What Should I Do?

Small-Scale Beekeeping

The sweet taste of resiliency from the joys of the hive
Friday, January 25, 2013, 6:51 PM
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My PeakProsperity username is the Latin name of the common honeybee (“Apis mellifera”). So it should come as no surprise that I'm a beekeeper. I started keeping bees about seven years ago, long before I had any awareness of "Peak Everything" or the three E's. And I enjoy keeping bees more than just about anything else. It requires a small amount of regular attention to make sure my hives are healthy, and conversely, to make sure a hive is not doing too well and preparing to swarm, which really ruins honey production. But beekeeping is not really a lot of work compared to most livestock. So, maybe consider a few beehives in your plans for self-sufficiency. 

Why Keep Bees?

The stock answer for why to keep bees is because bees make honey, and fresh, raw honey tastes much better than what passes for honey in the supermarket.  How much honey you get depends tremendously on the weather and the state of your bees when big honey plants are in blossom. In ballpark figures, it's entirely reasonable to expect 40-60 lbs. of surplus honey from an established hive in its second year. You may get more. Some exceptional locations can regularly produce over 200 lbs. from a single hive in one year. I've occasionally gotten twenty or thirty pounds of honey from hives in their first year, though this is unusual.

Also, bees pollinate fruit trees and nearby crops. Having bees in a neighborhood can increase fruit and vegetable yields substantially, without any additional work for the beekeeper. After you've kept bees for a while, you start getting beeswax for candles, wood polish, and lip balms. If you incline towards alternative medicine, you can harvest pollen and propolis (a gummy substance made from plant resins, used by bees to keep the inside surfaces of their hive free of microbes.) Some people claim propolis is a powerful immunity-booster.

Bees emerging from an older inner cover. Notice how the bees have coated the wood with a thin layer of propolis, a gummy substance made from plant resins and wax. The sugar syrup I sprayed to keep them occupied is beading up as if it were on glass. Propolis keeps the inside of the hive remarkably free of a variety of microbes.

But if I'm perfectly honest, none of this is really why I keep bees. I even dislike harvesting honey-- it's a very messy process. I keep bees because they fascinate me, and the smells of the beehive are some of my favorite smells anywhere. I love to sit by a hive entrance early in the morning with a cup of coffee, watching something millions of years old. A beehive is a "superorganism," a social unit composed of thousands of individual organisms all acting for the benefit of the colony. Any individual bee is practically insignificant; what matters is the success and reproduction of the colony as a whole. Different hives have typical baseline “personalities” and the survival of the hive as a whole is the goal of all activity in the hive. Observing a superorganism never fails to evoke a sense of awe in me.

Disclaimers

If you or someone in your family has a serious bee allergy, you shouldn't keep bees, of course.

There's a saying among beekeepers: "Ask three beekeepers, get five opinions." This is fairly accurate, not just a joke. What follows here are my own opinions, based on my experience making new mistakes every year. I've concluded that the best way to keep bees is to intervene minimally, all the while trying to imitate what would happen in the wild hive as much as possible. A trivial example: I prefer to leave plenty of honey on my hives before winter, rather than taking every last drop of surplus. I also don't medicate them for anything now. I've become more comfortable letting less-adapted, weaker bees (and/or any especially virulent parasites) simply die off, propagating survivor lines, rewarding the more stable host/parasite relationships, and strengthening the gene pool of survivor bees. 

Some Basic Bee Biology (the Ultra-Condensed Version)

A strong beehive can have over fifty thousand bees. Normally only one of these bees is a sexually mature female. This is the queen, who can lay almost two thousand eggs a day at her peak. The huge majority of bees in the hive are workers, non-reproducing females who do all the work in the hive. The third kind of bee in a hive is the male, or “drone” bee. Metaphorically, drones eat and drink beer all day while lying on the couch (Except, that is, when they're out flying around trying to mate with a virgin queen). Unlike queens and worker bees, drones don't even show particular loyalty to a specific hive -- they drift around considerably from one hive to another over the course of their lives. When a hive has plenty of food and is growing, like in late spring/early summer in my locale, it tends to produce more drones. I've heard several beekeepers claim that hives with plenty of drones act calmer and less defensive, too. 

The drone is considerably larger than the workers, with eyes about twice the size of a worker's. 
Note also the blunt rear of a drone-- he has no stinger and is completely defenseless.

Workers and queens are both females, but only a queen can mate and subsequently lay diploid eggs capable of hatching into another worker or a queen. And believe it or not, this difference between worker and queen is solely a matter of nutrition. From the time she is an egg, a queen is fed a substance called “royal jelly.” by attendant bees.  Worker larvae get royal jelly only during the first few days of their existence, switching to honey and pollen soon thereafter. This early difference in diet results in a completely different adult body.

Note how fuzzy the workers' bodies are. This is part of why they're such good pollinators.

If a queen goes missing or starts to fail reproductively, some workers can spontaneously begin to lay eggs. Eggs laid by workers are not fertilized (workers are incapable of mating) and thus the eggs are haploid (containing just half the genetic material of the "laying worker" mother). Strange as it seems to us mammals, these haploid eggs develop and hatch into normal drones. A queen can lay a drone when she chooses to, by deliberately depositing an unfertilized egg into a cell. The average human beekeeper has no great love for drones, since they're just another mouth to feed and don't produce anything marketable. In the fall workers see no use for drones either, and they are all summarily evicted and allowed to freeze or starve to death.

January: Time to Start

If you've wanted to try beekeeping, January is a good time to take the first step and order some bees. Most people start beekeeping with “package bees” After placing your order, sometime in the spring, you'll receive about three pounds of worker bees in a wire cage with with a suspended can of sugar syrup with tiny holes in it.. If your local club has a bulk order, you can get a package from them; otherwise, your local postmaster will leave a pickup notice in your mail and your local postal workers will eye you nervously as you pick up the package.  A queen is included in every package, packed securely in a small mesh cage along with some attendants. A lot of local clubs coordinate bulk package orders, too, so ask a local person who knows what your options are.

