My packages of bees are arriving on March 28th! I'm not ready for them, and there's a lot of work to be done before I will be ready, most of which would be a lot easier if the temperature were about 15-20 degrees warmer. They're predicting 8-12 inches of snow in the next 48 hours. We weren't expecting the ladies until sometime in mid-April, so I was sort of counting on getting all the priming and painting done in early April, when we could reasonably expect to see some days in the mid-50s F. I may actually need to fire up the heater in the garage to get this done. I'm not even sure we have kerosene in the tank, as we hardly ever heat the garage. We also need to figure our exactly where on our little property the hives will reside and build some stands to keep them up off the ground. Oh well. At least we have all the equipment we need (I think).
I've been reading books and online articles on beekeeping, speaking with local beekeepers, and attending classes to learn about keeping bees. There's an enormous amount to know. What becomes obvious very quickly once you dip your toe into the world of beekeeping, is that - aside from the myriad hard facts - there's a bewildering range of opinion and practice among beekeepers. It's rather intimidating for a first-time beekeeper to sort through and make decisions. Of course, I come to the table with my own set of beliefs and inclinations - not about beekeeping per se, but about how much chemical/medical intervention I'd like to use to support my colonies. If you've been reading here for any length of time, it's probably no surprise that I plan to follow natural/organic/low-intervention/biodynamic practices with my bees. I know I run the risk of losing my colonies by not routinely dosing them with drugs. That's a risk I'm willing to take.
Thus far, I'm drawn to a hodge-podge of different practices that don't fall into any established beekeeping approach that I know of. Here's a run down of all the decisions I've had to make before my bees even show up.
Hive type: Langstroth. This is the typical hive type of squarish boxes which stack up on top of each other, with movable rectangular frames inside each box. For each colony I have two deeps and two shallow supers. The shallow honey supers will be easier on my back, weighing in at only 35-45 pounds when full of honey. The alternatives just sounded heavier than I wanted to deal with. Back injuries are very common among beekeepers. I'd rather take a pass there.
Foundation type: none, just starter strips. This is probably my most controversial decision as far as established, conventional beekeepers are concerned. Top bar hive beekeepers, on the other hand, take this for granted. My objections to foundation are that it's either far too labor intensive for me, or that it introduces what is likely to be contaminated wax into a new hive. Also, I'm convinced that letting bees draw their own comb, with the cell size they want to draw, is better for the long-term health of the colony. There are obvious down sides. One is that my bees will have to work a lot harder to produce all of their own wax, which takes energy and time. Another is that they may not draw perfectly straight honeycomb, which will make it far more challenging for me to move and remove frames as I work the hive. It will also mean work for me to install the starter strips as opposed to using wax-coated plastic foundation, and this work needs to be done soon.
Feeding: Reluctantly, I plan to feed my bees on arrival, at least until they have a few frames completely drawn out with comb. Package bees arrive with no frames, having been fed only sugar water for sustenance during transport. I have a frame feeder - meaning a feeder which takes the place of one or two frames and sits directly in the hive. I plan to feed them with dilute honey from a local producer who follows organic practices. I know that everyone feeds bees sugar syrup, but it just doesn't feel right to me. I am especially concerned not to feed my bees sugar made from genetically modified sugar beets. (Most white sugar in the US is now made from these GMO beets.) I could, of course, buy cane sugar and avoid the GMO issue, but I will feed them dilute honey at least until I run out of the "clean" honey I have in my pantry. Also, I will add a little chamomile tea and a tiny amount of salt to their feeding syrup, as recommended in the Demeter standards(pdf) followed by biodynamic beekeepers in the EU.
Medication/treatment: Unless something drastic changes my mind, I'm going to fall on the non-toxic, low intervention side of things here. If you're not a beekeeper or aspiring beekeeper, you may not realize just how besieged the honeybee is by various parasites, and bacterial or fungal diseases at the moment. It is an exceptionally challenging time for Apis mellifera. Ultimately, my view is that bees need to develop their own resistance to various pests and regain their health through a cleaner environment and good breeding, rather than having weak colonies propped up through chemical intervention by humans. My opinion is that, in relying on chemical controls, beekeepers are simply breeding parasitic mites and bacteria that are resistant to those treatments, just as we are with E. coli in factory meat farming. To that end, I will try to support my bees by not introducing chemical insults into their hives, by following non-toxic treatments and practices that will aid them in ridding themselves of parasites, and by providing as much nectar and pollen forage, uncontaminated with pesticides or herbicides, on my property as I can manage. I plan to use many of the preventative methods described in Natural Beekeeping, by Ross Conrad, a book I highly recommend to aspiring beekeepers.
Races and queens: I have ordered one package of Italian bees and one of Russian bees. The particular strengths and weaknesses of races of honey bee are a little too detailed to go into in a blog post, but suffice it to say I felt like trying more than one race as a newbie beekeeper. I have chosen to have my queens marked but not clipped. Marking means that my queens will have a dot painted on their backs so as to make it easier for me to find them when I open up the hives. I hesitated over this because I assume the paint itself is a chemical insult. But as a brand new beekeeper I also see the value in being able to find the queen quickly so as to disturb the hive for as short a time as possible each time I open it up. In future I don't plan to have queens marked; there are other ways to ascertain that the queen is present and healthy within the colony, even if I don't become very skilled at finding her quickly. Clipping is the practice of cutting off at least a part of the queen's wing. I find this abhorrent, and much akin to declawing a cat. I would never do it. Clipping prevents the queen from flying, so that she cannot leave the colony with a swarm. This is feasible only because queens that arrive with package bees are already mated, and so don't need to fly to mate. Because my queens will be capable of flying, I may lose part of a colony to swarming. I'm reconciled to that possibility. Swarming is the only way nature has of forming new colonies of honey bees. If my colonies do well enough to swarm, so be it. I will consider it a job well accomplished, since only a very healthy and well established colony will produce a swarm. Not that I won't try to catch that same swarm if I can. But given the choice between wanton injury to a queen and the possibility of losing part of my investment, I'll avoid the unnecessary cruelty.
Honey harvesting: none this year, destruction method thereafter. This is another area in which I will follow an unconventional approach by the lights of most beekeepers. I don't plan to have anything more than a taste of this year's honey. Since my bees will need to draw all of their own comb, and since I will not feed them continuously, I would be surprised if they manage to produce more than the bare minimum of honey they'll need to get through the winter here. Even if they did, I would not harvest more than a spoonful. (I can't deny myself entirely, can I?) Next year, if things go well, I will harvest honey from a shallow super or two, using the destruction method. This sounds bad, but it's a low-tech method that doesn't require me to invest in a centrifugal extractor. To see how destruction harvesting works, check out this video from the Backwards Beekeepers.
I believe that destruction harvesting will work well for me as a backyard beekeeper because it's rather a simple process. I can do it in smaller batches than beekeepers working with extractors prefer to, because the extraction process is quite involved. If I had many colonies scattered across many locations, it might make more sense to get all the harvesting done in one fell swoop by means of the extractor.
I just want to wind up this post with a caution. Keep in mind, when reading this, that I have exactly zero experience in keeping bees at the time of this writing. I'm still very much in the learning stage with bees. What I've outlined above is only the best guesses I've come to after doing as much learning as I can in a short time. I strongly recommend that other beginning beekeepers do their own research and come to their own decisions about how they will keep their bees. I will certainly report on how the beekeeping project goes, and I'd be happy to discuss theory or practice with any other beekeeper, at whatever level of experience. But don't take anything I've said here as authoritative, because I most definitely am not an authority on honey bees.
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