I’ve wanted to get into beekeeping for years – in fact bought a book on beekeeping many years ago, read it – and promptly realized there weren’t enough hours in a day to work at work, work on the farm, and keep bees.
Well. I now have bees. I took a two day ‘beginner beekeeping course’ and have since discovered – I know nothing about bees. Part of the issue is that it’s impossible to teach a room full of ‘new-bees’ anything other than the most rudimentary basics. I took notes. I asked questions. I ordered and read several books. The rest of the issue – anybody I’ve talked to who has kept bees for any length of time, flat out told me – you can spend a lifetime with bees and still have things to learn. They’re right. 😊
The above picture is a testament to my complete lack of knowledge; I’m standing there in my brand new bee suit, with my brand new hive set up and a package of brand new (to me) bees – that have come all the way from New Zealand with a three day delay because they missed the plane. We were told how to ‘install ‘ our package….sort of. ‘Remove the screen, remove the queen cage, flip the tube over, give it a sharp whack on the hive (the bees will all fall into the hive), install the queen, put the cover on the hive and leave it for a week before you check to see if the queen is out.
Easy. Sure. I understood the queen would come in a cage with a candy plug – and the bees would eat their way through the plug and set her free – in theory being familiar enough with her by then they wouldn’t outright kill her….I wavered between putting her on top of the frames, on the bottom of the box, or using an elastic to sandwich her to a frame of foundation. I chose the elastic method and had everything ready. So I unstaple the plastic screen and proceed to pull out the strip the queen cage is attached to – and pull, and pull, and pull and wonder why the hell the instructor failed to mention the ‘plastic strip’ the queen was attached to was three feet long…..
You can see I am not holding the strip over the hive like I should be (I’m still looking for the queen cage) and aside from that – the bees are not happy. They’re hungry. They’ve been crammed in a tube for days, they’re suffering from jet lag…..even better – I find the queen cage at the end of the strip – and there’s no candy plug…..it’s just a cage with a teeny cork – I have a vague recall of the instructor saying something about sticking a piece of mini marshmallow in after I remove the cork. Huh? I don’t have any mini marshmallows – It doesn’t seem a good time to go buy some – why on earth is there no candy plug? I hand the cage off to Bruce so he can remove the cork; put your finger over the hole when you get the cork out or she will fly away! I shake the strip free of bees (into the hive), I’m starting to rush now- the bees are even less happy than they were a few minutes prior – and snatch the cork free cage with the queen, take a quick look to make sure she has wings and all of her legs and two antennae, and stick her under the elastic and quickly sandwich another frame in next to her. I then snatch up the tube and whack it on the hive and watch a mass of pissed off bees land with a thud in the bottom of the hive. I am now surrounded by a cloud of angry bees and get stung on the hand – I had this idea that I would wear sturdy nitrile gloves for more dexterity – but the top of them is a stretchy fabric of sorts – sure enough one of the girls gets her little bee feet stuck in the fabric and promptly jams her stinger in the back of my hand. I ignore it, quickly drop in the rest of the frames, pop on the inner cover and the lid – and finally remember to breathe. I start picking up my ‘stuff’ – Bruce picks up the tube and informs me that it’s still half full of bees.
I look at the tube. I look at the hive cover. I vaguely recall the instructor saying ‘just leave the tube in front of the hive so the stragglers will find their way into the box’. I decide ‘stragglers’ and ‘half a tube full of bees’ are one and the same – place it in front of the hive entrance and we exit stage left. We are surrounded by a large cloud of angry buzzing, being carpet bombed by days worth of bee poop they seem to have saved up for just such an occasion……or possibly they didn’t like the blinding glare off of my bee suit – we do several circuits around our large yard stopping several times to carefully brush bees off of each other and finally make it into the house.
