Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Basics of Beekeeping: A Labor of Love

I am often asked why I decided to become a beekeeper. My journey into beekeeping came from my deep concern for the fate of honeybees (apis mellifera), which have been dying out in droves. There are very few things that can prepare you for the experiences you will discover with the amazing creatures we call honey bees.

 Beekeeping is like teaching or practicing law or medicine, and so many other things. Until you’ve actually done it and gotten some experience under your belt, all the reading and classroom time in the world doesn’t truly prepare you for the real thing. I love beekeeping but there are plenty of times the work is heavy, hot, tiring, and extremely sticky. It’s vital you do your homework and make sure you want to be a beekeeper before investing in hives, clothing, tools and other equipment – all of which can quickly run into the hundreds of dollars. So what’s the best way to prepare for this rewarding and eco-friendly hobby and be sure it’s right for you? The best preparation you can undertake is to find other local beekeepers and ask lots of questions. 

Read, read, read. There are thousands of books on beekeeping, but arguably one of the best resources is The Beekeeper’s Handbook (Fourth Edition) by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile . Buy it, begin reading, and you will soon discover the breadth, complexity and responsibility that go into this amazing hobby.

Figure out where to locate your beehives. You don’t need to live on acres of land to keep bees. You can keep bees in small spaces, and even on rooftops in urban areas. My own bee yard of three colonies is in the side yard of my suburban home on a modest 1/4 acre where they face south and get ideal morning sun and some protection from the elements.

Check the legality of owning bees. Before you invest in any equipment, be sure to check local ordinances where you live.

Talk to your neighbors. Make sure the ones living next door are okay with having a bee yard close by. If one of them has a child with a bee sting allergy, you should probably not begin beekeeping until they move, or you do.

All that reading also helped me decide which beehive I wanted to use. The most common type is called the Langstroth, which dates back to the 1850s and is named after its inventor, L.L. Langstroth.  If you live in a climate like the Adirondacks, special measures need to be taken in Fall to ensure the survival of your colony throughout winter in this type of hive. My business, SkyLyfeADK, has designed a custom style hive that meets the requirements needed for honey bees to survive our mountain winters and fits the Langstroth frames.

AFTER YOU’VE BOUGHT YOUR HIVE

You need frames. I needed ten frames to go inside each of my stackable boxes, or supers. Find your hive an inner and outer cover. I have the good fortune of being married to a talented metalworker, which is why I have very fancy copper tops on my hives. But a simple, store-bought wooden top, available at any beekeeping supplier, is quite sufficient. A top just needs to protect the bees from rainfall since moisture inside the hive can be deadly to bees, chilling them as well as their unborn brood.

Don’t be afraid of a screened bottom board. I was amazed to learn that a screened bottom board, which exposes the inside of the hive to frosty outdoor temperatures all winter long, is recommended. But it’s an important component of integrated pest management, in this case, control of deadly varroa mites. It turns out a healthy bee population can maintain a temperature of 92 degrees inside the hive as they cluster around the queen, even in sub-zero conditions.

Lift your hive off the ground. I had to find or build something to set my hives high enough to discourage predators. Because I didn’t want to embark on an elaborate construction project, I decided to simply use cheap, sturdy cinder blocks. I stacked them just high enough that an invading skunk or raccoon would have to get up on its hind legs, thus exposing its belly to painful stings by alarmed bees. An elevated entrance also can’t be by tall grasses or weeds in the summer months.

Buy a smoker and non-toxic fuel. Before conducting any hive inspection, a beekeeper needs a good smoker and fuel. Smoking the bees by directing a few gentle puffs into the front entrance before opening the hive calms the bees, making them easier to work with. If you don’t have lots of pine needles or other non-toxic fuel handy, buy fuel that’s non-toxic and easy to light. I generally buy cotton smoker fuel since I fear using newsprint or any type of processed wood might contain chemicals that could harm my bees.

Choose a hive tool and a bee brush. The hive tool is an indispensable instrument for loosening and prying up frames during a hive inspection. Frames are often hard to remove because they’re glued in place with propolis, the glue-like substance bees produce. Once you’re able to extract a frame, you sometimes need a way to move bees around or off the frame – maybe you want to look at brood, or withdraw a frame to extract honey. A bee brush is the safest way to move the bees off the frame without angering or hurting them.

Invest in a full-body beekeeping suit and veil. The Internet is full of videos showing beekeepers without protective clothing. But as someone who is quite sensitive to stings, I say, no way. I bought a full-body bee suit, veil and gloves, the works. The gloves are cumbersome, but important. One day, after doing a hive inspection when my bees were a bit cranky, I took my gloves off in the kitchen afterward and, with tweezers, extracted more than 25 stingers from the leather. Imagine my fingers without those gloves. 

Bring on the bees

Once you have obtained these items you are ready to purchase a colony of bees.  

Where to get bees? For the beginner beekeeper, buying bees is the easiest and safest way to start an apiary. The two most common ways to obtain bees are: package bees or a nucleus hive.

Package Bees: Most packages will contain a queen, multiple workers, and a feeder filled with sugar syrup. The bee supplier should provide you with information on installing the package bees into their new home and introducing the queen bee to the workers. She travels safely inside a special cage within your package of bees.  

The most common method of queen introducing is using the indirect method. The worker bees become familiar with the new queen as they slowly eat their way through the food plug in her cage.

Nucleus Hive: You can also order a nucleus hive. A nucleus (commonly called a “nuc”) is a half-size colony. The most common size is a 5 frame nuc. You are receiving 5 frames of comb, bees, honey, a queen, and brood (baby bees). Purchasing a nuc gives you a jump start in colony growth.

For the beginner I recommend purchasing what is called a nuc of bees, as there is no chance the queen in the nuc will be rejected which is sometimes the case with packaged bees.

Bee-friendly practices

If this seems like too much of an undertaking for you so far but your heart is moved to help one of our most important pollinators, bees, there are other actions you can take to help these amazing creatures.  

Planting a pollinator friendly garden is a very important and helpful way to aid bees as well as all pollinators. The internet provides a great amount of information as to what type of plants are beneficial to pollinators.

Supplemental feeding of sugar solution in early spring can save a staggering number of bees as they emerge from their winter resting areas in search for food which is scarce.  If you are interested in feeding just the bees and not every insect in the Adirondacks, SkyLyfeADK has bee feeders available for order. These feeders are specifically designed to be accessible only to bees.

I’m always happy to help answer any questions you might have: https://www.skylyfeadk.com/

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Jackie Woodcock was born and lives in the Adirondack Mountains. She is an apiarist, lepidopterist, conservationist, teacher, writer, artist, and a co-owner of SkyLyfeADK. You can find her SkyLyfeADK on Instagram and Facebook.




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