Open Hive at Bee Pride in Lebanon, Maine (photo by Sharon Kitchens)
When you think about beekeepers does your imagination immediately conjure up a person with a helmet and veil standing amidst hives with gardens blooming in the background and quarts of honey on the pantry shelf? That image isn’t far off. In addition to honey and pollinators for your garden, the joys of beekeeping include the relationships you build with other beekeepers that share a passion for all things bees (some pretty animated conversations can get going when more than a couple beekeepers get together). An even more surprising bonus are the road trips you go on all over the state (and sometimes further) to attend events and pickup supplies. Whatever your reason, if you take on beekeeping my guess is you will enjoy it all thoroughly.
The best time to work on a hive is on a sunny day while the bees are out foraging (I try to do mine around 10 a.m. before it gets too hot). Wear natural/light colored loose fitting clothing. Do not wear a dark big fuzzy sweater (true story, a friend was “mistaken” as a bear/predator and the hive she was looking on flew at her). Approach the hive from the side or the rear. Do not block the entrance/flight path (route bees use to leave and return to the hive – this may seem obvious, but it’s a not uncommon beginner’s mistake). Stay calm and move slowly and steadily (this is actually a lot easier than you’d think, and the more you do it, the more joyful).
Your local bee club should be able to assist in pairing you with a more experienced beekeeper (preferably someone with at least two years of beekeeping under his/her belt), This person can be an incredible resource, attending hive inspections and answering questions.
The Maine State Beekeepers Association maintains a “Beekeepers Calendar”. Here is a link to April. Following is a basic list of suggestions by season of how to manage your hive. It is best to check with a Master Beekeeper to confirm what works best for your situation. The Eastern Apicultural Society maintains a list of Master Beekeepers by state.
Take down winter protection (or Late Spring depending on what average daily temperature is where you have your hives). Remove insulating materials.
Do a very brief (less than five minutes) inspection of the hive to check general conditions and if the colony has adequate food supply. Visit the Maine State Beekeepers Association website for Sugar Candy and Syrup Recipes. *Wait till the temperatures at night do not go below freezing to feed syrup.
Overwintered hive– the queen will begin laying eggs (one sign to look for is whether worker bees are bringing in pollen)
Paint hive bodies (depending on your workspace at home you could do this during the winter, but I like to open up the barn doors and let the fresh air in)
Make sure you have everything you need ready to welcome new pollinating friends home.
Testing a smoker (photo by Sharon Kitchens)
Hive Tool and Wire Mesh Entrance from Nuc (photo by Sharon Kitchens)
Remove entrance reducers on strong colonies.
If necessary treat colony (I’ll need to do this for a colony weakened by Varroa Mites over the winter.)**VERY IMPORTANT – if you treat, read the instructions and follow them!
Practice lighting and using your smoker. I keep a small plastic Tupperware container full of pine shavings and scraps of newspaper in my Hive Kit (what I carry with me for inspections in my backyard – you want everything handy!). *Newspaper can also come in handy for wrapping comb samples for disease identification.
Installation of package – late April/beginning May. Master Beekeeper Erin MacGregor-Forbes of Overland Honey made this video with Cumberland County Beekeepers Association.
*Do not do an installation during bad weather. Spray them with sugar water every few hours during the day. Keep them in a dark cool place (i.e. garage). This should be okay for a couple days. *Do not check a hive 14 days after installing (package, nuc, or swarm).
Installation of nucleus colony (“nuc”) – May or June
*Do not do an installation during bad weather. If need be, place the box they came in next to the hive where you are going to install them, and remove the wire mesh entrance (where your hive tool comes in handy). Install in the morning or early evening.
Register your hives with the state (only $2/per hive for the first five hives).
Photo from one last summer’s hive inspections. The above is uncapped brood the bees are in process of tending to and then capping. (photo by Sharon Kitchens)
Watch for swarming and if necessary practice swarm prevention procedures, or split strong colonies.
It is a good idea to do an inspection of your hives once every four or five weeks to check in and see what’s going on (this is where a bee mentor can be really helpful). Do not go in more frequently as you could disrupt the natural productivity.
Keep a journal and take notes about inspection conditions (date, time, weather), colony strength, brood pattern, if you saw the queen, honey stores, when you medicated, supered…and take pictures (I pull my iPhone out all the time – this way if I miss something I can email a photo to my bee mentor/another experienced beekeeper and ask what’s happening in the photo).
Add Supers as needed (and only one at a time) to allow the colony room for honey and brood.
Check for diseases and Varroa Mites. Treat as desired. **VERY IMPORTANT – if you treat, read the instructions and follow them!
This cannot be stressed enough – ask questions. Talk to experienced beekeepers about what you are seeing (send photos) and learn from their successes, and almost more importantly mistakes. In Maine we have an exceptional resource in Tony Jadczak, the state’s bee inspector. He is well informed on bee diseases, pests, and their control. Tony makes visits to homes and commercial bee yards. If you lose a hive and cannot identify the cause, or just want to be 100% positive contact Tony.
