Beekeepers at all levels of experience make mistakes. As a newbie though you’ll probably be more prone to some of them. Here’s a list to help you avoid some of them (including our own foul-ups).
1. Starting With Only One Colony
This is a mistake we made when we started beekeeping. (Trust me, there are others on this list that I’ll mention.) We should have started with 2 colonies though because of another mistake we made (see below) it may not have mattered.
This seems to be a common mistake. Beginners may start beekeeping with only one colony for a variety of reasons such as cost considerations, space limitations or concerns about the time commitment.
You can start with one colony if there are factors that severely limit your ability to do more. But if you can handle it, start with 2 colonies.
You Will Lose Bees
I don’t care if you do everything right. You will lose colonies in your beekeeping career.
I will also guarantee that you won’t do everything right. We all make mistakes. A goal of a new beekeeper should be to keep learning and avoiding or minimizing the impact of mistakes.
A recent nationwide survey by The Bee Informed Partnership showed that beekeepers lost over 37% of their colonies from October 2018 to April 2019. According to the summary, backyard beekeepers (that’s you and me) lost close to 40%.
Bees can fail to survive a harsh winter despite all the precautions you may take.
Various pests, particularly varroa destructor mites, can destroy your colony. Damaging insects include the wax moth and the small hive beetle.
Animals like skunks, raccoon, and bears can scatter and damage your hives. Mice can take up residence in your boxes.
Bees can also be lost due to pesticides and diseases.
Your queen can fail. You might accidentally damage her in a hive inspection. She may swarm off with some or all of your colony. Or she may be a poor queen. Any of these problems put the future of your colony at risk.
This is not meant to scare you off beekeeping. I just make you aware of what could happen so you are better prepared.
Watch our video of losing bees in a swarm. Despite this loss, the hive continued on.
Benefits of Two Colonies
The first obvious benefit is that your odds of getting to your second season with an intact colony improve. Losing one colony doesn’t set you back to square one next year.
Two colonies give you a basis of comparison. Is one colony growing faster than the other? Can you see differences in the queen laying patterns? Multiple beehives ramp up your learning curve.
If you lose a queen in one colony, you may be able to help it by transferring brood, eggs, and larva from the other. This might help you save a colony without the cost of a new queen (they’ll make their own queen).
A hive that is slower in producing honey for the coming winter can be helped with frames from a more productive hive. Just be careful that you’re not depleting too much of the better colony’s reserves.
If one colony becomes queenless too late in the year to adjust, you can consider combining with the healthy colony.
If Two Is Better Than One…?
Yes, two is better than one. And for an experienced beekeeper 3 or 4 or more are even better. But for a newbie, I’d stick with 2. You’ll have enough to do to keep you busy.
2. Not Excluding Bears With An Electric Fence
Yes, once again we are guilty.
If you don’t have bears to deal with in your area (like a New York City rooftop), feel free to move on. Otherwise, take note.
Bears like honey but they also like bee larva which are high in protein.
When we got our first hive, we kept talking about how we really should look into setting up an electric fence. We talked about it until it was too late.
A bear can wreck your equipment and kill off a lot of bees, including your queen.
Once a bear has found food in your apiary, it will return. Bears have good memories. The only effective measure is an electric fence.
Don’t delay if you face this issue.
See our article Bears and Bees (Protect Your Hives) for more information.
3. Not Recognizing a Queenless Hive
Three in a row for us (though to be fair they are somewhat intertwined).
While our first bear visit trashed our lone hive (get 2!), we did put it back together and secure it to prevent a similar situation. On the second bear visit, the hive and stand were overturned but intact.
Thinking that we’d avoided disaster, we continued on our merry beekeeping ways. We saw new bees coming out of brood comb and figured all was well.
What we failed to notice, until it was too late, was a complete lack of news eggs and larva. We didn’t start to pay attention until the population began to drop off sharply.
By then it was too late. We were well into the season with fall around the corner. There was no time to replace the queen and save the colony.
Pay attention to the queen. You may not always be able to find her. Don’t go crazy looking for her. Look for signs that she’s in there and she’s healthy.
If your hive is queenless, you need to address the situation to keep it from spiraling to an unhappy ending.
Look for queen cells indicating that the bees are addressing the problem. If not, you may need to transfer eggs and brood from another colony (you read item 1 above, right?) or buy a new queen. Get the hive queen right as soon as possible.
4. Not Feeding A New Colony
Finally, not a mistake that we made! Or maybe we did. Since our first colony didn’t survive, we’ll never know.
When you get new bees, you need to help them along in establishing their home. They need to build comb for brood and food stores. One of your main goals with a new colony is to help them grow and build up stores that will get them through to next season. Drawing wax consumes a lot of energy and the bees need a lot of nourishment to do it.
Comb production takes time. Colonies are different. It might take them a while to acclimate to plastic foundation.
The best thing you can do is feed them sugar syrup. Even if there’s plenty of nectar flow available, feed new bees. They can save energy and time spent foraging on building new comb if you provide the food.
See What, When & How to Feed Honey Bees for sugar syrup instructions and feeding methods.
In addition to sugar syrup, you can provide pollen patties for additional protein.
Once a colony is well established, they will need to draw less comb as they will reuse empty cells.
5. Opening the Hive Too Often
It’s a novelty. You’re fascinated. You want to look in the hive every day and see what’s going on.
Don’t do it.
The bees know what they are doing and want to be left alone.
When your bees are new, you should be doing a hive inspection about every 7 – 10 days to make sure things are on track. As time goes on, you can start limiting your time in the hive and spreading out the timing of visits.
