Our Beekeeping Journey-Year Two

So far, so good!

It’s hard to explain how wonderful it feels to just sit and watch the bees do their work. There’s a very calming effect to it. Not only that but when you are in the bee suit and feel very protected and you’re working the hive and you’re holding thousands of bees, it’s just a feeling that is hard to explain. It’s wonderful!

This year we are in the middle of a pandemic so I was unable to give my beekeeping mentor a hug when she got here to install the bees. That was really weird because I haven’t seen her in months and all I wanted to do was hug her. I’m definitely a hugger so coronavirus puts a damper on people who are touchy-feely. Probably not bad news to those who aren’t!

Here we are being responsible and socially distancing. I prefer physical distancing.

two beekeepers with text about staying apart due to covid-19

My mentor Betsy is a master beekeeper and purchased all of the equipment to help us get started last year. Her father had ALS and she wanted to do this in honor of him, as a gift of love, she said. And what a gift it’s been!

Even though the bees didn’t make it last year, we still learn so much about them and their process. It was heartbreaking to watch those colonies dwindle but that’s just how it goes in the beekeeping game. The best lessons are the hardest to learn.

Since we are on quarantine, we have not had any visitors to the house which means we do not have nurse coverage for now. I was really bummed because I wanted to go and pick up the bees with Betsy and see how all of that went down, but I was unable to. Maybe next year!

Luckily Betsy snagged two packages of bees for us and delivered them for the installation. She and her husband Bobby are beyond awesome! Two of the kindest folks you’ll ever meet.

Since we all had to physically distance ourselves, Bobby stayed in the car while Betsy and I put on our suits. We each grabbed a package and kept 6 feet apart while we took them to the hives. This is what they look like in their transport packages.

Previously we had installed the bees the way many people do, which is to turn the box over and dump them out into the hive. Betsy said that she wanted to do it a little bit differently this year and that she thought she had a gentler method for them.

That method is to simply remove several of the frames from the hive and set the box down in there. That way, the bees can just gradually come out of there and into their new home. It makes so much sense!

In order to do that, we had to remove the can of syrup from the top of the cage, and then we had to place the queen within the hive so that the bees could work her out of her cage.

Typically, the queen that comes with purchased packages is not “their” queen so the colony needs to get accustomed to her. That process takes several days and has a lot to do with pheromones which is something we can get into later.

The queen comes in her own little cage. That cage has a hole on one end which is how she and her fellow bees will exit once the colony is ready to accept her.

That hole is filled with a thick, waxy substance that is like candy to the bees. They eat that candy over a couple of days which gives everyone time to get used to her. Without that adjustment, they don’t know what to do and they will not accept her, but instead, they will immediately swarm and kill her.

I witnessed it firsthand last year and it was awful. My very first experience as a beekeeper and it was a complete and total fail! Along with the candy on the one end, there is a small piece of cork on top of that that is used to prevent the bees from getting to the candy while they are in transit, and while they get used to the queen.

My job was to take tweezers and remove that cork, leaving just the candy in the hole. My tweezers just weren’t getting a grip and I accidentally pushed everything into the cage with the queen which left the hole open. She immediately flew out before I even realized it and by that time it was too late and they were pretty much doomed!

I can still hear Betsy saying that it would be OK but listening to her tone in my head now I know that she knew it was not! She had to have just been rolling her eyes behind me. I still laugh about it! But hey, the best lessons are typically the ones that hurt the most.

This year I need to be much more careful about that. I started feeling some anxiety the week before the bees were due to arrive. I kept going through it in my head and looking at my tweezers and practiced picking up small things. It was hilarious!

Luckily I was able to release both pieces of cork without disturbing the candy and without exposing the entrance. Whew! I’m sure Betsy breathed a sigh of relief as well! So we did install them using the gentler method and everything worked brilliantly for the transition.
We removed the syrup cans from the opening on the top and the bees were able to get out. We placed each of the queens between two frames within the hive and both queens were released within a couple of days. At this point, the bees have been working in foraging and behaving in a very typical way so it seems like things are going well so far.
Enjoy the video! Stay tuned for an update on the first two weeks, as well as a video of a full hive check!

