This is the first in what I’m hoping will be a long list of insightful, beneficial, and successful stories about becoming a beekeeper. For several years, my hubby and I have wanted to own a honey bee hive, and this year we were fortunate enough to buy our first queen and starter colony.
Humans have been benefiting from our relationships with honey bees for an amazingly long time – over 10,000 years as evidenced by a few cave drawings in Europe – and bee uses have been passed along to us in items such as beeswax candles, waxed mummies, mead, and lest we forget, Honey Nut Cheerios.
In recent years, as we 21st century humans seem to yet again be sailing a tide to live a more frugal and/or natural life, we once again turn to bees. If you have any sort of green thumb, or any sort of appreciation for natural systems it doesn’t take long to learn that the wee buzzers are critical to maintaining a healthy system of pollination.
And not to leave out the Outlander fans, but most of us know that honey bees have special significance to the Fraser clan in many of the books, from waxing in the parlors of the French court, to providing honey, beeswax, and the center for a whole lot of drama centered around Claire’s garden on the Ridge.
In recent years, many of us have seen many stories about the dwindling numbers of honey bees, and stories from around the globe have shocked us into an awareness that the large amounts of bees lost may 1.) have serious consequences to humans and 2.) be our fault. (For more info on bee losses, click here for info from the US EPA.)
While I encourage you all to read labels, figure out what neonicotinoids are, and for goodness sake put down the beekiller, I am by no means an expert in delivering info on the current state of affairs of honeybees. I would like however, to beg you to consider doing a bit of your own research.
With all of that said, here’s a brief photo essay of our first few months as beekeepers.
Our efforts to become bee parents came to a head in May 2015, when my son so eloquently noted, “Mom… there’s BEES in the basement.” Sure enough, a spring swarm had made it’s way into our chimney and decided to take up residence. I still regret this part, but I decided that I’d best provide a little incentive for them to move out – as dozens of them were using the bottom of the chimney (gateway into my home) as their secondary exit. I began what I called “Operation Smoke Out” and I started a small fire in the woodburner.
Within moments my chimney was literally HUMMING to the sound of hundreds of bees flying out of the top of the chimney, and a football sized swarm took up residence in a nearby tree and stayed there for THREE agonizing days.
The hubs and I had been pondering ordering our first set of bee boxes, but just hadn’t pulled the trigger on actually doing it. And taking the arrival of this native swarm as a sign, we put in an express order and waited.
If you’re curious about exactly what we bought, here’s the details. My hubby agonized and researched over exactly what pieces and parts we needed and decided to go with a starter kit. The kit included four medium boxes, frames to go within each, a base, a cap, beeswax sheets, an entrance reducer and a feeder system. There are a gazillion options for what you can buy, differences in the sizes of the boxes, number and types of frames each box can hold, etc. etc.
He decided that it’d be sensible for us to have boxes that were all the same size, which means all of the frames are interchangeable among each of the four boxes. He chose to get medium sized boxes (rather than large) so that in the event he’s gone (which is often) and I need to lift a box full of bees/honeycomb (which can weigh around 50 pounds when full), we needed to have manageable sizes.
The company Kelley Bee Keeping has ALL KINDS of goodies available for purchase, and our set is called the All Medium Set. Take a look HERE.
Unfortunately the bees had no designs to hang around much longer and took off TWO DAYS before the boxes arrived. I was flat out bummed, because a big wish of mine would be able to capture a native swarm (channeling my inner Fraser), and this ball of buzzing just sat there, homeless – for days – making me feel like a neglectful bee mama.
Another learning experience for us was to try and find a person or company willing to come and capture the swarm. Thanks to a network of like-minded kind-hearted apiarists, we knew there was a network of bee catchers in the area. We had to make use of one of them, as we noticed that a portion of the swarm still remained in the chimney. And as I wasn’t going to poke my head into the top of a 30′ tall chimney full of bees to figure out exactly what was going on in the chimney, I needed to find a professional. Besides, by this time, our boxes had arrived and were sitting there empty like a brand new condo. If there was any remnant of a colony, I had home for it.
