When other beekeepers observe me working my hives, I often get comments about how gentle I am with my bees. I make a conscious effort not to crush any bees, but until recently, I did not realize how abnormal this was. Unfortunately, all you have to do is get on YouTube to see how most beekeepers handle their bees. If you are a commercial beekeeper with hundreds of hives, you probably cannot afford to spend the extra time, but for hobbyists there is really no reason to be crushing so many bees. Read on for helpful tips on how to be more gentle during hive inspections.
Many new beekeepers believe they should move quickly through a hive during inspections. They are worried about having the hive open for too long. Although this is a valid concern, it is better to take your time and move slowly. I often tell my students to move like they are doing tai chi: slow and controlled. When you move quickly you are more likely to drop, bang or scrape a frame and crush bees in the process. Each time a bee is crushed, she releases an alarm pheromone that agitates the hive. Fast movements also translate as more threatening to the bees and may cause them to react more defensively.
Usually when beginners struggle with the physical movements involved with inspecting a hive, their gloves are to blame. Many beekeepers wear gloves that are too big for them, but this is especially true for women. When handling the frames, the gloves get caught and can cause bumps and drops that would not have happened if you had more control. If your gloves are roomy, the bees cannot sting through them as easily, however you will lose dexterity. I prefer to wear tighter-fitting goat skin leather gloves or nitrile gloves. These days, I mostly wear nitrile. I only get stung through them when the bees are especially mean or when I accidentally put my finger down right on a bee. They don’t breathe like the leather, but the added dexterity is great. Other beekeepers prefer to wear no gloves at all. I live in an Africanized zone so, this is not an option for me, but once you are confident working your bees it could be an option for you.
Bounce & Slide
Beekeepers probably crush the most bees when they are trying to put their hive back together. Restacking a Langstroth hive without crushing bees is a difficult feat. This is one reason why I love Top Bar Hives, its much harder to accidentally crush bees working this style of hive. But no matter what the hive style, I always bounce or slide the hive components as I put them back together. When you lower a frame back into the hive, for example, do so slowly and as you get close to making contact with the box, gently bounce the frame up and down so any bees in the way can move. This technique works great when pushing top bars back together as well. When you need to stack your supers you can bounce them or slowly slide them onto the top of the other box.
I also use my smoker as a tool for not crushing bees. If you are trying to push frames together and there are bees in the way, just use a few puffs of smoke to drive the bees away from the area you are working. When restacking supers, smoke across the top of the lower super before adding the upper one.
If you enjoyed this article and want more practical tips on hive inspections, check out my latest online beekeeping class! Use the promo code BACKYARDBEEKS to receive $10 off. Watch the trailer below.
Photos by Cam Buker.