Beekeeper management activities influence the health, production and the population of honey bee colonies. Management practices can and will vary based on the focus of the beekeeping operation (such as honey production, queen and nucleus production, pollination), but any operation should incorporate basic biosecurity, integrated pest management and best management practices (BMPs).

Best management practices

Best management practices (BMPs), with respect to the apiculture industry, are a combination of practices that are effective at maximizing the health of honey bees by mitigating or reducing the risk of pests or disease. The general BMPs every beekeeper should adopt are:

Awareness: It’s important to be aware of the beekeeping activity in the area where you manage your colonies. One of the best ways of doing this is by joining a local beekeeping association and keeping in contact with local beekeepers. Additionally, be aware that there are likely neighbouring bee yards managed by someone else within a proximity close enough (3 km) for the bees from both operations to interact. Pests and diseases may move from one bee yard to another – on their own, or through the activity of the bees or the beekeeper. If you use equipment from another beekeeper, such as a honey extractor, ensure that you are familiar with their beekeeping practices and disease status.

Understanding the basics of colony management, honey bee biology and the biology of honey bee pests and diseases: Be familiar with what a healthy colony looks like and also with the signs and symptoms of pests and diseases that can affect Ontario-managed honey bees. This knowledge is essential for recognizing problems when they occur and understanding how to resolve them.

Regularly monitoring and inspecting your colonies for health and production as well as for pests and disease: Monitor for things such as the development of the colony population, brood production, queen status, and pests and diseases. Regular monitoring of the health status of colonies and for pests and diseases will allow a beekeeper to identify issues early and respond in a timely manner, before a situation can escalate, and to develop an effective Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy.

Managing your colonies to be of sufficient strength with a productive queen: Weak and queenless colonies may be at an elevated risk of acquiring pests or disease.

Swarms: Actively manage colonies to prevent swarming. A colony that swarms loses a significant proportion of its population and production, and the swarm may become a source of pests and diseases if it becomes a feral, unmanaged colony.  

Best management practices in advance of winter

Honey bee colonies in temperate regions of the world are managed for a period of inactivity during the winter months. To optimize winter survival rates, honey bee colonies must be managed to ensure adequate health, strength and food stores. In any beekeeping operation, there will always be some loss during the winter. The key to any sustainable beekeeping operation is keeping this level of winter loss as low as possible, ideally below 15%.

Successful wintering in modern beekeeping requires thorough management of honey bee colonies. Beekeepers should implement best management practices for both outdoor and indoor wintering of honey bee colonies in Ontario. It is recommended that beekeepers implement the following best management practices for wintering of honey bee colonies in Ontario.

Honey bee colonies must have sufficient feed. Providing sufficient food stores will minimize the chances of starvation for a healthy, populous colony.

  • Prior to winter, honey bee colonies should weigh at least 32 kilograms (70 pounds) for a single brood chamber and 45 kilograms (100 pounds) for a double brood chamber.
  • A full-sized colony typically requires 15 liters (4 gallons) of supplemental feed.
  • Colonies must be fed immediately after the fall honey crop is removed.
  • Colonies should be fed thick syrup of either a 2-to-1 ratio of white sugar to water or 70% sucrose.

Honey bee colonies must be populous going into winter. Bees use their bodies as insulation and to generate heat, therefore a large cluster of bees will be able to keep warm during the winter without using as much energy and feed. The more populous the colony, the more likely it will make it to spring.

  • In cold regions of Ontario, seven to eight frames of bees in a full-sized colony are ideal.

Manage honey bee pests and disease. Colonies must be managed, in particular for varroa mites, throughout the beekeeping season to ensure that pests and disease are below treatment thresholds in advance of winter.

  • Treat early. To optimize winter survival rates, it is crucial that varroa mite levels are below the 3% threshold in late summer and early fall.
  • Consult the Ontario Treatment Recommendations for Honey Bee Disease and Mite Control for recommended monitoring methods, treatment methods and timing of treatments for honey bee pests and disease.

Outdoor wintering

Honey bee colonies kept outdoors must be insulated.

  • Wrap or insulate honey bee colonies for winter using one or a combination of the following materials: paper, cardboard, insulated plastic, Styrofoam or wooden boxes filled with wood shavings.
  • Place the material on or around the exterior of the colony for insulation/windbreak, reduce the size of the colony entrance (but do not completely close the entrance) and ensure adequate ventilation.

Indoor wintering

The facility housing the honey bee colonies must have a system for temperature control.

  • The temperature inside the structure housing wintering honey bee colonies should be maintained at approximately 5°C plus or minus 1°C. Below this temperature range, honey bees may consume more of their food reserves and above this range, honey bees may become overly active.
  • It is recommended that a temperature control system is used for maintaining the temperature of the facility and that a back-up power supply is available in case of an emergency.

The indoor storage facility must be adequately ventilated. Honey bee colonies produce large amounts of moisture, heat and carbon dioxide during respiration. When multiple colonies are wintered indoors, there must be adequate ventilation of the storage facility to remove moisture, heat and carbon dioxide.

