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Keeping honeybee colonies for any purpose requires that you check on them and ensure they are doing well. This is called beehive maintenance in beekeeping. It is necessary in all beekeeping operations including in conservation beekeeping. Proper beehive maintenance enables the best health of honeybee colonies. It also promotes better production rates of the beekeeping operation. Maintenance practices vary widely from hygiene practices to those about the structural integrity of beehives. Both beginner and experienced beekeepers can perform proper beehive maintenance. In this beehive maintenance guide for beginners and experts, we outline the various activities you should carry out and their benefits too.
Do Beehives Require Maintenance?
Yes, beehives require maintenance to keep them in best habitable condition. Beehives that you do not maintain well and on time, deteriorate in their quality and usability. They may become unsuitable for use by honeybee colonies. Failure to carry out maintenance activities on a beehive for a long period of time causes the honeybees to face many challenges that would have otherwise been avoided. It lowers production and may result in the honeybee colony leaving the beehive.
How Much Maintenance Does a Beehive Need?
Beehives need maintenance depending on their type and uses. Those that you are using in intensive production processes in a beekeeping operation, require more maintenance than those that are in less intense use. Additionally, Langstroth beehives require less maintenance than most other types of beehives. This is because Langstroth beehives are modular and can be expanded or reduced in size using simple boxes. It allows for maintenance activities to be performed on site or away from the beehive. Top bar hives require more care and maintenance on average.
How Often Should You Check a Beehive?
You should check a beehive as often as is necessary within reasonable limits. The frequency of checking a beehive is dictated by the uses of the beehive. Non-intensive uses such as honey and wax production allow you to check on the beehive periodically with large intervals of time between each check. Intensive use such as production of royal jelly and harvesting pollen requires checking on the beehive more frequently. Other uses of beehives that may require altering your frequency of checking on the beehive are rearing of starter colonies and queen rearing.
Treatments for diseases, pests or parasites of honeybees require monitoring for effectiveness. To identify the problem on time and address it, you may need to check on a beehive once every week during some seasons of the year. Once you have applied treatments, you should check on the beehive every 3 or 4 days to see if it is being effective. During the check, you also get an opportunity to add treatments or remove them if the treatment period is over.
When Should You Not Open a Beehive?
Opening a beehive is an invasive procedure that you should only carry out when it is necessary. There are times when you should not open a beehive even if the opening is due. Such times include when there is snowfall, rain or very cold weather. In winter, opening the beehive is not recommended. Additionally, you are advised to insulate your beehives over the winter period so that you help the honeybee colony improve its chances of getting through winter.
When there is snowfall or rain, you risk exposing honeybees to excessive cold that kills them. The brood of the beehive may also get cold and chilled. It dies and sets back the progress of the colony in maintaining the number of its members at proper levels.
Immediately after applying some treatments, it is best that you do not open the beehive. Such treatments are those that utilize volatile compounds or those that could easily escape from the beehive. These include compounds that you vaporize into the beehive for treatment, such as mineral and essential oils for pest control.
Beehive Maintenance Schedule
A beehive maintenance schedule is great so that you carry out timely beehive maintenance. The schedule helps you remember to perform the required maintenance activities on time. It also assists you in making sure that you perform all the required activities during the beehive maintenance visit. You may use electronic or non-electronic platforms to make your schedule.
Electronic scheduling platforms such as BeeKeepPal make reminding you easier than the non-electronic platforms. Software applications allow for scheduling as well as use of a checklist for beehive maintenance.
Integrating your beehive maintenance schedule and your beehive inspection checklist is important for best maintenance practices. It makes record keeping easy for you, as well as easing the process of carrying out beehive inspections.
