Do I Need a Second Beehive?

Our “Newbee Questions, Expert Answers” series, takes the questions of a curious, fascinated, worried, perplexed and sometimes downright confused “newbee” and provides expert responses.

In this edition…

With his first hive up and running, Mark is learning a ton! But he’s heard that the learning accelerates with another hive.

Is that true…?

Mark: I’m enjoying my first hive but have so much to learn! Some folks have suggested I get another hive. Why would I do that? I have enough to worry about as it is!

In my classes I always suggest starting with two hives, as a minimum. If you only have one hive, how is a beginner to know if the hive is doing well or not? With two it’s easy to compare and it speeds up the beginners learning process.

Sometimes a new beekeeper will “roll” the queen accidentally and kill her. A second hive provides the opportunity to simply take a frame of eggs from the healthy hive and add it to the queenless hive. In most cases the bees will make a new queen for themselves. If you only have one hive and lose the queen you’re done until next season.

Mark: OK, so if a second hive is worthwhile I will need another package of bees, right? No one seems to sell them this late in the season.

You are correct of course. Package bees sell out early in the season – think February. However it’s possible you could find some locally raised bees and purchase a nuc. Locally raised bees that are treatment free is your best option.

Mark: If I went with a nuc, what’s the process? And where do I find nucs?

Check with your local bee club first to see if any of their members have bees for sale. You could also check on craigslist. Be sure to ask if the bees are being treated for mites or disease and what chemical or anti-biotic was being used in the hive. Just keep in mind that whatever was being treated will begin to express itself once again when the treatment stops.

Mark: Catching a swarm sounds like a potential nightmare for a newbee! That’s only for experienced beekeepers, right?

I would say the answer to that question is yes and no. Some of the funniest stories told in beekeeping circles are of new beekeepers collecting swarms. Imagine hanging from the same branch the bees are on about 15 to 20 feet in the air with angry bees, stirred up by the beekeeper himself, crawling up your pant legs and you can see what I mean.

However, it doesn’t have to be hard.

Ask the right questions about the swarm, take the right equipment and even a beginning beekeeper can collect a swarm without incident. Recently a student of mine went out and caught a swarm successfully the day after we had addressed the topic in class. A little training and education can go a long way.

Mark: Another option I read about was just to take brood comb with one frame and transfer them to the new one. Any issues with that?

The beekeeper must first determine if the cells are swarm cells or supersedure cells. What is the brood pattern like? Is the queen healthy, are the bees calm or feisty, the bees may be attempting to replace her. If she is ailing, or possibly dead, and you take supersedure cells from the hive you may cause the hive to be queenless. Supersedure cells are normally found mid-frame while swarm cells are normally found along the bottom and along the edges of frames.

Mark: If I do the swarm cell, is there a chance I will transfer the queen accidentally?

If you cannot find her then yes, it’s certainly possible, but that’s not necessarily the end of the world.

Mark: Where should I place the second hive?

You can place it just a few feet away if you want. If you do the split mid-day, while the field bees are at work, they will return to the original hive. The frames of brood that you took to form the new hive will contain nurse bees and they won’t leave the brood to return to the original hive. It’s important to get enough capped brood, nurse bees and stores for the new hive to be successful.

Mark: Won’t the new hive want to rob the existing one?

Generally that won’t be a problem, but robbing is always a consideration when a hive is small and cannot defend itself. Any new hive you make should have the entrance reduced down to the smallest opening to make it easier for the bees to defend the hive.

Mark: Is there any value in trying a different type of bees, so I can get experience with more than one type? For example, I have Italian bees right now. Should I consider Russian bees?

My own view of this would be to leave the experimenting for a time down the road when you have a little more experience under your belt. The greatest hurdle for a beginning beekeeper is successfully keeping your bees alive. Therefore I would suggest spending your time looking for locally raised bees, preferably untreated, so you are improving your chances for success.

Mark: Should I use this as an opportunity to try another type of hive? I have a Langstroth right now.

I believe the Langs are a safer choice as a place for the beginning beekeeper to start, but in this crazed beekeeping world they are often talked down. Everyone is welcome to their own opinion and will make their own choices about what is the best hive for them. I’m good with all that, but if you’re asking my opinion, I would say wait until you have two or three years of experience under your belt.

Just one example, the issue of cross comb will often present itself immediately with the other types of hives. This can be dealt with, but a beginner’s eye is not yet trained for finding the queen and while working to correct the issues of cross comb a newbie could harm or even kill the queen.

Also, it’s much easier to find someone who has experience and can offer assistance with a Langstroth than with the other hive types, though this is beginning to change.

Mark: I have foundationless frames in my existing hive. Should I go with foundation in the new one?

Ah yes, now we come to the foundationless debate. Does it mean someone is adrift in the beekeeping world, with no foundation, or is it so cutting edge the masses haven’t caught on yet? Therein lays the mystery Grasshopper. (Ok, some of you young folk won’t get the Grasshopper thing. “Nevermind”. Oops, sorry again, that’s Gilda Radner – of Rosanne Rosanna Danna fame on Saturday Night Live. If you didn’t get the Grasshopper thing you probably don’t know Gilda, so “Nevermind”)

On to the foundation vs foundationless question.

I have to admit my bias toward going foundationless. Let’s allow the bees to do what the bees need to do. But like everything in beekeeping there is more than one answer to the question. So let’s consider a real life example.

In my class this year I have a few folks who chose to go with Warre and Top Bar hives. Excellent hives, so please don’t interpret this as opposing those types of hives. The question is are they right for the beginner?

After some gentle warnings to my students about the issue of cross comb, some students decided to go strictly foundationless. A few weeks after the installation of their packages, what do you think these folks were dealing with? Cross comb of course. Not in every hive, but enough to give them great grief. While others in the class were moving forward along the learning curve, making hive inspections, gaining confidence and increasing their understanding of how a colony works, the other folks were learning how to deal with a mess of cross comb and hoping they wouldn’t harm the queen in the process.

But the story doesn’t end there. One of those individuals wanted some help fixing the cross comb mess and called upon a very experienced beekeeping friend to help them out. While dealing with the cross comb they, in hind sight, believe they must have kept the hive open to long and the colony absconded.

The point of all this is that foundationless is something to consider, but it may not be the place for new beekeepers to begin. So what you might consider with a second hive is alternating foundation with foundationless frames. That would be better than one hundred percent foundation and by alternating frames the chance for cross comb is greatly reduced.

Mark: What other variables might I adjust with a second hive? This is costing me an arm and a leg! Not sure if I want to pay twice as much.

You’ve already incurred the major expense of equipment such as a smoker, clothing, hive tool etc., so adding another hive, while not cheap, won’t be as great as when you started up. As previously discussed, a second hive will do a lot to advance your understanding of beekeeping. It’s also insurance, so to speak, that if you lost your first hive you won’t be done until next year.

Mark: OK, so the cost might not be so bad, but it’s going to double the time every time I do an inspection.

Hey, we are having fun here aren’t we? I have nineteen hives and a friend refers to it as “a lot of work”. Is having fun ever work? We all know the answer to that.

As you become more proficient at hive inspections you will find that a typical look inside the hive is quite short. A person should keep notes about each colony and have a reason for looking inside the hive, or a question to answer. Once the question is answered, or the information you needed is acquired, you can button things up. You do not need to go through the entire hive each time you do an inspection.

Thanks for the questions Mark. Keep your buzz on!