When I got started with beekeeping, I had spent a year prior to bringing my bees home, just researching and doing my homework. My dear sister-in-law, who had watched over a hive in her youth, was by my side, and we were so brave and confident in our abilities to tame the stinging bees with our sweet song and beauty, that we had little to no protective gear to speak of.
Looking back on it now, I realize how naive, foolish, and egotistical we were. Things began alright; we transferred the frames from the nucleus colony into our artistically painted and carefully prepared hive, and considered ourselves successful beekeepers. But there came a day when we opened that first hive and a mushroom cloud of angry bees rose up out of the hive. Suddenly I knew we were in over our heads, and the bees cared not one whit for all our sweet-talkings.
My dear partner–my fearless sister-in-law–took one look at that swarm of bees and she high-tailed it outta there–folks, she ran away! away! (obscure Monty Python reference–check out the video below–special attention to minute 2:18, but for a good laugh watch the whole clip) and while she has come back to watch my kids so that I can tend the bees, she has not rejoined the beekeeping task force, and we still joke about it to this day.
All the preparation in the world cannot prepare you for what you are about to face. You’ve done your homework, read numerous books, watched dozens of beekeeping videos on YouTube, and perhaps you’ve even participated in a beekeeping course with your local beekeepers’ association. But there is no amount of study to compare with the actuality of hands-on experience.
To help you proceed, I’ve assembled these tips for you to keep in mind as you work with your bees.
#1: Always approach the hive from the rear or from either side.
Avoid standing directly in front of the hive. This is a sure-fire way to get stung because you’ll be right in the flight path of bees who are coming and going to and from the fields, and also because it can trigger the alarm pheromone that bees emit when there is the threat of an intruder. That pheromone sets all of the guard bees on alert, so every bee in the hive knows you are there.
#2: Avoid bumping or jarring the hive.
Bees don’t take kindly to rough handling, so be careful not to knock the hive about. Also, you may inadvertently cause damage to combs–or even worse–you risk squishing the Queen.
#3: Watch the weather!
If you attempt to work with your bees in the rain, or under windy conditions, your bees will not appreciate it and they may tell you so in no uncertain terms. It is ideal to open hives between 10am and 4pm, when the majority of the bees are in the field foraging. Choose clear, sunny days, and days when there is little wind.
#4: Perform inspections during a nectar flow.
Most creatures are happiest when well fed, and honeybees are much the same. If possible, wait for a nectar flow before performing intensive hive inspections (inspections where you’re pulling a hive apart down to the bottom board).
#5: Work slowly and remain calm
The bees will sense your anxiety and respond accordingly, so always try to keep yourself in a state of zen when working with your bees. Don’t rush, this causes unnecessary casualties, as you can crush more bees between frames and boxes when you are in a hurry, and this upsets the bees. Work slowly and methodically, and handle frames gently.
#6: Smoke is your most important tool!
Be sure to use your smoker whenever you are working with your bees. There is a common misconception that smoke puts bees to sleep. It does not. What the smoke does do is to disrupt the pheromone signals that the bees use to communicate–so they can’t spread the news that there is an intruder in the hive. Smoke also triggers the honeybees’ instinct to abandon the hive, thinking that it is on fire, and the bees will gorge themselves on honey–as this is the only resource they can effectively carry to a new location–and they are much less likely to sting with that most valuable resource stored in their gut.
Knowledge and wisdom through experience
As president of the Somerset Beekeepers, our local chapter of the Maine State Beekeepers’ Association, I have had the distinct privilege of meeting some 30 and 40-year beekeeping veterans who are still learning new things about bees, and while I would not dare to claim that I know everything there is to know about bees and beekeeping, it’s been 5 long years since that first hive, and I have gained a wealth of knowledge and experience that lends itself to a distinct feeling of calm and confidence when I am working with my bees. There are just some things you cannot learn from a book. That being said, you can certainly pick up some helpful information to carry with you into your apiary to help guide you along your way!
Do you have a great tip to share with new beekeepers? Feel free to share it by leaving your comment below!