The Beekeeper

Seeing the queen is exciting, but not necessary

By: Jim Thompson

Over the years a beekeeper develops a style of working their bees and it is hard to explain just how one should work the bees.  When you talk to other beekeepers, they usually say that their systems are different and better. So you are really confused, but if you stop and analyze the different systems, you will find many similarities. I am going to try to explain my method and let you to develop your own system.

Learn to use your smoker at the right time, using the right amount of smoke.

Learn to use your smoker at the right time, using the right amount of smoke.

First pick your time and weather condition. I have seen beekeepers try to work bees at night because they had gotten off work at 11 o’clock in the evening and had the time to work their bees. The “beekeeper” soon found that bees don’t fly well at night and crawl like crazy and sting abundantly. While a flashlight may be used, it is like using a beacon guiding the bees to the beekeeper.  Thus the beekeeper found out that he had to really suit up to work bees. In an attempt to calm the bees, he purchased the biggest bee smoker that was available so there would be plenty of smoke. He had heard that smoke calms the bees.  Most of the books don’t tell you about using too much smoke.

Don’t work the bees when it is raining or threatening rain. All of the bees are trying to return to the hive or are in the hive, including the meanest field bees. Maybe they don’t appreciate getting wet when they thought that they were safe from the rain. It isn’t much fun for a beekeeper to be walking around when his clothes are all wet and clinging, and his smoker has a tendency to go out. Pick a time to work the bees when you see bees flying out of the hive.

Look for the "C" shaped larvae in the bottom of the cells.

Look for the “C” shaped larvae in the bottom of the cells.

If you see a hive that has tipped over, especially in the winter, make sure that you suit up before you decide to set the hive upright. It is similar to the rain situation. There isn’t any flight of the bees, but when you start to move the hive, the bees will come out and say hello. Sometimes the hive is really large and heavy and must be set up in manageable sections. The bees may be confused as you break their cluster, so make sure that you put it back together as it was before it tipped over so the cluster will be put back together. Bees try to keep the temperature of the cluster area around 95°F and when it drops, they get irritated. Thus in the winter time you do not have much time to have the hive open. Bees can withstand the cold better than dealing with the moisture.

You will find that if you work bees when the weather is warm and the bees are flying, is the most pleasurable time. There might be an occasion when you may find the bees irritable, such as if the hive is queen less, if it has been pestered by skunks, if the hive is dead and being robbed or inhabited by yellow jackets, if there isn’t any honey flow, or just temperamental due to their heritage.

Have a special purpose for going into the hive. A new beekeeper likes to see the queen and the other bees doing their duties, but every time you open the hive you disrupt the activities of the hive and it takes the bees several hours to recover. You do not have to see the queen every time that you look in the hive. All you have to do is see evidence that the queen is present. Thus you soon learn that when the queen lays an egg in the cell, that egg will be centered in the bottom of the cell. On the second day, the egg starts to lean over.  On days three to six, the egg starts growing into a larva and is circular shaped in the bottom of the cell. On day six the ends of the larva almost touch. If you see the eggs and larva in these early stages, you know that there is or has been a queen somewhere in the hive in the last six days. If you accidentally kill the queen, six day old larva is the oldest larva that can be used in order for the bees to produce a suitable queen.

laying workers

Laying workers

If you do not see eggs or larva, you should order a new queen immediately or transfer a frame of eggs into the hive. Sometimes if a hive becomes queen less, you may see cells with multiple eggs in the cell and most of these eggs are scattered around in the cell. The reason that the eggs are scattered is due to the shorter abdomen of the worker as compared to the queen’s abdomen. You must make a decision on whether you combine this hive with a strong hive or let the hive dwindle and die. A problem of a hive that you are letting die is that wax moths, other insects, or mice may find the hive attractive and destroy the comb.

While you are looking in the hive, you should notice if the frames that contain the bees are centered in the hive or off to one side. Sometimes a mouse will take up residence in the combs on one side and the bees avoid using those combs. So you should clean out the mouse nest, replace those combs and slide the combs where the bees are to the center and have the replacement combs on either side of the cluster. If you were overanxious in putting supers on top of the hive, you may notice that the bees used the center frames and avoided the outside frames.  As long as you have the same size supers with frames you may want to move the frames with brood down in the hive and put honey frames on the outside and over the brood area. If you can get a band or layer of honey over the brood area, that will act as a queen excluder.

Brood fame

Brood fame

Most of the bee books mention that you must put the frames back in the hive in the same order as they were. I disagree with this, as there are times where the bees will have drawn out one side of a frame and not touched the other. So I turn that frame around. There will be times then the bees seem to be content to live on six or seven frames and leave the outside frames alone. Before adding another super, I try to encourage the bees to work the outside frames by moving them into the space where the bees are living.  Never move the frames into the absolute center of the cluster, but to its periphery, one frame on each side. Sometimes bees will make a real mess out of a frame by building brace comb, drone cells, or by chewing big holes. Those damaged frames should be either replaced with good comb, or moved to the outside frame position next to the wall of the hive. A frame with brood or honey that is moved to the outside will permit the bees to emerge without the queen laying new eggs in it. When those frames are empty, they can be replaced with good comb. This process may take a year to complete but may be done easiest during the time of spring reversal.

It may take you some time to develop the speed of motion that bees tend to accept. A beginning beekeeper likes to get things done quickly and so they move rapidly and get the bees excited. The bees pick up on this rapid movement and begin to attack. 

The bees also notice things such as if you just petted a dog or cat and now have the odor of a pet.  Some people may wear too much cologne or aftershave that may be objectionable to the bees. When I was an inspector, I was advised to wear light colored clothing.  However, I have known beekeepers that have worn black and red clothes and have gotten along just fine. So I believe it might be the odor of some dyes in the clothes.  Don’t eat bananas and then go out and work your bees as the alarm pheromone is very similar to the smell of bananas.

When you have the hive open, you should be looking for a solid brood pattern. A spotty brood pattern is an indication of disease; however a healthy hive sometimes has a spotty brood pattern. If you come across a hive that has a spotty brood pattern and you don’t know what is happening within the hive, close it and call another knowledgeable beekeeper to help you diagnose the problem. The worst thing that you can do is continuing working that hive and go on to the other hives and possibly spread disease.  Sometimes when the nectar source is limited, the brood pattern can be spotty. Brand new plastic foundation may emit an odor that causes the bees to have a spotty brood pattern during the first year of its use. If you wired the foundation, the bees sometimes do not like the cells above the cross wires. An improperly bred queen may have a large number of bees that will not develop. You might have a hive that has chilled brood from an earlier opening of the hive in cold weather or there were not enough bees in the hive to keep the brood warm.

You should learn how to light the smoker and be able to keep it lit. The best luck that I have had is to light the smoker from scratch each time the smoker is lit. That insures that the fire will be below the fuel. Use a fuel that has pleasant smell; remember you will also be breathing it. Use just enough smoke to turn the bees around and let them know you are in the area. Too much smoke causes the bees to uncap the honey cells and may drive them out of the hive. Once they are in the air, the unhappy bees can find you and their wings will just drive the smoke away from them.

You should try to keep your visit to the hive to a 10 minute limit so the bees don’t cool down. It should become a matter of habit and you react to a situation without thinking. If you make a mistake and move something around, it can be corrected at another time.  However the only mistake that can’t be corrected is if you kill the queen.

Somewhere I have been told that a beekeeper should go into the hive about eight times per year.  This may vary a little, but I feel that it is a good policy. There are books and calendars that tell you the beekeeping activity that you should be doing. They have merit, but you have to figure out where the author of the calendar lives because there is a difference in blooming cycles throughout the country. The plants that bloom in Florida are four to six weeks ahead of the same plants in Ohio. So if you can find a calendar that tells when certain plants bloom in your area, that gives you better idea of the time to do certain tasks.