The queen is unfortunately not very visible here, but some attendant bees are. At the end is a plug of soft candy designed to be eaten away to release the queen after all the bees in the package have become accustomed to her pheremone.

Hiving a package takes some nerve the first time you do it, but it's really quite easy. Spray a few squirts of syrup on the outside of the cage to distract the bees inside, then quickly remove the queen cage and the can of syrup,. Cover up the hole in the top, then dump the contents into a waiting hive body. I no longer even bother to wear gloves or a veil, because the bees have always been so docile during this procedure. Most package suppliers fill their order sheets by the end of January, so now is a good time to place an order.  February is probably already too late.

Search http://www.beesource.com for reviews of package suppliers, or ask a local bee club.

 

Notice how I don't even have on gloves or a veil as I'm shaking out the package. They're quite docile at this stage and easily go into their new home.



Another perspective on a package of bees. This gives a better view of the wire sides and the quantity of bees involved.

Basic Equipment to Get Started in Beekeeping

In the USA, most people keep bees in "Langstroth" equipment (named after Lorenzo Langstroth, the 19th century minister and beekeeper who invented the modern removable-frame beehive and discovered “bee-space”). A modern beehive consists of several rectangular wooden boxes (called either "hive bodies" if they're at the bottom of a stack, or "supers" if they're on the top) that each hold ten removable frames of wax comb. Most of the time, each frame is pre-loaded with a sheet of foundation. This is a wax or a wax-coated plastic sheet embossed with thousands of hexagonal “starter lines” to make it easier for worker bees to make nice even comb.   

Fully drawn comb can be over an inch thick. It can be re-used many times within the hive, for brood, honey, and pollen. A pound of wax requires roughly seven pounds of honey to make. So re-using comb means a tremendous labor savings for the hive. When I extract honey, I remove just the wax caps from the cells, spin the frame in my extractor to get the honey out, and then I return the mostly empty comb to the hive to be refilled. If nectar is still flowing, it's possible that frame will be full of honey and sealed again in just a few days.

It's often very useful to move frames from one hive into another. You might do this to boost a lagging hive, or conversely, to prevent a super-strong hive from swarming. There's nothing magical about standard Langstroth dimensions, but the fact that it is a widely used standard means you'll have a lot more options if you need to move bees/brood/honey or pollen from one hive into another.

In addition to frames and hive boxes, you should also have a pair of bee gloves, a bee veil and a wide-brimmed helmet upon which to hang it. If you're really committed and you have the money, buy a bee suit or bee jacket. I especially like either of two ventilated bee suits. The first is from Golden Bee Products, in Louisiana. The second is called the "Ultra Breeze" and it's sold out of Oklahoma. When the sun is beating down, the bees are defensive, and you don't want to have to choose between getting stung or roasting yourself alive, either of these suits is a godsend. Google either of them for contact info; I have no connection to either company, but I have used products from both companies and found them to be good. Beesource.com again offers some historical experience with them.

Recapping, then my recommendations for basic starter equipment:

  • You can do fine with just a bee veil and helmet to start, especially if cost is an issue.
  • Get a pair of long and supple goatskin bee gloves. Even though you won't wear gloves all the time, these are nice to have if you need them.
  • You'll need bee smoker from time to time. A little smoke can calm down a hive that's starting to get riled.
  • Get a hive tool or two for separating frames and getting them started out of the hive. Buy two because they're easy to drop in the grass and misplace.
  • Get a frame puller. Nothing beats it for holding a frame to examine it closely
  • Get enough hive bodies and supers to house all your frames and bees. You can either use deep hive bodies for the brood nest and medium bodies for the honey supers, Or you can use mediums for everything. Mediums are easier to lift when full, and it's easier to find comb with this arrangement. The one downside of using all medium-sized boxes is that finding the queen can be a bit more work. If you're lucky, you can find a local supplier for frames and hive bodies, because shipping charges will kill you if you have to get them mailed. It saves lots of money to buy them disassembled and glue, nail, and paint them yourself.
  • Start with two or three 3 or 4-lb packages of bees. Just one package is not enough, because bees vary so much. I made this mistake, so don't make it, too.
  • Consider a ventilated bee jacket or bee suit if you have the money.
  • A local mentor or bee club will give you encouragement and help you when things don't go according to the book.
  • From the outset, go with “small-cell” beekeeping. More on that below.
  • Buying some packages of bees is just your start. Longer-term, you should be learning how to raise your own queens and locally adapted stock. Depending on a handful of warm states to provide the entire country's package bees is not a sustainable approach. I'd like to see more northern beekeepers selling bees that do well in the North, and there are some promising moves in this direction (like a Northern Queen Breeders Association, for instance). Learn how to do your own hive splits, the “Miller Method” of queen-rearing, etc., to make yourself as self-sufficient as possible. 

Small-Cell Beekeeping 

I kept bees for over five years before I learned an amazing open secret. The bees of today have been deliberately engineered by humans to be considerably larger than they would be in nature. How, you ask? In the first decades of the 20th century, the cell size of commercial bee foundation was deliberately increased over what bees would make by themselves. The goal was to get larger bees. (Bigger = better, apparently).   Average cell size for commercial foundation is about 5.4 mm today, yet "natural" brood cells measure closer to 4.8 or 4.9 mm. This means that the area of a cell is roughly twenty percent larger, and its volume, even larger than that in percentage terms.

