Beekeeping (Apiculture) can be a rewarding way to round out your food security strategy. While providing your family with healthy honey, you’ll also contribute to the pollination of food crops.
Realistically, you’ll probably encounter health issues, especially if you don’t work to prevent them. While some preventative measures are specific to each colony’s location, there are some universal practices that will help your bees stay healthy.
Like most types of farming, you’re at the mercy of the weather & climate change, diseases, predators like the Giant Asian Hornet, and other factors. Focus on what you can control and build a strong colony that can better deal with things you can’t control.
How to Keep Your Pet Bees Healthy
- Get Local Bees – Ordering bees in from distant locations may defeat you before you start. Non-local bees aren’t acclimated to your area and may not have the local resources they require to be healthy. You can usually pick up a nucleus (nuc) from a local beekeeper.
- Natural Diet – Leave your bees enough honey so they can eat it. The only time you should have to feed them is when you first get a new nuc or package in the spring. Once they start producing, you can let them have their own honey for food. You’ll save time, money and effort, then be rewarded with better honey. All you have to do is ensure that they have plenty of flowering plants readily available.
- Give Them Room – You want to ensure that your bees have room to produce and spread out in their hives. If they are becoming overpopulated, you can get a new queen and start a new hive by relocating some of the bees. Let your bees build the cells that they want rather than providing foundations; this way they’ll have enough room.
- Let Them Die – When a hive becomes unproductive and the bees are ill, it’s best to let them die so that you don’t keep producing sickly bees. Instead, attract the healthy bees away from the hive with a new queen and let the rest go. If they get sick from mites, it’s better to let them go than to treat them because most treatments are ineffective.
The health of your bees is largely up to Mother Nature. Your job is to keep an eye on them, ensure that you have a queen, provide ample space, and keep a constant supply of flowering plants nearby.
When you’re new to bee keeping, you’re going to make mistakes and learn as you go. However, you can learn from the mistakes of others before making them yourself.
The most common mistakes beekeepers make are:
1. Not Learning About Your Location – The first thing you need to do is focus on learning about local bee keeping. You may find clubs and associations nearby that will connect you with local beekeepers. The bee keeping community prides itself on working together for the greater good.
2. Incorrect Feeding – As we’ve already established, honey and pollen are the best foods for bees. How much honey you should leave for your bees when you harvest, will depend largely on your location and what kind of winter you’re expecting. In addition, your bees need to have several good frames of pollen to get through the winter. Nectar is a critical source of carbohydrates, while pollen provides vitamins, minerals, lipids and protein (along with all 10 essential amino acids). Clean water should also be available.
There are conditions and situations in which experts recommend supplementing the bee diet. Starvation is a common cause of colony death, but overfeeding could also hurt your hive.
3. Treating for Mites – Most mite treatments aren’t effective. If you know you have a mite infestation, most recommend letting the bees die off or humanely euthanizing them to avoid contamination.
Some recommend treating an infestation organically with essential oils like thyme and mint, but not everyone agrees. There are some concerns because bees react to their environment due to smells and pheromones, which can be interrupted with essential oils. To treat or not to treat is a tough choice, but many green beekeepers are successful in building healthy colonies without treatment.
4. Starting at the Wrong Time – Start with two colonies in the spring, when the first flowers of the season are blooming.
Pests and Diseases in Honeybees
It’s important to learn about pests and diseases that are commonly found in local bee colonies. Prevention is the best strategy, but you should be knowledgeable enough about each ailment to catch it early and treat if possible.
Like any animal, honey bees can get diseases and are infected with pests on occasion, such as:
Foulbrood disease is the main issue in Europe and North America, with each type being slightly different. It is a serious problem and is often transferred through unclean beekeeping practices. Keep tools, equipment, and hands clean to avoid the problem.
Stonebrood and Chalkbrood are caused by fungi that occurs worldwide. It attacks larvae that are only four days old and there is no cure.
The best course is prevention. Select healthy bee nucs and packages that are locally bred from proven-healthy hives. In addition, set up your hives so that the front tips forward slightly to allow rain water to escape. During especially humid times, you might want to prop the lid to help it air out. In addition, replace brood combs every five years or so.
There are a lot of ideas about how to control honey bee viruses, but one of the main ways is to use local bees and avoid importing them. There is always some natural migration, but it is thought that many viruses are due to imported bees not having the same resistance as local bees. What this means it that the bees did not inherit natural immunity to local viruses.
Some common viral diseases are Sacbrood, Chronic Bee Paralysis, Black Queen Cell Virus and Deformed Wing Virus.
Finding the Original Source of Infection
It’s important to understand that hives may be suffering from more than one malady. Consequently, they may present more than one symptom and be difficult to accurately diagnose. For example, they may experience secondary infections from a weakened immune system or pests may introduce and spread infections.
“There are a number of viruses that affect honey bees, many of which are associated with Varroa mites,” says The Canadian Best Practices for Honey Bee Health. “The mites act as a vector for the virus, and stress from Varroa parasitism lowers the immune system of the bees and increases susceptibility.”
Learn about common pests like mites and the Wax Moth in this video, from the University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre. Their YouTube channel has many other helpful bee keeping videos to learn from.
Start Healthy, Stay Healthy
We can’t prevent everything that could possibly happen to our pet bees, but we can help by starting right, being vigilant, cleaning, checking your bees’ environment, and providing natural care.
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