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The Bees Come Home Again… and Chickens Too!

April 20th, 2010

The last few days have fostered a hale and hearty outlook for getting things accomplished. That’s what happens when you bring home a bunch of critters to take care of.    Yesterday was a big day at Fox Haven though…  I put three packages of bees into their new homes!  After losing two hives over the winter, it just wasn’t the same around here without them.   I love going to the post office to get the bees.  I call ahead to let them know they’ll be arriving, but the postal workers are sooo thankful when you show up!

 You always want to inspect the bees and make sure they did okay in transit.  There’s a can of sugar water hanging in the middle, and the bees cluster around it to feed.   They’re also in a cluster so they can keep warm if it’s cool outside.  I was pleased to see there were few losses of bees enroute, and my packages all looked in great shape.   This is what is called a “3 pound package” of bees, because it literally holds about three pounds of them.  Most of the bee farms are pretty good about filling the package with extra bees in case of losses, but it’s estimated that there’s 10,000 to 12,000 bees in each package.   Sounds like a lot, but by mid-summer a strong hive should have 50,000 to 60,000 bees or more!

Getting the bees into the hive is quite simple:  You carefully take out the queen cage, and then the can of syrup that kept the bees fed while in transit.   Then quite literally you shake and dump the bees into the hive!  I wear my bee suit and veil for protection… but the bees are not aggressive typically when you are introducing them to the hive.  That and the fact that I have misted them with sugar water a bit calms them down…   as I empty the bees onto the frames, they eagerly climb all around the new hive.  Quite a few fly around and begin orienting themselves to the new hive location. 

As I take the packages apart, I pull out the queen cage and inspect it to make sure the queen is alive.   I keep my hive tool laid across the little opening where the queen cage was so the bees don’t start pouring out.  A closer look showed all my queens to be vigorous, running around the little space inside the cage.  The black shape you see inside the cage below is the queen’s abdomen.  I use russian hybrid queens, and they are much darker than the traditional italian bee queens.

 

The bees on the cage feed and attend to her, although since this is a new package- these bees and the queen were just put together for the first time prior to shipping a few days ago.  While in transit they are becoming familiar with her scent, and when I place the queen cage between the frames in the hive and close it up, they will continue to become used to the queen.  Eventually they will chew out the gooey white candy substance (to the left in the picture above) that blocks her escape from the cage, and let her out.  If all goes well, she should be laying eggs within the hive in a matter of days.   

I’ll come back in a few days to check and make sure… I just don’t want to disturb them while they settle in.   If for some reason I cannot find or see the queen, or some proof that she’s alive and well (like eggs in the cells), then I’ll probably order a new queen or two through the mail.  It’s a pretty cool process.

It was a perfect day here though- not too hot or cool, and very little wind.  The bees were up and flying around in no time!   I haven’t been alone this month in welcoming bees back home again.   Warren has a neat post with a video link showing how he installed a package into one of his hives last week, and Kim writes about their journey to a country bee farm to pick up a new package of bees to take home as well.  

Once you’ve had bees, it seems disquieting to be without them.   They are so full of energy and do wonders for the local garden and flowering plants and shrubs.  I really enjoy having them around.   I also found out last year that some of my family have a history of beekeeping going back over a hundred years.  I like continuing that tradition.   

It was nice to walk out early this morning, and watch the sun rise and shine on the hives.    This may be a “split year” here at Fox Haven where I divide these hives as the season progresses.  The good news is I may be able to double my bee population.  The bad news is I’ll have to wait until next year to get any honey from them.  Patience, patience…  The journey continues!

 

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Speaking of critters- I feel like I’m part of that nursery rhyme, except instead of five little ducks it’s,  “Ten Little Chickies Went Out One Day…”   They are chirping, eating, mess-making, running around little dudes!  Or dudettes…  For the first week I was up a couple times at night to check their brooder temperature and give them food and water.  Now they’re doing so well I tuck them in at night and they’re all bright-eyed and almost bushy-tailed in the morning waiting for breakfast.

“Okay… what did ‘ya bring me!?”

 

Inquisitive little things…  but at meal time they were very flighty and would nearly panick and run everywhere until just a couple days ago.    Now they seem to be getting used to the routine of “The Hand” entering their cage and changing the food and water.   They will even eat out of our hands, and a couple of them are so tame they jump on your arm right away.    The boy loves to take the barred rock pullets out and play with them- they are really calm.

I don’t have names for the eight girls and two roosters yet…  and you can’t really tell a lot of them apart aside from the white and black ones.   But their feathers are really coming in, and they are growing so big.  They’re only three weeks old! 

