may attack whoever happens to be in the area, just passing by if you are near a road.

Be very careful using your smoker during dry sunny spells. You don’t want to start a fire.

One of the main reasons beginners do not use a smoker is because they have difficulty lighting them. A topic for another article or even a video. The advice here is to practice when you are not inspecting your hives. As a beginner, you are under enough pressure at the hive without struggling with your smoker while the bees gleefully take their opportunity and attack en masse. Practice lighting it and also keeping it lit. If it is done properly it will stay going for your entire inspection of several hives.

12. Not Installing a Mouse Guard in Time. Bees are well able to manage with a small entrance. Don’t be afraid to reduce it with a mouse guard in autumn. Mice are clever creatures and they will see the heat coming from the hive and make their winter home there. They seem to know that the bees are in a cluster and are not likely to sting them in the winter. So a hive is a perfect home for them for the winter. They have shelter, heat and food produced by the bees just sitting there.

So put your mouse guards on early.

13. Not Using Hive Stands for Your Hives. The natural habitat for bees is in trees with cavities. Very likely why they evolved to swarm as they would have great difficulty expanding their cavity some would have to leave to make room for the next generation. They are not used to ground level living and are not built for it. So put your hive on a stand. It doesn’t have to be a professionally built one from a bee supplier, though they are very convenient for bees and beekeepers. You can use a stack of bricks or pallets etc. as long as they are on the ground solid enough to take the weight of a hive filled with honey (he said hopefully). Just get the hive off the ground.

Keeping your hive off the ground on a stand of some sort helps prevent rot and dampness and reduce the number of visitors they get, i.e. ants, slugs, mice, and so on. Also, the main reason many people use them is to raise the hive to a better level for working on it. Nobody wants to be bending over a hive lower than they need to especially if they have bad backs.

14. Ignoring the Bee Space Rule – Not Filling the box Properly. Bees tend to build comb where they think it should be built and beekeepers have to go to some lengths to ensure that they build it in a way that is convenient for them. If you don’t follow a few little rules the bees will completely mess up your plans.

There is a thing called Bee Space. That is a space that is small enough that they will not think it worth building in or filling with wax or propolis and big enough for them to walk through. In a wild hive e.g. in a tree, they use bee space themselves it is the space between their combs. Usually between 6mm and 9mm. If the space is wider than 9mm the bees will fill with comb. If the space is narrower than 6mm the bees will fill it with propolis.

So if you put eight frames in a box thinking that you can come back in a fortnight to add the rest when they have used the ones you put in there, forget it. They will build in the empty space first putting what to our eye looks like a mess of higgledy-piggledy comb. Then when they have filled that space they will get to work on the frames. It will break your heart to cut out all that comb after all the time and work your bees put into it, but unless you plan to crush and strain you will have to do it. You can’t put wild comb into an extractor.

Hives and frames are designed with bee space in mind. So fill your boxes with frames containing foundation and don’t leave spaces. If you have trouble removing that first frame when you are inspecting you can use a dummy board. It will slide right out and make removing the frames much easier.

15. Harvesting too Much Honey. Another question often asked by our beginners. How much honey can I harvest? That depends on how much the bees have. But in general, you can take most of the honey in the hive if you do it in August. Then leave whatever they gather after that to them. This country is falling down with the weight of the Ivy here. Everywhere you go in the countryside it is choking trees hedges and old buildings. So there is usually no shortage of it for the bees in autumn. BUT, as always the weather can mess that up. If it is a bad autumn, they may not be able to fly enough to forage and the Ivy flowers may have been washed out. So keep an eye on the hive supplies.

Hefting the hive to see if it is getting too light is a good way to check in the winter without having to open it and disturb the bees and let the heat out. Start hefting early so that you will have a comparison between a heavy hive and a light one and will know when it is light.

It is a good idea to make a block of fondant available to your bees just in case. They will only use it if they need it, preferring their own supplies of honey and pollen to anything a beekeeper might give them.