Each year, we try to learn and/or perfect a new skill that will benefit our little farm and the past 12 months, we’ve spent our time learning bee keeping. I didn’t know I wanted to become a beekeeper until we bought our farm and found some defunct bee boxes out behind the old peacock coop. I happened to see “robber” bees cleaning the supers of the old wax, though at the time, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that I had bee hives and there were bees and man-alive was I excited! Well, there’s a world of difference between having some old supers and a few robber bees and having an apiary. World of difference! We ended up putting beekeeping on the back burner til the summer of 2016, when a friend called in a slight panic asking if I’d like swarm of honeybees that had moved into a barrel on her back porch. That was the start of a long, expensive learning process which we’re still in LOL. There’s no way I can give you a detailed description of beekeeping in one short post. That would take a book. But I’d like to give you an overview of what we’ve learned in the past year. Let’s talk Bees, Equipment and Process.
Bees – What I’ve learned is that bees are far more complex than I ever imagined. Their behavior is fascinating and if you ever have the opportunity to see the inner workings of a hive, take advantage of that opportunity! So everyone knows there’s a queen bee in the hive who lays eggs (brood), drones whose entire purpose is to mate with the queen and worker bees that gather pollen and turn it into honey that will become food for the brood. Simple. Except that it’s not. They communicate through pheromones which is why, when you swat a bee, a million other bees come to see what the problem is. It’s how they let the rest of the hive know there’s an intruder in the hive box. It’s how they figure out they need a new queen or that it’s time to swarm and find a new home. Pheromones are talk-text-and-data rolled into one convenient package.
Only recently I’ve learned that beehives can have personalities, for lack of a better word. There are nice, laid-back bees and there are mean bees. Praise God, we have nice bees. They don’t want any conflict; they just want to be left alone down in the cozy recesses of their hive box. A friend of ours has mean bees, who chase him for hundreds of yards before they turn and return to their hive. I’m not sure if it’s different breeds of bees or if we just got lucky with our friendly, wild swarm. Either way, Praise God again!
Equipment – I’m not going to lie to you; getting started in beekeeping is expensive. Initial expenditures can easily range in the $1000-1500 range. Thankfully, the vast majority are one-time purchases. Of course, you need a hive box (a base, brood box, supers with frames, inner lid and outer lid), bee suits (don’t skimp here!), small tools such as brushes, hive tools and a smoker, plus equipment to harvest the honey (an extractor, filters, honey buckets with spouts, Mason jars) and the bees themselves. Most of the equipment can be found at local farm stores such as Rural King, on Amazon or from reputable companies like Dadant. To make set-up simpler, I’d suggest buying a package that comes with everything you need initially. Typically, packages include a suit, a smoker, a complete hive box, a hive tool and a manual to get you started. They run in the $150-400 range, depending on the brand you go with and the ‘extras’ you opt for. It’s probably cheaper to shop around and buy pieces individually, but it’s pretty convenient when you don’t really know what you’re doing to just buy the package.
Deluxe Beehive Starter Kit – Premium Bee Hives for Beginners and Pros and All the Beekeeping Supplies You Need, 8 Frames
Process – Bees spend all spring, summer and fall working like, well, busy little bees gathering pollen to create honey. When cold weather comes around, they ‘hibernate’ and use the honey they made to sustain them through cold weather. When we collect honey, we have 2 goals in mind: 1) to leave enough to sustain the bees through winter and 2) to gather early enough in the season to allow the bees plenty of time to regroup and refill their hives. If you take it all, your bees WILL starve to death. Some people collect in spring and fall, we collect mid-summer. To begin the process, you suit up (WELL), taping any zipper gaps, gaps in elastic bands and where pants meet boots. Trust me. They’re clever little buggers and they WILL figure out how to get into your suit given a chance. After gathering your supplies, you carefully smoke the entrance to the hive, which interrupts the pheromones/communication in the hive. The bees panic and begin to gorge themselves on honey in case they need to leave the hive permanently. That’s when you remove the outer and inner covers and then carefully pull out full frames with capped cells, brushing off the bees and placing the frame in a tote with a tight-fitting lid. You repeat until you’ve removed many/most of the full frames. Replace the full frames with clean, empty frames, replace the lids and take the goods inside….as messy and sticky as working with honey may be, there’s no way you could process it outdoors. *See robber bees in the first paragraph 🙂 Once inside and unsuited, you uncap the cells on the frames with either a knife or another uncapping tool, place the frames in an extractor and spin it to remove the honey. The honey will need filtered to remove any squished bees or bits of wax, but otherwise the process is complete. With the help of 50K bees, you just made raw honey.
After a rainy, cold summer that greatly impacted production, we harvested 2 pints of honey. See that honey jar? That’s what a $500 jar of honey looks like LOL. I was hoping for a few quarts for our first harvest, but we didn’t get skunked entirely. If things go well, we’ll be adding a second hive next weekend and hopefully 2018 will be a good season for us with plenty of honey to sell. Wish us the best as we collect a wild swarm that moved into a friend’s summer kitchen! I’ll try to get pictures for you of the process, but I can’t promise anything. Working with bees is a sticky, gooey mess at best, but it’s proving itself to be a tasty one! Til next time, my sweet friends!