This also means that the amount of time from egg to hatching has been increased by roughly a couple of days. A minority of beekeepers believes that this change in the size of the brood cell has had huge unintended consequences-- primarily, making it easier for the bee parasite, Varroa destructor (sometimes called the "vampire mite") to gain traction a beehive more easily. This larger cell size for brood requires that a worker larva stay uncapped for roughly two days longer than it would at the "natural" size, giving the mites more time to infest a worker's cell. It also means that any parasite that gets into the cell before it's capped has more room and more time in which to grow. This article is not the place to go into the details, but you can look at some of the references at the end of this piece or PM me for more details.

Millions of years of evolution seems worth paying attention to, so I made the decision to move all my hives back to small-cell foundation (or “natural cell” where the bees make comb of whatever size they want with just a little strip of wood at the top of the frame as a guide). Natural cell has the additional benefit of providing wax mostly free from any contaminants-- miticides, pesticides, etc, that may be lingering in recycled wax from less scrupulous beekeepers. It would have been a lot easier for me to start out that way, because by moving back I suddenly had a lot of drawn comb that I could no longer use. I'd respectfully suggest that anyone starting out in beekeeping begin with small-cell and avoid this problem.

Small-cell/natural-cell beekeepers are still a minority. So by having multiple hives yourself, you'll be able to provide spares and even out things across your hives. It doesn't work well to mix small-cell and standard-size foundation within the same hive-- I've tried, and the bees always make a real hash of things. The inability to get brood or other comb from other beekeepers is the primary downside to adopting a small-cell approach. 

You can order PF100 or PF120 plastic frames from Mann Lake and get a cell size of 4.95 mm, basically small cell dimensions. This is the least expensive way I've found to get foundation of the right size. There are other options, but they are considerably more expensive. The cheapest way of all is to let the bees draw their own comb in whatever size they want. This takes several generations before they're drawing comb at 4.8 or 4.9 mm. (so you'll be tossing some otherwise good comb that's slightly too big). But the price is certainly right.

Stings?

Yes, beekeepers sometimes get stung. The worst sting of the year for me (still not bad) is usually the first one, and I quickly re-develop a tolerance after that. Stings after the first of the season will still hurt at the time, but they barely swell at all-- sometimes I can't remember which hand I was stung on half an hour later. (And as an added bonus, every sting seems to improve the osteoarthritis I have in one shoulder. This is pure, subjective folk-medicine, but hey, it works for me. South Koran researchers have identified a COX-2 inhibitor in bee venom, for you doubters.)

Bee Diseases

Bees have been in the news a great deal over the past few years, thanks to “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or “CCD,” for which a cause has recently been identified. (It's a virus combined with a virulent strain of unicellular bee parasite, Nosema ceranae). Commercial beekeeping is under the assault of multiple diseases.

A strong, well-fed hive remains your best defense. Refer to the resources at the end of this piece for more details.

But where can I keep bees?

Thanks to all the press recently, the public is more supportive of beekeeping. Be a good neighbor and keep your hives away from foot-paths or areas that get a lot of pedestrian traffic. Give them eastern or southern exposure so they'll be flying earlier, too. I keep one hive unobtrusively in my back yard, and the rest on the farm of some friends. Last year I met a beekeeper a couple of towns over who was openly keeping about a dozen beehives eight feet from a chain-link playground fence. And he was planning to sell honey over the fence later in the year! I've met someone else with two hives backed up against a bike path, also with no problems. 

If you are discreet, use some common sense, and,provide barriers so that your bees have to fly above head-level to get out, and you can keep bees in many places. Urban dwellers sometimes keep a hive or two on the roof.

What About Africanized Bees?

Luckily, I've never run into any where I am. They don't do well in cold winters, and I live in New England. Buy your bees from reputable dealers who are inspected regularly. If your bees seem aggressive, re-queen or burn the hive immediately. The behavior of Africanized Honey Bees is not subtle, so there should be little doubt if you have them. You can also buy “nucleus” hives from local beekeepers, and if you're in an area without an AHB presence, these should be safe. Consult local experts for guidance if you live in an are with an established AHB presence.

Some of My Biggest Mistakes

Here's a random selection of my errors over the years. It's how I learn.

  • I once rearranged the order of frames in a hive without fully understanding what I was doing. Breaking apart the brood-nest willy-nilly was very stupid of me.
  • Early on, using a chemical treatment for nosema instead of being a strict Darwinist about it.
  • Treating diseases in other ways, like essential oils, sugar dusting, etc. I think that in the long run, my bees would have been stronger if I just left them alone and bred from the survivors. 
  • In years past, I have failed to feed my bees when a cold snap or other weather events has stopped the food supply abruptly. Feeding is an intervention that I do think is sometimes worth doing, because the weather is just plain impossible some years. This is the one intervention I'm still willing to do and I don't feel any pangs of guilt about it. (Learn about making Honey Bee Candy for winter feeding from member DPS)

Advice

Try to find a mentor or a class. Experience is very valuable. Ask about local bee clubs at your local Extension office, or find your state bee inspector (yes most states have bee inspectors. Identify who yours is and ask some questions). No matter who you find, I guarantee it'll reassure you to see a master beekeeper working bees in a short-sleeved shirt. 

Keep multiple hives. (As if I haven't said this enough already) You'll learn more from comparisons, and not assume that what you're seeing is “normal.” unless you see it repeatedly. Hives vary a lot, so broaden your experience. I wish I had gotten two hives my first year instead of just a single hive.

Strengthen the population in the hive. Many problems can be fixed simply strengthening the population in the hive. In an important sense, the hive is the organism you're trying to tweak, Simply moving a frame or two of eggs and brood from a stronger hive into a weaker one can cure things. (Bees always accept frames of eggs and brood, making this easy).