 No… I don’t have the coop built yet.  Or started…    Here they’re gathered around the feeder quite pleased with me.

So this week it’s time to get busy.  Or busier!   And the garden is really growing too, I’ve got take some more pictures…  Have  a good week!

The Honey Harvest – Part II

August 22nd, 2009

It is fitting that I share Part II of our honey harvest today- the first ever National Honeybee Awareness Day.  The USDA issued an earlier press release highlighting the critical role of honeybees to agriculture.

“Bee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value and is an essential component of the production of more than 90 food crops – particularly specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, fruits and vegetables.”

“Honey bees are critical to the process of pollination of our crops throughout our country and an important part of maintaining a stable and sustainable ecosystem,” Secretary Vilsack said. “Honey Bee Awareness Day will help highlight this important role, as well as the significant threat honey bees now face from the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.”

It is no surprise that people have become more aware of the plight of the honeybee by media reports and tv specials in recent years.  We even read about how to save or help honeybees, and companies such as Haagen-Dazs have extended their influence and financial support as well  (I love Haagen-Dazs ice cream!)-  they even have a cool flash-based site at HelptheHoneybee.com .

Certainly the threats to the honeybee are real.  Many researchers believe we’re seeing a cycle of change with the bees especially in regards to human-based chemical influenced threats that may compromise their immune systems.  There have been cycles of losses in past years of course where the honeybee faced similar threats of disease.  Yet with the abundance of immuno-chemical challenges within the environment, and coupled with physical threats due to mites, hive beetles, bacteria, and viruses, the honeybee today must overcome greater challenges than ever before.

The honeybee is even attacked by other critters!  A Bald-faced Hornet hovers in front of this hive, just before grabbing one of the workers to take back to its own colony.  The Bald-faced Hornet is actually in the yellow-jacket genus made up of  predatory social wasps.

bald-faced-hornet-attack-2

So do the bees just stand there and let themselves get picked off by predators?  Usually, yes- they are not bothered normally from such threats and appear unsuspecting. But the bald-faced hornet is sneaky, and grabs a bee very quickly, or knocks it to the ground and then carries it away in its legs.   Sometimes however, the bees react quickly too and they “ball” the other insect such as the bald-faced hornet, or an intruding bumblebee, and eventually they kill it (sometimes they ball a drone or a queen bee within the hive as well).  In this picture the bees “balled” a larger insect that I couldn’t determine for sure- researchers believe the heat and carbon dioxide produced inside the “bee ball” kills the intruder… and sometimes a few bees die as well.

bee-ball

 

Today there’s an increasing trend focusing on natural and organic methods of beekeeping, in a similar fashion to gardening and healthier living choices.  This trend is tailor made for the small and part-time hobbyist beekeeper with relatively few bee hives.  Yet it doesn’t come without risk- trying to shepard hives of thousands of bees through the various seasons is an inexact science, and involves a great deal of art and intuition born only of experience.   There are no guarantees, and it can become an expensive hobby.   And if I do find disease with the bees, do I just let them struggle with it?  Give them chemicals to fight it?  We’ll see.

While the bees are facing challenges, does that mean we can’t find them anywhere?  No.  You can still purchase live bees from many companies around the nation, but it helps to order early (meaning during early winter) in order to get on the list and receive bees throughout the spring.  By mid-summer it’s difficult to find package bees for sale to start new hives. Then you’re off to the races, learning how to take of them and wondering what you got yourself into along the way.

honeybees-on-hive

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Ah, but beekeeping does come with its own rewards!  Eventually (in the second year for most new beekeepers), you’ll find yourself harvesting honey from your very own hives.   It’s a rich reward like no other, and brings a satisfaction and pride at the work these amazing creatures have performed.

A couple of weeks ago it was time to gather our honey, and what I take from my hives is pure, natural and raw. The bees produced it on their own, in a challenging spring and summer season of rain and cooler weather this year.  Most of it is from wildflowers and trees in the area. Blackberries, elderberry, maple, clover, dandelion, mulberry, aster, locust, basswood… many more than I can count.  One of the hives is a lot stronger than the other- producing around 35 pounds of honey to the other hive’s 10 pounds this year.   In some parts of the country, the weather really hurt the honey yield, so I’m thankful for how well these bees did this year.

A beautiful frame of capped and filled honeycomb.

capped-honey

Working with bees in 85-95 degree summer weather is a pretty warm affair though.  Especially dressed in such fashionable, clunky apparel. It’s hot, sweaty work- and I don’t think the bees appreciate some big, sweaty human prodding around in their home. That’s where the smoke helps. I use a little smoke from burning grass or burlap and waft the smoke around the entrance or the top of the hive, and it calms the bees. Not only does it mask the odor of the beekeeper, but the bees have an instinctive response to fill up on honey in case a fire threatens the hive and they need to leave. Not all of them bury their heads in cells to suck up honey at the first whiff of smoke… most just seem hang out and continue doing whatever they were doing.

