Your First Year

First Hive

In the southern hemisphere it's time to start a new beekeeping year. North of the equator it'll be time in a few more months. But whereever you live, whether it's now or a few months hence, spring is when new colonies are born and so it's when new beekeepers start their first year.

In either case, whenever you start your first year of beekeeping, hopefully you start with more than one hive. I recommend you start with no less than two, and no more than four. If you only have one hive, then you can only lose one before you've lost 100% of your apiary. It's very much an all-or-nothing, feast-or-famine sort of proposition. On the other hand, if you have more than four you'll be so busy tending bees that you'll have scarce little time to learn from the experience.

I want to make this point plain, so repeat after me. Seriously. Read this next sentence aloud. Your first year of beekeeping is not about the bees; it's about the beekeeper.

From your second year on, what you do will be about what's best for your bees.

"A righteous [man] regardeth the life of his beast:" (Proverbs 12: 10a).

But during your first year of beekeeping, it's all about you. It's not what's best for the bees, but what you can best do to learn about your bees so you can properly care for them in all of the many subsequent years.

And by now you're no doubt asking the one question that everyone asks.

"How often should I inspect my hives?"

Well, that's kind of a trick question. The short answer is weekly, but that's misleading because you probably think doing an inspection means opening the hive and pulling frames. That is a full inspection, and not every inspection needs to be a full inspection.

Okay, I'm not given to quixotic challenges, so I'm not going to try and change things. I'll continue to say "inspection" when I mean "full inspection," but you really don't need to open your hives and pull frames every week. There are alternatives.

There is a book that I strongly recommend for all beekeepers. It's called "At The Hive Entrance," by H. Storch. It's available for free downloading on the internet. Ask your favorite internet search engine and you'll have no trouble finding it.

What's so great about "At the Hive Entrance"? It describes and explains a host of things you can tell without opening your hive, just (as the name implies) by observing your bees coming and going from their hive entrance. It does this season by season for a full year. It truly is an invaluable resource for beekeepers.

It is probably intuitively obvious that the less you open the hive and pull frames, the better off your bees will be. Every time you pull frames, you create more work for the bees. They have to repair the damage you do, and that takes them away from bringing in more stores and making honey. So anything you can do to minimize intrusive inspections, the better off your bees will be.

Toward that same end, there's another technique I like to use that also let's you avoid unnecessary inspections. I call it "Buzz-back." It works like this. I will lift the outer cover (the telescoping cover) just a bit, and if the bees are calm I put my ear to the opening and listen to the soft buzz of the bees inside going about and doing their work. I then give a single rap with my knuckles to the side of the hive. If everything is as it should be, the bees will respond with a distinctive "buzz back." Their buzzing will get noticeably louder for approximately 1 to 2 seconds and then drop back down to normal levels.

When I hear this response I know the bees are happy and content, that all is right in their world. I know that there is no need to open their hive.

If, on the other hand, the increased buzzing volume lasts longer than 2 seconds, I know something is not normal. Maybe they're too crowded. Maybe they're getting ready to swarm. Maybe they've lost their queen. Or maybe they're just unhappy with the weather. I can't tell what is wrong, but I can tell that something is wrong and I know that this is a hive I need to open and inspect.

Let me pause here to make a side point. You might think minimizing inspections is just about what's best for the bees. It is not. When you have multiple hives, with several boxes each, that have to be lifted and moved to inspect the lower boxes, and all that work has to be done in the summer heat, in a full body suit, believe me when I say that minimizing the work is for your benefit too. But I digress.

So how often should you inspect your hives? Personally, I recommend non-invasive inspections (observing the bees coming and going, using the buzz-back technique) weekly, and full inspections as needed. That said, I don't like to let a hive go more than two months without a full inspection.

Of course, this is only after your first year of beekeeping.

During your first year of beekeeping I recommend doing a full inspection of your hives once a week, every week, right up to fall. Even then, during the fall, I recommend that you continue doing full inspections as the weather permits, which is to say if it's warm enough.

How warm does it need to be to open the hive? Basically, if the bees are flying you can open the hive. For more information about when it's safe to open a hive, and when it's not, see my article "Avoiding Bee Stings."

Remember, during this first year it's not about what's best for the bees; it's about you learning about the bees. So learn all you can every time you open a hive.

Start your weekly inspections by practicing the non-invasive techniques. Observe the bees coming and going, and compare your observations both to what you read in H. Storch's book and to what you subsequently observe in the hive. Confirm the information this year so you can better trust it next year.

Also, practice the "buzz back" technique. You will be amazed at how familiar you can become with how your hives sound. They really will let you know when they need help.

Then, before you open the hive, give a gentle lift on the back of the hive. Get a feel for how much it weighs. Start developing a sense of how the weight increases with added honey and increased brood over the course of the season. Get a sense of how much the weight goes down in the winter as the bees consume those stores.

Finally, after you've employed these other techniques to make observations, open the hive and confirm those observations. Check that eggs are present in the brood, and be on the lookout for spotty brood. And you'll want to make sure the bees are building up stores. But also notice how the brood patch develops. Where is it placed in the hive, or in relation to the pollen and honey. Notice how the brood patch moves inside the hive over the course of the seasons. Make note of where the bees place their stores (pollen and honey).

In short, spend this first year getting to know your bees as intimately as you can. Then next year you'll be better able to know how your bees are doing with as little intrusion as possible.