Meet Some Treatment-Free Beekeepers

Sometime during the day yesterday, I got bored. Maybe because 13 hours of anything just wears me out…I’ve been slipping away from the conference. I slip out of the room and outside to the sun. I take long walks in the woods. I slip into the car and drive to the hotel for a nap. I slip back into the room but feel as if I’ve not missed much.

I do like these people, but as you know, Reader, I get tired of all people…even those I like.

I like this person a lot. She’s smart and strong and riles people up—government people…scientists…that kind of people.

Dee Lusby, Arizona commercial, treatment-free beekeeper and rabbel rouser.
Dee Lusby, Arizona commercial, treatment-free beekeeper and rabbel rouser.

And Kirk Webster is one of the most gentle, thoughtful, and understatedly intelligent people I’ve met in a long long time. I sort of want to be like him.

Kirk Webster, Commercial beekeeper from Vermont's Champlain Valley
Kirk Webster, Commercial beekeeper from Vermont's Champlain Valley

Sam Comfort is “living the dream.” Words hardly describe him. Once I get to know him better, I’ll tell you more about him. You’ll like him.

Sam Comfort, barefoot beekeeper who marches to the beat of a different drummer
Sam Comfort, barefoot beekeeper who marches to the beat of a different drummer

This is a home-fashioned top-bar hive. I think I’ll make one over the winter. You can buy them commercially made, but they won’t look this cool.

One of Sam Comfort's home-built top-bar hives
One of Sam Comfort's home-built top-bar hives

Dean Stiglitz blows me away. I think he’s simply brilliant. I could listen to him teach all day long without slipping out for a break.

Dean Stiglitz, co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, commercial treatment-free beekeeper, and a most-natural teacher
Dean Stiglitz, co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, commercial treatment-free beekeeper, and a most-natural teacher

Beekeeping By the Gut

I’ve found my people. (I found my people after getting pretty crazily lost in Boston. I must have passed Fenway Park 3 or 4 times. I swear to you…I could smell the hot dogs before I spotted Fenway. No lie.)

Eventually I got back on track and made it to Leominster, Massachusetts in time for the first session of the 2010 Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference. I alway anticipate feeling bored or disconnected at these kinds of get togethers, and I was completely prepared to feel that way here. But from the get go, I felt at ease and I’ve made friends with whom I’m already comfortable.

I’d say there are about 75-100 people here…which isn’t many by most conference standards, but it’s a healthy number when you consider that these folks are keeping their bees treatment free. Which—and I cannot impress this upon you enough, Reader—is RARE. The bees that make the honey that most of us eat and think of as “natural” have been treated with some pretty powerful and pretty nasty shit. And it’s coming back to haunt us. The people here are here to stop the madness.

One speaker last night off-handedly began talking about reading the bees…how one learns to watch the bees’ flight and listen to their music or their grumblings and to smell the different smells we smell from their hives and to feel their different vibrations. And he spoke so poetically that I got choked up.

Anyway, this morning I want to tell you that I’m not lonely and I’m not bored and I like these folk. They’re odd. And strong. And vocal. And smart. And nice. And friendly. And generally more gracious and open minded than I am. And I intend to shut up and listen and learn.

Off to Massachusetts to Learn a Few Things

This morning I’m off to the Northeast Treatment Free Beekeeping conference. (I wonder if those people in charge realize that “Treatment-Free Beekeeping” requires a hyphen because there isn’t one in their title. You can’t just throw a bunch of words together and have it make sense…unless you’re me).

I don’t know if I should pack my hat and veil and my bee-working clothes. I did pack them, but it sure would have saved some room if I’d left them out. Next year, if I go back, I’ll have a better feel for things. I’m not taking my pith helmet (which I love)…just a regular hat to keep the veil out of my face.

And apparently we move to the campfire for evening things. I’m not taking my camp chair. That would be overkill, I think…don’t you? I’ll just have to lug one out from the conference center. Or sit on a log. Which is very uncomfortable.

I’ll also take my old jean jacket. I can’t remember a trip when I haven’t taken that jacket. You see it in all the pictures.

So, I guess the next time we visit, I’ll be in Massachusetts (which is not easy to spell, but I hate the MA and Mass. abbreviations of it).

That's What Friends Are For

Jim’s bees made him some beautiful honey this year, and yesterday he made a little party out of harvesting it.

I helped pull honey from the supers…it was only around 96 degrees out there! Actually, the fact that the honey was so danged warm made it easier to extract (and, oh my gosh…you should taste warm honey straight from the hive. To. Die. For).