Our Beekeeping Journey – The First Three Weeks

Our Beekeeping Journey

The First Three Weeks

 Wow! Beekeeping is so much fun. It’s fascinating as well. We’ve already spent hours just watching them from afar. We’ve already had a fail but that’s all part of the process. Lessons are being learned every day.

Installation and the First (Major) Oops!

Installing the bees was so cool. Brian and I had watched a couple of videos online and we were so excited to see it in person.

The bees come in a box of two to three pounds of bees. The queen is included and comes in her own cage that is separate from the rest. Also included in the colony box is a can of syrup so they have something to eat while in transit.

The syrup jar and queen cage are removed and the bees are, for lack of a better word, dumped into the super box which is now their new home.

The queen remains in her cage but gets placed into the super box, attached to the top and side of one of the frames.

At the end of the queen cage is a hole. The hole is blocked by a small piece of candy. On top of that candy is a small cork that you pull out just before installing the bees. The bees will eat the candy out over time, releasing the queen. (Video below.)

The first box was no problem. I used a pair of tweezers to gently pull the cork off the top of the candy piece. With the second box, as I tried to grab the cork with the tweezers, instead the whole thing pushed down into the cage, leaving the end open.

Bye, bye queen! Before I even knew what was happening she was out and on top of the box, then just flew away. I told Betsy (my beekeeping master mentor) that the queen got out. She said, “uh oh” like it was no big deal but she knew it wasn’t good. Betsy said we’d try to find her and separate her. I felt like poo! Bees aren’t cheap and Betsy had bough these for us.

First lesson learned. A hard one too! Losing the queen changes everything. The main roles of the queen are to produce pheromones that help regulate the unity of the colony, and to lay lots of eggs. Without a queen the colony will not survive.

Trial by fire, I suppose. Insert self eye roll here. I’m still kicking myself over that.

Day 1

Betsy got both colonies installed, even though one was missing its queen. The hope beyond hope was that I could catch her and get her back in her box. We moved forward and got most of the bees in both boxes, then stepped back and observed the bees for a bit.

Things seemed to be settling down. Betsy and her husband said the bees seemed happy and with that, they were on their way and Brian and I were now the beekeepers!

I kept my eye out for the queen. Sadly, I saw a swarm of bees in the trees that afternoon, then on the ground later. If the queen is introduced to the colony too soon they just can’t handle her. They will swarm and kill her. That was what happening.

I raked my hand gently over a big pile of bees on the ground and found the queen. I was able to grab her and put her back into the main box the bees came in, but as she got settled I could tell she wasn’t doing well and probably wouldn’t make it.

Such a fail right off the bat and I felt horrible for her. I seriously sat there and talked to her and told her I was so sorry. She didn’t make it much longer. Colony one was officially without a queen.

As the sun set the bees settled in the hives and didn’t swarm in the yard, so that was good. At least they were in there new homes.

Week 1 – Bee Activity

The first week is all about acclimation and ensuring the queen stays separate and gets released at the right time.

During this time the bees are buzzing around in their hives, keeping each other warm. They eat a lot of syrup. This gives them the energy needed to build comb.

In order for them to thrive, the bees must be fed. Bees are fed a 1:1 mix of sugar water. Initially they will drink a lot of it, then that amount decreases over time as they find and make their own food sources.

Comb must be built to provide the queen a place to lay her eggs. The frames of the hive hold the foundations, which is what the bees build their comb on.

Once released the queen is walking around, basically supervising the comb building, and sending signals out to make more, more, more! She wants to lay as many eggs as possible.

The survival and thrival (yes, I made that word up. I went for the rhyme!) of the colony depends on a healthy queen!

Week 1 – Inspection

As expected, the hive without the queen was weak, yet bees were still building comb and flying in and out, working as they should.