Spring Beehive Maintenance
Spring beehive maintenance happens at a time when the honeybee colony is experiencing a lot of growth. Your main maintenance requirement is often feeding the honeybees. It ensures that the hive increase happens at the optimum rate. You should also check the beehive for mites and apply treatments as necessary. Checking the beehive once every week is adequate so that you do not stress the honeybee colony. If you would like to, and if the colony has reached that point, you can split colonies during spring. It gives both you and the colony ample time to adjust to the split and regain best colony health before the production period of the year.
Winter Beehive Maintenance
Winter beehive maintenance is risky despite how much necessary it might be. As a general rule of thumb, avoid opening the beehive on days when the temperature is lower than 600 Fahrenheit (15.50 Celsius). Even when the temperature is in the correct range, never remove brood frames from the beehive during winter maintenance visits.
Feed bees as necessary during this cold season. Use a ratio of two frames of honey for every one frame of brood to ensure that the colony has food reserves that could last them through the winter. During winter, the queen bee may stop or significantly reduce the laying of eggs in the hive. If you notice dwindling food resources in the beehive, wait for a warm day and feed the bees with sugar syrup and pollen patties as available.
The beekeeper has greater responsibility in winter to clean the beehive. Remove any dead bees you see at the bottom board of the beehive. This helps free up bees to keep the beehive warm by saving them from having to perform the undertaker function in the beehive.
What is Low Beehive Maintenance?
Low beehive maintenance is a method of practicing beekeeping where you carry out low intervention in the life of honeybee colonies. It focuses on natural honeybee health and behavior. This type of beekeeping has little emphasis on the production of beehive products. Its main aim is to enable honeybee colonies to live naturally and swarm as often as they want. Beekeepers practicing low intervention beekeeping cite low stress levels in their honeybee colonies due to less disruption.
In low beehive maintenance beekeeping, there is no routine opening of beehives. The beekeeper only opens the beehive if there is a pressing reason. Second, this type of beekeeping avoids using chemical treatments in the beehive. Thirdly, natural comb-building is encouraged in low beehive maintenance beekeeping. Foundation sheets of whatever type are not used in this type of beekeeping. Other features of low beehive maintenance beekeeping are: allowing for a natural balance of drone and worker bees, allowing natural swarming behavior, the use of local strains of honey bees and harvesting of honey that is ascertained to be truly surplus.
1. Opening the Beehive
Honeybees do not take the opening of the beehive kindly. If it were up to them, the beehive would never be opened up. In low intervention beekeeping, the beekeeper avoids opening up the beehive as much as they can. They study the behavior of honeybees at the beehive entrance to determine whether the colony is fine or not. If they see that the colony is having problems, they may then open the beehive for a quick visual inspection so that they can find out the problem and address it.
Avoiding opening up the beehive allows the honeybee colony to have continuous production. It prevents stressing the colony. Additionally, it helps keep the honeybee colony calm. Over time, a honeybee colony can become aggressive if its beehive is opened up too often.
2. Chemical Treatments
Chemical treatments in beekeeping are useful, but come with many risks. Most often, the biggest risk is persistence of the chemical in the treatment in the beehive. It may also find its way into beehive products and harm consumers.
Another problem of using chemical treatments in beekeeping is the potential of the chemicals to harm honeybees. This could be direct harm and causing death or impairment of the honey bees. It could also be less visible such as affecting the natural ability of honey bees to fight diseases. This leaves the colony susceptible to disease infections that they would normally not fall victim to.
These risks of chemical treatments in beekeeping make them undesirable in low intervention beekeeping. Beekeepers should keep the use of chemicals to a minimum so that bees fight off pests, diseases and parasites naturally. The beekeepers may apply natural remedies such as herbal preparations and oil extracts from plants to help the honeybees.
3. Natural Comb Building
Honeybees make comb in the beehive in sizes depending on their needs. Usually, they only draw comb in the size for drone bees when they want to. Managing the brooding process using foundation sheets makes beekeepers cause honey bees to produce comb for worker bees. They also tweak the size of the cells in the honeycomb to have larger worker bees. This tweaking is not welcome in low beehive maintenance beekeeping. The honeybees are allowed to draw comb naturally with cell sizes they want. They get no assistance in comb building since there is no foundation sheets used in low intervention beekeeping.