Bruce declares the installation event ‘a little nervy’. He doesn’t react well to stings…..but being a fair man and no doubt recalling I milked his cow for an entire year because he couldn’t figure out how to milk her…..has decided that stings or no – it is his turn to support me in my decision to keep bees 😁
The hive is about thirty feet from my house – by choice. I’m able to keep an eye on it, I have an electric fence around it – to keep my dogs out – and more importantly, bears. Bears are common around here – they’re brave, they get hungry, they sometimes couldn’t care less about an electric fence. They know bee brood and honey when they smell it. If they’re stuck digging up your garden, so be it – but if they’ve a chance to knock over a hive or two – even better. My dogs will definitely warn me of a bear visit – I have ‘bear bangers’, and a capable rifle along with a bear tag. Bees are not considered ‘livestock’ where I live…..I can legally dispatch a bear if it’s killing my cow say….but not if it’s tearing apart and eating my bees. Hence the bear tag. I’m a fan of being legal – and keeping my bees.
The following morning I see the bees are still ‘in bed’. I know they won’t fly until it’s at least plus 15C. It’s plus 5C – I grab my stethoscope (I use it for the cow should I need to listen to the rumen) and lurk out to the yard to have a listen to the hive. Reasonably quiet – I picture them in a ball in the middle trying to stay warm. I notice the tube is empty, (hallelujah) see a half dozen bees dead on the landing board – think I should bring them into the house – what better chance to really get a close up look at my new project? I lay them out in a row on the kitchen table and wander off to find a magnifying glass – finally returning to see that the bees aren’t actually dead – they were simply too damn cold to do anything other than play at being dead. They are slowly marching around the table, stretching the kinks out I suppose – I fetch them all up and rather hurriedly take them back outside to the hive. 🙄
My instructor emails me to ask if I got the bees installed and did I manage to get the queen in the box. I respond rather casually that yes – all went fine 😂, excepting for the fact that I had expected the queen cage would have a candy plug – and it did not – and I did not have any mini marshmallows on hand, so I simply pulled the cork and popped her in. I could totally picture the poor man rolling his eyes and wondering at my intelligence….
I inspect in a week….remove the vacant queen cage, pull frames and look for eggs….try and find the queen. Bruce points out that in direct contrast to the installation, the bees are remarkably calm – he removes his gloves and helpfully takes lots of pictures. They are storing nectar, capping some, drawing out comb, bringing in pollen. I see no eggs, no queen. Only after the fact when I have tossed some pictures to my daughters phone – do I get to see the queen. She sends the above photo back – “the long fat one to the left of center mom”. Relief. I didn’t screw up badly enough to accidentally lose/kill/maim the queen.
I email the instructor – I mention I did not see any eggs, nor have I seen any ‘mating flights’, I forward the picture. He tells me that it looks like my queen, she is already mated when I get her so will not see any mating flights (that wasn’t covered in the course), and gives me tips on how to ‘see’ eggs. It’s bothering me that I did not paint the queen – and I’m in a bit of a panic on each inspection when I don’t find her, and worried to death I’ll accidentally crush her moving frames/lids/covers….
Regardless, I finally see eggs, larva and empty brood cells that tell me bees are emerging and in theory things are going to plan.
Drone frame with capped drone and larva.
I trap drone in an effort to control the varroa mite population. Varroa is the devil – they will overwhelm your hive and ultimately, if left unchecked – will kill your hive by spreading disease – they are vectors for all kinds of nasty stuff. It’s a hard fact, that to raise bees today – you must also understand you are raising mites. In a fluffy bunny tree hugger world – there would be no mites- but that’s not the bee world any more. Drone frame trapping is one weapon in an arsenal to control mites. Drone cells are larger than worker cells, the bees draw the comb out a good distance and the queen picks those cells to lay drone eggs in (not that she won’t drop a few elsewhere). The theory is that the mites prefer to lay their eggs in drone cells (they scooch in just before they are capped) because drone take the longest to emerge.
In theory when the drone cells are capped – you pull the frame and pop in a new one. The frame you pull gets popped into the freezer for (I do four days) and the mites and eggs are killed.