Every time you open the hive you disrupt the bees. You can harm them and may even damage the queen. Minimize your intrusions.
Of course, you can open the hive too little (though I doubt most beginners do this). Observing the bee activity from outside the hive is helpful but no substitute for periodic inspections.
6. Not Wearing Protective Clothing
What’s this? Number 4 out of 6 mistakes we made as beginners you can see by the image on the right.
If there’s one thing you’ll find me repeating in these pages it’s this: bees sting.
Don’t get enamored by all those people you see on YouTube in various states of undress tending their bees without protection. They’ve got a tolerance for bee venom that you don’t have.
It’s tempting to say, “I’m just going to take a peek.” Here’s what that can look like.
Take your time. Suit up before going into a hive. You’ll be better off for it.
7. Taking Too Much Honey
We all want honey from your bees. Here’s the truth about your first year: No honey for you!
Your new colony is going to work all season to store enough food to make it through the first winter. Better to take none and give them the best chance for survival than to take even a little and find them dead in the spring.
How much honey do they need? In warmer climates, 40 – 50 pounds seems to be a consensus. In colder, northern areas (like ours), 90 – 100 pounds may do it.
A deep frame full of honey weighs about 8 pounds while a medium frame is about 6 pounds. This gives you an idea of how many frames of honey your bees need for the winter.
Even if they seem to have enough honey, we provide sugar bricks to help them along if needed.
8. No Plan For Varroa Mites
Varroa destructor mites (what a name!) are the primary pests for beekeepers to deal with.
We luckily avoided the mistake of not addressing them in our first year thanks to a warning from our bee supplier. (Though since the bear came along, it didn’t matter in the end).
Varroa mites are external parasites somewhat similar to ticks. They attach to both the brood and the bees.
Some beekeepers opt for treatment free beekeeping. I am not sure how well that works out for them but you’re free to try it.
Knowing the damage that Varroa can do to our colonies, we prefer to treat and we do it twice a year.
Once in the summer, before it’s too hot to do so, we use formic acid with MiteAWay Quick Strips (“MAQS”). Formic acid has some temperature restrictions on its use so be careful with it.
Formic acid is an organic compound. Properly applied with MAQS, it will get to mites under the brood cap, not cause significant loss of bees and does not impact the wax or honey.
We’ve noticed that the bees are sluggish and less active during the application of MAQS but bounce back pretty quickly once the vapors have worn off.
Our second treatment is in late fall after the drones have been evicted from the hive. Since this is no (or little) brood at this time, we vaporize oxalic acid into the hive.
Oxalic acid is another organic compound that occurs naturally in many foods. It is safe for the bees and honey and effective against the varroa mites.
It can also be applied in a “dribble” method with water or spray format (we may try that this year).
While no one wants to treat unnecessarily, be aware of the risks going the no-treatment route also. Whatever you do about varroa, the key is to have a plan.
9. Not Using The Smoker
As I mentioned, inspecting the hive is disruptive to the colony. When you enter the hive, bees are apt to become defensive.
It’s also possible that they will be docile and get in the way of moving hive bodies around.
In either case, the smoker is your friend. A few puffs of smoke will send the bees looking for honey. Thinking there’s a fire they want to stock up on honey for a possible emergency evacuation.
The smoke also interrupts chemical signals among the bees (like the ones marshaling a defensive attack on you).
A lot of newbies seem reluctant to use the smoker thinking they are harming the bees. It really doesn’t.
Judicious use of smoke can keep the bees calm. Calm bees mean a calmer you. A calmer you means fewer injured bees (and fewer stings on you). Use the smoker as needed.
10. Lacking Proper/Enough Equipment
Planning to keep costs down, a newbie may start out the first year short on some equipment. Unfortunately, a lot of kits billed as being for beginners are woefully inadequate for your first full season of beekeeping.
Yes, you can start with a bottom board, a deep hive body with frames and covers. But as soon as your hive is about 70% full, you’re going to need more hive bodies. The time to get them is before you need them.
Assuming your colony expands at a healthy rate it won’t be long before you need to add boxes. Have them ready in advance.
Also, if more than one of you will be working the hives (spouse, partner, children) have enough protective gear to go around.
If you don’t have enough frames to fill your hive bodies, the bees will build comb in the most inconvenient places. We had this happen when switching to all medium boxes. We didn’t have enough frames to fill a box and decided it could wait a little bit. Fortunately, we caught the excess comb while it was still manageable.
11. No Record Keeping
We failed at this early on too.
Keep a record of your hive’s activity. Note when and where you got your bees. Keep track of the age of the queen.
Having a record of what you saw (good and bad) during your hive inspections will help you monitor the results of your efforts for future hives. It’s always good to be able to look back on what worked and what didn’t.
12. Not Taking A Class
Yes, you can watch hundreds of YouTube videos. You can Google all sorts of information about beekeeping. You can read books.
In our experience, taking a class taught by an experienced beekeeper is incredibly valuable. First hand, up close exposure to a colony will give you a better feel for beekeeping anything else.
Which leads us to our final mistake.
13. Going It Alone
I’m not suggesting that you need to partner up with someone in your beekeeping efforts (though it never hurts to have help).
I mean not having an experienced person to rely on for advice.
We started out taking a class from a local beekeeper. Our first nuc was supplied by that beekeeper. That beekeeper continued to answer our questions and give advice for a couple of years.
If you can, find a mentor who can help you grow into your new hobby.
Maybe you can avoid these mistakes. Maybe you’ll make others. It’s okay…chalk it up to experience and keep moving on. Honey is coming!