4. Natural Honey Bee Populations
Beekeepers often do a lot of things to prevent the production of drone bees in beehives. This is because drone bees do not contribute to the collection of resources for the beehive. Additionally, they do not participate in hive activities such as cleaning the hive and guarding it. They are net consumers of resources in the beehive. For these reasons, beekeepers sometimes prefer to have as few drone bees in their colonies as they can manage.
Drone bees are useful in beekeeping since they fertilize queen bees. In a beekeeping area, a shortage of drone bees affects all beekeepers that want natural fertilization of their virgin queen bees. Every beekeeper should, therefore, contribute to the number of drone bees available in their area to mate with queen bees. In low intervention beekeeping, each beehive is allowed to have as many drone bees as it wants. This ensures that there are enough drones in the area to mate with queen bees. It improves the quality of the available gene pool in the beekeeping area.
Colonies of honeybees multiply through the natural process of swarming. They do it when there are plenty of resources available in the environment. Timely swarming ensures best success for the split swarm. The process starts with the raising of a new queen bee in the beehive. The old queen bee leaves with up to 60% of the worker bees in the hive. After swarming, the new queen bee emerges and goes on a mating flight. She can then continue life in the colony laying eggs and restore the colony to its best strength.
Before swarming, honeybees gorge themselves on honey. It helps them stay strong during the swarming process. The honey also helps to boost wax production once the swarm finds a place to live in.
Beekeepers generally want to prevent swarming because of the reduction in colony strength when it occurs naturally, and also because of the consumption of honey in the beehive. They require the colony to be constantly strong at all times so that it produces high yields of beehive products. A colony that does not swarm may, however, end up being overcrowded in the beehive. It becomes temperamental and quickly uses up beehive resources.
By allowing natural swarming to take place, low beehive maintenance beekeeping contributes to the proliferation of honeybees in the environment. It plays a major role in honeybee conservation by allowing for the rise of wild populations of honeybees. This also boosts the gene pool in a beekeeping region.
6. Local Strains of Honeybees
In any beekeeping region, there are local honeybee strains. These strains of local honeybees are well adapted to the regions where they are found. They can survive the various seasons of the year easily and without much assistance. They can also weather disease outbreaks in the beehive with little or no intervention by the beekeeper.
Additionally, local strains of honeybees do not get easily affected by pests and parasites that are endemic to the area. They know the plants they can use to curb the spread of diseases and to fight infestations by pests and parasites.
This increased knowledge of the area and better rates of survival make the local strains of bees the best for rearing in the local region. They are, therefore, preferred in low maintenance beekeeping over other honeybee strains from outside the respective beekeeping regions.
7. Harvesting Beehive Products
Low beehive maintenance beekeeping has a very hands-off approach to the practice. Even when it comes to harvesting beehive products, the beekeepers prefer to avoid taking away beehive resources as much as possible. Honeybees often need the honey and beeswax they produce in the beehive for feeding the colony and to hold brood.
In winter, there are no food resources available in the environment, thus the honeybees eat the honey they store in the beehive. If you take away the stored honey, you leave the honeybees at great risk of starving in winter.
In low intervention beekeeping, the honeybees are allowed to keep all their honey through the winter season and also in early spring. Once there are enough food resources available in the environment, the beekeeper can then harvest some honey from the previous year’s crop since they are sure it is surplus honey. The honeycomb holding the honey is returned to the beehive or cycled out for health purposes, if it is due for cycling out.
When harvesting these beehive products, the beekeepers aim to take only what they need, not as much as they can get. This allows honeybees to have enough food for themselves at all times. It eliminates the need to feed the honey bees on sugar syrup which is not their natural food.
