Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping

So You Want to Be a Beekeeper

My friend Wendy is thinking about keeping bees. So are my friends Heidi and Anne. So is my friend Liz. So is practically everyone I know. Frankly, every day people ask me how they can start keeping bees.  Perhaps it’s time I compiled these details in a single spot.

Almost everyone I know is drawn to beekeeping because they want honey. That’s what enticed me, too. But, after only a little while, honey becomes simply a reward for doing a good job at managing the hive…honey is the celebratory by-product of an entire experience. The bees—and the experience of observing, smelling, hearing, and feeling the colony as it lives and works and makes decisions—keep us…not the honey. And you should know this: You won’t harvest honey the first year. You may not harvest honey the second year.

So, yes, I know you want some honey, Reader.

I know you also want to improve the world. And keeping bees will do that.

What you may not yet know is that keeping bees will change you—it will change the way you think and the way you live and the way you feel.  I can almost guarantee it.

Here are some questions to consider as you embark. Your answers will determine how you’ll begin your adventure:

  1. Why do you want to keep bees?
  2. Yes, I know you want honey…but how much honey will satisfy you? Do you plan to sell your honey? Or do you need only enough for you and your family and perhaps a bit to give to friends.
  3. Where will you keep your hives (it’s best to begin with two hives…for reasons I’ll go into later)? How much room do you have for them? In other words…do you have access to a rooftop or a yard or a farm? Are your neighbors nearby, and do you have good relationships with them? Do children play in your yard?
  4. Bees do best in sun. They like to face East or South or Southeast. So, as you look around for a spot, keep those factors in mind.
  5. I like to watch my bees fly. You’ll probably want to watch yours, too. Keep that in mind as you think of a location, too.
  6. If there’s no water source nearby, can you provide a dependable source of water (by way of a birdbath or a water bowl)?
  7. How much time can you devote to your bees each week? An hour? Two?
  8. How much money are you prepared to spend? And if you don’t have $200-$300 for start up, are you handy with tools?

I’m too sleepy to write any more (I LOVE daylight savings time, but I’m still sleepy this morning) and you would get too bored with my suggestions right now, so…in tomorrow’s post, after you’ve thought about these questions for a bit, I’ll suggest ways to get started.

We’ll talk about ways to acquire your bees (packages, nucs, swarms, cut outs, splits) and which type of hive is best suited to your situation (Langstroth or top-bar hives…or variations on each).

Oh, and read. Read, read, read. Beekeepers are smart. Seriously. Begin with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Made by Hand: The Beekeeper

My friend Heather posted this video on her Facebook page yesterday.

I have two favorite parts:

  1. I like how Megan Paska, the beekeeper in the piece, uses twine to light her smoker. I swear, Reader, keeping that smoker alive is one of my greatest challenges. So, I’ve decided to throw a big ball of twine into my bag to use in my smoker.
  2. I love how she simply slices off a little bit of comb from the bar. I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me to simply harvest a hunk of honey at a time and put it in a clean jar right there on site. I don’t know why I think things have to be so dang complicated.

My least favorite part: the fact that posting the video is so laborious. It’s a pain because it’s not from YouTube. So, I’m just gonna link to it here. Sorry.

 

Poetry Sunday: What to Do the First Morning the Sun Comes Back

What to Do the First Morning the Sun Comes Back

BY ROSEANN LLOYD

Find a clean cloth for the kitchen table, the red and blue one
you made that cold winter in Montana. Spread out
your paper and books. Tune the radio to the jazz station.
Look at the bright orange safflowers you found last August—
how well they’ve held their color next to the black-spotted cat.

Make some egg coffee, in honor of all the people
above the Arctic Circle. Give thanks to the Sufis,
who figured out how to brew coffee
from the dark, bitter beans. Remark
on the joyfulness of your dishes: black and yellow stars.

Reminisce with your lover about the history of this kitchen
where, between bites of cashew stir fry,
you first kissed each other on the mouth. Now that you’re hungry,
toast some leftover cornbread, spread it with real butter,
honey from bees that fed on basswood blossoms.

The window is frosted over, but the sun’s casting an eye
over all the books. Open your Spanish book.
The season for sleeping is over.
The pots and pans: quiet now, let them be.

It will be a short day.
Sit in the kitchen as long as you can, reading and writing.
At sundown, rub a smidgen of butter
on the western windowsill
to ask the sun:
Come back again tomorrow.

Waiting for the Brain to Clear

Now that I’ve had a day for my brain to clear, I can offer a brief report of my responses to the 2010 Northeast Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference: It was tiring. I mean…it was three and a half 13-hour days of programming. And that’s an awful lot of exhausting.

But it was also approximately 45 hours of bee school, and that makes for a much smarter beekeeper…as soon as all that information sort of settles in, that is. Right now, it’s free floating.