The second hive was a bit more active, with more bees, but still a weak colony. I saw a few eggs but did not lay my eyes on the queen.

Both hives were eating quite a bit of syrup per day as well, about half a jar or more each.

Week 1 – Adjustments

Since we knew we’d lost the queen in one colony, I reached out to Betsy, asking about putting the supers together to see if we could save the queenless one. It was worth a try, right?

I carefully added one super on top of the other. It was tough doing that, and having such an early failure, but it’s all a learning process and there’s a lot to be learned here. A lot has been learned here.

I watched the hive from afar for a few days. Things seemed to be going smoothly. There was lots of bee traffic in and out of the hive and there were eating a lot. Time would tell.

Week 2 – Bee Activity

The second week after installation is pretty much more of the same. The queen is pushing the bees to build comb while she lays eggs. Everyone is still eating a lot of syrup as well.

At this point there should be a lot of bees with frames being drawn out with comb. In addition there should be some open larvae as well.

Bees get born and die each day. Some dead bees is normal, yet a pile of them is not.

Week 2 – Inspection

Both boxes seemed to be doing about the same, but things just didn’t seem to really be progressing. I looked for the queen. She should be easy to spot. She had a big green dot on her that you couldn’t miss.

Comb was being built in each box, but not very quickly. I noticed lots of pollen on lots of bees but didn’t see eggs or larvae or capped brood. Things just didn’t seem to be going well. (Insert sad, but learning, face.)

Week 2 – Adjustments

Considering that only a few frames of each super was really getting built, I then thought it might be best, since the two colonies seemed to be getting along, to consolidate the two supers into one, removing the frames that had nothing on them.

I carefully went through that process. Then waited. That’s the hard part. You want to get in and check on them, yet you also don’t want to disturb their work too much. It’s a balance I’m still working to figure out.

That adjustment was even harder, and we are now down to one super. I wasn’t seeing a queen and I didn’t see any more eggs. The bees would continue to be fed and monitored. More wait and see.

Photo of one honeybee super box, on boards resting on stones off the ground

Week 3

Week 3 was more of the same and things didn’t seem to be progressing.

Now What?

As much as I hate to say it, things aren’t looking good. Our first two colonies and I might have managed to lose both queens. We’re probably going to need to requeen. Or start over. Ouch.

That’s okay, we aren’t giving up! I say we….it’s our beekeeping journey. Me and Brian. We are doing this together, it’s just that he does it vicariously through me, so I write this in mostly first person, but sometimes say we. (Why I decided to declare that here I have no idea. Carry on!)

Betsy will be here to get her trained eye on it, and help us decide what to do next. We’ll keep you posted!

Our Beekeeping Journey – Here We Go!

 Our Beekeeping Journey – Here We Go!

 We’re beekeepers now. That is really weird to say. Come along on our journey with us.

How This All Got Started

One day, out of the blue, Brian sent me an email. All it said was, “I think it would be cool to keep bees.”

What?! We’d never talked about bees in any way. We both liked honey but that’s as far as that went. Once I read his email I got up and walked over to him and asked if he was serious. He blinked once for yes. 

I started poking around the internet and did a little research on the subject. It was doable. I reached out to two people I knew that kept bees. One was a former co-worker of mine named Betsy. I asked her opinion on the best way to get started. She recommended a book and said we’d go from there.

The book is calledFirst Lessons in Beekeepingand it’s a staple for beginners. Much of the information in this post was gleaned from the book, and the internet.

Book cover of "First Lessons in Beekeeping". Cover is a painting of a beekeeper in a bee suit, working with hives.I snagged the book from Amazon and started reading. It is fascinating! The way the bees work together and know their jobs, it’s all so amazing. It will be like having a mini NatGeo channel in our own backyard! Not only will we have honey, but also great photo ops. We are so excited.

The Amazing Next Step

After some time I reached back out to Betsy and let her know I’d been reading and learning. The next thing I knew, we had a complete beginner set up kit with two hives and bee suit thanks to Betsy. We couldn’t believe it. Such love and generosity!

