Need to know basis

In the many years I’ve been working with bees and beekeepers a reoccurring issue has emerged. This issue connects the many problems preventing less experienced beekeepers from becoming successful. Discussion on mite control, habitat improvement, chemical usage both in the hive and in the environment, queen quality, wax contaminates – the list is almost endless and is certainly well documented.

What is missing from the training process is that a domesticated hive of bees is one animal, not thirty to forty thousand animals with a single leader. A field of corn, a vegetable garden, a flock of chickens, the bed of flowers, the beekeeper’s family and a hive of honey bees denote different individuals in a collective group.

All of the above have the same basic needs – room to grow, adequate food supplies, nutritional balance, disease control, sunlight, shelter from harsh environments and so on. Hobby beekeepers can take their pet to a specialist for routine care, hire a lawn service to give them the dream lawn, contract out the routine home and vehicle maintenance, and visit the doctor when needed for their own health care.

The bee hive in the back yard is a different animal. Like Ghost Busters – who you gonna call? Your mentor? Do you even have one? What makes a good mentor? Is the mentor knowledgeable? Does the beekeeper ask the right questions? Are the questions clearly stated or is the less experienced beekeeper not using the correct wording? There is a huge difference between three frames of bees and three supers of bees.

Bee clubs that teach beekeeping tend to discuss the biology of the bee, the various commercially available hives, disease and pest management, training tools found in books and videos, and to some extent the very general seasonal steps to beekeeping. Add honey supers in the spring, watch for queen and brood issues, test for mites, treat as needed, follow label instructions – step 1, step 2, step 3, then bottle honey. Some of these training classes teach obsolete techniques. This spring, a new beekeeper asked how to use powered sugar as a mite control product. It had been taught in the 2020 spring classroom.

I just visited a four year beekeeper that asked for my help in applying mite treatment. I drove over and asked about the hives at the last inspection. All is well was the reply, the hives had been fed and the queens were productive. When the hives were opened, I found that the queens were very productive but there were no food stores. Several hives had at least one super that was still foundation and the brood frames were almost devoid of stores. The beekeeper refilled the front entrance feeders, and in the time it took to finish the other hive inspections, half of the syrup in one feeder had been removed. The bees were in desperate need to feed brood and carbohydrates were in short supply. This beekeeper has a pet who’s food bowl always has food in it, yet his beehives were devoid of food.

So if the pet’s food need was understood and amply provided for, why would the bee’s needs not be? I think it is because the training does not stress that the back yard hive is an animal that needs almost constant human attention and intervention. No responsible pet owner would put their pet in the backyard and visit it maybe once a month, allow the shelter to be over run with pests, and the food and water bowls to remain empty.

Why is a hive of bees any different?