Okay. Maybe I’m still too tired to give you a good reflection. I’ll do it one day soon, though, yes? Because my emerging beekeeping philosophy continues to develop, and I know you’re on pins and needles wanting to hear about it. :)

Let me simply remind you of this for today: If you buy your honey from the grocery store, it probably comes to you from China, and the bees that made it were treated with some very serious chemicals inserted directly into their hive.

If you buy your honey from a local source such as a farmer’s market or from that nice old guy at the end of the lane, the bees that made it were almost certainly treated with the very same, very serious chemicals that were inserted directly into the Chinese hives. And even though the bottle says your honey is pure honey, it’s not. It’s full of chemicals that 99% of the beekeepers believe is necessary to use in order to keep their bees alive. And I’m serious about this shit. It’s appalling.

I tell you this because I am experiencing it first hand. I have been sold (and I am still in possession of) the assortment of chemicals of which I speak. They are in my garage near the trash can. They’ve been there for over a year. Every single solitary beekeeper I know—other than those with whom I gathered this week—use those chemicals without even thinking about it. When to treat the bees is taught in beginner’s bee schools. And then everyone wonders why the bees are dying.

It’s not the beekeepers’ fault. Most of them know no other way and have not considered alternatives. But there is another way. And it’s up to a small number of curious beekeepers who naturally gravitate to research and who are hell-bent on returning to natural beekeeping (which, I admit, it a problematic term as there is nothing “natural” about beekeeping) to change the thinking of an entire beekeeping culture.

Have I whet your appetite for more? I hope so.

Here’s what you can do to help, Reader:

  1. If you want to begin keeping bees, consider the very fun return to natural beekeeping. To do so, you can start by reading the wonderfully smart and surprisingly enjoyable Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping. It’s not for idiots. It’s for smart people, and it’s written by smart people whom I now know. They’re even smarter in person. The book series simply has a dumbed-down title. It’s a wonderful beginning point for those wishing to keep bees without the use of chemicals.
  2. If you already keep bees but want to stop the insane chemical applications and stop losing your bees every single winter and have healthier, faster, smaller, calmer bees, begin by reading the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping. And join the Organic Beekeepers Yahoo group. And read Michael Bush’s delightful website (you can find the link on this blogroll).
  3. If you don’t keep bees but you want to eat pure honey made by happier, healthier bees that have not ever been treated by UNBELIEVABLY STRONG CHEMICALS APPLIED DIRECTLY INTO THE HIVE AND INTO YOUR HONEY, then please begin asking your honey supplier to consider the above two points. Gently and gently and gently remind your supplier each time you purchase your nice jar of honey that there is another way. It’s scary and difficult to change the way we do things…we all know that. That’s why we’ve got to be gentle. But it’s also very fun to do what we all know is right. It’s exhilarating. And your local beekeepers want to do it…they simply need encouragement. And they need to see others doing it. Which is where I come in. :)

Here’s one thing I’m thinking. I’m considering the paint-free approach to hive boxes. It saves time and money, and I think it looks kind of cool, too. What do you think, Reader?

Jim

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

Why Do I Keep Bees?

So. Yesterday I received news that Deb’s Uncle Doyle in Waco, Kentucky has collected tons of honey this year. Over the years he’s kept many hives, but now that he’s older he keeps only one—simply because he loves it…the heat in all that protective clothing keeps him from expanding his little operation again.

Anyway, I was bummed. Which, I quickly admit, is a lousy response to such news. It’s not that I’m bummed for him, I’m bummed for me. I’m envious. Although I have to say that I’m cherishing what little (gorgeous) honey I collected this year, so I guess you could say that I’m appreciative.

When that look of pain crossed my face, Deb asked me a simple quesion: Why is it that you keep bees? Which made me think for a while. It seems this answer should be simple. Or at least clear. And it’s not.

After much silence, I responded that I want a hobby that is both challenging and rewarding.

There. That’s my answer. So I guess I shouldn’t be entirely disappointed if I don’t harvest loads of honey each year…and in the long run, I’m not. I’m grateful that I’m up to my eyeballs in educating myself, in reading about bees, in thinking about bees, in planning ahead for next year, in developing a beekeeping philosophy, in spreading an interest in bees and beekeeping, in watching what blooms with a new eye, in paying closer attention to the weather, in thinking about the long-term consequences of chemicals in our lives, in aesthetics. Oh, Reader, you know I could go on and on.

Ten more reasons I want to keep bees:

  1. It’s not boring
  2. I want to give away honey
  3. I want my friends to learn more about bees
  4. Managing hives intellectually challenges me
  5. Beekeeping is an art
  6. Most of the time, there is no right or wrong way
  7. After all the reading and thinking and talking and experimenting, in the end, I have to go with my gut
  8. Managing hives demands innovation, which is something I  need to practice…I’m not entirely comfortable with it.
  9. I’m going to make some TwoHoneys T-shirts. They’ll be very cool
  10. Want one?

