Advice for beekeepers in their first years

Beekeeping Tips From A Walrus

wild comb on an upturned roof
Wild comb made by a swarm (try to avoid this!)

Just in case there are any fairly new or potential keepers of bees reading my blog, here is a quick run through of things to know that will probably help. At this point, I’m assuming that you have bought your hive(s) and installed bees, so what now?

Patience, Young Padawan

Once you have installed bees and started to feed them syrup, your job is just about done for the next few weeks. The bees have much work to do; comb to be drawn, eggs laid and brood raised. The foragers must learn the layout of the land and bring home bundles of pollen. They will be just fine without a beekeeper prodding around in their new home. You can check on the syrup feeder every couple of days and top it up when empty, at least for the first week. The more foundation they have to draw into deep wax comb, the more feeding they need. Only if they are not taking syrup would I be tempted to lift the cover board and have a look. Otherwise, they should be fine for two or three weeks.

Inspection Questions

When you do inspect them, it’s easy to get side tracked into marvelling at the wonders on view, but the best course of action is to answer some simple questions and close up.

Is there a laying queen? You don’t actually need to see her majesty, but few can resist pulling out every frame until they do. If you find eggs and young brood, the chances are that the queen is in there. The most likely cause of them not having a queen is the beekeeper; bees are good at survival, for which a healthy queen is essential. If you find queen cells and no eggs, you have probably lost the queen. You will learn to tell the difference between emergency and swarm cells, especially if you read this. If you have no queen, leave x1 queen cell, remove all the others, and stay away for four weeks; they will make a new one.

Do they have enough space? In the early season, the colony should be growing fast. They need space for the queen to lay her eggs, and space for the bees themselves. In the daytime, many bees are out and about, so bear that in mind when assessing the amount of room they have. Once your frames are drawn out, the brood box will be full of bees, and it will be time to add a super. At first, your frames will be foundation; more work for the wax building bees in the hive. They won’t draw wax unless there is a honey flow, or they are being fed sugar syrup.

Any signs of disease or abnormality? This is one of those things that you learn with experience, but there are some simple things to check. You want a nice, uniform brood pattern rather than a scattergun pattern, and sealed brood should look pristine. The open brood (larvae) should be pearly white, not yellow, and not twisted into odd shapes. As larvae develop, they should all end up in a ‘C’ shape. Chalk brood is easy to spot, and can be fixed by changing the queen, but a little is not a problem. If your colony is growing slowly, or dwindling in size, then something is probably wrong. Once you get used to seeing what’s ‘right’ then it quickly becomes apparent when there’s a concern…but that takes time.

Are there enough stores? In our country, at any time of the year, it can rain for several days (or weeks) even in the summer. When it’s raining the bees will mostly stay inside the hive consuming stores (honey and pollen). Big colonies, confined for a week, can eat a lot. If you have honey in supers, the bees can dip into that. There is often some honey and pollen at the edges of the brood nest too. Before supers are on I like to see two frames of stores in my brood boxes, but I use Langstroth hives, which are larger than the widely used (in the UK) Nationals. If they run out, they need feeding.

Bee Space

Under the right conditions, honey bees will build comb because they require space to store food and for the queen to lay eggs. Bees of a certain age (1 – 3 weeks old) have to do something with the wax that they are producing. Occasionally, they just dump it on the tops of frames. Anyway, if you leave space in the hive they will typically build comb in that space, but not in the way that beekeepers prefer. In some of my ‘double brood’ hives, they build combs between the frames of the top and bottom boxes, sticking them together. Then, when you separate them, you find drone larvae laying about – ripped from their cells and left exposed.

Bees leave a space between the combs that they make so that they can walk between them. This ‘bee space’ is important. Modern hives are designed to take advantage of this trait. If we leave too much space, such as by missing out a frame or two from a hive, or leaving a large gap above or below frames, we get brace comb. This is a mess to clean up and the act of scraping it off risks accidentally killing the queen, so it’s best avoided.

We also talk about top and bottom bee space. When hive boxes are stacked, we want there to be the correct bee space between the frames in each box. My situation with double brood colonies described above is because the bee space is wrong – this can be when the frames have chunkier top bars than those for which the hive was designed. With ‘top bee space’ the frame bottoms are flush with the bottom of the box, so there is 8 mm-9 mm of space above the top bars. Conversely, ‘bottom bee space’ hives have the frame tops flush with the top of the box, leaving a space below the frame bottoms for bees to wander. My preference is for top bee space; another advantage of Langstroth over Nationals.

So, the advice is to always fill your boxes with the correct number of frames, and don’t mix boxes that have different bee space (top & bottom). If you have empty hives lying about, and they are not full of frames, when you catch a swarm, as often happens in May/June, they will make sheets of beautiful natural comb, hanging down from the lid. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to inspect such comb without wrecking it, which is why we tend to use frames.

