Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Buzz on the Bees

I just realized I have not mentioned anything about our bees lately!  This is our first season caring for bees and while I'm sure we are making many mistakes, they seem to be thriving despite our ignorance. 

While I've been laboring in the garden, the honeybees have been tirelessly working beside me.  When I walk through the garden gate, I'm greeted by the hum of busy bees, racing to collect the pollen and nectar before winter comes.  It's a comforting, grounding sound.  Life is stressful at times - I feel like I'm constantly flying around, trying to do a million things at once, but not doing any one thing well.  When I feel overwhelmed, thoughts racing through my scattered brain, I purposefully head to the garden.  There, I can breathe again.  There, I am washed over with a sense of calm, peace and order.  There, I can smell the flowers, revel in the sights and sounds of the garden.  I lose all track of time.  It's a wonder I ever pull myself out of there.  But alas, small children (and animals!) need to be fed and cared for.   I can't hide in there forever.

The bees, thankfully, require very little attention on our part. A family friend supplied us with a second bee suit, so now my husband can accompany me on trips to the bee yard. It's extremely helpful to have another set of hands to help out. We check the hives every 3 weeks or so. To be honest, we're still not exactly sure what we are supposed to be looking for, but it is reassuring to peek in the hive and see it swarming with bees and dripping with honey. After finding a queen in each hive earlier this summer, we gave up looking for her on subsequent trips - it's difficult to find her, as we've added additional boxes to the hive, and after having the hive open for about 10 minutes, we can tell the bees are getting angry (the tone of their buzzing changes), so we close up the hive as soon as we hear that. The bee population seems to be growing steadily and the combs are over flowing with honey, so it appears everyone is doing their job - the queen is making babies and the workers are making honey.

When we purchased the bee colonies this spring, we started off with two "nuc" ("nucleus") colonies, which means the colony is already established with a queen and a food source (the nuc comes with frames filled with honey), as opposed to starting off with a brand new colony with a brand new queen.  Many people order their bees by mail (I wonder how the postmen/women like that!) and since the colonies are young, the first year is spent trying to build up and strengthen the colony.  Our nuc had the advantage of being "ready to go", kind of like buying a product with "no assembly required".  We moved the nucs into their permanent hives, consisting of one "brood box", the place where the queen lays her eggs, the workers care for the young bees, and collect honey.

Brood boxes

Examining a frame from a brood box

As the colonies grew larger, we needed to add more boxes to the hives.  We added an additional brood box and then a small box on top, called a "super" (short for "superimpose"), or "honey super".  Honey supers are shallower in depth than a brood box, simply for ease of handling, I think.  A brood box full of honey can weigh 60 or 70 pounds!  A full honey super is closer to 30 pounds, much easier to lift and handle (the supers will be removed with the honey is harvested, so they need to be east to transport).  Hive boxes are built up over the summer, depending on how well the bees are doing.  It's not uncommon to see hives with 2 brood boxes and 3-4 supers on top.  We only added the one super, but I think our bees could have filled up another one given the chance... but alas, bees are a big upfront investment and we simply could not afford to drop anymore cash buying additional equipment.  Next year. 

In between the brood boxes and the honey supers, we placed something known as a "queen separator".  This device is designed so that all the worker (female) and drone (male) bees can squeeze between the slats, but the queen.... well, her butt is simply too big.  She can't get up into the honey supers, which is handy because then we don't have to worry about having larve and baby bees in the supers that we'll be harvesting for honey.  Everything below the queen separator is her territory - everything above is fair game for us.

The Queen Separator

It's been interesting to watch the hive at work.  A few weeks after we set out the supers, we went back to check on their progress.  The frames, as seen below, have a sheet of beeswax foundation that is embossed with a hexagon shape.  The bees build upon that foundation, creating cells out of beeswax that will hold either brood (babies) or honey.  It's amazing to watch them "draw out" the cells and then cap the cells that are full of honey.

A peek into the a new honey super.  Notice the embossed foundation and how the bees are "drawing out" or building the cells to hold the honey.  Capped (covered) cells full of honey can be seen in the middle of the frame.
Every time we open the hive, we run across some beeswax that we need to remove to access frames.  We've been collecting it in jars and I intend melt it down to use in lip balms and lotions.  Maybe I'll get super crafty and make homemade lip balms for Christmas...  Me?  Crafty?  Ha!

Beeswax to be melted down

A friend let us borrow a honey extractor to harvest the honey (a machine that flings the honey out of the frames).  We hope to harvest this weekend.  I'm so curious to see how much honey we will get.  I've made it a point to seek out beekeepers at farmers markets and the like, and ask for advice and suggestions (and have discovered that beekeepers are a chatty bunch and LOVE to talk bees with anyone who will listen).  Everyone I've talked to says this has been the worst year for honey in their memory and feels bad for us.  However, to my untrained eye, it seems our little hives did ok for their first year here... so if this was a bad year, I can't wait to see what a good year looks like.  According to the books I read, a good hive can produce anywhere from 120 - 250 pounds of honey!  Now, of course we can't take all of that... the bees need the honey to survive the winter.  In northern climates, it's wise to leave 60-70 pounds of honey.  Anything after that is extra and can be taken without endangering the bees.

Overall, we have thoroughly enjoyed having bees this year.  Despite the high costs of setting up the hives (I think we've spent over $800 when it was all said and done.  Gulp.  And we still need to purchase more equipment) and our total lack of knowledge about bees, I am thankful we jumped in with both feet instead of endlessly saying "someday, I'd like to get bees".  I knew if we didn't do it now, it might never happen.   Also, it turns out tending bees is not nearly as scary as I thought it would be.  In fact, it's actually quite peaceful... the bees are very docile (until you've had the hive open too long) and the buzzing sound is almost hypnotic.  It also helps that I have not been stung yet!  I think I would keep bees simply for the pollinating work they do in the garden.  The honey they produce is simply a bonus.

We'll be sure to document the honey extraction process and let you know how much honey we end up with!


  1. Lori - I don't know for sure, but I think my stepdad has some hives he "rescued" from someone's garbae pile. He said they were in great shape. I'm not sure what he plans to do with them, but if you need more let me know and I'll ask him!


  2. Yes! We'll take anything :) How did his hives do this year? It was his first season with bees, right?