9 Ways to Reduce the Stress on Your Bees

Knowing that most everything beekeepers do to hives creates stress, here are ways to minimize those effects and keep your colony as healthy as possible.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Brad Smith/Flickr

In the first part of this series, we looked at the ways we stress our honeybee colonies as beekeepers. In this second installment on stress, we consider measures to make it easy on them.

1. Beware of Chemicals

The solution for this stressor is an easy one: Don’t spray! The complication comes when you live near other people and they spray their yards and gardens. If you live within several miles of another home or a farm, your bees probably come into contact with whatever these neighbors use on their landscapes. What can be done? If you feel you can do so respectfully, approach your neighbors and explain that you’re a beekeeper. Ask whether they use chemicals in their yards and gardens, and if so, which ones. Seek to educate those around you on the harmful effects chemicals can have on bees. Perhaps a bit of bribery, using some organic and chemical-free honey, will go a long way too.

2. Provide Adequate Resources

In true nectar deserts, it’s best not to keep bees at all. This European native, after all, is not well suited to every landscape. However, supporting your bees to the best of your abilities is your responsibility as a beekeeper. Read up on the pros and cons of feeding bees during a dearth, and certainly do your research when it comes to what to feed them (you can read more about supplemental feeding here).

3. Avoid a Dirty Hive

Keep the hive clean by reducing the amount of work on the bees. Remove obstacles, such as large objects and debris from within the hive. Keep foreign objects and unpleasant smelling things out of the hive as well, and you’ll have happier bees.

4. Minimize Transporting Bees

If you’re considering commercial beekeeping, it is an industry built on moving bees. But the typical hobby beekeeper is probably able to keep his or her bees stationary—as it should be. Honeybees naturally stay put. The only times bees move is when they swarm, or abscond a hive because of unsanitary conditions (another good reason to keep your hive clean).

5. Provide Natural Foods

If you do have to supplement your bees’ feed, do so with their natural food: honey. It contains the trace vitamins and minerals bees need to be truly healthy; also allow them to keep all of their pollen, if they’re particularly weak, as this is their primary protein source.

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6. Be Careful With Breeding Techniques and Manipulation

If you find that your breeding program is interfering with your bees’ health, it’s time to take a step back. Breeding and rearing weak bees is a bad idea anyway. Find the source of your bees’ ailments and address their health before continuing with your breeding program.

7. Avoid Excessive Harvesting

This is the most common way beekeepers stress their bees. We get excited when we see honey and we get greedy, harvesting more than we leave on the colony. Remember, honey is the bees’ winter storage—and they absolutely need it to survive. Leaving 40 to 60 pounds of honey at a minimum is best for giving the bees a fighting chance through winter.

8. Time Hive Splits Wisely

“Splitting” or dividing a hive can put a stress on the “mother” hive if she is already weak. Closely assess your colony’s health before conducting a split. If the bees are thriving, and the population is bursting at the seams, you know you have a strong enough hive to split.

9. Perform Inspections Only When Necessary

Every time we crack open the hive, we expose the bees’ isolated, dark and clean environment to the otherwise overwhelming world. For days, sometimes weeks, after an inspection, your bees might be repairing the damage you did in just 45 minutes. Once you’re an established beekeeper, conduct inspections only with intention. Know what you are looking for, and don’t dilly dally while the hive is open. Be slow, gentle and thorough, and reduce your damage as much as possible.

With a few mindful techniques, you can be a gentle beekeeper. Know what stresses bees throughout the year, and you can reduce the negative impact on them significantly. You’ll have healthier and happier bees for it.

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