But when I open their hive without smoke they tend to get a little defensive and “ping” off my veil or coveralls more quickly. A hive of more defensive or aggressive bees will come pouring out at you in a heartbeat, seemingly with stingers first! So a little smoke goes a long way, and keeps the bees under control. That’s kind of important really, and while some people advocate not using smoke, I believe it actually aggravates the bees less, and helps you get finished a whole lot faster so you can close the hive back up and let the bees get back to their work.

Uncapping a frame of honey.

uncapping-frame-of-honey

I mentioned before about an old honey extractor from years ago?   My folks kept that old extractor through the years for some reason.  It was laying in a corner of the barn… beat up and kind of rusty.  I pulled it out to look at it last year and frowned,  “No way…” I thought.  After pricing new extractors this year I reconsidered.

So what the heck I thought, and I did a little experiment… I removed all the parts and conducted reverse electrolysis in a 55 gallon drum with a battery charger and some iron rods.  It was amazing- the rust came off that thing in less than 24 hours!  I then hand-cleaned, bleached and scrubbed the extractor ’till it was nearly sparkling, and painted it inside and out.  I finished by completely coating it with two coats of food-grade epoxy- a clear, hard coat finish that nicely sealed it top to bottom.  Finally satisfied that it was in good shape to use for extracting honey, I still didn’t know if it would work very well.

hand-crank-extractor

I soon found out that they made things pretty well a hundred years ago however, and the extractor worked like a dream.  It was made by The Standard Churn Company out of Waupenka, Ohio sometime around 1910.  My grandparents were kids back then, and I can’t help but wonder how much honey this old extractor has seen.  The company made butter churns mostly, but I’ve found references for their extractors in old farm manuals.

After uncapping each frame by using a knife to remove the top wax cappings on the cells,  you put two frames in the extractor and crank one side for a minute- then take the frames out and turn them around.  Crank some more for a couple minutes, then take the frames out and turn around one more time.  Crank again for a while and that about does it.  The honey came out easily, taking a little time of course, but I can’t argue with the results.   As the honey spins out of the frames, it drips down the sides of the extractor and out into a bucket with a strainer set up at the top.  The honey is lightly filtered to remove bits of wax and sealed in a food-grade bucket ready for bottling.  No heating, no super micron filters… raw, natural and ready to eat!  That afternoon we hand-cranked about 20 medium frames of honey with that machine, two frames at a time- it was actually kind of fun.

Over three days we pulled supers and frames, extracted the honey and then began filling up the pre-washed half-pound glass bottles.  Lots of helpers- the boy loved it, and Memaw pitched in too :) I was like a kid in candy store… moreso with so much honey around.   It’s not a huge amount for the first real honey year- nearly five gallons in all.  Maybe more if we get a good flower bloom this fall.  I’m still looking at various designs and names for a label of some kind too, but it’s just not there yet.

I’m still amazed by the process- and the honey!  It’s exquisite… a beautiful amber gold that tastes incredible.  I filled up a few honey bears too, and the young boy got to have one all his own.

first-honey-jar

I like to think the flavor is enhanced by the time spent working with the bees, and watching them dance around the flowers, surviving through the pace of the changing seasons.   The other morning I watched the sun rise, enjoying the colors of dawn.   I heard a bee zooming by as I enjoyed the morning.   They’re up early too when it’s warm out, and the flower sources are a little scarce right now.   I smiled, marveling at the wonders of nature.  We help them have a home, the bees do their thing, and we receive a little honey in return.  I sipped my coffee and thought of how many more things we could do if we really wanted to.

There are three hives now at Fox Haven- not very many, but a lot from my perspective.  Earlier this month I requeened the weaker hive, and split off a new hive from the strong colony, starting it with its own new queen.  That’s another way to increase the number of hives you have in your apiary, and it’s also a story for another day.   If you missed it before, here’s a link to read about The Honey Harvest Part I.

The Honey Harvest – Part I

August 16th, 2009

Beekeeper. The word brings to mind curious thoughts about people in white suits and funny hats. I always viewed these folks as a little bit odd, semi-reclusive types that sold us honey and enjoyed having stinging insects crawl around on them.  The other day I smiled when I realized that I’m becoming one of those odd types myself!   

