July 2019 Introduction: I still probably dig into my hives more than I should. My constant curiosity may have made me a pretty good beekeeper when I started, but it’s more likely a liability these days. I should just leave the bees alone most of the time but I don’t.
There are many arguments for and against hands-off beekeeping. For new beekeepers just starting out, for the first year (except for winter), I’d dig into those hives at least once a week. Minimum. Even if it’s just to refill a frame feeder and look down at the bees without pulling out any frames, every chance to stick your face inside a hive is a learning experience. And by you I mean me, because that’s what I did when I started and I know it put me way ahead of the game compared to other beekeepers I know who took a hands-off approach. I know hands-off beekeepers five or six years in who still can’t tell the difference between a queen cup and a drone cell. That’s not good.
I still look in my hives about once a week, but I don’t often dig deep into them. I rarely, if ever, dig into the bottom deep of a hive past the month of May. One thing I don’t do as much as I should is check for swarm cells. I do, but I don’t go crazy with it. I know beekeepers who dig down into the bottom of their hives every seven or eight days after the month of May to check for swarm cells. They see it as standard hive management, and I understand that, and I probably should do it myself, but I really don’t like disturbing the bees that much. I’ll roll the dice and leave the bees alone if I don’t think they’re likely to swarm. In my experience, the colonies that have been the most robust and have made the most honey for me are the ones I was able to leave alone. All summer long they look they could swarm any minute, but they don’t, and they make truck loads of honey for me. People don’t talk about this enough, but managing bees so they come very close to swarming and make tons of honey instead — it’s not easy.
So I guess there’s a time to dig into the hives and a time to leave them alone. Working out that fine balance may be the foundation of good beekeeping.
Hive inspections every two weeks aren’t always such a bad thing, especially for new beekeepers, because one of the best ways to learn what the bees are up to is to see what the bees are up to. (Collect that data!) I found an excuse to dig into my hives at least once a week during my first summer of beekeeping, and I learned more from my intrusiveness and observing everything up close and personal than I ever did from reading or watching the bees from a safe distance. Yes, there is a risk of disturbing the bees and killing the queen, but I was careful and gentle and made sure to put all the frames back the way I found them, and everything worked out fine.
Regular inspections also allowed me to remove comb that would have otherwise gunked up the frames and made future inspections messier. Comb connected between frames will often split open and scrape against honey in adjacent frames and spill honey all over the place. Drone comb, especially between brood boxes, is exceptionally gross when pulled apart.
Regular inspections also allowed me to remove the super glue known as propolis. Frames that are bonded to the hive box with propolis don’t move. It requires careful manoeuvring to pry out the frames with a hive tool — to snap off the propolis — and even then all the extraneous comb between the frames tends to squish bees and tear up honeycomb as well as brood comb along the way. Whereas frames that are cleaned up every two weeks can usually be pulled up with bare hands.
Regular inspections and cleaning up the frames make things less perilous for the queen. Any comb between the frames or the brood boxes can easily trap and kill the queen (along with other bees) while the frames are being pulled out. (Some refer to this as rolling the queen.) Comb between the brood boxes leaves no space for the queen. If the queen is on that comb while a frame is slid back in, she’s dead.
Here’s a photo of a hive that I haven’t touched for almost three months.
Those frames are super-glued to the hive box with propolis and are held together by brace-comb as one big solid 10-frame block. Pulling those frames will be one seriously tangly experience (an experience I’m glad to have avoided during my first summer of beekeeping).
Here’s a closer shot from a similar hive:
I’m all for leaving the bees alone as much as possible. Most problems in the beehive are caused by the beekeeper poking around and messing with the bees when they shouldn’t. Learning to read the bees by paying attention to them instead of tearing the hive apart seems like a noble goal, a practical one too. But I still think it’s more important to see what’s going on inside the hive first, to observe what the bees are doing and when they’re doing it, and then move onto the more hands-off beekeeping. If I hadn’t known what was happening inside my beehives during my first and second summers — by looking inside the hives — all my external observations would have been mostly guesswork and it would have taken me forever to learn anything (especially in a place like Newfoundland where most beekeepers have to go it alone). Watching the bees build comb and make honey and raise baby bees was the most crucial aspect of my education as a beekeeper. And I couldn’t have done it without pulling out frames at least every two weeks during my first spring and summer of beekeeping.
Postscript: After five years of good and bad beekeeping, most of my colonies are so well established that I rarely need to perform full hive inspections. My routine now is to reverse the brood boxes — basically move the brood nest to the bottom box — on a warm day in April. I clean up and inspect every frame while I’m at it and make any necessary rearrangement of the frames so the colony can grow and flourish as the spring kicks into high gear. If the queen is healthy, I won’t need to touch the bottom box for the rest of the year. I don’t do much with the second or third box either. I pull honey frames to give the queen room to lay and then I pull the occasional frame of brood to see how well she’s laying (and to check for swarm cells). I clean up the frames as well as I can whenever I pull any of them, but by the time June rolls around and the hives are exploding with bees, I’m basically done. Most of what I need to know I can tell by watching the bees outside the hive — and I can take a good guess from past experience what’s happening inside the hive. I’ll still check for swarm cells and make room for the queen to lay, but full inspections only happen when something goes wrong.
It took me three years to adopt this relatively hands-off approach to beekeeping. Before my third summer, though, I was digging into my hives all the time. I was careful to put every frame back the way I found it, to move slow and gently with the bees, to use mist instead of smoke whenever possible, in general to reduce disruptions to the bees, but yeah, I was pulling out frames at least every other week. I’ve never learned as much as I did then, or had as much fun.