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Laryssa and Honey Bees

How to Care for Bees

Mar 16, 2024

How do you care for bees? Let's break down the role of the beekeeper into 8, easy to follow parts so that you know how to take care of your bees.

Step 1 - Give Your Bees a Home

The first thing you have to do is provide your bees with a home that is easy for you to access and keeps them safe from other bees, wasps, predators and the elements. 

What does this look like?

You want your hive to:

  • be at least 8" off the ground;
  • have a small entrance that is not too large but allows enough space for the bees to come and go;
  • little to no gaps for wind, rain, or sun to get in other than the entrance.

The most important thing to consider when finding a home for your bees, is whether there is enough food for them!

You don't have to know what you're doing as a beekeeper your first few years, or ever, really. You just need to put your bees in a place where they will thrive! The bees will likely recover from any problems that come up or mistakes that are made as the beekeeper if your bees are in a great location with lots of food.

Step 2 - Manage Their Space

Since you are providing the bees with a home, it is also your responsibility to manage the size of their home. When the colony is small, for example when you first pick up your package of bees or nuc, or when you split a hive or catch a swarm, the colony is small and will want a small space. If using a Langstroth style beehive, that would be one box (medium or deep is fine). If using a horizontal hive, you'll want the bees to have about 8-10 bars or frames to build off of.

As the hive gets bigger and the bees build comb, you'll want to give them more space. My general rule of thumb is to add an empty box or 8-10 empty bars to the hive once there is 2-3 empty frames/top bars left. Check out my blog post about how to add space to a beehive here.

Once you have 2 boxes for the brood, your hive space management changes. You not only add boxes to the top of the hive so they have somewhere to store their honey reserves, but you also want to put empty frames into the brood nest of your brood boxes to prevent swarming. If you're confused about this part, just know that when a hive gets too big for its space, bees will swarm. If you don't want your bees to swarm, then you need to prevent it by adding empty frames to your brood section. This is usually done by splitting a hive. You can watch my video on how to do this at this link.

Part 3 - The Inspector

Inspecting the hive is my favorite part of beekeeping. This is when you open the hive and look at the frames. You can download my hive inspection sheet here and it is a great way to keep a record of what is going on in the hive as well as a guide you through an inspection so you don't forget anything.

When inspecting a hive, you want to look for:

  • the queen bee;
  • brood in all three stages - egg, larva, pupa;
  • honey or nectar;
  • pollen.

You want to write down how many frames/bars of honey/nectar you see as well as how many frames of brood and how many frames are empty.

You also want to inspect the:

  • hive temper;
  • activity;
  • if any pests are visible;
  • any equipment is broken or other problems within the hive.

Step 4 - Food Supply

Bees need food! They gather their own food in the form of nectar and pollen. However, you can help your bees at times of low nectar by offering them additional feed made with dry white sugar.

In the spring, or when a hive is new/young, you can help your bees out and encourage them to build comb faster and the queen to lay more eggs by feeding them sugar syrup. This should be a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water (1 cup water to 1 cup dry white sugar). Watch my video on how to make sugar syrup and feed bees here.

In the late summer or at a time when there aren't a lot of flowers blooming, you can feed your bees syrup again so that do not eat their winter reserves. You can feed them the syrup you made in the spring if you have some leftover, or you can make more syrup. At this time, a ratio of 2 parts sugar to 1 part water is best, so the bees don't have to work as hard to evaporate the moisture in it.

In the winter, or when it is cold enough outside that the bees stay in the hive, clustered up, you want to feed them either dry, white sugar - straight out of the bag - or you can make a hard candy. 

You do not want to feed bees liquid syrup in the cold, winter months.

Step 5 - Protecting the Hive

There are three main things you will need to protect the hive from - varroa mites, small hive beetles and robbing. Small hive beetles aren't much of an issue in areas with a long, cold winter, but in warmer climates they can destroy hives quickly. To protect your hive from small hive beetles, you want to put traps in the hive. I like to put a brawny dine a max towel under the lid and a screened oil pan as instead of a bottom board under my hive. Here's my video all about small hive beetles traps and how to use them as well as a video about small hive beetles and how to keep them away from your hive.

If you'd like to watch my full video about all the things you DON'T want to see in your beehive, check out that video here.

Varroa mites are the leading causes of honey bee colonies to collapse in the majority of the world, but there is a lot the beekeeper can do to help the bees. Dealing with varroa mites is more invovled than a quick paragraph. I recommend taking an in-person class or signing up for my online course to learn all about how to monitor your mite levels and treat if and when it's needed so you don't lose a hive or your honey!

Many people don't know that one of the leading causes for a colony to collapse in the summer and fall is robbing. Bees and wasps will rob bee hives when there is not a lot of nectar to be found. The beekeeper can guard their hive by putting an entrance reducer over the entrance. Robbing happens when there are few flowers blooming. You will also find that your bees are more aggressive than usual and even see bees trying to sting each other on or around the hive.

Step 6 - Queen Supervisor

The queen bee should be laying eggs all day long, day after day. You do not have to see your queen every time you open your hive, but you should see eggs. A hive with no queen laying eggs is a hive that will collapse in a few months. In addition to making sure you have a queen in the hive laying eggs, you also want to look at the laying pattern to ensure your queen is healthy. A healthy laying pattern is one in which there are little to no empty cells in between cells with brood. It is easiest to look for this on the frames with larvae. Don't worry too much or try to replace your queen if you see a frame with signs of unhealthy laying. First, look at the other brood frames in a hive and consider the time of year before deciding whether your queen needs to be replaced. Early spring, late summer and fall are common times for the queen to not lay as much.

Step 7 - Doctor

Viruses spread among hives and the number of viruses in your hives will increase when the hive also has a lot of varroa mites. Keeping mite levels low will help keep your bees healthy in many ways.

Bees can also contract nosema which is spores in their digestive tract. Most beekeepers don't realize their bees have nosema until the colony dies over winter. The only way to know if you hive has nosema is to have a sampling of bees examined under a microscope. A sign your hive has nosema is that they were strong in the spring but weakened and never bounced back in the summer. If you have a hive that is doing this, do not put frames from this hive into other hives in your apiary because you can spread nosema to other hives.

Tracheal mites is another ailment you bees can contract. Similar to nosema the only way to know your have has tracheal mites is to have a sampling of bees examined and if you hive is struggling all throughout the summer, do not put frames from this hive into other hives.

Step 8 - Janitor

Bees clean up the hive and take out dead bees, but it's still important for the beekeeper to help out. If you see water pooling up inside the hive, lift the back end up a few degrees to allow water to run out of the hive or reduce the entrance. If there is mold in the hive, remove the equipment that is moldy and put clean equipment in it's place. I have found that a screened bottom led to mold within my hives because my bees are in a very humid area. Before you put equipment into your hive, freeze it first, if you can. If it's larger equipment, then scrape any beeswax off before putting on the beehive to prevent wax moth from getting introduced to the hive.

Those are the main duties of the beekeeper. I hope this helps you understand what your role is as you keep bees! Remember, it is not your job to figure out what your bees should be doing and make them do it. The bees know what to do. It's our job to figure out what they're trying to do and help them when they need it. And know when to leave them bee!

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