Some of My Favorite Resources

Print:

  • The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer
    • (Disclosure, I know the authors, but that's not why I'm recommending this book). Despite the unfortunate title, this is an excellent overview of no-treatment beekeeping and the intricate biology of a beehive. A good place to start in understanding the complex inner workings of the hive, including the microbiology at play. Dean and Laurie also put on a couple of conferences a year on treatment-free beekeeping, one in Arizona (early spring) and one in central Massachusetts (late July, early August). I have been to both Massachusetts conferences so far and hope to maintain a perfect record.   This book is a great place to start beekeeping. Extra material online at http://thecompleteidiotsguidetobeekeeping.com/ including video from some of the conferences.
       
  • Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, Ross Conrad
    • One of the first books to lay out a way to keep bees without any chemicals, frequently cited in the literature.

 Online Resources:

  • http://www.beesource.com To my knowledge, this is the largest and most active online forum devoted to beekeeping. It embodies the “Ask three beekeepers, get five opinions” rule, but is still generally friendly and helpful. Some good “newbie” sections as well. Well worth poring over for discussions from earlier years. You'll get a good sense of why not everyone believes that small-cell beekeeping matters here, as well as some of the arguments in its favor.
     
  • http://www.bushfarms.com/bees.htm The bee section of the personal website of Michael Bush, detailing his experience with bees at his farm in Nebraska. He is one of the most prominent proponents of small-cell and natural-cell beekeeping, and he offers an inspiring curiosity and willingness to experiment. Lots of great pics, even a bunch of out-of-print historical bee literature. I can get happily lost in here!  

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36 Comments

apismellifera's picture
apismellifera
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
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Also, a list of contacts

Another link that may prove helpful in locating  nearby beekeepers or  beekeeping clubs  (if you live in the  USA.)

    http://www.beeculture.com/content/whoswho

It comes from the website of "Bee Culture" one of the country's two main beekeeping magazines. 

Full Moon's picture
Full Moon
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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

Quick question ,  We are new to bee keepping . Last fall when we went out to work the hive we found three empty queeen cells , loads of brood hatching and not as much honey as I expected .    It is a new hive .

What am I doing wrong .

FM

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apismellifera
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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

Hi, FM,

You're not necessarily doing anything wrong.  Hard to say without more info. 

What kind of bees do you have?Where were the cells located on the frame? Did you find the queen? 

Where I am, it's unusual to be able to harvest much, if any, honey from a hive in its first year.  If you found lots of brood but not as many bees as you expected,  they may have swarmed on you; that would be consistent with finding empty queen cells, too.  Some kinds of bees are likely to produce "just in case" queen cups, Russian bees in particular.Weather is tremendously important, too-- if it rains during a major nectar flow, it's useless to the bees, who are stuck inside the hive and unable to gather any nectar.  If I'd found a hive like you describe, feeding syrup before frost sounds prudent so they'll make it through the winter.  Lots of brood is a good sign but I would try to find a queen and determine if she was the original or a new post-swarm or supercedure queen.  

rjs's picture
rjs
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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

just an off the wall thought on small-cell beekeeping; over time, the size of the cells decreases naturally as bee add additional thickness to the cell walls when cells are preserved for the winter; a consequence of using smaller cells ultimately becomes smaller bees, unable to carry the same size payload as larger bees...

i'd think if you use small cells you'd want to replace with new foundation more often...

Full Moon's picture
Full Moon
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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

I did leave some  honey and  feed several jars of  sugar syrup  that they ate like they were starving .  I do not know what kind of bees they are because they  gathered  from the wild .   MY  boy took a quick peek before the  last big snow storm and said they have plenty of honey now and still lots of bees .   I will check to see if we can find the queen when the snow is melted .

  I think I will get a couple more hives set up  this spring incase it is a swarm situation .  How far apart should I put the hives ?

FM

apismellifera's picture
apismellifera
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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

FM-- No need to space the hives at all-- they can be next to each other if you want.  Unless it's emergency feeding, best to leave the top on the hive until at least 55 degrees or so. 60 is better. 

Congratulations on using wild bees-- if they've been an established colony for a few years (as opposed to  just some recent swarm that set  up house up in a hollow tree last year)  then you've got some local "survivor" stock which is terrific.  I'll look forward to hearing about your progress.  If the hive feels light, like they have eaten  through all their stores, you can dump some granulated sugar on the inner cover during a warmer day to prevent starvation. (Not ideal, but better than starving).   Some heavy syrup, too (2 sugar/1water) is also good. Just make sure they don't drown in the syrup-- give them lots of grass or straw to crawl on to drink it up if it's an open top. 

apismellifera's picture
apismellifera
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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

rjs wrote:

just an off the wall thought on small-cell beekeeping; over time, the size of the cells decreases naturally as bee add additional thickness to the cell walls when cells are preserved for the winter; a consequence of using smaller cells ultimately becomes smaller bees, unable to carry the same size payload as larger bees...

i'd think if you use small cells you'd want to replace with new foundation more often... 

I have my hives on a four-year replacement schedule, to prevent build-up of any residual chemical nasties in the wax.  So I think it's of little practical effect  because the amount of  volume lost wth each hatching is so slight. (Plus, I honestly want  a somewhat smaller bee.  It means that the brood cells get capped a couple of days earlier,  reducing the opportunity for a varroa mite to infest the cells).

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patrickhenry
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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

apismellifera -

Thank you !   What a wonderful, well written, clear introduction to beekeeping.  I've been pondering it myself over the last months, and this answered many questions !  Thanks again !

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Farmer Brown
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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

patrickhenry wrote:

apismellifera -

Thank you !   What a wonderful, well written, clear introduction to beekeeping.  I've been pondering it myself over the last months, and this answered many questions !  Thanks again !