Jim's first frame of honey, 2010
Bees swirling as Jim pulls honey supers

Then we picked up Christy and all her harvesting equipment. Christy lives and keeps her hive about two blocks away from Jim…she inherited and then refurbished an extractor made in the 1800s. In the 1800s, lids for extractors must have been considered sissified, so we ended up covered in a little glorious mist of honey.

Jim set up his honey shop in his basement laundry room. First, Jim decapped the honey by either scraping or by using a hot decapping knife. I prefer the scraper…it’s simpler, and when it comes to bees, I like it simple.

Jim scraping his first frame of honey, 2010

We all took our turns doing all the jobs. Here, Christy takes the first turns of her ancient-but-perfectly-workable extractor.

Christy at the helm of her ancient extractor

Jim and Jennifer invited other friends over, too. And Jennifer made BLTs. I mean, how absolutely wonderful is a house filled with friends and with the smells of both warm honey and BLTs?—Heaven.

Current and future beekeepers share the love

When Jonathan said he wanted to take his turn with the extractor, Jim beamed (that’s funny!)…he said he’d dreamed of this day. Thanks for sharing the dream, Jim.

Jonathan and Jim

More Space Has Stopped the Bearding


Yesterday I inserted a box I fashioned from two shallows between my two brood boxes in Girls of Summer. They’re the most robust of our colonies, and they’ve been mighty crowded and hot and bearding like crazy.

So, I pulled deep frames of brood up from the bottom box and into the center of the new box; I interspersed medium, undrawn foundationless frames among all the fully drawn comb in the bottom two boxes. Then, I restacked them. This should give them the room they need to operate.

Yep, I’ve got a real mishmash of frames going on in there now, and there’s quite a bit of empty space that the bees will surely fill up with wild comb, but I guess I can figure out how to deal with all of it later.

My goals:

  1. Keep these bees from swarming before winter.
  2. Keep these bees alive over the winter.
  3. Switch from deep boxes to medium-depth boxes.
  4. Harvest some honey next year.
  5. And do all of this without introducing any chemicals.

So, now that I know this addition of space and new frames has stopped the bearding in Girls of Summer, I need to do the same thing for Amazons and Tomboys. Which means I’ve got to head down into the basement and make 20 frames today.

Here are some pictures. They don’t show you much other than what it looks like to rearrange a bee colony.

Two shallow boxes fashioned with medium-depth, foundationless frames---to be used as a single box.
Rearranging a bee colony. (The lighter colored frames are foundationless and are interspersed among frames already drawn)
Rebuilt Girls of Summer (including the two-shallow box in the center)

Tricky Box and Frame Configurations

Those bees are bearding like crazy. Which means they are hot and crowded. But they won’t move up into the new supers I’ve added in order to give them some extra room. And yesterday I found swarm cells in Tomboys again. Shit.

I would normally add an empty box below one of the brood boxes in each colony, but I’m trying to transition from using 10-frame deep boxes to 8-frame medium boxes…I won’t go into it here because it’s so danged confusing, but this translates into some tricky box and frame configurations.

Yesterday the light came on in my brain about this. Of course, the light went on about two hours after I’d inspected the bees…which means I get to go out there and do it again today.

Here’s my plan: I stacked together two shallow supers (to form one box) and filled them with 10 medium, foundationless frames. Today, I’ll insert the two-shallow unit between the deep brood boxes in Girls of Summer. This way, they’ll have room to work and frames on which to draw comb in which the queen can lay eggs. AND, because these are medium depth frames, once they’re drawn, I can eventually move them into my 8-frame medium boxes.

I hope this works. I’m proud of myself for thinking outside of the box about this stuff.

Yes, the bees will most likely build some funky comb in the gap that shouldn’t be there…between the bottom of the frames in the two-shallow box and the top of the deep brood box. But I guess I can cut that excess comb off and tie it into it’s own frame later. Which means that I’ll get a lot of bang for my buck if they draw comb below these new frames.

I’ll need to move some already filled deep frames containing brood into the two-shallow box in order to encourage the bees to move up. This interspersing of differently sized frames is going to make for a very very interesting situation when I dig in there next spring.

I have two concerns: first, that they won’t draw any comb whatsoever and that they’ll still feel crowded; and second, that I’ll forget that I experimented this way and I’ll have a real mess on my hands when I unsuspectingly discover the interspersed medium and deep frames and the medium frames with that huge gap beneath them.

One reason I’m posting some of this dull information is so I can refer back to them later…so I’m not surprised (more than usual) during my inspections—or, if I am surprised, I can refer to these posts and see what on earth I was thinking.