She’d ordered everything and had it delivered. It all came from Mann Lake Ltd. in Hackensack, MN. Props to them! The hives were built and packaged so well. Everything survived shipping with no issue at all.

Photo of Mann Lake address label from box

I kept asking how much we owed her and she said nothing, that it was a gift of love to us. Whoa. Brian and I were so touched, and remain ever grateful still. 

The hives were delivered. It was such fun to receive them. I swear it was like Christmas morning! I ran out to the driveway when the UPS truck showed up. I took pictures and squealed giddily around them.

It’s cool because the boxes have a picture of the hives and describes the different parts. That was a little reminder lesson in itself. I studied the boxes and smiled thinking about the adventure ahead.

First, A Bit About Beekeeping in General

Brian and I have seen beehives our entire lives. Neither of us thought much about them, other than seeing them on the side of the highway on road trips. Or maybe we heard about them through grandparents or relatives with farms. We knew they existed but didn’t learn about them.

I am so glad Brian wanted to do this. It’s been so much fun learning and thinking about what it would be like to be beekeepers. There are a few different methods of beekeeping. The one we are using is called the Langstroth method.

A Langstroth hive  is any vertically modular beehive that features vertically hung frames, a bottom board and supers. According to wikipedia, “In 1851, the Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth (1810–1895), a native of Philadelphia, noted that when his bees had less than 9 mm (38 in) but greater than 6 mm (14 in) of space available in which to move around, they would neither build comb into that space nor cement it closed with propolis. This measurement is called “bee space”.

Like, totally amazing, right?!

Setting Up The Hives

Hives can be ordered assembled or not. Betsy asked which we preferred. Considering caregiving needs I went ahead and got them assembled. 

I took everything into the living room so Brian could see. I opened the boxes in front of him so that he could share in the excitement. We had fun looking at everything and talking about the different parts.

Photo of boxed beehive next to unboxed beehive box

From the bottom up, this is how our hives are set up.

The bottom section is called the bottom board. The bottom board is the floor of the hive. Our bottom board is a screened one. Some evidence has shown that screened bottom boards increase brood production. 

Hive boxes are called supers and they sit atop the bottom board. Standard super sizes are deep, medium and shallow. We have a deep super and a medium super with each hive.

Photo of two square, wooden boxes

In between these supers is a queen separator. This is a grate of sorts, that allows worker bees to pass between supers, but the queen is not able to fit through. The bottom super will house the queen and brood. Brood describes all immature phases of the bee: egg, larvae, prepupae and pupae. 

Each super contains hanging wooden frames. These frames are much like hanging files. These wooden frames house foundations, which are sheets of hexagonal cells. These are the foundations upon which the bees build their natural combs.

Atop the supers are the inner and outer covers. The inner cover maintains bee space and provides insulating dead-air space. The outer cover fits over the inner cover as a way to provide weather protection.

Finally, the hives need a feeder. We are using a Boardman feeder. This kind of feeder is made up of a wooden or plastic base that sits in the entrance of the hive. It holds a jar of syrup, upside down. The bees go into a chamber in the base and get to the syrup through the lid of the jar that has tiny holes in it.

Selecting the Hive Site

A few weeks after we got our setup, Betsy came out and helped us select a home for our bees. We walked around our yard and looked for a good spot. We wanted to first be mindful of our neighbors, of course.

Luckily our property is lined with large evergreen trees, creating a natural divider which will also help with heavy winds. We can see our neighbors and they can see us, and everyone is respectful.

I’d read that the entrance of the hive should face southeast. Betsy and I agreed on a spot in the back corner of our yard. It’s a great spot! Nestled in the corner and on a slight slope which will help when it rains. Brian can see it from our bedroom or our patio as well.

The bottom board should be off the ground to keep it from getting saturated when it rains. We raised our hives about six inches to a foot off the ground. It varies because of the slope.