My sentiments exactly.  Although aquaponics is keeping me busy, this is something I have been wondering about and may add to my farm.  Thanks!

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rhare
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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

Apismellifera,

Thanks for the great article. I've never thought about raising bees and knew nothing about it so this was a good introduction.

apismellifera wrote:
But beekeeping is not really a lot of work compared to most livestock.

Can you describe how much time you spend beekeeping and a rough estimate of the costs?

apismellifera's picture
apismellifera
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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

How much of a  time commitment varies a lot depending on what season. A lot of it is repetitive from hive to hive (pulling out full frames of honey after a big nectar flow. for instance).  

Assembling equipment

Say you have assembled and painted five medium hive bodies-- those are usually finger joints. For longest life, you glue them w/ Titebond III and then drive a couple of nails in each direction at each joint.  Painting is boring, but goes quickly.  To assemble five bodies, and paint them, say a total of two hours (I'm overestimating).  Each of those hive bodies will need ten frames assembled, but if you use the small cell PF120's or PF125's from Mann Lake, they're waxed plastic (yuck!) but no assembly required. If you use regular foundation, then each frame should be glued and nailed together, then you mess with the foundation till you finally get the hang of it.  so that can consume a lot of time-- it's boring grunt work, but once they're together, they'll last for many years.  Overestimating again on the frames, say five minutes total per frame.  If you go with "natural cell" then you can use empty frames, and just glue popcicle sticks in the groove along the top bar of the frame and bees will fill it out for you.  Usually works beautifully, much quicker than foundation.  All this equipment is now going to last for years.

Getting and hiving your package

Hope for a warm, calm day to make things less hectic.  Dumping in the bees and placing the queen cage correctly takes maybe half an hour, tops.  That includes time to savor the experience.  You go back in a couple of days to make sure things look ok-- scout bees flying, pollen coming in, etc, and again in a week to make sure queen has been released and accepted.  It will usually take a while to find the queen, but she's usually in the center frames of the hive and can act quite skittish when you're looking for her. 

Ongoing Monitoring

From here on, most of your work consists of checking to see if the brood pattern looks good, you see either the queen or fresh eggs, and populatin is strong.  Search for signs of swarm preparations durign swarm season, maybe once a week or so by going through the hive quickly and looking for a  crowded brood nest, "swarm" cells being prepared.  Nip the swarm in the bud if you find it by doing a hive split.  If weather is weird (cold snaps, drought, etc, and nectar flows are affected, then you may need to feed.  Sometimes there's no other way.  You can mix up a 1:1 or 2:1 sugar  syrup and let it mix in the sun.  Then feed them with one of  a variety of feeders buckets, frames, etc. 

A hive examination at first will take you maybe 20 minutes or a half an hour.  You're also looking for signs of disease, depending on your area-- varroa, small hive beetles, wax moths in a weak hive.  After some time as a beekeeper, you will have a pretty good idea if a hive seems good before even opening it. 

A lot of what you need to do is just keep your eyes open and observe.  When feeding syrup, for instane especially, watch for signs of other hives "robbing" a weaker one, and tighten up the hive entrance if necessary to try to stop it if you find it.  Just a quick look, usually no work required.  And of course, most of the time, you don't need to feed your bees, especially if you leave them enough food. 

Honey Extraction

Ironically, my least favorite part-- it is sticky and messy, but satisfying.  You can extract without an extractor with "crush and strain"  and there are plans online  for a cheap bicycle powered spinners to spin honey out of frames, too.  This will be several hours, maybe days of work if you have had a good year for nectar and strong hives.  No real reason you have to do it all at once, though, except that giving them back empty drawn-out comb will give you more honey. 


Raising Queens

Not always necessary, but a really good skill to have.  You're much more self-sufficient if you have some spare queens in stock in little "nucleus hives.  Boiled down to essentials, it's a matter of finding the strong hive from which you want to raise a new queen, temporarily taking out its queen to force them to start queen-rearing on some comb you've prepared  for them and letting them draw out a bunch of big juicy queen cells for you.  You then remove them before they hatch, each to its own nucleus hive, so the first to hatch won't murder the others.  This is somewhat time consuming, but it is so interesting that I don't count it as work. Quite a few short visits are needed to the hive, and some hives need to be ready to hold the new queens. Timing is absolutely critical for queen rearing, too. 

No doubt I've forgotten something, but you're looking out for disease, weak queens, food problems in regular, brief visits.  They feed and clean up after themselves quite nicely. 

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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping: Co$t

Sorry I forgot to answer abot costs:   a package of bees runs about eighty to a hundred dollars where I am..  Hive bodies can be found for under ten bucks each unassembled , frames for under a buck each.  Shipping will cost a lot more, so hope you have a local supplier to pick up from. 

A Cadillac bee suit can cost over two hundred dollars.  Wax foundation can cost roughly a buck per sheet, I think I paid 2.50 or so the last plastic frames I bought. 

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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

Thanks for the article,  I began keeping bees several years ago and last year started moving towards the small cell paradigm.

As a peak oil/ collapse tangent to bee keeping methodology,  I'm also a big fan of  and now modeling my bee keeping on Michael Bush's methods

outlined on his site  "Natural Beekeeping http://www.bushfarms.com/bees.htm  under the section on "lazy beekeeping," a variety of  techniques and lessons learned over many years that minimize the effort expended and the inputs  involved and which represent in my opinion a more sustainable approach for the bees.  I'm also investing in Permacomb a fully drawn plastic comb which will last 20 plus years and saves the bees energy  expended during comb production.     My intent is to use this primarily for brood comb.

an added benefit to beekeeping has been the community resources I've developed selling my honey at our towns nascent farmers market.

pete

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MEAD (Honey Wine)

Nobody mentioned one of the great benefits of honey... making honey wine! I've been making mead (honey wine) for a several years now. It's remarkably easy to do. Conventional wines require a fruit source of the proper type and quality, and this can be difficult at best. The great thing about mead is that the bees take care of the quality control here. Therefore, you're almost assured a quality mead in the end. A gallon of a light mead requires about 2 pounds of honey. So, 50 pounds of honey taken from an established hive each year will yield 25 gallons of mead (equal to 120 standard 750 mL bottles). For those who are interested, I recommend that you acquire a good basic mead making kit. A couple of web sites that offer these include www.leeners.com and www.homebrewheaven.com.

Once again, it's easy to make and remarkably good... and it only gets better with age.

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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping: Co$t

Apismellifera,

Thanks for the follow up information on prices and time. 

Too many things to do!  Aquaponics, Beekeeping, Chickens, ... oh my!

I guess we can call that the ABC's of food prep....

Smile

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Voice of the Hive Stories

Thank you so much for sharing your experience! You remind me that I should look into experimenting with bees.

I have wanted to keep bees ever since I read the fascinating stories from the "Voice of the Hive" originally posted on Kur0shin by Jason Nelson. Many of the stories are told about single, individual bees. At the time, I waited and waited for each new installment to be posted, each new exciting story/drama followed by a description of what is happening to the colony and what the author does in terms of troubleshooting or adapting to the issue as a beekeeper.

"E45 does not know it but she is not alone in the vast flower fields.    Bouncing and buzzing along the ground is a predator, sleek and fast.  Though it appears to be injured or incapable of long flights this is an illusion.  It touches down every few feet because it is hunting, searching for insects crawling on the ground.  As it rises from the ground again it sees a better target – E45.

"As E45 skips from one flower an ominous shape buzzes overhead.  She flees immediately.  Away from the hive she has nothing to defend and so she flies for her life.  The predator follows, sleek and shiny, with a long wing span and legs made to catch.  Her kind are hunters and E45 is doomed if she cannot escape.  E45 flies low along the ground, weaving through the weeds and flowers that jut upward from the ground like towers and behind her the hunter comes faster.   It hovers just behind her now as E45 pitches and rolls, partly out of control from her rapid flight, partly in desperate attempt to escape.   The predator lunges, and E45 shoots upward, barely avoiding her, but E45 is at a disadvantage.  She is carrying pollen and nectar.  She is not built for speed.

"The hive is near, and its scent draws her onward.  There is safety waiting at the edge of the landing board, the safety of numbers, of hundreds of workers and guards who will help to fend off the attacker.  If she can make it.   She rises up to pass over the tall grass at the edge of the hive and a shadow dives at her.

"Struck in mid air she falls to the ground as strong forelegs grasp at her, but E45 is not dead yet.  She curls her tail and twists in mid air, arching to sting, and then both grapplers slam into the ground just in front of the hive.  The hunter stabs over and over with her stinger, a long jagged blade made for killing.  E45 struggles to rise and dash for the landing board but the predator is on her in a heartbeat.  Caught firmly by its legs E45 is stung over and over.  The predator opens its jaws and tears at her, ripping her abdomen off.  E45 dies just a few feet from the hive, and as she lays twitching, the predator takes off, carrying her body away to feed its young.   Wasp, we call the hunter.  To the bees it is a flying death."

- from Lions at the Gate

The Voice of the Hive stories are posted on-line here:
http://www.voiceofthehive.com/

To me, the more interesting way to read the stories was by reading about individual bees, one by one.
http://www.voiceofthehive.com/VotHMeetTheBees.htm

If you've never read these stories, I highly suggest doing so. You may just end up wanting to devour each and every one. For non-beekeepers, it's just fascinating stuff. For beekeepers, there may be some tips and tricks.

Poet

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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

Great Information! Thank you!

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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

Thanks for the great article on beekeeping!

I just listened to this recent NPR Science Friday podcast (12/24/10) on the history and more on bee keeping - here's the description from iTunes.

This Christmas marks the 200th birthday of Lorenzo Langstroth, the "Father of American Beekeeping." May Berenbaum discusses Langstroth's life and his beekeeping inventions, and Tom Seeley talks about the collective decision-making of honeybees, the subject of Seeley's new book, Honeybee Democracy.

Is there anything to know about storing honey?   Does fresh wild honey store as well as store bought?  My family now chooses honey over fake syrup, and we eat way too many pancakes to afford real maple every day.

Tom

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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

Woodman wrote:

Is there anything to know about storing honey?   Does fresh wild honey store as well as store bought?  My family now chooses honey over fake syrup, and we eat way too many pancakes to afford real maple every day.

 

Unless it's watered down, honey doesn't really go bad, (in the "spoilage" sense).  Fresh, wild honey (or unprocessed local honey) is IMO, better than store-bought.  Heating it really diminishes the complexity of the flavor, and a lot of commercial big-name honey is heated because it's easier to bottle..  Most honey eventually crystallizes, but if you gently, gently warm up the honey  jar in in a warm (not hot!) water bath, it will return to its original viscosity.  Never heat honey very much-- it ruins the taste and destroys enzymes. Just some warm water (on the outside of the jar!) and a little patience works fine.

A very few varieties just do not seem to crystallize.  I have a few treasured jars of honey left over from my second year of beekeeping, and the stuff just won' crystallize-- it's as pretty and golden as the day I bottled it.  I think it may be basswood honey, because that's one of its special traits.  But unless your bees are in a monoculture for miles all around them, you're probably going to get a mix of sources in most honey.

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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

Very well written and informative.  You've told us enough to make a good start and made it interesting too.