The search for someone willing to come over and remove the bees without killing them was harder than I expected. Chimney sweeps were willing to dump a bunch of chemicals on them and kill them, but no thanks. A lot of the bee rescuers who I contacted were flat out NOT interested in anything over 10′ off the ground. Understandable, I wasn’t either. Weeks had passed, and while I had plugged up any holes that gave bees access to my house, I knew the bees had to go, cause you know ‘Winter Is Coming’ and I couldn’t have a honey filled chimney.
And so it happened that I met Shane of Valley Bee Supply, in Fishersville, VA. Not only was he willing to get the bees out of the chimney, he was willing to help us put the bees in our empty boxes. It was kind of amazing when Shane arrived in his bucket truck, because literally within moments of being here, a few honey bees landed on his hat and seemingly found a kindred spirit. Shane was my guy.
So, geared up and bee-bucket shop vac in hand, Shane began the removal process. While it looked like a sizeable handful of bees to me, there were only a few bees remaining in my chimney, and no queen around. And without a queen, there’s no chance for a colony.
Insert sad face…
Fast forward to spring of 2016….
Fun fact about ordering bees. One cannot simply walk into a bee supply store and walk away with a bag full of bees. Like everything in nature, there is a season to things, and apiarists fill bee orders seasonally for a few reasons. The first obviously, is to plan for an adequate supply of colonies. They simply need enough time to raise a supply of queens and workers to start a new colony.
The second reason to explain the seasonality of buying bees is that to improve your chances of success, one would introduce their colony into their new home during the spring, very near the time that honeybees actually branch out and create new colonies on their own – a time of year that’s known as the swarming season. (Which explains why we occasionally hear news stories of bee swarms being found in goofy places like bicycles, windshields, or in chimney’s of certain blogger. Ahem.)
We placed our order in late 2015 for a three-pound set of honeybees with a queen, which is the equivalent of about 10,000 or so buzzers. And in March, we got the call that our bees were ready to be picked up. Off to Valley Bee Supply we went.
The bees were all stacked in their little plastic bee cages ready to go home. Amid an assembly of bee boxes in various stages of construction, the stacked plastic bee cages were just HUMMING, and it was SO COOL.
After we were handed our container, the first thing we were told to do was inspect the queen. She’s kept separated from the rest of the colony (as she’s new to them) for her own safety. This queen is young, mated, and needs to be accepted by the rest of the worker colony. After all, they are the ones who will be caring for all of the babies, so if they agree that this queen is the one for them, you’re good to go. If not, they’ll sting her to death and your colony will be leaderless. Pandemonium – Bee Style.
The small wooden container – the queen cage – has a small diameter hole drilled through each end, one blocked with cork, the other blocked with a ‘bee candy’ and also blocked with a bit of cork. It’s a substance similar to fondant, and is literally eaten away by the bees in the attempt to get at the queen. The plugged queen cage has enough candy to last a few days of effort (by whatever bees use to chew with) and the hope is that by the time they can get to her, they’ve accepted her as their queen.
The queen is kept in her little royal chamber along with four Attendant worker bees. These bees are charged with feeding, grooming, and otherwise protecting their lady. Our inspection showed that while our queen was alive and well, one of her attendants was already dead. The royal court was down one member. Sad bee face.
I added a few little graphics to the image below to better illustrate who all was in this queen cage, as well as give you an idea of the size of the queen relative to the workers. She’s about 1.5-2 times their size. The white substance supporting the dead bee is the fondant.
Queen Inspection complete. Colony safely contained. Time to get these buzzers home.
Let me tell you, there’s something a bit daunting about planning to transport +/- 10,000 bees in your car. Being the novices that we are, we decided the trunk of the Honda Civic seemed like the safest bet. After all, we can’t really ask the kids, “Here, hold this.”
Safely delivered at home, we needed to plan for release into our hive boxes. And talk about daunting… THREE POUNDS OF HONEY BEES needed to be moved into the bee hive. We literally had to plan to DUMP the whole caboodle into the boxes. How the heck does someone do that!?!