Beehive Maintenance Activities
Beehive maintenance starts soon after you place a beehive in an apiary and install a honeybee colony in it. There is not much allowance to sit back and wait until it is time to harvest beehive products. Regular care and maintenance work is necessary for successful production from the beehive in any beekeeping operation. Proper maintenance of the beehive creates favorable conditions for honeybees to live in.
Langstroth beehives are friendly to modern beekeeping, in terms of requiring the least maintenance and care of all types of beehives. It is also important for beekeepers to note that there is requirement for more care and maintenance in spring season in comparison to the other seasons of the year.
Major beehive maintenance activities in the production year are:
1. Repairing and Replacing Damaged Parts
Natural wearing out happens over time on beehives which lowers their usefulness. Causes of damage and wearing out are the weather, moisture, animals and insects. Carry out visual inspections of varying intensities as allowed. Do this every time you can see your beehives or are handling them. Early spotting of damaged parts of the beehive is important for timely repair or replacement.
If you identify any part of the beehive or beehive components that is damaged or broken, assess the degree of damage and decide if to replace it or repair it. Whatever choice you make, implement the repairs or replacement quickly so that you restore the beehive to its best condition quickly.
2. Cleaning the Beehive
A clean beehive is a big requirement for best production of good quality beehive products. Both the beekeeper and honeybees contribute to beehive cleanliness. Honeybees remove debris and dead bees from the beehive regularly. On your part, remove any papers, feeders, rags and any other items from the beehive as soon as they have served their purpose. Additionally, ensure that honeycomb is straight and only drawn in the spaces where there should be honeycomb. Remove burr comb and propolis sealing the wrong spaces in the beehive.
After a disease or pest infestation in the beehive, help the honeybees to clean the beehive. Remove dead bees, and any unsightly honeycomb such as that which has slime and webs of wax moth larvae. If there any rodents dead in the beehive remove them too.
3. Entrance Management
During the different seasons of the year, there is varying need for the beehive entrance by honeybees. In the busy seasons, they use the entrance a lot. This is contrast to the minimal use they have for the entrance during the slow seasons such as during winter. In winter, they only use the entrance for short defecation flights. It is, therefore, important to manage the entrance of the beehive to match the needs of the honeybees. Beehive entrance management also takes into account the ability of the honeybee colony to guard the entrance effectively.
For entrance management, you use an entrance reducer. It can be made using plastic or wooden material. The entrance reducer has different sizes of holes for honeybees to use to enter or leave the beehive. Professionally made entrance reducers allow for adequate ventilation of the beehive even when the entrance is greatly reduced.
4. Installing Queen Excluders and Honey Super Boxes
Late spring and early summer is time to install queen excluders and honey super boxes into your beehives. Queen excluders are a useful beehive component. They help you to produce clean honey that does not have eggs or brood in it. A queen excluder prevents the queen bee from accessing one section of the beehive and laying eggs in it. This leaves that section of the beehive to be used solely for honey storage.
Queen excluders work on the principle that the queen bee is the largest bee in the colony. The queen excluder thus features spaces through which worker bees and drones too can pass, but the queen bee cannot pass through. Locate the queen bee before installing the excluder and ensure that she is in the brood section of the beehive.
Honey super boxes are the honey storage boxes that you put on the upper section of your beehive stack. They are for honeybees to use to store honey supplies. You may harvest honey from the super boxes until the production season is over. When it is late autumn and there are not many food resources available to the honeybees, leave the honey supers on the beehive to provide them with food resource for use during winter.
5. Replacing Lost Beeswax
Beeswax is a very important material in a beehive. It is the material that honeybees use to make honeycomb for rearing brood and for holding honey during production and storage. Beeswax also has other useful functions in the beehive such as temperature regulation. Having low supply of beeswax in the beehive affects production and the size of the colony. Beeswax may break off beehive frames during your handling of the frames.
You may trigger beeswax production in the beehive by feeding the honeybees some sugar syrup for a few days. If you buy beeswax to give to your honeybee colonies, ensure that you only purchase natural beeswax that is free from chemical compounds, diseases and parasites or pests of honeybees.