Once we selected the site Betsy helped me gather several paver stones at the site. She showed me how the pavers should be arranged, in six columns. On those columns two boards will rest, then the hives will sit on those. I took several pictures and measurements of the setup. I knew I’d have to go back and work on leveling the ground for the columns.

Photo of a woman in a yard, placing board onto paver stones

After Betsy and I got the setup in place we wandered into my garage and looked over the accessories and the suit together, talking about this and that. I asked her if she’d ever been stung. She said, “Oh yea. You will be too!” I’d read that again and again but you don’t want to think about it. Just part of beekeeping!

I thanked Betsy over and over, hugging her and telling her just how much it had meant to Brian. It was then that she told me that her father had had ALS. I’d worked with Betsy for 15 years and never knew that. She said she’d given us that gift of love to honor her father. I cried a little then, and I cry now as I type this. That is love, you guys!

Weatherproofing the Hives

Initially we thought we’d keep the boxes natural wood. That involves stain and sealant. After some research and reading we ended up going with white latex paint for our first hives. It’s classic and honestly was easier for me at the time.

Our grocery delivering (and so much more) friend Shannon was stopping by with breakfast one morning after dropping her kids off at school. I called Home Depot and asked someone from the paint counter to pull the paint so she could quick snag it on her way. She did that and brought us the paint. Thank you, Shannon! 

It took a weekend to put a couple of good coats of paint on the outside of the supers, as well as the base and on the boards that the hives would sit on outside. Some people don’t paint or stain their hives. It all just depends. The better you weatherproof the outside, the longer it will last.

I set the super boxes on a board that I rested on a  windowill and a box about the same height. This made it easy to turn the frames in order to paint each side. In order to paint the bottom boards and outer cover, I just set them on top of the box.

Beehive Accessories

In addition to the hives, there are a few essential accessories that Betsy took care of for us as well. A smoker is something no beekeeper is without! The calming effect of smoke on bees has been noted since ancient times. Smoker fuels include pine straw, paper towels, wood shavings and other things.

Another accessory needed is a hive tool. It is used to pry apart hive parts which bees will glue together with propolis. Hive tools are designed a certain way as such not to damage the wooden frames.

And the bee suit, of course! Betsy was kind enough to get one of those too. Too much! I was so excited about the suit! As soon as it arrived I tried it right on. It fit perfectly. We were ready to go!

The Final Setup

We received our setup last Fall. Brian’s parents visited us just before Christmas. When they were here, I used that time to work in the yard at the hive site. I worked to level the ground out and ensure the pavers were level the way they needed to be.

The hives need to be level across and they need to tilt slightly forward. Hives are titled forward so that water will run out and not collect inside the hive. Achieving this with our setup was not an easy feat. We were working with six columns, two boards, and angles two ways. And I am super picky so it probably took me longer than others might take.

I worked for a few hours and it seemed solid. We were good to go!

Ha, just kidding. After a winter of lots and lots of rain, the columns had shifted and it was clear that my job hadn’t been good enough. A friend was here visiting and we attempted to put the columns right again. We set the hives on it and it felt solid. We were good to go!

Just kidding! I checked it the next day and wondered how the hell I’d not noticed how a couple of the columns were clearly leaning over a bit. I laughed at us and pretty much kind of said, “Bless our hearts,” in my head.

The following week I utilized the time that Brian’s nurse was there to really ensure the ground for the hives was right. I dug the ground down a bit on one side so the pavers would sit level to start. I checked the pavers with the level over and over, on top and on the sides.

It took at least another four hours until I was satisfied. I went back and forth on how many pavers tall to make the columns. The hives should be off the ground but you also want them to be convenient for you, alleviating as much bending over as possible. The hives will be heavy when full of honey. I ended up taking a row of pavers off, as the higher they went, the more likely they were to lean.

I placed the hives and they’ve been there for several days now, through some heavy rains as well. So far, so good. I think we really are ready. The bees will be here soon!