A Shortlist for Long-term Beekeeping Success
Reading Time: 6 minutes
What could be more exciting? You’ve installed your first package of honey bees into a freshly painted hive. During the winter you read a beginner book, so you know how to find your queen and how to mix sugar syrup. And just now, you’ve taken a seat in the audience of your local bee club, eager to learn. People greet you warmly and welcome you into the fold. You are totally chuffed.
Before long, however, you hear worrisome things. You scribble some notes, but the words are alarming and the list is long. You stop writing as the babble of weird-sounding afflictions washes over you, leading you from effervescent to frantic. In a matter of moments, the speaker warns you of wax moths, starvation, excessive shade, mice, cold temperatures, brood diseases, bears, wind, nosema, and pesticides.
Not all Hazards are Equal
When we don’t know better, all these beekeeping problems seem equally scary. To a newbie, varroa mites appear no more or less dangerous than a cold hive or a regiment of beetles. But that simply is not true. Most problems are so minor we shouldn’t dwell on them. Beginners should learn the basics and save the nuances for later.
My shortlist has just three items that every beekeeper needs to address. The shortlist works because, by some estimates, over 90% of all colony losses are caused by three things: queen failure, starvation, or varroa mites. That means that all the other beekeeping problems added together account for less than 10% of losses. The 10% includes nosema, pesticides, tracheal mites, brood diseases, dysentery, and even cold weather.
Most beekeepers would be happy to average a 90% success rate, something that is possible by concentrating on the basics. In fact, except for an unfortunate pesticide incident, I don’t think I’ve ever lost a colony to something that’s not on the shortlist. My losses were caused by queen failure, varroa mites, and at least one striking example of starvation.
Evaluate the Dangers
A healthy honey bee colony is incredibly resilient, which is why the species has been so successful throughout the millennia. Unfortunately, a few things can destroy a colony — and those are the things that you, as a beekeeper, need to manage. A colony depends on a healthy queen and an adequate food supply. And, unfortunately, honey bees cannot resist the ravages of the varroa mite, a parasite that recently jumped species from Apis cerana. Even the mite would be tolerable if it didn’t carry a trove of viruses, most notably the deformed wing virus (DWV).
Many of the opportunistic predators such as small hive beetles, wax moths, and wasps can only breach a colony that is already weak. Most of the large predators are not common, such as bears and vandals, and many of the pests are just that — pests. Birds may eat some of your bees, as will lizards, spiders, and even mice. But most often, they don’t eat enough to destroy a colony.
To add to beekeeper confusion, many of the warnings we hear from beekeepers, such as “avoid shady locations” and “face your hive to the south,” are not for the benefit of the bees but for the benefit of the beekeeper who is trying to maximize honey production. If you learn the reason for a piece of advice, you can decide whether to follow it.
The Big Three Beekeeping Problems
Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned beekeeper, you need to put your efforts where they will do the most good. So let’s focus on the big three.
Every colony relies on a strong queen honey bee. Not only is a mated queen the source of fertilized eggs that are needed to produce workers, but her pheromones keep the colony functioning as a unit rather than a random mass of bees. But like any other living thing, queens can fail, become ill, or die, so it’s your job to check on her. At every inspection, look for the queen or her eggs. Learn to evaluate a brood pattern and keep alert for queenlessness and signs of laying workers. But also remember that queens don’t lay all year long — you don’t want to replace a queen that was simply taking a break. A dead or failing queen needs to be replaced either by you or the workers, otherwise, the colony will perish.
All living things need a nutritious supply of food, so make sure your bees always have plenty to eat. Be especially attentive during times of nectar dearth such as mid-summer, winter, and early spring. Feeding honey bees is easy, but it is often overlooked when bees are collecting lots of pollen but no nectar. Don’t be misled by those colorful legs. Without sugar, honey bees cannot defend their hive, fight disease, or protect themselves from predators.
None of us like to treat varroa mites, but for now, they are a beekeeping fact of life. Most colonies will have varroa at some point, along with the viral diseases they carry. Both the mite and the viruses weaken the bees until they can no longer care for themselves. Mite control cannot be delayed, so new beekeepers need to learn how to diagnose mite problems and learn how to treat them when necessary.
Creating New Problems
Unfortunately, it’s tempting to blame colony loss on things we can see, so when we open a hive that’s filled with moths or beetles, we point and say, “Moths killed by bees!” or beetles or ants. When that happens, we haven’t discovered the real problem, so it’s bound to happen again.
Instead of doing the hard work, beekeepers frequently latch onto miracle cures for weak hives in the same way we search for miracle diets. If keeping bees were as simple as choosing the right pollen substitute, feeding stimulant, or type of sugar, our beekeeping problems would have disappeared long ago.
It’s easier to buy a new product than go through the laborious process of inspecting, mite counting, treating, and feeding. But simple answers don’t exist, and many of the so-called easy fixes we use can create hard-to-fix problems. For example:
- Beekeepers often choose organic sugar over refined white sugar, assuming if it’s better for us, it’s better for them. But organic sugar is high in the type of solids (ash) that cause honey bee dysentery.
- Beekeepers feed essential oils to bees, probably misunderstanding the word. “Essential” means the oil contains the essence of a plant’s fragrance, not that it’s essential to living things. Essential oils can draw robbers from miles away and may even mask queen and brood pheromones.
- Pollen supplements are often unnecessary, especially in the fall, and they can attract small hive beetles and delay the formation of winter bees.
- Hive wraps without proper ventilation can cause excessive moisture buildup and mold growth in an overwintering hive. Left on their own, honey bees are masters at staying warm, but moisture can be a problem.
- Internal hive heaters can cause bees to think the outside air is warm, so they fly out into the cold and die.
- Bananas fed to bees can cause honey bee dysentery when fiber collects in their excretory system. Bananas can also draw ants, beetles, and flies.
- We go to great lengths to keep our bees in the sun, but feral colonies invariably choose a nice shady tree. Why force our ideas on them?
- Rhubarb leaves or hop flowers piled in the hive will not kill varroa but can easily decompose and become a source of mold spores, insects, spiders, and bacteria.
- Nothing in the biology of honey bees suggests they need vitamin C tablets, magic mushrooms, red solar roofs, cannabis, seaweed supplements, or any of the other stuff we inflict on them.
I believe in science and innovation, so experimenting with new ideas is fine. But before you can understand how to design an experiment and draw conclusions from it, you need to know the basics of bees and beekeeping. Just as you learned arithmetic before calculus, you need to know how a colony functions before you can fix it.
A Sturdy Triangle
Any engineer will tell you a triangle is the strongest geometric shape, which is why triangles are used in bridges and buildings. Likewise, I like to think of these three facets of beekeeping — healthy queen, varroa control, food supply — as a triangle of support for all other colony functions.
When you mind the basics, you build a fortress that helps the bees help themselves. When your colony is strong and healthy, you can let them take care of the day-to-day problems as they arise. Above all, with only three things to watch, beekeeping becomes much more fun.
Originally published in Countryside May/June 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.