6. Installing Protection against Rain and Sunshine
Sheltering beehives protects both it and the honeybee colony. Protect the beehive from too much direct sunlight, falling snow and rainwater. These are the most destructive elements of wood, as well as disruptive elements to honeybees. Too much direct sunlight hitting the beehive causes it to get too hot. It leads to diversion of resources towards cooling the beehive.
Very high temperatures in the beehive may result in beeswax getting too soft and detaching in whole or in chunks from beehive frames. Avoid these negative effects of high temperatures in the beehive by sheltering it from the hot midday and afternoon sun as best as you can.
Falling snow and rainwater getting soaked by beehive wood or entering the beehive is not good. It causes the likelihood of fungi growing in the beehive to increase. Moisture also causes rotting of wood, as well as warping of wood pieces. Installing a proper telescoping cover over the top of your beehive stack of boxes is the best first step in avoiding these problems with moisture and wetness. You may also use a second roof over the beehive to ensure that very little or no falling precipitation comes into contact with the beehive.
7. Ensuring Ventilation
Honeybees require aeration for oxygen exchange in the beehive. They also require temperatures to stay within acceptable levels in the beehive. Ventilation enables these important functions to take place by allowing exchange of air between the environment and the cavity of the beehive.
Without adequate ventilation, honeybees die from lack of oxygen or congregate on the outside of the beehive for cooling. This is called bearding. It happens when temperatures inside the beehive are too high and uncontrollable by the honey bee colony.
A third purpose of ventilation is regulation of humidity levels in the beehive. Exchange of air between the beehive and the environment prevents condensation from happening in the beehive. Additionally, snow does not form in a properly ventilated beehive.
8. Inspecting Windbreaks
Strong winds can open up or overturn beehives and damage them. Wind can also drive moisture into the beehive, or cool the beehive too much. A windbreak is a shield against wind that you install near the beehive to protect it from strong winds. It could be a construction of metal, plastic, or plants such as in a fence. Mobile windbreaks are great for when you move the beehive. They make reinstallation of the windbreak easy, unlike when you use plants to shield the beehive from winds.
9. Controlling Threats to Beehive Wood
Wood in your beehives is vulnerable to damage, weakening and destruction by various agents. Moisture, insects and animals are the biggest threats to wood. Control these agents by ensuring dry conditions in and around the beehive, using treatments and cleaning the area around beehives.
Dry leaves and other debris near beehives can harbor insects that damage wood such as termites. Remove them and treat the area around the beehive with treatments for woodlice and termites. Additionally, treat the wood using preservatives such as wax that help the wood repel water and damage by some insects.
10. Ensuring Security for Beehives and Apiaries
Mice, bears, skunks and raccoons are notorious destroyers of beehives. They attack beehives in search of shelter or food. Bears remember locations of beehives and can keep coming back until they destroy your apiary. Many small animals are opportunistic attackers of beehives. They often invade beehives in autumn as they seek shelters for wintering in.
A weight on the top of the beehive ensures that raccoons do not gain easy entry into the beehive through its top. Install a mouse guard on the legs of the beehive and its stand, as well as at the beehive entrance. For protection against bears and many other large animals, have a fence around your apiary. It is better if the fence is electrified for better results defending the apiary against bears.
There are many different beehive maintenance activities for beekeepers to carry out. Some fall in the standard procedures you should follow in every beekeeping operation. Over time, your experience in beekeeping guides you on which activities to carry out more often than others. You may also settle on some maintenance practices or procedures outside the standard operations due to necessity in your beekeeping operation.
Maintaining beehives involves their cleanliness, integrity and general usability as a habitat for honey bees. Good maintenance of beehives promotes colony health, safety and best productivity. Use the tips in this beehive maintenance guide for beginners and experts in your beekeeping operation to rear thriving honeybee colonies.
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