At this point you can put it back into the hive and the bees will clean it up – but I’m not fond of the idea I’m making my bees stop what they were doing to mess with a system I’ve put into place – I actually scrape the entire thing clean – toss the big fat drone larva to the chickens (they can spot protein a mile away) and scrub the frame clean, wax it for the next swap out.
Does this eliminate the mite population? No. But by trapping drone you are trapping mites and ultimately buying time before you have to treat your hive with miticides (or whatever you decide to treat with). You can’t treat for mites while the bees are filling supers with honey – unless you intend to leave all the honey for the bees. Some treatments are hard on brood or hard on bees. Anything ‘natural’ I can do, I do. The queen already being mated dictates that there is no need for drones, and come fall they get their lazy unhelpful arses kicked out of the hive anyway.
I’ve had bee people tell me that working with bees is very zen. Totally fascinating.
I’m not there yet. Each any every time I inspect the hive I obsess over the details, the order in which I’m going to do things, making sure I’m being quick, smooth, efficient- minimizing my disruption. I feel my inspections are akin to a home invasion – the bees helplessly stand by while I rearrange things and poke about – brushing some bees off to get a closer look when they’re in the middle of cleaning out a cell….once I’m out of the yard I’m sure it takes them a day to put things right, and I imagine there’s some irritation. I’m grateful I have calm bees – for the most part – they ignore me.
The hive population is increasing faster than I can believe. (The comb on top of the frame is burr comb – built when the bees decide they don’t like the extra space between the frames and the inner cover which I chose to leave flipped over in the ‘winter’ position all summer so they would have an upper entrance). I send a few pics to the instructor. He tells me my queen (which I still haven’t seen) has a spotty brood pattern and to keep an eye on that. I wonder what I’m supposed to do if she doesn’t get it together…..off with her head and replace her? Give her a good stern talking to? Considering I can’t find her – I decide it’s moot for the moment.
At some point my brood chamber is packed full to boiling over. I add a second box – they fill that in next to no time flat. Instructor man tells me to keep an eye out for swarm cells. Specifically he says ‘tip the bottom box up and look along the bottom of the frames for swarm cells or queen cups. I’m not thrilled with the idea of tipping boxes up and stooping down to look for cells (I had a vision of accidentally losing my grip on the boxes while looking for cells) – I set my phone on video and shove my arm under the screened bottom board and pan across the entire bottom. I’m relieved to see no cells no cups.
Next inspection Queen Cups!!! On the top of the frame – not the bottom…..I message out for some advice, post the pic on the local Beekeeper’s FB page. The responses are fast and furious and incredibly varied –
– your queen is dead – those are emergency cells!
– crush them – you don’t want more queens
– hmmmm – I think your bees have voted the queen out. (I didn’t know bees were that political)
-why are they on the top of the frame?
And so on. What to do? The ‘general consensus’ (if there is such a thing among Beekeeper’s) wait.
Wait for what I’m not clear – but I wait.
Next inspection – they are gone. I have no idea what that means…..possibly they decided to rearrange the furniture and decided it looked better the way it was in the first place. Maybe they were trying to scare the queen into stopping that spotty brood pattern nonsense. Maybe they were just messing with me 🤔
Before I know it the nectar flow is in full swing – my instructor told me so – I wouldn’t know a good nectar flow if you hit me on the head with it (yet). I slapped on a honey super and got ready for the soon to be glut of honey.
I wait. I check. I wait some more.
My supers are of the ‘medium’ size (shorter than the ‘deeps’ for ease of manipulation- they’re damn heavy when full). My supers also have the plastic foundation in them, as opposed to the wax – the theory being, plastic foundation hold up better to extraction. I’m going with the ‘flow’ so to speak – I can’t even find wax medium foundation to buy. Plastic it is.
I wait some more. Each time I peek under the cover there are no bees in the honey super. There is no comb being drawn out – no nectar being stored.
