If you google “beekeeping myths”, you’ll find several articles that discuss myths that would mostly only be believed by people who do not keep bees and have never studied honeybees or beekeeping. That’s not what I’ve created here. This page discusses myths that are actually believed by many (or even most) experienced beekeepers and are also frequently taught by beekeeping instructors. When I began putting this page together, I thought maybe I’d come up with 5 myths, but one lead to another and another and another. I really enjoyed writing this and I hope you enjoy reading it. It really is amazing how much misinformation about beekeeping exists right within the beekeeping community itself.
Bees prefer to work upward - This is the biggest myth in beekeeping and is firmly believed by most commercial beekeepers, state inspectors and beekeeping instructors. What’s ridiculous is that it takes little more than common sense and a bit of experimentation to prove that there is no truth to it. There are at least a few ways to examine and discuss this, so let’s start by looking at what bees do in nature. Since bees never attach their combs to the bottom of any cavity (and because of this little thing called gravity), common sense dictates that they must attach their combs to the “ceiling” and build down. Warré knew that bees always build down in nature. Since his whole philosophy was to keep bees in the most natural way possible, traditional Warré Hive Management requires that the hive be enlarged by adding boxes to the bottom of the hive.
We all should easily be able to accept that bees build down in nature, but obviously this myth came from somewhere and somehow continues to be propagated. So how did it come to be and why do so many seemingly intelligent people continue to accept it as honeybee gospel? The answer can be summed up in two words; Langstroth beekeeping. Using a Langstroth hive and following his methodology is the most common means of keeping bees in the United States, and has been since the latter part of the19th century. While the Warré management style is bee-friendly, the entire premise of Langstroth's method is to take advantage of a particular honeybee trait in order to manipulate them into making a lot more honey than they would naturally. Let me say that again and phrase it a little differently…the entire premise of Langstroth beekeeping is to manipulate and exploit honeybees by taking advantage of one of their weaknesses. Anyone who doubts that should read Langstoth's book. The weakness is this: honeybees absolutely hate to have vacant space above their nest. I don’t think anyone knows exactly why; you’d have to ask the bees. But since it’s impossible for them to naturally have vacant space above their nest, I guess it only makes sense that they would find suddenly having a bunch of empty space above them distressing. This is, in a nutshell, the whole truth about this myth. It’s not that bees prefer to work up; it’s that they simply abhor having vacant space above them and will work feverishly to fill any that is created. The reason that people who use the Langstroth method firmly believe that bees will start at the bottom of a hive and work upward, is that they’ve never given the bees the opportunity to do anything else. But just as with the Warré method, if you stack two empty Lang bodies on top of each other (the Langstroth method dictates starting with only one) and install a package of bees, they will immediately start building out the top box and then move down into the bottom box some weeks later. Bees will always build from the top down when given the opportunity.
I don’t care how you choose to keep bees; it’s your business. I’ve even advocated supering Warré hives to produce more honey. But I do want you to know the truth. Adding boxes to the top of a hive is not bee-friendly. They don’t prefer to work up and forcing them to do so is totally unnatural…period.
Wax foundation helps bees build comb faster - Although this seems reasonable enough, there is simply no truth to it. Wax foundation is unnatural, and anything unnatural in a hive will confuse and distract the bees. Although using foundation sheets in a framed hive is a good idea because it prevents cross-combing, bees can build combs just as fast without it; probably faster.
You can prevent swarming by enlarging the hive - Although you certainly want to make sure your bees have plenty of space during the spring and summer months, you cannot prevent swarming regardless of what you do. Simply put, there are two types of swarms; overcrowding swarms and reproductive swarms. Because a certain number of bee colonies will die out each year due to disease, predators, cold weather, etc., bees must constantly create new colonies in order to avoid extinction. Thus, reproductive swarms are vital to the survival of the species. A swarm is often viewed by the beekeeper as a negative event, which is unfortunate. Swarms are a good and natural thing.
You can’t harvest honey from a first-year hive - Regardless of anything else, you can harvest honey from any hive that has enough stores to allow you to take some.
You can’t harvest honey from a hive that has swarmed the same year - Swarming certainly decreases your chances of getting a honey harvest…but refer to previous myth.
The queen bee does not dictate to the colony - Although the queen does not usually dictate the colony’s behavior, if she decides the colony will abscond and comes out of the hive, the rest of the bees will eventually also come out and do as she demands. I’ve seen it once and heard of it many more times, and every one of those times it’s been from a hive with viewing windows.
You should re-queen a colony every year or every other year - Queens often remain healthy and productive for four years or even longer, and the colony gets a new, young, healthy queen if the colony swarms. So routine re-queening is pretty silly. As the old saying goes…if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Worker bees will only expel drones in autumn - Workers may expel drones if the colony is short on stores or if there are just too many of them, regardless of what the calendar says.
