Beekeepers of all skill levels know that beekeeping is a continuous learning experience. The best way to learn is through hands-on practice. Also, there are many outside resources these days available to beekeepers.
Try networking with others in your area to learn pests, pollination, honeyflow, and overwintering precautions for your location (beekeeping in Montana is not the same as beekeeping in Florida, for example). Join a local beekeeping club and / or take a class or two. Subscribe to a good beekeeping magazine and join some online bee forums. Check out your state's beekeeper's association, if you have one. A good book or two on beekeeping can be helpful also.
Don't get discouraged--trial and error is a part of every beekeeper's experience, and there are many obstacles these days in beekeeping!
Feeding Your Bees
If you're starting a new hive, keep in mind that the bees need a lot of energy to get started, the equivalent of approximately 3 lbs of honey in energy, to draw out the wax on a single new frame of foundation (and make a place for the queen to lay). Always keep your bees well-fed, with sugar water (1:1 sugar/water) or honey in constant supply until the hive has built up, even if there appears to be enough forage outside the hive. A frame of drawn comb or honey from a healthy existing hive, added to a new hive, can help boost the buildup process.
Well-fed bees are more likely to be healthy and pest-resistant in the long run. Make sure your bees have food at all times--if there is plenty of nectar in your area, and the bees are making lots of honey you can stop feed. If the bees are storing most of the sugar water you provide this may also be a sign you can cut back on feed. Starving worker bees will often stand in place with their heads in the empty cells of the comb, or even cannibalize the larvae in their hive. Pollen patties or commercial nutritional supplements are very good to provide extra nutrition & help your bees stay healthy--these are available from most bee supply shops.
If your package came from Koehnen’s, the bees will be healthy and as pest-free as possible since the hives your bees originated from are treated on a regular schedule throughout the year. It is highly encouraged to treat your new hive before there is capped brood, because that is where the mites will hide and reproduce. Choosing your treatment carefully as to not disrupt the hive too much is critical. Many chemical treatments will put added stress on the bees and can cause your queen to stop laying temporarily, slowing down the buildup of your hive.
For advice on what to treat with and when, please check your local bee resources (clubs, fellow beekeepers, agricultural extension, etc.). Some pests (such as the small hive beetle) are not found in all areas. We recommend everyone treats for Varroa mites, as they are everywhere (and a mite infestation may not be apparent in a strong hive until it is too late). There are many commercial mite treatments available; check with a beekeeping supply store such as Dadant or Mann Lake.
Bees overwinter well in all but the most extreme climates, with a bit of care. In a milder climate (such as California's Sacramento valley), no frost-protection is needed. In a colder climate with lots of snow or extended freezes you may need to shelter the hives or insulate them--check local resources for ideas based on your area's conditions. A healthy hive is very good at regulating the hive temperature (94 degrees F) in all but the coldest areas.
If you have screened bottom boards you may want to replace them with solid ones to keep out the cold and wind. Remove any empty supers to make the inside of the hive smaller, thus, aiding the bees in warming the space.
Bees should always be fed over the winter or left with sufficient honey. They also must be able to access their foodsource easily (bees that are too cold cannot move to their food source and will starve, even if the food is nearby). It's best for winter food source to be located above the winter cluster of bees rather than below or to the side.
Why aren't my bees making honey? Bees make honey by fanning collected nectar with their wings until the water contained in it evaporates, leaving the thick liquid honey behind. It takes a LOT of nectar to make just a little honey. The most common reason that your bees are not making honey is lack of nectar flow in your location. Very dry or wet weather will affect the amount of nectar available in your area--check with local resources to find out what is available, and when.
Your bees also might not have enough to eat--in such a case they will eat all the honey they can make. Allow your hive to build up before you extract honey--remember honey is an important and nutritious food source for the bees, not just the beekeeper!
If you are picking up a small order of package bees, please consider the following in regards to transporting them: Bees need VENTILATION. You must carry your packages in a vehicle where they can get air flow. Do not place objects smashed up against the package screens or bury them under other items. If transporting a few packages in your car, the back seat or the passenger seat is ideal with the fan in your car turned on (open windows work too, just make sure there is good air flow). Cold air is not as important as AIR in general, although if it's hot, air conditioning will help. Trunks or storage containers are not acceptable for transport, as there is no airflow and the bees will suffocate. If you are transporting in the bed of a pickup, small numbers of packages can be placed easily up against the cab, so that the bees get air but are not blasted by freeway winds. When the bees are getting too warm or uncomfortable, they will become loud, and cover the screens of the package. If they are comfortable they will be quieter, and hang calmly in a cluster around the queen at center of the package.
If you are picking up a LARGE order of package bees, please call to discuss transport logistics. Over the years we have seen many tragedies happen due to driver shortsight in planning, or negligence during transport. Certain types of trailers DO NOT WORK. Some things to remember for larger loads are: Bees need VENTILATION. We cannot emphasize this enough! The larger the load, the warmer the bees will become, and the more ventilation will be needed. Bees should be hauled from pickup to destination without stopping, ideally, unless special fans/venting can run while your vehicle sits still. Transporting in a trailer without sufficient suspension, or transporting over a very bumpy road will cause problems also--in this case the bees are continually knocked to the bottom of their cages, and the sugar syrup will splash out. The bees become coated in syrup, and too tired to reform the cluster. If transporting in an open pickup or trailer, extreme cold should also be taken into account--they can freeze to death.
When moving an established beehive, the main thing to remember is always move your bees in the very early morning or evening, just after sundown. This ensures that the maximum number of bees will be home in the hive and not flying.
The most common reason for bees to swarm is that they have outgrown their hive, and the queen has little room left to lay (although other factors can cause it too). In this case you should add another super, or split the hive. If you have multiple supers you can also take some fresh, unpulled foundation and place it in the main brood chamber--switching things around and causing the bees to focus on pulling the new comb rather than flying away.
Queens, Requeening, etc.
Most beekeepers nowadays requeen their hives every year. However, this is not necessary always, as an exceptional, productive queen can live for up to 4 years. If you have a strong queen, and don't wish to replace her, we suggest monitoring her laying closely, about every 2-3 weeks, so that she doesn't start to fail in the off-season. There should always be plentiful eggs and larvae. Replacement queens are hard to come by in the fall and winter months. Keep in mind some types of queen will lay less over winter and early Spring, such as the Carniolan, as a survival adaptation for harsher climates.
A queen that starts to lay drones only, or lays nothing at all might have run out of semen (due to her age or poor mating), or might have been damaged somehow. Certain chemicals as well as extreme cold have been shown to damage a queen's viability as well. Sometimes it's hard to know why a queen fails.
Make sure your queen has plenty of drawn comb to lay in, and that the hive is pest-free, and well-fed. If you have recently treated for a pest, it's possible your queen has temporarily stopped laying due to the treatment. Or, if you've installed a new queen recently, give her several days to start laying. If you've monitored your queen a while, and she still is not laying, you probably need a new queen. Like most things in nature, we don't always know why things are not "normal".
Another sign that a queen is gone or not laying properly, is queen cells (nature cells) starting to develop in the hive. The workers in this case are trying to make a new queen. If there are viable eggs or young larvae in the hive from the previous queen, one or more of these queen cells will hatch and a new queen will emerge. The virgin queen will kill any other unhatched queen cells. Then she will fly off to mate with whatever drones are in the area. In some areas this might be a concern if there are a lack of drones, or undesirable drones (such as Africanized drones) nearby. This is why it is generally best to purchase a new queen from a reputable breeder.