Reading Brood Frames

It helps to know what you are looking for as you hold up a frame from the brood box and marvel at its contents. The classic frame from near the middle of the nest has a honey arch at the outside, then pollen, then brood at various stages (eggs, larvae, pupae). Frames at the edge of the nest tend to have a fair bit of pollen, plus some honey, and thereafter, as we move towards the outside frames, mostly just honey. Bees tend to store the honey far away from the entrance at the edges and back.

Diagram of a brood frame
Classic brood frame (c) Steve Donohoe

However, there are many situations where the classic frame is not what you see. If you have prolific bees in a small box, such as a National brood box, you may find that almost every frame is brood – so called ‘wall to wall’. With such limited space, many bees will try to swarm. There is also a risk of pollen being stored above the brood, in the first super – not really a problem in my opinion, but some people don’t like it. I don’t get that with Langstroth hives because they are bigger.

The pattern of brood, pollen, and honey in frames will be different depending on where the frame sits in the hive, but also the orientation of the hive. The ‘cold way’ of arranging frames (frames perpendicular to the entrance wall) tends to have honey at the side of the frame near to the back of the hive, with brood towards the front. With frames oriented in the ‘warm way’ – parallel to the entrance wall – you get the classic central arch. Langstroths are all ‘cold way’ so I don’t even think about it, but Nationals, being square, can be arranged either way. I have no idea if one is better than the other. Presumably, if you like inspecting from the side, you use the cold way, and if you inspect from the back, the warm way.

Apart from looking at colony health, there are big clues on brood frames telling us what is going on. For example, if they are wet with nectar, which easily drips out if you shake the frame (or even tilt it) then a honey flow is on. Happy days, but make sure you have plenty of supers. Moreover, removing frames of capped honey from the brood box, and replacing with empty comb or foundation frames, can provide space for queens to lay and delay the swarming impulse. I would put the empty comb at the edge of the brood nest, not the edge of the hive.

Many people struggle to see eggs, but once you know what they look like it gets easier. I think it is important to be able to see them, so there is no shame wearing reading glasses if needed, although that can get awkward. You would rather not lift your veil to remove your glasses anywhere near the bees. I suppose a magnifying lens might do the trick. If you see eggs, it’s quite likely that you have a laying queen. If I find queen cells in a hive, but they are not yet sealed, and I also find eggs on frames, I’m normally pretty confident that the queen is at home. However, if I find sealed queen cells and no eggs, she’s almost certainly gone.

If the queen is laying at a constant rate, the ratio of eggs to larvae to pupae will be about 1 : 2 : 4, which is good to know. If it looks different, then something is afoot. For example, a new queen who is just getting going will have numerous eggs in the hive but few larvae and no sealed brood. If a queen has stopped laying, there will be no eggs, few or no larvae and just sealed brood. If there is no brood at all, there’s been no laying queen for 24 days. That means you either have a virgin queen in there, or no queen at all. Virgins are hard to spot, so using a ‘test-frame’ can help to answer that conundrum. Insert a frame which has eggs on (from another hive) and check on it a few days later; if they make queen cells, they are queenless. Otherwise, you have a queen of some sort.


It helps enormously, even for experienced beekeepers, to chat to others and compare notes, ask questions and bounce ideas off each other. Initially, you will benefit from a mentor, but later on, they will just become one of several ‘bee buddies’. It’s good to share. We can all learn something.

3 thoughts on “Advice for beekeepers in their first years

  1. Hi Steve
    In the case above of a lost queen, you suggest removing all queen cells except one. Wally Shaw writes at the bottom of p4 of the booklet you point us to: ‘Supersedure and emergency queen cells do not usually require any intervention from the beekeeper – except to leave the bees well alone and let them get on with it.’
    I’ve always thought the only reason to remove queen cells is to prevent cast swarms. What is the thinking behind removing emergency queen cells?

    • Hi Archie, pleased that somebody out there reads my posts! haha
      I agree that with EQCs it’s best to let the bees sort it out…probably. I linked to the excellent Wally Shaw article rather than write about all of the possibilities. I was trying to see it from a begiiners perspective and the safest thing to do is probably leave x1 open cell, in case they are swarm cells. I have seen many a ‘supercedure cell’ turn into a swarm, so I think it takes experience to know what’s going on (time of season, conditions, colony state etc). He says in his ‘Swarming Biology & Control’ book that over 9 times out of ten when a beekeeper opens a hive and finds queen cells it’s swarming.
      But you make a fair point, good sir, especially if it’s later in the season.

  2. Thanks Steve. I agree. Assuming qcs are supersedure often results in lost swarms. If more than two cells, one should probably think ‘swarm cells’.
    I guess I was focussed on the situation you describe, where you have a small new (bought?) colony, where for some reason the queen has disappeared. If you can be sure a swarm hasn’t left, then it’s likely these cells are emergency. With a full-size colony, it’s certainly true that it sometimes can be difficult to tell whether has swarm has left, just by looking at the number of bees.

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