Thursday, February 25, 2010

Honey Bees Are Coming Soon

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.


Paula Adams Perez said...

Hello! I just found your blog today (when I googled Joan Dye Gussaw garden) and I fully intend on reading it all! Until then though, I'm curious, how big is your property? I am on 1/5 acre in a neighborhood north of Seattle. If you'd like, you can see on my blog that I am turning my yard into a garden.

Sandy said...

Hi Kate! I guess you saw that the PASA dinner is postponed because of the snow. Darn it! I was hoping to meet you! We have beehives at Flint Hill too, but I'm haven't been involved with them. Fascinating little critters, aren't they? I look forward to reading about your experiences.

Linda Foley said...

How exciting! Ah I want bees sometime in the future as well, but for me I want top bar hives. One day I will get them and be making a post about them too! Someday...

Anonymous said...

I know you have a bigger plot size than we have in the UK, but I'm not sure if you are suburban or rural. Here it seems that bees kept in cities are doing better than rural ones, so it looks likely that colony collapse disorder is due to agricultural pesticides and the like.

On the food from gardens topic, I have decided to sow a few tentative seeds indoors this weekend. Not many but a selection to give a head start if spring is on the way.

Raven_Nightwind said...

I am soo jelous, I am fatally allergic to bees so I cannot have a hive. I do love them though they are wonderful creatures, I hope you enjoy them.

Anonymous said...

Snow - Thought you might enjoy the following. If Lester gets the March 7th storm right I am going to buy his Almanac.
The above site has a video included. Also check out – This site gives more of his history.

Lee said...

Wow, how exciting! You are just a couple steps ahead of us in the beekeeping enterprise. We've joined our local beekeeping association, signed up for their yearly class, and been gathering information. I haven't taken the next step to start preparing equipment.

I wouldn't worry too much about the "cost" to the bees of the foundationless frames. I've read that bees actually draw out comb much faster when they don't have a foundation to work from, and the rule that you hear tossed around that you lose 8 pounds of honey for every 1 pound of wax is decidedly suspect. a.) It was based on a single experiment using fed bees, not bees actively collecting b.) That one pound of wax will hold 22 pounds of honey c.) Wax is a useful product in it's own right (more interesting, to me, than the honey) and d.) There is less risk of infections/pests on clean wax. You can find more details here.

I'm actually going to try to go the build-it-yourself route for most equipment and collect wild swarms. I'm debating between building a Kenyan Top Bar Hive or a Warre Hive .. I might just build one of each. That way, if my bees swarm or have a disease/mite problem I'll feel less financially invested in trying to save them (which usually means resorting to chemicals), when for the sake of genetic strength we would all be better off to let weak hives die.

This is another argument for having several hives I suppose ...

Linda Foley said...

Lee, I like the idea of the Warre Hive. I am going to check into it further... thanks!

Aimee said...

fascinating... I am also starting bees this year but alas, I just don't have time (with kids, milk goats, pigs, chickens, a job, etc etc... all of which you probably have too....) to do as much in depth studying as you seem to have done. I bought used hives and have decided to put my new bees in and let them use the drawn out comb. I have a neighbor-mentor, and I hope things go well.
I'm looking forward to hearing about your bee-adventures!

Lee said...

I'm really keen to see how you do with this, so please post regular updates if you can. I'd like to keep bees, but am still in the learning stages, so it will be a couple of years yet - and any advice/tips/learning I can get are a real help.

Good luck, and may your bees be healthy and happy :-)

mus said...

Hi, I just found your blog recently and wanted to say hi. I love your bee post! My grandfather used to keep a few hives when I was little, but they were wiped out in what I think was the first major epidemic of Varroa mites in Europe. He essentially did exactly what you do (except he used a queen excluder- didn't want to "kill all the brood", and he had a centrifuge for honey extraction). But I doubt that he thought of it as organic, or green (in fact, he might have felt insulted by the terms, he was on the conservative side). It was just how bees were kept in the countryside.
He loved to go out there in the afternoon every day and sit with his bees for a glass of port. He lived to the age of 96. I'm sure habits like this have something to do with it.

Ivy said...

Exciting! I'm looking forward to hearing about this...I want to have bees so badly but it's not in the cards unless/until I move. So I'm living vicariously!

James said...

I have 2 top bar hives and this will be my 3rd year of keeping bees. It is really easy to do if you let the bees do what they need to do. You seem to have the drive to make it happen, and I have every confidence in you. Keep on reading and studying youtube - that is where I learned what to do and not to do.
Also, if you haven't already check out

Kate said...

Momma Pajama, welcome! Our property is 2/3 acre. So considerably larger than yours, but still not huge by any means. You have the advantage of a milder climate than I enjoy. You've probably already seen them, but the Dervaeses in Pasadena produce thousands of pounds of food each year on a lot the same size as yours. Their house occupies half of a 1/5 acre lot, leaving them 1/10 acre to "farm."