Initially I decide the bees will move up when they’re good and ready – but finally, on an inspection, I realize they are jamming nectar and capping honey in every conceivable spot they can – both brood boxes are full, they’re backfilling brood cells, the invisible queen is running out of places to lay eggs, they’re even building comb between the bars of the wax foundation and the plastic and filling that – they will not use the plastic foundation. I make a corporate decision and grab a deep full of wax foundation and swap it out, move two frames of honey and two frames of brood from the bottom box, plug them into the new box and damn the torpedoes. I do not want a swarm in August. Swarms happen for a few reasons – but sheer hive congestion is one of them. I want them to have space, I know they won’t abandon brood – in effect I’m tricking them into the deep super.
I give them a few weeks (the remainder of the nectar flow season really) and worry about robbing – we’ve had the worst year ever for yellow jackets and hornets….I’ve tried trapping them with everything and anything to no avail. They build big nests above me and massive complexes under grass and hay and in the ground. I’ve been stung three times by these wretched things – each time my reaction is getting worse. I’m avoiding piles of hay, tall grass – I’ve a permanent kink in my neck from looking up for nests. Mostly I’m eyeballing my hive and watching to see if they’re intending to start robbing my bees. I have Bruce build me a robbing screen.
Finally – time to check for progress – the deep is nearly full – surprising to me considering the lateness of the season when I put it on. Now I need a plan. I decide on the next visit I will do a sugar roll test to check my mite load so I can decide on a treatment, I will move the brood from the honey deep down to the first box, install my bee escape so I can return in a day or so to steal the remains honey and not have to deal with bees.
Hah! Not. I don’t know who comes up with the weather forecast – but Murphy’s law dictated that the inspect morning was minus 6C. Once again (as I have all season) I feel like I’m racing the horse to the barn door and hoping to slam it shut before he gets out. I toss my carefully laid double inspection plan out the window and come up with a ‘one size fits all’ plan, wait anxiously until I see plus 18C , watch some rain clouds roll in and figure it’s now or never.
The smoker gets lit, the hive comes apart. The brood gets moved to the bottom box once I make room. I cram two frames of honey in the second box once I make room. I decide whether I see mites or not – I’m sure I have mites – and drop two strips of Apivar in each box.
There are several ways to treat mites, some are temperature sensitive, some not, some easy, some require a certain amount of skill. I have all the equipment to do an oxalic acid fumigation- I’ve also never used it – and after hearing several stories about hives being set alight with the fuming wand and bees roasting themselves on said wand….I thought it best to leave that method alone until someone can show me how it’s done. I do not want to foolishly burn my hive down and cremate all the bees in it. I could have also done an oxalic dribble – but again – have not practiced it, and thought it best to simply stick with what I know.
So – I stack the two brood boxes, pop on an inner cover that I’ve modified to accommodate two jars of syrup as I understand I now have to feed them so as they do not use up their stores before winter. I now set about stealing six frames of honey from my third deep – that is still full of bees I need to coax into the two brood boxes. Gong show ensues – frame by frame I walk to the front of the hive, shake the bees off the honey, brush the stubborn ones off as I’m walking around back of the hive to pop them into a big tub with a lid. Things start to get a little hectic – I keep my focus until I have all the honey in the tub and finally shake the box itself off and place it over my syrup feeders. On goes the cover – done. I cart everything out of the yard and do several circuits around the back yard until the last of the bees decides I’m no longer of interest and return to the hive. I watch from the house – it takes about three hours before they’ve all squeezed themselves back into the hive – success. I think.
I think the girls did a beautiful job 😊
I froze a frame for the bees in the spring. These are also in the freezer until I decide how many I might set aside for them and how many I feel like extracting by hand. I have an extractor – but it’s not worth the mess for such a few frames.
The trick now….is to get them through the bitter cold of winter – next trick – getting through the crazy temperature fluctuations of spring. To that end I’m making candy boards and an insulation box. I’m wrapping the hive with a ‘bee cozy’ (no kidding, that’s what they are called 😄
Winter/spring is tough on bees – especially in the north. Every year stories abound of lost hives – starvation, moisture, mites….other diseases. I’ve done the best I can to date – my goal was to have a strong hive going into winter. I’m hoping I’ve accomplished that.
I will keep you in the loop ☺️