Keep Your Bees Healthy

busy bees at the entrance to a homemade hive

Bee populations have been battered by myriad challenges recently. Infestations, diseases, and climate conditions can all conspire to make it difficult to keep your buzzing friends in happy working order from one year to the next, but the biggest honey harvests come from longer-lived and more developed hives. Here’s a guide to keeping your bees healthy as the colony builds its home, and your honey supply.

Inspect Your Bees Regularly

It’s important to check in on your hive regularly, looking for any issues you can address before they worsen. However, hive inspection is very disruptive to the bees and can set back colonization and production by one day for each inspection. With this in mind, aim to inspect your hive every seven to 10 days during the early spring season.

When inspecting, wear safety gear that covers your face and body, with closures at the wrist and ankles. Prepare your smoker and apply smoke once it's billowing out consistently. Slowly take apart the layers of the hive, while intermittently smoking as you progress.

Start your inspection at the lowest box. Inspect each wax frame, pulling one at a time. Try to identify the queen, and look for eggs and larvae. Also look for any pests in the hive such as varroa mites, wax moth larvae, or foulbrood. Keep the frames in order as you work.

Once your inspection of the lower box is complete, rebuild the entire hive, checking each box as you move upward.

beekeeper tending hives

Test For Mites

To check for infestations of dangerous insects, you can order a kit or improvise a lab. Brush some bees off your hive into a container with powdered sugar. Cover it and rotate it gently to coat all the bugs, then shake it a bit to jostle any smaller insects off your bees. Release the bees and get out of their way as they return to the hive, then return to see if you can find any tiny, reddish mites on the bottom of the container.

If you have more than one or two, you might want to consider a treatment for your hive. Tread carefully, though. Many of the substances that can kill infestations can be dangerous if they get incorporated into the honey supply.

Apiary Maintenance

The apiary is your bee’s home, so making sure it remains in good condition is vital for the colony. Watch for warped or cracked boards, mold, rust, and rot. Repair or replace boards as needed when you see any of these issues. This helps protect the hive from weather and pests.

Feed Your Hive

Your bees store honey to feed their colony, but there's no reason you can't supplement their food supply with regular doses of sugar water (50/50 is a good ratio). It will keep their energy levels up, and let them hold off on dipping into their stores.

Pick up a tray to place an inverted jar at their entrance (just punch some pinholes in the jar's top to let the sweet snacks drip out slowly), or install a feeding level above the top of your hive below the roof. In the winter, liquids in the hive can be a hazard, so you can feed bees a sugar solid called fondant, or just give them raw, granulated sugar.

Add Excluders and Supers

Although they're not mandatory, your hive will benefit from both excluders and supers. An excluder is a filter that keeps the queen from laying eggs on the honeycombs but allows worker bees to move through it. Installing and excluder makes your job much easier when it comes time to harvest the honey.

Supers provide more space at the top of the hive. Start with one super as honey production begins and add more as needed. When harvest time comes, remember to leave at least one full super of honey for your bees to eat during winter.

bee excluder hive attachment

Mind Your Beeswax

Sometimes beeswax gets dislodged from the hive, either from regular bee activity or from your nosy inspections. Be sure there is always empty beeswax in the hive for your colony to use.

Protect from Wind

Your hive will not do well if it's continually buffeted by windy conditions. Protect your hive by choosing a good location with wind protection. If you find that wind is still a problem, build a fence or wall to block the wind, and always weigh down the top of your hive with a rock or other object that will help keep it in place when the wind picks up. This will also help discourage larger animals like bears and raccoons from trying to get into your honey.

Protect from Weather

Wind isn’t the only natural element that can damage your hives. Rain, snow, and even sun can have bad impacts, too. You can protect your hive with a small cover, as simple or elaborate as you'd like. Leave a clear path from the entrance for the bees to do their daily exploring, and be careful not to block the sides so tightly you prevent cooling air flow. Also, make sure you leave yourself access to inspect and harvest the hives.

Winter is an especially dangerous time for bee colonies. Any internal moisture can freeze, small predatory insects can strike, and resources can grow scarce. Make sure your hive is warm enough by wrapping it in a cozy and blocking most (but not all) of the entrance to keep out the cold.

Keep the Critters out

In addition to weighing down the lid, consider elevating your hive if you have a problem with skunks or other bug-eating buddies. Mice and other rodents may also try to benefit from your honey production. To keep them out, purchase a mouse guard that fits on the opening of the hive.

Smaller critters, mainly unwelcome bugs like wood-eating termites, should be treated with bee-safe insecticides applied to the soil nearby. Always keep your hive free from leaves, dirt, and other debris that encourage insect development.