Travlin 

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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping

i received the following email from a blogger in brazil:

Avaaz has been running a campaign calling on the EPA to suspend neonicotinoid pesticides until and unless they are proved safe for bee populations. It’s been a monstrous campaign, with nearly 1 million signers: http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_the_bees_usa
We heard that this Friday there’s a Global Conference on Risk Assessment for Pollinators, in Florida. The conference is run by SETAC which unsurprisingly is made up of many of the big international chemical producers. The EPA has details of the conference here: http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/ecosystem/pollinator/science.html  But other than that we’ve been unable to confirm whether or not this conference is actually taking place.
We’re now trying to frantically get more information on this. If anyone on the list has any connections at groups working on pesticides, bees, etc…that might be able to confirm whether this meeting is real or not, we’d greatly appreciate their phone number….

ill check back here tomorrow to see if anyone has info...

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Re: Small-Scale Beekeeping:workshop

In case anyone is interested, I just received notice of a "beginning beekeepers intensive" workshop in the Boston area.  It's being presented by Dean and Laurie, the authors of  The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping.  Find out more and register online at: 

2011 Beginning Beekeeping Intensive

----------------------

2011 Beginning Beekeeping Intensive Boston

Spontaneous Celebrations
45 Danforth St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130
One class in two parts:
Noon to 6pm
March 20 and March 27, 2011

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Top Bar Hives

Not that you should listen to me, because I've never kept bees in my life (yet), but this really appeals to me: http://www.bushfarms.com/beestopbarhives.htm

See also http://goldstarhoneybees.com/

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Top bar hives have much to recommend them

They guarantee fresh wax, so any residual environmental contamination will be cycled out and not stick around.  They're simple, and you can make one out of just about anything, too.  And they can be really cheap if you make them yourself. They're very common in Africa for this reason. 

They're usually longer horizontal hives, not boxes stacked vertically, and bees seem to want to move up in the winter as they eat.  I've heard complaints about problems overwintering from some people.  And not being a standard size means that it's harder to balance out brood and food/pollen across strong/struggling hives unless your whole operation uses the same size.  Even then, you can't get frames from other beekeepers on Langstroth equipment. And TBs are definitely more fragile than frames on foundation. 

Personally, I am doing a mix of empty frames (with popsicle sticks glued into the top of the frame as a comb guide) and small-cell plastic foundation. I get cleaner wax and benefits of small-cell/natural-cell comb size either way. 

Also am currently building my own long observation hive, too.  Will be great fun.

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low voc paint or linseed oil

I'm super excited. I just bought and am assembling my equipment for my first two hives.

Soon it's time to paint the outside parts and I'd like to keep things natural as possible. I also really like the look of natural wood so I am leaning towards using linseed oil even though I know I will have to reapply in the future.

Does anyone know if linseed oil is truly safe and viable for Langstroth beehives? I read somewhere that the linseed oil will breed mold/mildew.

Should I just stick with some low VOC paint?

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We've top bar hives and use

We've top bar hives and use linseed oil gently warmed and mixed with beeswax. The top bars are coated with straight beeswax.

congrats, Robie

ps. i spend many mornings watching them wake(after milking)

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I got my first three hives

I got my first three hives this year. Two nucs and a swarm ( my friend that caught the swarm gave me ten frames of drawn comb!). Amazing creatures. The honey flow is on with locust in full bloom and poplar just beginning.

Our bee club has a good website. WNCbees.org 

Their Reference Page is full of great info.

I chose to go with English 8 frame hives and all medium supers. The hive body portions will be three mediums.

A good book was written by one of our members Keeping Bees . If you want a pretty book on bees for your coffee table and to learn from, she would love to sell you a book.

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We've got bees update

Amazingly (CMdotcom is pretty well the first web page I open in the morning!), I never saw this blogpost when it first appeared, and anyone following the Definitive Permaculture thread will know we bought 11 hives about 6 weeks ago.  We sold two, and split some this week and are back up to fifteen, currently on four sites, the idea being we will sell the new ones once settled properly to recoup our substantial investment in this venture as quickly as possible.  Unlike some people on this site, we are NOT made of money......

So far we have harvested eighty kg of honey (about 175 pounds) and are about to start making some Mead....  Even managed to combine the recent successful restoration of our 60 year old AGA cooker with yesterday's harvest by heating the steam source for the uncapping knife on the stove, all wood powered.

On another note, we recently viewed a most interesting movie, "Queen of the Sun" which casts a very dim view of the American commercial honey industry..... I couldn't but feel America treats its bees like shit, and all the problems encountered on your side of the planet (and we do have some of our own here in Australia) are self inflicted.

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Parasitic fly 'may explain bee deaths'
 

Parasitic fly 'may explain bee deaths'

An <i>Apocephalus borealis</i> fly implants its eggs into the abdomen of a honey bee.

An Apocephalus borealis fly implants its eggs into the abdomen of a honey bee. Photo: AP/San Francisco State Universit

Northern California scientists say they have found a possible explanation for the honey bee die-off: a parasitic fly that hijacks the bees' bodies and causes them to abandon hives.

The symptoms mirror colony collapse disorder, in which all the adult honey bees in a colony suddenly disappear. The disorder continues to decimate hives in the US and overseas.

The disease is of great concern, because bees pollinate about a third of the United States' food supply. Its presence is especially alarming in California, the nation's top producer of fruits and vegetables, where bees play an essential role in the $US2 billion ($1.9 billion) almond industry and other crops.

The latest study, published in the science journal PLoS ONE on Tuesday, points to the Apocephalus borealis fly as the new threat to honey bees. It is another step in continuing research to find the cause of the disease.

Researchers have not been able to pin down an exact cause of colony collapse or to find a way to prevent it. Research so far points to a combination of factors including pesticide contamination, a lack of blooms - and hence nutrition - and mites, fungi, viruses and parasites.

