Managing Beehives (A Beekeeping Guide)
Updated on September 11th, 2022
As a beginning beekeeper, you may be elated after setting up your first beehive(s). However, do not rest on your laurels; your backyard beekeeping hobby has just begun. You need to manage your beehives.
Managing beehives is a year-round task; however, the level of work and time required will vary widely with seasonal changes. Learn what you can do to help your bees not just survive, but thrive.
During honey harvest, you may be extremely busy. However, in frigid winter months, you may do nothing but keep an eye on them.
Managing beehives requires:
- Regular hive inspections to assess conditions such as
- the status and health of the queen,
- population and space needs,
- adequacy of food stores,
- evidence of pests or illness,
- indications of swarming,
- cross combing, and,
- the physical condition of hive components.
- Taking steps to remediate problems noted during hive inspections,
- Adding and removing boxes and frames as dictated by the colony’s population and activity,
- Limiting the impact of robbing on your hives,
- Harvesting honey and other hive products,
- Preparing your hives for winter, and,
- Maintaining records of your management activities.
Beekeeping, or apiculture, is a farming activity. The bees are your livestock; honey and other hive products are your agricultural output. Keeping your colonies healthy and productive is the key to being a successful beekeeper.
This guide will walk you through the essential tasks of managing your beehives and some of the challenges you may face as a beginning beekeeper.
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Check out our gift ideas for a beekeeper you know…or for yourself. In addition to standard beekeeping supplies, we’ve highlighted some unique beekeeping-related items.
Managing Beehives With Beekeeping Records
Though it was listed last above, we are going to start with a discussion of beekeeping records.
As a new backyard beekeeper, recording information may seem unnecessary when you have only one or two hives. However, keeping records is an easier habit to start when your apiary is small and your goals are modest.
In some locations, such as New York City, legal requirements may necessitate documentation about your beekeeping.
Keeping records will help you learn more, properly monitor your colonies’ condition, track expenses, and more.
If you think you may convert your hobby into a sideline or commercial opportunity, record keeping is required for various reasons.
Learn more! See our article Record Keeping For Beekeepers (A Guide To Why, What & How). Become familiar with the types of information you can or should track and choose how to do it.
Tracking Beehive Inspections
Hive inspections are an important task in managing beehives. Beekeepers inspect hives to assess the queen and colony’s health and condition and identify issues in need of remediation.
Although external observation yields helpful information, opening the hive for visual examination is the best way to determine its status.
Hive inspections disrupt a colony’s activity. Minimize the disturbance by:
- Keeping inspections as short as possible to accomplish desired tasks,
- Limiting the frequency of inspections based on the time of year and status of the colony,
- Doing inspections during the most favorable times of day and weather conditions, and
- Proper use of beekeeping tools.
Learn more! Read our article about how to inspect a hive for detailed information about some things you can learn from mere observation, when to open a hive, and how to go about an inspection, among other things.
Having a plan for each inspection is the best way to minimize the time in the hive, barring unexpected findings that require immediate action.
Beekeeping records (mentioned earlier) are a tremendous aid in your planning.
While each examination of a hive may have a particular purpose, every inspection allows noting:
- Indications that the queen is healthy and productive,
- Food stores appear adequate,
- Pest infestation or diseases, and
- Any repairs or replacement of hive components that may be necessary.
The health and productivity of the queen bee is critical to a colony’s survival. Always look for signs that your hive is queenright.
Learn more! See our article about how to inspect a beehive to determine if it is queenless or queenright.
Feeding Bees In Your Apiary
Honey bees eat honey, bee bread and royal jelly created from the pollen, nectar, and water they collect while foraging.
Beekeepers often supplement a colony’s diet with sugar syrup or pollen substitutes at certain times during the year:
- Early spring when resources are scarce or to jump-start production of wax and brood,
- Summer nectar dearth so that bees do not consume too much of their honey stores that are meant for winter,
- Fall to help build up food stores going into winter, and
- Winter as an emergency backup for the colony’s stored food.
Learn more! See our article Why, What, How & When To Feed Honey Bees for detailed information about supplemental your bees’ natural diet.
Seasonal Beehive Management Practices
Some beehive management tasks, such as record keeping, are required year-round.