It’s at this point in the post that I should add that I have VERY LITTLE KNOWLEDGE ABOUT BEEKEEPING. But I’m married to someone who does. The hubs has done months and months of research into all aspects of beekeeping, and continues to do so. There’s a WHOLE LOT to learn about beekeeping and I’m lucky to have someone willing to partner with me on this. It’s a a big job, and requires a lot of homework, supplies, patience and commitment. Definitely not a hobby you can pick up on a weekend.
We’re also lucky in that we actually have a network of friends and acquaintances who also keep bees, and it sure seems like we’ve entered into a little gang of fellow apiarists willing to answer our questions and give us pointers.
That being said, we also know that this is all up to mother nature as to how successful (or not) this hive will be. We’re just going to do our best, and hope we make good hosts.
For a great how-to from Kelly Mountain Bee Farm, click HERE. While our experience wasn’t exactly like this video, it was pretty close. And it was actually surprisingly simple.
Apologies for this being a photo essay, we’d really never done this before and weren’t set up for video. We DID however have a friend who was willing to snap a few pics, so please enjoy.
A bit of prep work before the big release.
- Prepare a solution of simple syrup (1 water: 1 sugar). We planned on feeding our bees this same solution, but we also needed some for the release. Grab a clean spray bottle too.
- Figure out how you’re going to support the queen cage inside the frames. You might need to find a paperclip or small length of wire, and wrap it around the top of the queen cage, careful not to block the exit.
- Remove the cork plug at the candy end of the queen cage. (The plug was in there to prevent the thousands of bees in the colony from getting to the queen too quickly. ) Set the cage aside.
- Remove half of the frames inside the bottom box to allow space to pour the bees. As mentioned above, we have an 8 frame medium box, so we removed four of the frames.
Here’s how we did it:
Step 1: Fill a clean spray bottle with the simple syrup.
Step 2: The bee container comes with its own can of sugar syrup to feed the bees within. Remove that.
Step 3: Liberally spray the simple syrup over the bees in the container. The bees will become a bit wet and sticky, but will be happy because they’re covered in sugar. Much like toddlers. The spray calms them down and clumps them together.
Step 4: Once your bees are sprayed, move your container over the prepped bee box, and remove the lid that covers the plastic bee container.
Step 5: Dump, plop, pour, drip, relocate your sticky bee blob into the bee box. They’ll basically pour right out. It might take a bit of shaking and tapping, but they all kind of fall out.
And that’s pretty much it. The whole process really just took a few minutes and was amazingly simple and calm. No one was stung. Nothing was dropped. The bees were very mellow, and just sorta moved in like “Oh hey. Nice box. Is it new?”
Next up…. moving the queen.
As mentioned above, the queen box comes with a plug of bee candy at on end. IMPORTANT – We wanted to securely hang the box between frames with the candy plug ON TOP. The candy should be located on the upper end of the cage so that bees can climb up and out through the top. Like the picture of our queen cage showed, one of the attendants had died inside the box. If we would have put the queen cage in there with the candy end on the bottom, the bee corpse would have fallen to the bottom and acted like yet another barrier and the queen wouldn’t have been able to crawl out.
We twisted a length of thin wire around the top of the queen cage and used that as a hanger to attach to the neighboring frames. It’s important to ensure the cage is secured so that it doesn’t slip and end up in the bottom of the hive box.
We then reinstalled the four frames we’d removed earlier, and then added another complete box with frames on top of this one. This basically sandwiched the queen smack in the center of two complete and framed boxes.
Ensuring that there was plenty of room for the worker bees to access the top of the queen cage (and thus eat the candy), our next job was to just wait to see if the workers would a.) free the queen b.) accept her into their colony and then see if the queen a.) lived and b.) started laying eggs.
So we waited for three long days, then I geared up again, and found SUCCESS! An empty queen cage!
Our lady was alive, and more importantly there was already evidence of comb building. I reinserted the last missing frame to take the space of where the queen cage was hung. And at that point, there was nothing more to do but wait, and hope for our queen and her colony to get to work.
More posts to come on fun things like bee gear, inspections, and what to do when bears attack. You read that right.