As honey bees are stimulated by light, the indoor storage facility must remain as dark as possible. It is also important that noise, vibrations and other stimuli are minimized so that the honey bees are not disturbed. Light should be minimized or avoided by using one or a combination of:

  • light traps around openings such as vents
  • two sets of doors for entry to the building (vestibule)
  • red interior lighting (only used when necessary)
  • window coverings

Integrated pest management

Follow integrated pest management (IPM) practices specific to Ontario conditions. The goal of IPM is to manage pests and diseases so they are below damaging thresholds (depending on the severity of the pest or disease). IPM can include chemical or non-chemical methods. The method chosen must be legally registered (if a chemical treatment or drug), effective, sourced from credible information and appropriate for your geographic region. Ensure that any treatments are used according to the label instructions.

See the Ontario Treatment Recommendations for Honey Bee Disease and Mite Control for treatment methods.

Biosecurity practices

Biosecurity is the use of procedures or practices to reduce the risk of managed honey bees from harmful disease-causing pathogens. In some cases, there is overlap where biosecurity practices may also be considered BMPs and vice versa. 

  1. Follow all permitting requirements when purchasing or transferring ownership of bees or used beekeeping equipment within Ontario or when importing bees from outside of the province.

    Learn about the permits and requirements for selling or giving away honey bees and used beekeeping equipment in Ontario.

    Learn about the requirements for moving bees through Ontario and importing bees or used equipment from other Canadian provinces and outside the country.
  2. Maintain records for the management, equipment movements and status of your colonies. This can be an effective tool for tracking or tracing infections as well as tracking the health and production of colonies.
  3. Swarms may be a source of pests or disease, therefore it is important to inspect swarms before introducing the swarm colony into an established bee yard. Beekeepers should place new swarms into a hive with a new foundation, treat prophylactically with antibiotics and maintain this colony in a separate bee yard until the colony's health is determined.
  4. Exercise caution when splitting or boosting colonies with honey bee brood frames from other colonies. Be aware of the potential this has to spread disease and remain vigilant for signs of pests or disease.
  5. Dead bee colonies (deadouts) and exposed wax comb are not to be left in situations where bees can access this material. Deadouts may be a source of American foulbrood. Material from a dead colony should be taken to a storage location that is secure and inaccessible to honey bees ("bee tight").
  6. Maintain a clean apiary. Regularly clean debris from the bottom boards of honey bee colonies. Keep the apiary clean of wax debris from broken frames or wax scrapings. Keep colonies and hive equipment in good condition. Remove and replace old comb, equipment and dead colonies.
  7. Beekeepers should be mindful not to encourage robbing behaviour in bee yards. This includes:
    • avoiding ‘working’ (opening and going through) a colony during a nectar shortage
    • ensuring a colony has sufficient feed during a nectar shortage
    • reducing colony entrances during a major nectar shortage
    • removing discarded wax comb and honey from the bee yard
    • immediately cleaning-up honey/sugar syrup spills
    • ensuring that all colonies are healthy and populous
    Beekeepers should also be aware of the signs of robbing (such as a rapid increase of aggressive behaviour, often between multiple colonies, between bees at the entrance of colonies, in cracks in colonies and at sources of honey or sugar syrup) and avoid opening colonies when robbing behavior is occurring.
  8. Ensure that used beekeeping equipment, honey and feed inputs are stored in ‘bee tight’ (inaccessible to bees) facilities or structures. If used equipment is located in a bee yard, ensure that it is sealed and not accessible to honey bees.

Biosecurity practices when directly handling honey bee colonies

To prevent the spread of AFB or other pathogens, beekeepers should sterilize beekeeping equipment on a regular basis. This includes hive tools, gloves and smokers.

  • Beekeeping brush: A beekeeping brush may transfer bacterial spores (spreading diseases such as American foulbrood) from one colony to another. As an alternative to using a brush, remove bees from a frame through shaking or if required use some long grass from the bee yard to gently brush bees aside.
  • Beekeeping suit and veil: As a standard practice, beekeeping suits should be washed on a regular basis.
  • Gloves: Gloves become covered with wax and propolis and this material can be very difficult to fully remove. As this material may also harbor pathogens, such as bacterial spores, beekeepers should not use reusable gloves, such as leather gloves. If beekeepers choose to wear gloves, they should use disposable gloves such as nitrile, dishwashing gloves.
  • Hands: As a standard practice, beekeepers hands should be washed between yards and before handling bees or equipment.
  • Hive tools: Hive tools should be scraped free of wax and propolis and points of tools that have come in contact with honey bee colonies should be disinfected. Disinfection can be achieved with a propane torch or hive tools may be placed in a smoker where the beekeeper vigorously works the bellows for at least 30 seconds. At a minimum, this practice should be done between bee yard visits. If a colony shows symptoms of AFB, the hive tools should be heat sterilized before being used on another colony.
  • Smoker: The main area of concern is the top part of the bellows where the smoker is held and worked. If the face of the bellows is wooden, the beekeeper can disinfect it by briefly scorching with a torch. If the face of the bellows is made of plastic, the beekeeper can wrap this area in duct tape. As the bellows are used, the duct tape can be peeled off to reveal a clean surface. Both wooden and plastic bellows can be scrubbed with soapy water containing bleach to help keep the equipment clean.