Interaction among the parasite and multiple pathogens could be one possible factor in colony collapse, according to the latest study by researchers at San Francisco State University. It says the phorid fly, or apocephalus borealis, was found in bees from three-quarters of the 31 hives surveyed in the San Francisco Bay area.

Scientists say the fly deposits its eggs into the bee's abdomen, causing the insect to walk around in circles with no apparent sense of direction. The bee exhibits zombie-like behaviour, said lead investigator John Hafernik. The infected bee leaves the hive at night and dies shortly thereafter.

The combination of a parasite, pathogens and other stressors could cause die-off, Professor Hafernik said. The parasitic fly serves as a reservoir that harbours pathogens - honey bees from parasite-infected hives tested positive for deformed wing virus and other pathogens, the study found.

"We don't fully understand the web of interactions," Professor Hafernik said. "The parasite could be another stressor, enough to push the bee over the tipping point. Or it could play a primary role in causing the disease."

Professor Hafernik stumbled on to the parasitic fly by accident. Three years ago, the biology professor looked for something to feed a praying mantis. He found some bees outside his classroom, placed them in a vial and forgot about them. When he looked at the vial a week later, he found dead bees surrounded by small fly pupae. A parasitic fly was feeding on the bees and had killed them, he said.

The fly is a known parasite in bumble bees. Scientists used DNA barcoding to confirm the parasite in the honey bees and bumble bees was the same species.

The fly might have recently expanded its host presence from bumble bees to honey bees, Professor Hafernik said, making it an emerging threat to agricultural pollinators.

The fact that honey bees live in large colonies placed in close proximity to one another and beekeepers frequently move the hives throughout the country could lead to an explosion of the fly population, he said.

The fly, which is found all over North America, could also become a threat to native bees.

Professor Hafernik plans to expand his research to other parts of the country and to study the parasite's impact on agriculture in California's Central Valley.

Since it was recognised in 2006, colony collapse has destroyed colonies at a rate of about 30 per cent a year, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Before that, losses were about 15 per cent per year from a variety of pests and diseases.

AP

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/conservation/parasitic-fly-may-explain-bee-deaths-20120105-1pmgv.html#ixzz1iYup2HCL

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Damnthematrix wrote America treats its bees

like shit.

Yep. Monoculture might just be the death of us all.

Boycot almonds.

Write the almond growers and tell them they should devote a small part of their fields to biodiversity and keep bees on the property.

The pollination industry must be neutered to stay local. I hate it for the entrepreneurs who make their livelihood from it, but making your money off the deaths of millions is ______________!

Americans put tens of thousands of hives on pallets and ship thim on trucks to California from as far as Maine and Florida to pollinate freakin almonds.

Eat walnuts. Drink rice milk. Quit buying almonds and tell them why.

IMO, this has two huge negative effects on bees not counting the crappy part of wrapping their homes in shrink wrap and making them poop in their living space for a few days.

        1) There is no food for bees on almond farms. Almond pollen is not nutritious enough for them to live so tanker trucks full of GMO HF-corn syrup is pumped into the hives to keep them flying long enough to do the job. This stress creates huge die-off and loss in hives which creates a market for queen-mill queens. Think puppy mill hell levied on bees. No diversity. No thought given to hardiness of the queen which causes weak hives from the get-go. A few breeders shipping the same genetic stock to the four corners of the continent. My parasites, toxins, viruses where I live are not the same as the ones from where you live....

         2) EXCEPT for the fact the these pollinators are shipped from my area and your area to comingle and catch each other's diseases and take them back to their home states and pass it around to hives unable to resist the new disease.

Boycott almonds.

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New post: installing new bees

I've just posted a brief how-to on installing a package of bees.

     http://www.joesbees.com/installing-a-package-of-bees/

I have plans to blog more regularly about my experiences as a beekeeper, and will post links here if there's interest. 

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New hives ready to go!

apis -

Nice primer on installing new packages. And a timely reminder, too, as I'll be installing 3 of them tomorrow.

This year, I'm starting 3 new hives to replace the one I lost last year. I've just finished painting and staining them and all they need now are the bees:

I'll be installing the packages at dusk tomorrow.

Kevinoman0221 from the Sebastopol Peak Prosperity Group will be coming over to watch the process - hopefully we'll add him to the list of PP.com beekeepers next year :)

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Best of luck this year, Adam

I hope the process goes smoothly for you this year. 

Today I've confirmed that one queen is out of her cage, (and I expect that the other one is, too--it's just a bit too far to drive to make sure).  The only complicating factor so far is a cold snap here for the past few days.  It's been a bit too cold to forage for much of the time since I installed them, and it might be challenging to keep warm. But both hives have frames of honey so I'm not really concerned.

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Have to agree

Re: America treats its bees like doody...

I have kept bees the last three years. Each year, I bought docile "packages" of bees from a supplier. None have lived through the winter. Last year I picked up two feral swarms down by the river. They were both incredibly robust.

Many breeds of dogs have been inbred so much that some have weak hips, weak eyes, etc. After my experience with feral swarms, I think it's the same with bees - they have been managed and bred to pedigreed status and the packages that are bought and sold as stock are not healthy and not resistant to viruses, parasites, or whatever comes down the row. Combine genetic engineering with the Traveling Medicine Show that is migratory beekeeping, and you have a disaster.

-EarlyG

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swarms

My son, Nathan and I caught two swarms in one day, yes today. They're in 5 frame nucs and doing fine. Gotta get permanent homes ready. I need to learn how to post pics.  robie

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apismellifera Encouragement

I want to first say thanks to apismellifera for your original post. It was very well written and helpful. I especially appreciate the link to Michael Bush. Partly because of you my first two hives are established and growing.

In your April 20 post you mentioned that you would consider additional blog posts if there was interest. I am interested.

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