Natural beekeeping pioneer Michael Bush has agreed to be a guest blogger with us this late summer/fall. For those of you unfamiliar with Michael, take a look at his website Bush Farms.
[Editor's note: This post is now expanded to its full length.]
"Let the bees tell you"
I am going to give you the short-cut to success in beekeeping right here and now. The rest is merely elaboration and details. With apologies to C.S. Lewis (who said in A Horse and His Boy, “no one teaches riding quite as well as a horse”) I think you need to realize that “no one teaches beekeeping quite as well as bees.” Listen to them and they will teach you.
Trust the Bees
“There are a few rules of thumb that are useful guides. One is that when you are confronted with some problem in the apiary and you do not know what to do, then do nothing. Matters are seldom made worse by doing nothing and are often made much worse by inept intervention.”
—The How-To-Do-It book of Bee-keeping, Richard Taylor
If the question in your mind starts “how do I make the bees …” then you are already thinking wrongly. If your question is “how can I help them with what they are trying to do…” you are on your way to becoming a beekeeper.
Here, then, is the short answer to every beekeeping issue. Give them the resources to resolve the problem and let them. If you can’t give them the resources, then limit the need for the resources.
For instance if they are being robbed, what they need is more bees to defend the hive, but if you can’t give them that, then reduce the entrance to one bee wide and you will create the “pass at Thermopylae where numbers count for nothing”. If they are having wax moth issues in the hive, what they need are more bees to guard the comb. If you can’t give them that then reduce the area they need to guard by removing empty combs and empty space.
In other words, give them resources or reduce the need for the resources they don’t have.
Most bee problems come back to queen issues.
There are few solutions as universal in their application and their success, than adding a frame of open brood from another hive every week for three weeks. It is a virtual panacea for any queen issues. It gives the bees the pheromones to suppress laying workers. It gives them more workers coming in during a period where there is no laying queen. It does not interfere if there is a virgin queen. It gives them the resources to rear a queen. It is virtually foolproof and does not require finding a queen or seeing eggs or accurately diagnosing the problem. If you have any issue with queen rightness, no brood, worried that there is no queen, this is the simple solution that requires no worrying, no waiting, no hoping and no guessing. You just give them what
they need to resolve the situation. If you have any doubts about the queen rightness of a hive, give them some open brood and sleep well. Repeat once a week for two more weeks if you still aren't sure. By then things will be well on their way to being fine.
If you are afraid of transferring the queen from the queenright hive, because you are not good at finding queens, then shake or brush all the bees off before you give it to them.
If you are concerned about taking eggs from another new package or small colony, keep in mind that bees have little invested in eggs and the queen can lay far more eggs than a small colony can warm, feed and raise. Taking a frame of eggs from a small struggling new hive and swapping it for an empty comb or any drawn comb will have little impact on the donor colony and may save the recipient if they are indeed queenless. If the recipient didn't need a queen it will fill in the gap while the new queen gets mated and not interfere with things.
It saves a lot of worry and a lot of judging. Instead you can give them the resources and then observing what they do will probably give you a pretty good clue what really was going on. If they don't raise a queen, there is probably a virgin loose in there. If they do raise a queen, they obviously didn't have one or the one they had was not sufficient.