But, honestly, I’m still amazingly disappointed to have such a small crop of honey this year.

Just a Spoonful of Honey

I know, right? Once you learn you can’t get that honey you thought you were getting, it makes that honey unbearably desirable, doesn’t it. What a crazy life.

Why Does Everyone Tell Me, "Patience, Grasshopper?"

Reader, I know I got your hopes up for some honey. But I think our hopes may have flown off with the Amazon swarm.

Yesterday’s inspection shows that all honey production has ground to a halt in Amazons. Because they swarmed, the remaining Amazons aren’t drawing comb or storing honey until their new queen gets busy…and that’ll take a month or so. And by the time she gets busy, there won’t be much blooming. All of this is to say that we won’t get more honey this spring. Who knows about the fall…there’s often a fall honey flow, but not always. We didn’t have one last year.

Though Tomboys and Girls of Summer remain very healthy and very active, they aren’t drawing comb or storing honey in the honey supers. They’re loaded with brood about to be born, though, so if there’s a good fall honey flow, we may get some honey from them. In a few months. This is killing me.

To keep my mind off this disappointment, I think I’ll consider experimenting a little bit. I think I’ll try to take two frames of brood and a frame or two of honey from the deep brood boxes (I haven’t decided which combination of colonies to take this from) and form a new colony. That should be fun, and I’m sure to learn new stuff.

Here are Jay and Jackie who visited the hives with me yesterday. I rewarded their interest with a 5 oz. jar of honey. I hope they treasure it. I’m not giving any more to anyone until I harvest more. And that’s not looking great.

Amazons, Tomboys, Girls of Summer

Let's Go, Tomboys and Girls of Summer. This Year, It's up to You

Yesterday when I got home from work, I jumped into my long pants, my long-sleeved shirt, my socks, my boots, my gloves, my hat, my veil, fired up the smoker and visited the bees. I didn’t know if they’d still be pissy with me for my rude behavior the day before, but they were as hospitable as they could be.

The Amazons are no longer going gangbusters since half their colony hit the road in a swarm, but they’re slowly finishing the job of capping some frames of honey. I took one frame from them yesterday and harvested about 2 pounds of strained honey from it. I like the idea of catching the honey very very soon after it’s capped…I can’t think of anything any fresher than that.

Because I don’t think Amazons will be producing a lot of honey this year, I moved one of their supers to Tomboys and another of their supers to Girls of Summer. Those two hives are still bubbling over with energy and enthusiasm, and they fill every box I give them. And because it’s still so early in the season, I think they may make some honey for us this year. Of course, I said the same thing last year about Amazons, and they didn’t draw a single comb in the super I gave them last fall.

Amazons, Tomboys, Girls of Summer

Good Entrance Reducers Make Good Neighbors

After trimming trees around the house for much of the afternoon, we were taking a little iced-tea break  on our deck. I began to see quite a bit of activity out in the bee yard…more than usual. It didn’t look like a swarm, but there were a lot of bees. You can see them when the sun lights them up against the dark background of the woods behind our house.

When I went to check on things, I found robbing occurring at Tomboys and Girls of Summer. There was bee frenzy going on out there. Amazons seemed far more calm. And the robbing bees were coming from the woods where I assume the swarm went to live on Saturday morning. It was pretty wild out there, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t capture it on my camera (only a video would show the craziness and capture the impressive sound of this, though). I never think to grab my camera when I go out there. And if I do put my camera in my pocket, I forget it’s there.

Here’s what I assume is happening: I’m pretty sure the swarm with which we’ve just dealt was from Amazons because Amazons are so darn robust. And, more importantly, because we discovered a lot of queen cells in the hive when we inspected it on Saturday…a sure sign the hive is planning to swarm. So now the swarm has found a place to live, but they don’t have food stored up in their new place…they would know, however, that there’s honey near their old house. So they came back to rob their old neighbors, Tomboys and Girls of Summer…those two hives are newer and so have less strength and fewer guard bees to protect the hive. But they’ve stored up good honey already…honey the Amazon swarm clearly wants.

The robbers were not robbing Amazons nearly so much because those girls are their sisters…for real. And Amazons are a more established and stronger hive than the two new colonies and so can defend themselves better against intruders.

This morning I plan to put entrance reducers on Tomboys and Girls of Summer. I’ll also plug the holes I drilled in the brood-chamber boxes for a few days. Those holes are unnecessary openings, and plugging them will allow the guard bees to defend only one (reduced) opening.

I’m still bemoaning the loss of honey production from Amazons this year. The honey we collected on Saturday is so beautiful in their pretty jars. I’ve got them all lined up on the counter now, and they are amazingly gorgeous when the sun hits them.