Workers expel drones by simply throwing them out of the hive - If you watch closely when it’s happening, you’ll see that the workers actually sting each drone repeatedly until it dies. This is why you’ll eventually see a big pile of dead drones in front of the hive. It doesn’t kill the workers because the body of the drone is too soft to cause the stinger to be pulled out of the worker.
Bees forage for pollen or nectar, but never for both at the same time - I have read this many times and it is something that is frequently taught. I have no idea why. It takes no more than a little observation to realize that it isn’t true. It’s easy to spot bees returning to the hive with their pollen sacks full. It’s a little trickier to see bees returning with a belly full of nectar, but if you pay attention you’ll be able to recognize their elongated abdomens dragging on the landing board as they enter the hive. Seeing full pollen sacks and elongated abdomens at the same time is common. Bees will forage for one or the other or both, and they’ll return with everything they can carry. It’s what they do.
You can predict how much honey a bee colony will produce - When someone is considering getting started in beekeeping, one of the first questions he or she will usually ask is how much honey will be produced. It’s an obvious question, but there are way too many variables that affect honey production for anyone to be able to answer this question in any kind of matter-of-fact way. Colony strength, hive management techniques and weather are the big three, but there are other factors including crop types available due to annual rotation and nectar production traits of native plants and trees. Some years you might get 150 lbs. of honey from a hive; other years you might not get any.
Less honey will be produced during dry years - This might be true under very specific circumstances, but is untrue often enough to make my myth list. It seems reasonable that if the weather is very dry, plants will produce less nectar and therefore less honey will be produced. Like many of these beekeeping myths, it makes perfect sense until you really think about it. Oftentimes, honeybees gather nectar from irrigated crops or from hearty wildflowers that are very drought resistant, so lack of rain is frequently irrelevant as it pertains to available nectar. Add to that that dry weather might allow the bees to forage from dawn to dusk, every single day of the main nectar flow. The truth is that more often than not, more honey will be produced during dry years than during years when average or above average rainfall is received.
Bees only swarm in the spring time - People who believe this have obviously not kept bees for very long. Either that or they just don’t pay much attention to their bees. Nevertheless, lots of beekeepers seem to say it. Honeybees do dumb things sometimes…and swarming so late in the year that it’s likely to be a complete failure is one of the dumbest things they do. I’ve seen bees swarm in September in Michigan, which is nearly at the end of the last nectar flow (goldenrod). If you have a hive that swarms late in the year, feed it plenty of 2:1 syrup in order to make up the stores for the winter. If you don’t capture the swarm and the weather is such that the new queen is likely to be unable to mate, re-queen the hive. If you do capture the swarm, put them in a new hive and feed them for a few weeks. Then, do a newspaper combine in order to put them back with the original colony.
A first-year hive will not swarm - Although this seems reasonable enough, it’s completely false. First-year hives swarm fairly frequently, especially if you feed them incessantly, which brings us to the next myth.
It’s a good idea to feed a first-year hive for the entire season - This isn’t as much a myth as it is just lousy advice. Although it’s important to feed a new hive (populated with packaged bees) for the first 2-3 weeks, feeding them for any longer than that is a bad idea. Not only is it expensive and completely unnecessary; it’s harmful. Bees are healthiest and happiest when working together and foraging for themselves. Even if you don’t install your bees until late May, they will still have more than enough time to get established and prepared to survive the winter. At best, continuously feeding your bees will entice them to swarm, and at worst it will make them lazy gluttons.
Goldenrod nectar makes good winter food - This myth is often embraced because it’s convenient. It makes it easy for the beekeeper to be greedy and selfish (in my opinion). The common practice in beekeeping, especially commercial beekeeping, is to take all of the good, early-season honey from the bees and leave them with nothing, then depend on the fall nectar flow (usually mostly goldenrod) to provide the bees with their winter stores. The problem with this is that goldenrod nectar is poor quality. It smells bad, lacks nutrition, and the honey granulates almost immediately, leaving the bees to consume granulated honey all winter long. In areas where it’s impossible to get water during the winter to dissolve it, granulated honey is difficult to consume and often causes the bees to develop dysentery. Many beekeepers will adamantly disagree with me, saying “sugar is sugar and bees don’t care”, but I’ll put forth this anecdotal evidence that shows bees do care. As long as I leave my bees enough early-season honey to make it through the winter, they will never touch goldenrod. If I ever see my bees working goldenrod I know that one or more of my hives is, for whatever reason, dangerously low on stores. If that happens, I feed the light hive(s) 2:1 sugar syrup through a hivetop feeder rather than make them store junk nectar.