Beginning Beekeeping

Each year I meet many new beginning beekeepers at the Farmers Markets, NCBA classes/meetings or those picking up their first nucleus colony in my apiary.  What each beekeeper shares with me is the same pursuit of success with their bees as I still have.

What follows below are some of the many questions I get asked by beginners each year…

10 Frame Equipment, deep or medium frames?  Many discussions on the use of using all medium frames and boxes for brood nest and honey supers to save on weight.  I like and still use deep frames, but have gone to 8 frame equipment to save on weight in the hive bodies.  8 frame medium honey supers.

Stock of Bees? Colorado has always had an Italian bee base if you will…  Package bees brought in from California now offer both Carniolans and Minnesota Hygienic bees.  Both of these offerings will adapt/mix with the local populations over time.  Russians are also being mentioned as more resistant to the varroa mites…  However, their temperament is an issue for additional review in this apiary.

Start with Nucleus Colony or Package?  Start date with the packages is usually the end of April.  These packages with a newly mated queen are dependent on feeding, early spring weather, and the queen quality.  Over the years with Northern Colorado Beekeepers Association packages I’ve found, 25% will be great, 50% good,  while 25% will have some type of queen failure.  Nucleus colonies will already be somewhat tested depending on your source.  Queen failure should be eliminated since brood pattern and colony temperament is already established.  Weather will still have an impact since early spring buildup is dependent on available resources…The increase in costs of nucleus colonies is usually based on the costs of additional resources in bees, equipment, queen quality and time.

Source of Nucleus Hives or Packages?  This is the real question that beginning beekeepers need to ask!  ALL bee packages in the spring come from commercial operations in California and are resold through a middleman here in CO.  (Generally a 3 lb. box of bees with the queen of your stock selection.)  Many nucleus colonies offered for sale are also/often made up with CA packages or splits from commercial hives coming out of the almonds also in CA.  Unfortunately, CA does not offer the same winter conditions that CO offers.  Additionally, because of the sheer numbers of queens required, the behaviors and traits that you as a northern beekeeper require may be lacking in these CA bees and queens.  Know your source and the questions to ask.  Do these bees and queens spend the winter in CA or CO?  A very simple question!

Top Bar Hive or Langstroth Hive?  Colorado provides a stern winter test for honey bees.  With sub zero winter temperatures the bees need an efficient winter cluster to be able to access available winter stores.  I’ve found that most efficient movement to be within a Langstroth hive with an up and down movement vs. a Top Bar Hive configuration that was developed in more moderate climates such as Kenya etc…

Treat for Varroa Mites or No Treatments for Varroa?  Your beekeeping education will take a number of years to fully understand what the bees are trying to tell you.  Beekeeping has been called an Art, and I would agree.  Because of that, I’d encourage all beginning beekeepers to treat their colonies the first three years.  Packages, nucleus colonies, feral swarms and even my nucleus colonies.  With the new organic mite treatments now available there is no excuse in letting varroa mites have a free lunch on your colonies while you gain additional experience with your bees.  By your fourth year, now with additional experience, you will be able to properly monitor and identify those colonies that are at risk for future winter loss by varroa or those that are thriving in spite of varroa populations.

Feeders?  Yes, either an internal feeder that holds up to a gal. of syrup, or a jar feeder above your inner cover, enclosed with another super or hive body.  No to the entrance feeders…. Be mindful of robbing from the beginning.

Plastic or Wax Foundation? Horizontal wired wax foundation has proven the most readily accepted in my apiary.  Can either be used with or without additional wiring.  I also like wood frames that are readily accepted into my honey extractor.  Plastic, not so much…

Screened Bottom Board or Solid Bottom Board?  With focus on varroa mites it’s easy to monitor natural mite drops, sugar rolls, ventilate the colony, and allow up to 30% of the phoretic mites to fall through the Screened Bottom Boards.  Another helpful tool working in an Integrated Pest/Varroa Management plan.

How Much Time Does it Take?  This is probably the most asked question, and it all depends how interested you are!  Like all pursuits, the more time and effort you put into something the more you will get out of it… You’ll also increase your learning curve and be able to fix/undo mistakes with additional hives.  This is why many associations recommend 2 packages or 2 nucleus colonies for beginning beekeepers to start with.  The more observations you make and note the sooner you’ll be on your way to calling yourself a beekeeper.

Best Beekeeping Book, Forum, Educational Site?  With allllll the internet forums now available it’s possible to get so much information as a beginner that your more confused than when you started…  Unfortunately there’s no way to separate the bad advice from the good advice if you’re a beginning beekeeper!  BUT I believe Randy Oliver, with does the best job of all.  There’s enough reading material on all things bees to give you a solid foundation from the start.  He’s taken all the theories, sources, ideas, configurations, treatments, and posted the results for all to see.

Why did my bees die?  This is the most difficult question that all beekeepers find themselves asking at one time of the other.  This link gives you the most complete answers I’ve found yet: