I have been meaning to post on the honeybees and my experience keeping bees in an urban setting ever since I started this blog. My intention for this post is as a good starting point for anyone who is considering keeping bees. I tend to keep my methods as minimally invasive as possible, and do very little in terms of feeding or adding things to my colonies. I also try to keep costs to a minimum, and while I harvest some honey for my own use, I am not (at the moment) managing my bees for commercial honey output, but for pollination and healthy bees. I have made just about every mistake in the book, and expect you will do some of the same. I (unfortunately for me and also perhaps the bees) tend to learn best that way. At the end of this post I will add links to some of the best resources I have found on the web, as well as a few of my favorite beekeeping books. For now, those of you who are considering beekeeping, you should be reading everything about bees you can get your hands or eyes on. There are many approaches to beekeeping, and many opinions on how it should be done, and methods that work fabulously in Nebraska or Spain may not work at all in the Pacific Northwest, where I am. Like so much of gardening and animal husbandry, some things just come with experience, and knowledge of your abilities, resources, and climate. Take classes, find a mentor or a bee group to join, and if you are ready, go order or make your equipment right now! Bee season starts in earnest in March, though if you are getting package bees they will not arrive until late April or May around here. This is a rambling post meant to intrigue the marginally obsessed , hopefully with some good references at the end….
Thoughts on the two main types of hives:
Langstroth hives: the typical bee boxes you see in farm fields used by commercial beekeepers and hobbyists alike, designed by L.L. Langstroth in the 19th century. These boxes are uniform in width and depth, though height varies: brood boxes are deeper, the biggest ones in fact are called deeps, honey supers are shallower. Supers are added in the spring and removed at honey harvest (can be multiple times in the season). These boxes use frames with wax or plastic foundation that determines the cell size of the comb the bees build (to a point). These hives are stackable, easy to transport, and designed for optimum honey and brood production. The frames are forgiving to manipulate, although you often expose the broodnest during inspections. Expensive to buy, labor and equipment intensive to use. You can use Langstroths as top bar hives by replacing the frames with top bars, or convert them to natural comb by punching the foundation out of the center of the frames. See Michael Bush‘s website for lots of good insights on this method, and beekeeping in general. Occam’s razor as applied to beekeeping.
Top bar hives: simple box hives with wooden ‘top bars’ instead of frames often used in 3rd world countries for bee keeping. Simple to construct out of cheap materials. The brood nest is rarely exposed when working the bees. Unsupported combs when green or full of honey can be fragile, especially in hot weather. Cross combing can make inspections impossible, thus this type of hive is technically not legal in some areas of the US. Warre hives are a vertical version of a top bar hive, designed by the Abbe Warre in the 20th century. The Greeks used a type of top bar hive basket thousands of years ago, so it is not a new idea. There are other types of hives in use as well, including skeps and bee gums (hollow logs). Basically a hive can be any sort of box or cavity, bees are highly adaptive and if it works for them, will make use of the uninsulated stud bay in your attic or the nose of your wooden kayak or the owl house you put up last winter. You can choose hive styles based on your management style and goals for beekeeping.
So, that said, here are a few things I wished I knew, now that I know what I know. This is a very complex subject, so by no means end here!
Yes, you will get stung. Get protective clothing that fits, is comfortable, and is bee tight. You will be much more relaxed. When I get stung I swell up and itch for three days, so I wear gloves. Your choice. Beware of showing off your bees on a hot summer afternoon….the friendly bees of spring can become the defensive bees of August….and they will choose to get stuck in your guest’s hair. Wear hats and sunglasses at least.
You will probably lose a colony at some point. It may be your first colony. It is good to have at least two colonies. Better if your two colonies have compatible equipment, then you have some options if one goes queenless. Don’t despair, the bees need you! And you need them. Get back in the saddle.
If you build your own hives, make sure they are compatible with each other. My first two top bar hives had different sized top bars. In fact, in our back yard right now we have four hives, none of which have compatible bars with any of the others. I think while it is fun to experiment, over all this is a bad plan (doesn’t help that my husband has also gotten into experimental hive building, with a very different approach). My resolution this year is to make copies of my favorite hive, and eventually move all my bees into those. That way I have the option of giving brood and workers to weak or queenless colonies to try to restart them, if I so choose, or make splits of extra robust colonies. It gives me options.
If you are handy and have access to lots of cheap or free materials, by all means experiment! I do. Mostly I am reinventing the wheel though, so if time and materials are limited, I would go with one of the free designs found on the internet. I will say that I think for our climate the 36″ horizontal top bar hives are a little small. Free plans here. I do like screened bottoms. Still on the fence about whether to cover them up for winter or not. Another experiment I am conducting.
Whether you choose frames and foundation, or top bars and natural comb, or a combination of these approaches, I do think that Langstroth frames are the easiest and most forgiving for the newbie to handle. I recommend handling bees with someone who knows what they are doing before getting your own. Otherwise you will have a large box of stinging insects in your garden that you don’t know what to do with and are afraid to take care of. An experienced beek can show you all the basics of bee biology: Workers, drones, brood in all its stages (see photo above), the Queen if you are lucky, capped honey, pollen stores, etc. in just a few minutes.
Get a hive with an observation window. I learned more my first summer watching the bees through that window than I did doing inspections, or reading dozens of books, or lurking for hours on bee websites. You will fall in love. You will also be able to do most of your inspections without going into the colony. With the hives I have now, I only go in for a full inspection if I think something is wrong. Easier for me, easier for them.
If you are at all handy, make your own equipment. Put a lot of thought into siting your hives, for they are heavy and tricky to move, and it is a disruption to the colony once established. Here in the PNW, my next apiary will have a protective roof to shed the bulk of winter rains off of my bees. Drier for them, and my equipment will last longer. Extra large roofs that shed water well away from the hive body are highly recommended. Protect the bees from wind.
Yes you will get stung. Maybe not your first day. Maybe not your first season. But. You will. Get stung.
Learn to catch swarms. You own hives will swarm at some point, and it is a cheap way to increase. Always have some extra hives handy during swarm season, so you have place to put them. Folks will pay good money for a bee box with bees already established in it. Catching swarms costs only your time, and you often get bees from proven colonies, which means they are more likely to do well than bees shipped from some southern state. Plus I don’t get all uptight about swarm prevention and the manipulations that go with that. Bees swarm, it is how a healthy colony reproduces, and reduces its mite load. Easier for me, easier for the bees.
Anaphylaxis is a deal breaker in my book. If you or a family member or an immediate neighbor knows they are *truly* deathly allergic (there are a lot of misconceptions about this), then you should not keep bees on your property. Get trained on how to use an epi pen and know the signs of a systemic reaction to bee stings if you do keep bees. Keep epi pens and liquid Benadryl on hand. Some animals are also allergic to insect stings.
There is something useful to learn from every beekeeper. Even if their methods are not the ones you choose to use to keep bees, be respectful of others. We all have our sets of assumptions and ideas of how things should be done. None of us are right all the time. You are not going to change someone’s mind by pissing them off.
When working the bees, give yourself plenty of time. It takes longer than you think. Never work a top bar hive in direct sun or on a hot day (above 75 degrees or so), the unsupported wax combs can ‘unzip’, creating a disaster that may destroy the colony. The other side of that coin is to not go into your hives if it is below 50. You can chill the queen or the brood. If the bees are flying, it is warm enough to go in. I have seen bees working Camellias in late January, I have seen colonies stuck in their hives for a week in June due to cool temps and rain.
Leave the bees enough honey to get them through the winter. This is hard to gauge as some winters are milder than others (bees eat more when it is mild than bitter cold), some colonies larger than others, some colonies bigger eaters than others, some more productive than others. Experience will tell. In top bars, I like to leave the bees at least 20 bars of honey, broodnest and stores. I use front entrances, so I only harvest honey combs from behind bar 20. I try to keep some spares to give back if they are needed in late winter. This would be two full boxes plus in a Warre. In a strong Langstroth the colony should have two deeps well supplied with honey and stores. No feeding, easier and cheaper for me, easier for them.
Yes, you will get stung. At some point. Bees are so worth it.
Stuff you need first season using top bar hives:
bee suit: I recommend getting one or two of those cheap tyvek suits painters use. Those tucked into muck boots with gloves and my veil make me fully beeproof. They are also lighter and cooler than the bee suits. I have also worn jeans and a light raincoat with boots, gloves and veil. But honey harvest time or full inspection or swarm catching, I go for the tyvek suit.
Veil. Lots of styles, or make your own. Make sure they do not ‘gap’ when you lean over. The bees will find a way in! If you get a bee in your veil, calmly walk away and crush it before it stings you. If you have multiple bees in your veil, calmly walk away and remove it. A bee sting to the eye can blind, so invest in a good veil!
gloves. forgo the styles with ventilated wrists, unless you like getting stung on your wrists. Some folks use disposable latex gloves, though a determined bee will sting you through those. Some forgo gloves as a way to force them to move slowly while working the bees. Your choice (three days of intense itching….just sayin)
boots. for tucking your pants into. Or, straps for your pants, and shoes that cover your ankles.
hive tool. looks like a tiny pry bar, which is basically what it is. Thousands of uses, including backscratcher and wasp whacker.
hive knife. for cutting away burr comb, or natural comb from any of its attachments for inspection.
smoker. for calming the bees if things get wild.
spray bottle loaded with 1:1 sugar water and a few drops of essential oil: lemongrass and peppermint is what I use, for calming the bees
entrance reducers. this can be wine corks or small pieces of wood depending on your hive style and design.
You will get stung. Quit cryin’. Put some honey on it. Alright, this posting is huge, so I will put references and bibliography in next week’s post. Now lets have some tea and toast (with honey of course)! And for what it is worth folks, I got no stings my very first year of beekeeping, which only increased my dread. My last season I had two, one due to borrowing gloves with holes in them….