Continue checking for pests and diseases.
Treatments **VERY IMPORTANT – if you treat, read the instructions and follow them!
Possible honey extraction – contact your local bee club to see about renting equipment (remember, be generous and leave at least 50 lbs of honey in a hive for winter food).
Remove additional Supers if need be.
Add mouse guard (goes along entrance – can purchase or DIY).
Add insulating homasote board (this will help eliminate moisture in winter) Learn more here.
Tie down your hives, put weights on top (rocks, bricks…), and if appropriate wrap with tarpaper(generally the week after Thanksgiving) to help insulate the hive. (If you only have a couple hives see if you can share a roll of tar paper with some beekeeping friends.)
Maine State Bee Inspector Tony Jadczak inspecting my hive that died due to a Varroa Mite infestation. (photo by Sharon Kitchens)
Read articles, books, blog posts about bees and beekeeping.
Mend woodenware (hives, frames). Build hive bodies.
Check for dead colonies. Order bee packages and/or nucleus colonies.
On warm sunny days (temps in the 40s) bees may break from their cold-weather cluster (think football), and fly from their hives for cleansing flights. Healthy bees are very clean and do not defecate inside their hive (presumably to prevent disease from spreading through the colony). You will find proof of this in yellow spots outside the hive (easier done if there is snow on the ground). You may also see worker bees removing dead bees that died within the hive.
*If you open the hive to check their food source do it quickly! Rather than pull the frames out, remove the inner and outer cover and peer down. You can also heft up the hive slightly to see if it is much lighter than it was in September.
Join/renew your Maine State Beekeeper Membership ($15 for an individual per year)
After installing a package or nuc (nucleus colony) of bees you will need to supply sugar syrup. Next to honey, sugar syrup is the next best alternative for feeding your honeybees in the spring before there is enough pollen for the bees to forage.
Feeder options: Baggie Feeder (place a Ziploc quart size bag ¾ full of white sugar syrup on top of the Super or Hive Body below the inner cover and cut two slits about 2” or 3” long with a razor blade). The Boardman entrance – a wooden base holds a screw-top glass jar into which syrup is added. Syrup is 1 part granulated white cane sugar to 1 part hot water from the faucet (2:1 ratio in the fall). *If you decide to use a Baggie Feeder carry a utility knife in your kit to slit the Baggie Feeders after placing in the hive.
Bee Pests and Diseases
Varroa Mites are the single biggest threat to bees and beekeepers. Forget trying to get rid of them completely and just do your best to manage them. Early detection of low levels of mite infestations is key to its successful management. Check out this article for information on symptoms, testing, and treatment. There are a number of synthetic and organic treatments available. It is best to have a plan as to how you will handle a Varroa Mite infestation before you get one.
Deformed Wing Virus is a result of Varroa Mite infestation, symptoms include deformed wings. Bees are unable to perform their hive duties, become weak and then paralyzed and die within 2-3 days. The only way to treat is to keep mite numbers down.
Nosema Disease is a common adult bee disease also known as dysentery. It usually appears in the spring. It may not kill the affected bees, but will weaken them and thus the hive. Best practices to prevent this disease include proper ventilation, a sunny and draft-free location of the hive, and providing plenty of honey during the winter. Possible treatment is the antibiotic fungicide Fumigilin, (in the spring mix 1/2 tsp Fumigilin with two heaping TBSP powdered sugar for one hive, place on top bars). Here is a link to a discussion about treating Nosema on Beesource.com.
American Foulbrood Disease (AFB) is the most serious disease and results in the burning of hives. For more information visit this USDA site. If you think you have AFB contact Tony Jadczak, the state’s bee inspector. http://mainebeekeepers.org/beekeeping-resources/maine-bee-inspector/
European Foulbrood Disease (EFB) is treatable, but the biggest problem is it is transmittable from colony to colony. For more information on cause, symptoms, and control visit this University of Maine Cooperative Extension site.
Maine Department of Agriculture – Anthony M. Jadczak, State Apiarist
The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile is essential to your success as a beginner beekeeper. If you take a class, more than likely this will be the book they provide.
Keeping Bees by Ashley English
Homegrown Honey Bees: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide by Alethea Morrison
Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture by Ross Conrad
The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally by Michael Bush
Fruitless Fall: the Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis by Rowan Jacobsen – tells the bigger story of bees and their documented disappearance in recent years due to Colony Collapse Disorder. A fascinating read.
Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley
A World Without Bees by Allison Benjamin and Brian McCallum (terrific book focuses on mystery of disappearing honeybees – solid read just no beginner beekeeping advice).
The Honey Cookbook by Juliette Elkon (information on storing honey, history of cooking with honey and terrific assortment of recipes ranging from Gingered Carrots to Honey Orange Cake).