How do beekeepers maintain a hive?

Hello, Tom here. I’m Tal’s son, and over the years I’ve been helping out with the hives. I’ll be taking over the blog today to talk about what goes into maintaining a hive, the bees generally know what they’re doing, but we need to step in every so often to make sure it’s all going smoothly. 

The queen bee is, at all times, the most important bee in the entire hive. She’s the only one who can lay eggs, and if the hive can’t get a new queen bee it won’t get any new bees at all. As in our very own fair Verona, a new queen can be introduced in the wake of an interregnum. Queens are, to this end, often marked, so a beekeeper can keep track of her, different colors are also used each year to keep track of how old the current queen is.

If the bees up here in New England could talk, I imagine they’d spend the whole time complaining about Winter, but sadly it is the responsibility of us beekeepers to complain in their stead. In Winter, there’s little that can be done by either a beekeeper or the bees themselves, so it’s a time to help them out however we can. Bees can’t leave the hive to collect nectar, which means that the food they have before Winter is all they’re going to get. Beekeepers give their hives months to build up a food supply, at our hives we stop collecting honey in August, and when their food supply is running low we supplement it with sugar-based feed or syrup. 

Swarming is perfectly natural and perfectly unwanted. When a hive is too crowded some bees will strike off and make a new hive, and in the week they take to prepare it’s a beekeeper’s job to stop that from happening. Since swarming happens when there are too many bees for the hive to handle, one solution is to expand the hive. Beekeepers build hives out of boxes, stacked on top of each other, the benefit to making a hive out of boxes is that it’s easy to expand the hive by adding new boxes. Another important strategy is to prevent congestion before it has the chance to start, by adding a divider between boxes in order to keep the queen in the upper hive, stopping her from laying eggs in the rest of the hive and keeping population growth in check. This has the added benefit of making honey easier to extract, since the boxes below the excluder won’t be used for anything else. Of course, a beekeeper can also give the bees exactly what they want, and move the extra bees to a hive that could use the extra manpower (beepower?). 

There’s little that a hive can do about disease, and once again the responsibility falls to the beekeepers to deal with the threat. There are many diseases out there, and there isn’t a way to prepare for every single one of them, they each have different treatments and many of those treatments can harm the hive in the short term, which can be especially dangerous when they’re still reeling from the disease you’re trying to fight. Varroa mites are one of a beekeeper’s least favorite parasites, just because of how often they like to be a problem. To deal with those the best solution is to set up frames for drone eggs, since those are a mite’s favorite target, and then to remove the frame from the hive and freeze it, then repeat until the mite population is more manageable. Ultimately, disease is the threat that can catch a beekeeper off guard the most, it can and will kill hives when it is not dealt with promptly and effectively.

It is impossible to guarantee that a hive will survive, but that doesn’t mean nothing can be done to improve its chances. Beekeepers have many tools at their disposal that, with persistence, can be used to effectively support their hives.