Beekeepers at all levels of experience make mistakes. As a newbie though, you’ll probably be more prone to some of them.
Based on our own experience, here is a list of 13 beekeeping mistakes you can avoid:
- Starting with only one colony
- No bear-deterrent electric fencing
- Not recognizing a queenless hive
- Not feeding a new colony
- Opening a hive too often
- Not wearing protective clothing
- Taking too much honey
- Not managing varroa mites
- Not using a smoker
- Lacking proper equipment
- Not keeping records
- Lack of beekeeping education
- Going it alone
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1. Starting With Only One Colony
This is a beekeeping mistake we made when we started. (Trust me, there are others on this list that I’ll mention.) We should have started with two colonies. (Because of another mistake we made on this list it may not have mattered, as you will see below).
Beginning beekeeping with only one colony seems to be a common mistake. Beginners may start beekeeping with only one colony for various reasons such as cost considerations, space limitations, or concerns about the time commitment.
You CAN start with one colony if factors severely limit your ability to do more. But if you can handle it, start with two colonies.
Why Start With More Than One Bee Colony?
You Will Lose Bees
I don’t care if you do everything right. You will lose colonies in your beekeeping career.
I 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. The summary shows 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, raccoons, and bears can scatter and damage your hives. Mice can take up residence in your boxes.
Learn more! See our articles about honey bee pests and predators for more information.
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 inform you 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
Starting with more than one colony, your odds of getting to your second season with an intact hive improve. Losing one colony doesn’t set you back to square one next year.
Two colonies give you a basis for comparison. Is one colony growing faster than the other? Can you see differences in the queen laying patterns? Multiple beehives speed up your learning curve.
If you lose a queen in one colony, you may be able to help it by transferring brood, eggs, and larvae 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 not to deplete too much of the better colony’s reserves.
If one colony becomes queenless too late in the year to adjust, you can consider combining it with a healthy colony.
If Two Is Better Than One…?
Yes, two is better than one. And for an experienced beekeeper, three, four, or more are even better. But for a newbie, I’d stick with two. 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 larvae, which are high in protein.
When we got our first hive, we talked about how we 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 many bees, including your queen.
Bears have good memories, Once a bear has found food in your apiary, it will return. The only effective measure against bear intrusuion is an electric fence.
Don’t delay if you face this issue.
See our article How To Protect Beehives From Bears (Set Up An Electric Fence) for more information.
3. Not Recognizing a Queenless Hive
Three in a row for us ( to be fair, this mistake was connected to our bear issue).
After the bear trashed our first hive, we put it back together and secured it to the stand to prevent a similar situation. On the second bear visit, the hive and stand were overturned but intact.
Thinking we’d avoided disaster, we continued our merry beekeeping ways. We saw new bees coming out of the brood comb and figured all was well.
We failed to notice a complete lack of new eggs and larvae until it was too late. We didn’t start to pay attention until the population began to drop off sharply and we knew the queen had been lost.
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 must 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.
See our article Is Your Hive Queenless? Or Queenright? (How To Check) for more information.
4. Not Feeding A New Colony
Finally, not a mistake that we made!
When you get new bees, you need to help them establish their home. They need to build comb for brood and food stores. Drawing wax consumes a lot of energy, and the bees need a lot of nourishment.
Comb production takes time. Colonies are different. It might take them a while to acclimate to a 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.
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.
See Why, What, When & How to Feed Honey Bees for sugar syrup instructions and feeding methods.
5. Opening the Hive Too Often
It’s a novelty. You’re fascinated. You want to look in the hive daily and see what’s happening.
Don’t do it.
The bees know what they are doing and want to be left alone.
When your bees are new, you should do a hive inspection about every 7 – 10 days to ensure things are on track. As time passes, 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 outside the hive is helpful but no substitute for periodic inspections.
See our article for more details about how to inspect a hive.
6. Not Wearing Protective Clothing
What’s this? Number 4 out of 6 beekeeping mistakes we made as beginners as 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 may not 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.
See our article Beekeeping Protective Clothing (A Guide For Beginners) for more information.
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 will work all season to store enough food to make it through its first winter. It is 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 if needed.
See our article about how to winterize a hive for more information.
8. No Plan For Varroa Mites
Varroa destructor mites (what a name!) are the primary pests for beekeepers to deal with. Failure to plan for mitigating varroa mites may be one of the biggest beekeeping mistakes you can make.
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 unsure 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, we use formic acid with MiteAWay Quick Strips (“MAQS”). Formic acid has some temperature restrictions on its use, so be careful.
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 bees and honey and effective against 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 of 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).
Many newbies seem reluctant to use the smoker, thinking they are harming the bees. It 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, many kits billed for beginners are woefully inadequate for your first full season of beekeeping.
Yes, you can start with a bottom board and a deep hive body with frames and covers. But as soon as your hive is about 70% full, you will 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 (such as a spouse, partner, or 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.
Check our list of the best beekeeping starter kits for more information.
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.
See our article Record Keeping For Beekeepers (A Guide To Why, What And How) for more information.
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 than anything else.
Our article Beekeeping Education For Beginners (Learn The Basics) includes information about where to look for beginning beekeeping classes, including online resources.
This leads us to our final mistake.
13. Going It Alone
I’m not suggesting that you must 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. That beekeeper supplied our first nuc. 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!