Seasonal issues determine many other beekeeping chores. For example, you do not harvest honey in the winter.
Beehive Spring Management
Spring is the time to assess any winter losses and clean up the apiary for a new year.
Other spring beehive management chores include reconfiguring hive boxes for the start of the year, assessing the health of the queen and colony, preventing swarming from depleting your colony, installing new bees, feeding bees, and providing expansion space for a growing colony.
If you are interested in trapping swarms, spring is the time to hang your bait hives.
Determine the level of varroa mites present in your hives and decide if any treatment is needed.
Most varroa treatment options recommend usage based on temperature ranges, population status, and the presence of honey supers. Give yourself enough time before it gets very hot, or it is time to super the hive.
By late spring, the colony will likely have filled the brood boxes. Then it is time to start adding honey supers.
Learn more! See our article about spring beehive management for more details regarding these early season tasks.
Beehive Summer Management
In the early summer, nectar should be abundantly available for the bees. It is time to take advantage of the honeyflow and manage the honey supers to maximum benefit. You may also harvest honey for yourself.
Note: We recommend that you do not harvest honey from a new hive. Taking honey from a new hive may not leave enough for the colony to survive the following winter.
As always, check that the queen remains productive and does not need replacing. Continue to keep records and monitor for pests, notably varroa.
Other seasonal summer tasks include supplementing water supplies if needed, ventilating the hive to cool it, and protecting the hives from robbing during a summer nectar dearth.
Note: Do not feed bees during honeyflow. If they take the syrup, it may mingle with the nectar in the supers. Sugar syrup is not a substitute for nectar in the making of honey. See our article What Is Honey? for details.
Learn more! Our article about managing beehives in summer provides more detailed information to assist you.
Fall and Winter Hive Management
During the fall, honey bee colonies (and beekeepers) begin preparing for winter.
Bees continue to forage while temperatures permit and resources are available. Here in the northeast, plants like goldenrod provide nectar and pollen.
Gradually, as temperatures drop, the colony starts to downsize.
Queens lower or stop brood production. In addition, the colony evicts drones that serve no purpose during winter and are a drain on resources.
From a peak of 50,000 or more bees in the summer, only about 10,000 will cluster over the winter.
The smaller colony needs less food to survive the cold winter months.
Just like the bees, a beekeeper’s fall management tasks focus on winter preparation.
Beekeepers reduce the size of the hive befitting the lower population.
Take steps to assure the colony is healthy and is disease and pest-free. Measures include replacing weak queens, treating for Varroa mites, and combining weak hives with stronger ones.
When removing surplus honey, take care to ensure the bees have enough food for winter.
Winterize the hive to help the colony control internal temperatures and moisture as needed based on the local climate at the end of fall. Add emergency food supplements in the form of fondant or sugar bricks in case honey stores prove insufficient.
Learn more! See our articles Fall Hive Management (Get Ready For Winter!) and How To Winterize Beehives for more detailed information.
Is Treatment-Free Beekeeping For You?
Some beekeepers prefer to manage their apiaries “treatement-free.”
The definition of what constitutes a “treatment” varies among beekeepers. At a minimum, it includes any form of chemical or medical treatments.
However, some beekeepers have a more expansive definition that may include feeding bees or any manipulation of the hive.
Many of the management techniques described in this series include treatments, most notably to mitigate problems related to Varroa mites.
If you are considering treatment-free beekeeping, see our article What Is Treatment-Free Beekeeping? (A Controversial Topic) for more information.
Learning how to start beekeeping and setting up your first beehive is an important step in becoming a backyard beekeeper.
However, it is important to adopt good beehive management practices to get the most out of your new hobby.
Focus on learning the basic tasks needed to keep your colonies healthy and productive.
Colony Growth and Seasonal Management of Honey Bees By Dr. Jeffrey W. Harris, Assistant Extension Professor, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology, and Plant Pathology. Some material from a retired publication by Dr. Clarence H. Collison, Emeritus Professor, Entomology, and Emeritus Head, Entomology and Plant Pathology, Mississippi State University
A Honey Bee’s Guide To Managing Beekeepers in Bee Culture Magazine