I TRIED to take pictures for you yesterday, but that dang iPhone just will not respond to my gloved fingers. I got the phone all gooped up with propolis before I decided I just couldn’t spend the time taking the pictures for you. Sorry. I have to work at a better system and use another camera.

Deb's swollen hand (she doesn't usually wear a ring on her pinky!)

A Bee Got Her

Deb got stung by one of her uncle Doyle’s bees.

We spent a couple of days on the farm in Waco, Kentucky; and when we visited with her uncle Doyle, we all went out to look at his bees. He has only one hive now, but it’s stacked with six honey supers…it’s tall, and you can’t believe my envy.

The bees sort of gave us a warning that we were too close, so we moved back a little bit. But then Deb got stung. And while her uncle Doyle looked through his pocket for his knife with which to scrape the stinger out, Deb pulled it out. I think that’s why she swelled so badly.

Here’s the rule of thumb: When you get stung, don’t pull the stinger out…scrape it off. When you pull a stinger from your skin, you milk MORE venom into your bloodstream. That whole stinger is loaded with bee venom and it’s designed to pulsate poison long after the bee is gone…if you can keep your wits about you, try to grab either a pocket knife, or a hive tool, or a credit card, or something with a sharp edge to it…a good fingernail will do. Then scrape the stinger off where it enters your skin. This way, the venom stays in the stinger and not in you.

Deb will not be golfing today—her hand won’t grip the club. And after icing it all the way home and taking two Aleve, a couple of Benadryl, and some Tagamet (all antihistamines of sorts) she may not wake up today, either.

Deb's swollen hand (she doesn't usually wear a ring on her pinky!)
Deb's swollen hand (she doesn't usually wear that ring on her pinky!)

Those Don't Look Like Bees

I put my name out on the internet as a honeybee-swarm collector, and I’ve been getting tons of calls to remove bees from structures…like log cabins, etc. Every day someone calls about bees.

I want to collect swarms, but I don’t do “cut outs.”

However, this morning I got a call from our friend, Don, who said his neighbor had found honeybees building comb in his birdhouse, and I was elated. I am dying to increase my colonies with local, feral bees. They’re healthier. And they’re free. And it’s cool to have them.

So tonight I loaded my car with all the equipment I thought I could possibly need to capture bees from the birdhouse. I mean, I had it all in there. I fired up my smoker and drove to the Korengel’s house with my smoker blowing smoke out the open windows and visions of strong and feral bees coming home with me and building comb and making me some honey. I was thinking of myself as a big bee expert.

But when I got to the birdhouse, I realized that those weren’t honeybees; they were yellow jackets. Shit. I told Don to tell his neighbor to kill them.

Yellow Jacket
Yellow Jacket

My First Split

I discovered a couple of swarm cells in Tomboys before I left for Florida last week. I thought for sure Tomboys would swarm before I returned, and they may have…hard to tell.

Today the swarm cells were still there, so in order to keep the bees from swarming and to take advantage of the new queen cells, I used the swarm cells from Tomboys to make a split and create a new hive.

(I KNOW…I should have taken more pictures, but here’s the problem: My iPhone operates by touch, and my gloves aren’t exactly like skin, so in order to use the iPhone for pictures, I have to take off my glove, take the picture, put the glove back on, etc. Time consuming and awkward.)

Anyway, I took Michael Bush’s advice from I stacked two medium boxes together; in the center of the top box, I put 4 deep frames (one containing the swarm cells [these will supply the queen], one containing honey [this will supply food until there are active foragers] two containing brood [these will build up the colony with workers]; I filled the remainder of the boxes with empty, medium-depth, foundationless frames. The bees will certainly build some funky comb beneath the deep frames because there’s so much empty space there, but I can clean that mess up later.

I scooted Tomboys over a little bit, and I placed the new, as-yet-unnamed hive facing the entrance of where Tomboys previously sat. The foragers who left Tomboys this morning (before the move) should be confused as to which hive they belong when they return—50% should enter the new hive and build up the population there; 50% of them should head back into their Tomboys home. I’ll to reverse the two hives in 7 days to balance it all out.

I don’t know if I should name the new hive yet or not. This thing feels quite experimental, so I don’t want to pin any hopes on its survival.

Here’s what the set up looks like now:

On another note: Girls of Summer are building great comb on their new foundationless frames. Neither Amazons nor Tomboys are doing a thing with theirs yet…but I think each of those hives is trying to build up post swarming, so they aren’t drawing any comb whatsoever.