Duties of the Beekeeper – Etiquette in Learning and Reading a Frame – ABF Quarterly 2018

Originally published in the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF) Quarterly Vol. 76 No. pg. 36-37. 2018

With any hobby, the goal of why a particular hobby was chosen over others can be quite diverse.  Enjoyment, filling a void, supporting another interest like gardening, can be for learning and demystifying a world previously unknown, there is a social attraction for those wanting friends or just want to meet others of similar mind, and yes it can be for producing the golden sweet honey.  Farmers-markets, classes, socials, conferences, workshops, hiving, inspections, harvest, give an almost constant series of activities to enjoy on a yearly calendar.

Beekeeping is an activity where you can put little-to-no effort into it, to encapsulating every waking moment.  The degree of “I’m in” is up to the beekeeper.

Seek for Insights

It is your responsibility and yours alone to maintain and care for your hives and colonies.  Others may help from time-to-time but you are “steering the wheel”.  Mentors and social media voices can tell you to turn left or right but ultimately you steer the way “you” want.   Back in high-school wrestling was a sport that in the end it was all up to you on the mat, not the coach, friend, videos, books … just you and your opposition.  All the training to that point was to be tested in a short-timed free-for-all contest with someone of equal size and age.  If you lost, you alone faced the music.  If you won, some always appear wanting to take some credit for the accomplishment.  This is life in every journey we walk.  In the end, it is you, your bees, and the dynamics of the world around you.

The wild card in beekeeping is each geographical area may differ requiring adaptations to accommodate the variations.  One area is humid, another is frigidly cold, another has invasive fire ants, others have neighbors with no understanding of pesticide use and who may have a personal “thing” against any buzzing insects, and on the list goes.  

The focus of this article is to identify some of the areas beekeepers need to focus their attention.

Etiquette in learning.

At a recent conference a question was asked of a master beekeeper and former president of a national beekeeping organization, “How do you deal with all the questions from inexperienced beekeepers?”  The answer was interesting, “I first ask what they have done to solve the problem and if they have done nothing I suggest a source for them to go to.”  Many ask questions they could easily find answers to if they just opened a book or searched online.  Limit questions to one or two well thought out ones, don’t bombard experienced beekeepers with an on-going list of basic questions.  The onus of your colony lies with you.

Varroa Mites were named “Destructor” for a reason.

Whether or not you use chemicals or invasive treatments to manage mite levels, the management of mites has to be high on the to-do list.  Learn about the various options for controlling mites, both natural and chemically related, and try them, test them, and document your results.  Whatever works best repeat.  Keep the top few as options for maintaining mite levels at a minimum.

Inspect your hives minimally weekly with full inspections monthly. 

It becomes easy to see when looking at the external activity of a colony if all is well or not.  Sounds, temperament, smell, debris, activity, bearding, external marks, can all share insights into the life of a colony.  Reading the external signs are vital to a beekeeper.  When concerns arise a partial or full inspection should occur.

Reading a Frame

Pictures can show a thousand words, so does a visual inspection of a frame.  Many assume seeing drawn comb and bees actively engaged is enough, perhaps the challenge of “finding Waldo” the queen is high on their list.  Some areas to consider:

  • location of the bees in the hive;
  • how many frames are being worked;
  • are bees filling the spaces between the frames and if so how many spaces and how are they positioned;
  • have the bees increased from the last inspection;
  • cell size issues;
  • visual and even taste of the honey to see what the bees are foraging on;
  • color, location of, and amount of bee bread (fermented pollen);
  • drone population;
  • inspecting the brood chamber, determining the size;
  • laying pattern of the queen;
  • how many open cells in the brood area;
  • perforated cells;
  • most diseases are found during an inspection of the brood area;
  • color of larvae;
  • position of eggs in the cell and how many per cell;
  • any decaying larvae or dried out eggs;
  • visual on queen cells and the presence of queen cups;
  • amount of royal jelly in young larvae cells;
  • testing drone cells for mite populations;
  • how old is the wax, progression of wax, way the wax is drawn;
  • signs of melted wax;
  • wax moth, small hive beetle, varroa signs;
  • weight of the frame;
  • presence of nectar and honey in relationship to brood, if out of balance;
  • the scent of the frame;
  • signs of mold or any other related growing bacteria or fungus;
  • amount of propolis on the frame – polished, packed, dripping, sticky, hard, color

These are all items that lead the beekeeper to conclusions on what is happening in the hive.  Inspections allow interaction from the colonies’ care-giver in aiding their survival and health.  A book can be written on each of the above-listed points, so reading a frame may take years or even a lifetime to learn.  This should be every beekeeper’s goal, “understanding and reading their colony’s frame” both prior to use, during activity and after a loss.

Placement of a Hive

A mistake of many is to assume that a colony can survive anywhere, anytime, and without the help of anyone.  Of course, they have survived 30 million years prior to human intervention, however, they have not survived in all areas as they have limitations.  It is the responsibility of the beekeeper to ensure a colony is safe from intentional or unintentional threats.  Full sun is acceptable only if there is a reliable close water source or if they are in an area prone to moisture.  Full sun in dry areas with limited to no easy access to water is not an area a colony would have chose naturally.  Needs include sources for nectar, water, pollen or protein, and ingredients for propolis.  Limit those items and you limit the growth and health of the colony.  Not every area is ideal for a honey bee.

Wintering a Colony

Winter does not kill bees. Lack of resources, high mite counts, disease, high moisture, and complete confinement kills bees during the winter season.  A few years ago a colony that had entered the confinements of winter had its top blown off with no inner cover.  For 2 months this colony sat on a rooftop with no protection from above or any way to confine heat.  Back-ground to this colony, it was split 3 times the prior season for nucs.  The result was a zero-mite load but with ample resources.  When the top cover was placed back on in February a quick inspection showed a live colony hunkered down in the lower box.  It survived and grew rapidly in spring.  Many challenges exist in wintering a colony, some can be kept indoors with temps maintained at about the freezing point with circulation.  Other colonies have to survive outdoors in frigid temps but can be wrapped with a lower and upper access ventilation point.  Some areas need moisture protection due to rain so the colony can remain dry.  Candy-boards can be added during mid to late winter to provide crystallized sugars with low to no moisture content.  Pre-winter mite management is vital as mites feed too all winter.

Documentation is a Key to Knowing if Things are Better or Worse

Memory can play games morphing an original experience into something completely different from the original.  Some fishing stories begin in reality and end like a fairytale.  The only way to know if improvement is happening is to document it.  Record what you do and what worked and what did not.  Recording and documenting work with your bees can include handwritten notes, videos, photos, and even to some point a collection of samples.  Honey variations from year to year can be kept in 4oz muth jars showing variations from years past to seasonal variations.  Documentation of a hive can be simple to very defined.  Keeping a waterproof file with your hive can help jog memories and aid in knowing if what was done helped or not.  Remembering dates related to the development of a queen is vital.  There are online sources like Hive Tracks https://hivetracks.com/index.php that can aid the beekeeper in recording data, setting reminders, and even sharing information.

Stepping Down from the Soap-box

Learn, try, and know that you may fail just as you did when you first rode a bike and attempted to drive a car.  You don’t need to know everything at first, as with decades under your belt learning still continues as well as failure.  The most helpful lessons learned relate to reading frames and understanding bee activities inside and outside the hive.   There is much to learn about these amazing insects and much they have yet to tell us.

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