The following management scheme is for Northern Ohio:

  • January – On a warm still day in early January, you should check to see if an established hive is still alive and how much food it has.  This is done by lifting the top cover and seeing where the bees are and if they are making any movements.  If you can hear them and they are down in the super, they have plenty of food for now and are alive.  If they are at the hole of the inner cover, they are out of food and need food immediately. The food given should be in solid or granular type form as the liquid forms may freeze. Place the food (usually sugar) around the inner cover hole, and replace the hive cover.
  • February – It may still be cold in February, so again you should check the food stores and if the bees are still alive as you did in January. If the bees are dead, you may order bees for a delivery in the third week of April. It may be a good time to repair or assemble equipment in your shop. I like to have three honey supers for each hive.
  • March – The weather should be getting warmer, there are some plants blooming, and the bees are fl ying. Check the bees to see where they are located within the hive. If they are in the top super you should reverse the supers and medicate for mites. Some people use Illinois depth equipment may have to move the top two supers to the bottom board and only the original bottom super is moved to the top. You do this so that the cluster is not broken. If the super that is being moved has bad comb, questionable frames or other problems, this is the time to clean it up or replace the bad frames.  Since the weather is still questionable, the bees should be given food if they are short on stores. A thin mixture of sugar water will stimulate brood rearing.  Pussy willows and maples are in bloom and provide pollen for brood rearing.
  • April – Now things are starting to get hectic because the weather is getting nicer, the bees are building up and most beekeepers haven’t looked at their bees before now. Everything that should have been done needs to be addressed.  Normally the medication that was put on the hives last month should be close to the 40 day period. and should be removed. The supers should have been reversed and are full of bees, and may be ready for the honey supers. The rule is that honey supers do not go on while you are medicating the hive. If you see little white specks of wax around on the frames, the bees are telling you that they need honey supers. Usually that occurs about the time that dandelions bloom.  The best time to install a package of bees in our area is the third week. There are several methods in installing packages, but I like the cold weather method. When you install a package of bees, it will mean that you make several visits to the hive to assure that the queen is released; the queen has been accepted and is laying. Frames should be moved near the cluster for egg laying and filling out.  Continue to feed until they have filled up at least one brood super.  Now is also a good time to get a Nuc, if you want one.
  • May – This is another hectic month because this is the month when the majority of swarms issue from a hive. One year, I had 31 swarm calls on Memorial Day.  Thus you should have some bee equipment ready to receive swarms and the telephone numbers of other beekeepers that would like swarms. If you got a Nuc last month, it may be time to transfer it into a full sized hive. Don’t forget to feed any of the swarms that you have caught and make sure that the queen has room to lay eggs.  Check the full sized hives to make sure that they have enough room for the queen to lay eggs and room for honey, but before you put on the honey supers, look to see if the bees have any swarm cells.
  • June – This is a confusing month as the swarm cells at the beginning of the month are welcome and the ones toward the end of the month are questionable.  Later swarms won’t have time to develop a hive that will over Winter.   Usually the flowers produce surplus nectar this month and some beekeepers advocate removing the honey supers for harvesting. I usually move my supers above the lesser filled honey supers for further curing of the honey by the bees.
  • July – In our area July normally is a so-so month. Most of that is due to the heat and no rain which is not good on the honey production. If you plan to enter any hive products at the fairs, give yourself plenty of time to remove and process the items.
  • August – It has been about four months since the mite medication has been used and at the end of the month the goldenrod and asters bloom. You figure that the goldenrod and aster nectar will be enough for the bees to live on over the winter, but in recent years they haven’t produced very well.  When you remove the honey supers, you should check the queen and bees for strength and quality. You may have to equalize the hives or consider combining the weak hives. It usually does not pay to feed a weak hive because if you are able to have it over Winter, it will be a weak hive in the Spring.  The timing of the medication varies as you must figure 40 days back from the final day that you plan on going into the hive this year. You are trying to get two cycles of “clean” bees going into Winter and no medication on the bees.
  • September –You may finish harvesting the honey, medicating the bees, although it is a little late, and removing any empty supers that are on top of the hive. You may notice that I did not mention the queen excluders and that is because I do not use them. However if you do use queen excluders, they are to be removed for the Winter. The various dates are used because you may chose a later date for you final working date.
  • October – Decide on the final day that you plan to inspect or go into the hive this year. Pull out the mite strips, check that the queen is in the bottom super and that there is honey above the brood and out to the sides of the bees. Bees tend to survive the Winter if: there is plenty of food (honey), plenty of bees to keep themselves and the other bees warm, a prolific queen (usually young), & freedom from disease and mites (which also includes beetles). I did not mention wrapping as many people wrap hives without ventilation and kill their bees.
  • November & December – Some time to plan what you will do next year and get equipment in shape.


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