Sandy, I did, yes. Let's hope they can reschedule as I was looking forward to it. We'll meet sooner or later, I'm sure.

Linda, I'm sure you'll get your bees sooner or later. I have a one new species per year rule. This year it's honey bees for us.

Number32, I'm not sure whether we're rural or suburban either. Sort of half-way in between I'd say. It doesn't look like a suburb, and it was rural not so long ago. But I can't fairly say I live in the country either. Our area has a characteristic type of low-density development that doesn't fit neatly into either category. Glad to hear you've gotten your seeds started. With two young cats I rather fear for my indoor seedlings this year.

Raven, thank you. I do hope I enjoy them too. And I hope never to develop serious allergies to them, something which can apparently happen to beekeepers as they are repeatedly exposed to venom.

Anon, I did hear about that "oracle." I'm always a skeptic. But we'll see what March 7th brings, won't we?

Lee, yes I've heard that debate too, about how fast the comb gets drawn out. I too am interested in the harvest of wax. We are interested in making our own candles, eventually. If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend the magazine Bee Culture. Once you've read at least one introductory book, or attended a beginner's class, most of what's published in this magazine will be accessible. And it constantly talks about the latest research, while also keeping up with what work a beekeeper should be doing for the bees from season to season. Good reminders.

Aimee, it seems like half the bloggers I "know" are starting bees this year. It's some kinda zeitgeist or something. And it's all good. Good luck with your hives this year!

Thanks, Daharja. I'm sure the bees will be a steady source of posts here. I just hope to have good news to report.

Mus, lovely story, thanks for sharing it. I do find it a bit sad that "conservative" and "green" are apparently opposites in today's thought. Conservation - conserving what we inherit from one generation to the next - is deeply green, in my opinion.

Ivy, thanks. I'll try to make your vicarious beekeeping experience as richly textured as possible.

James, thanks for the vote of confidence and the suggested link. I'll check it out.

Linda Foley said...

"Linda, I'm sure you'll get your bees sooner or later. I have a one new species per year rule. This year it's honey bees for us."

Yes that has been my goal all along. I once tried to do it all, all at once - BIG mistake and one I don't want to repeat!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Kate -- I can't tell you how glad I am that you're undertaking bees at the same time I am. To have another novice -- and a thoughtful, well-informed novice you seem to be -- with whom to compare notes and ideas is a great thing.

I'm going into it making as few decisions in advance as possible. I've found that all my other agricultural endeavors have been a series of compromises, and I don't expect this to be different. Gardening-wise, I prefer not to use chemical pesticides, but I also prefer not to lose my crop to pests. And while the earth's tolerance for potent pesticides (both organic and non) certainly isn't infinite, neither is it zero.

I don't think of chemicals per se as the enemy. (I have a congenital heart disease and would probably be dead if it weren't for one particular chemical.) I certainly don't want to encourage the evolution of resistant strains of mites or bacteria, but I'd also like to do everything I can to protect my hives from threats. I think it's sometimes very hard to know which you're doing -- or which is more important, if you're doing both.

Your posts on bees have been a boon to me -- they make me think carefully about how to work my own hives.

Right now, the only thinig I know for sure is that I have 80 frames to assemble!

Sonya said...

Congratulations, we got our first (four) hives just last week. Unfortunately, it's rained heavily every day since. Good luck with them, Sonya

Kate said...

Tamar, and I've got 40 frames that need starter strips asap, then 40 more as soon as can be managed. Your wait and see approach is probably the wiser course. I just don't think I'm constitutionally capable of *not* trying to get it all figured out in advance. I look forward to comparing notes with you and other beginners. I just hope there aren't so many variables that we can't help each other.

Sonya, congratulations to you and thanks for stopping by. I hope you get better weather for your bees very soon.

Masha said...

I hope you keep updates on how this goes! I want to keep bees someday, and your ways seem right up my alley; I'd love to know how well they'd work out.

Kate said...

Masha, hello. I will definitely be posting regularly on my honey bees during my first year out. I hope it goes well, but will report failures just as faithfully. Wish me luck!

Sonja said...

Kate - I just found your blog; it's excellent! We're entering our second year as beekeepers (in Seattle) and boy has it been an adventure! My mom and I do it together and while we had our fair share of ups and downs (swarm, laying workers, etc), I wouldn't trade it for anything. Plus the honey and beeswax (lip balm, candles, etc) is great. We went the more conventional beekeeping route (with frames and foundation) but I'm very curious to see how your bees do with comb building. I think you'll find that they're pretty good about throwing up comb pretty quickly. Anyway, BEST OF LUCK and can't wait to hear more.



Kate said...

Sonja, thanks for the encouragement! I am pretty near done with all preparations and eagerly waiting to see if my packages show up this weekend. I know the bees will be the source of many posts this year, and I hope for years to come as well. Thanks again!

Honey Bees said...

Hello! Thanks for posting this, this is a big help for a beginner beekeeper! :)