I’m still new enough that even using the word “beekeeper” seems strange to me.   I’ve also found that beekeepers are a pretty amazing group of folks from all walks of life.   Bees are kept everywhere, from cities to farms, and the people who work with them are as diverse as the flowers and trees that the bees visit.   I’m only in my second year of a planned five year experiment. I told myself, “Self!? Let’s see what beekeeping is all about. Give it five years. Ok?”  I had some prodding of course.  More specifically the young boy’s urging, after having watched a science cartoon about beekeeping at age 6. That was like some motivational charm that inspired me to try something I always wanted to try, or at least thought I wanted to try.

three-beehives

Like many of you, I’ve always had pastoral visions of living closer to the land… a place in the country, gardens, vegetables, animals, bees… self reliance… even a little place to hide out if the world goes crazy.  Quite the romantic view of things, and even though it seems like the world has gone crazy the past few years, life pretty much goes on the same as before.  Living in the country is a grand thing indeed if you don’t mind the work that comes along with it. We have, in a rural hobby farm fashion, approached some of that pastoral ideal. Not nearly as some of our hardier blogging friends have done with homesteading, but we’re getting there.  Sometimes you ask yourself what you were ever thinking, but having a few hives of bees has definitely made it more enjoyable.

Beekeeping can be a hobby or a profession, and some people work with bees all their lives.   The accumulated knowledge and experience among 20, 40 and even 60+ year beekeeping veterans is amazing, and I understand fully that just having bees for a couple of years doesn’t make one a Beekeeper.

My Mom came out and helped me remove and cover the honey supers this year.  She’s 80 years old and amazing in her strength and endurance.  She had her own hive years ago in a more suburban environment, enjoying the bees for a few years.  I remember being home briefly one summer and wondering about my crazy parents and their beehive.  They had this old hand-cranked extractor… a little thing that held two frames.   I watched them get the honey out of their frame and tasted it… yum!  Maybe that planted the seed for my thoughts on beekeeping, I don’t really know. 

taking-off-honey

While the “beekeeper” name hasn’t felt quite right yet- I am getting closer.  For now I still think of myself as a Bee Learner- someone who sort of understands the process, but really has no idea what the heck the bees are doing most of the time.  Although I’ve been stung a few times, the bees I have are pretty gentle.   I keep wondering if there’s some mass event where the bees are going to revolt and I’ll have to come to terms with a more stark reality of their independence.  I’ve read stories of beekeeps being chased out of their apiary by hoardes of angry bees.  That would take a little of the fun out of it to be sure.

So far so good however, and the bees seem to be doing fine.   I pulled up a full frame of honey from this super with beautiful white wax covering it all.  If I wanted to make or sell comb honey, it would be perfect if it was this color.   It was a nice day to take the honey off the hive- and right around mid-summer so the bees have plenty of time to make more.

frame-of-honey

Beekeeping is becoming a lot more popular, and there’s a host of really interesting blogs and websites out there devoted to the subject.  As more people embrace these fuzzy little girls who bring us honey, some appear to romanticize them however… embracing that Disney-esque anthropomorphic tendency we often have with animals of all kinds.

I’m not one of those people, unless I’m enjoying the 8-year old’s imagination.  While I certainly agree that bees are really cute (I watched a newborn bee crawling out of its cell yesterday!),  I know they’re just an insect that does amazing… sometimes painful things!  I don’t ever want to underestimate these little guys, or female workers to be more precise, and I respect that they’re a living colony of animal life that fulfills important roles. 

For their own part, the life of the colony is paramount.   I’m glad I can help foster an environment that helps them live and grow.  I don’t use chemicals or antibiotics, and have this growing belief that too many chemicals both within and external to the hive is compromising the immune system of the honeybee.

bees-in-brood-box

These bees are living naturally, in a man-made box of course, subject to all the challenges of their environment.  They huddle close together in winter, and hang outside the hive a little in summer when it’s hot.  I wrap them in the cold, and prop the cover up a bit when it’s too hot and they can use more ventilation.  They fan their wings to circulate the air, and to evaporate the moisture from the honey in the hive before sealing it with wax.  I  try not to mess with them too much- they know what they’re doing.   Hopefully they’ll be strong enough to overcome any potential disease or parasite problems. 

The birds, hornets, dragonflies and even lizards come by the hive for a “bee snack” at times.  The little guy below was brazen enough to munch on a bee while I was working with them.  The hive population ranges from around 20,000 bees in winter to more than 50,000 to 60,000 bees in summer in a single hive.  The young boy was asking me how many bees we had altogether… I laughed and said probably more than 150,000.  Not that many when you consider many commercial beekeepers have from hundreds to thousands of hives. 

lizard-eating-honeybee

For now my bees are doing pretty well with a natural approach- I can’t officially say “organic” because that word comes with a lot of costs and inspection requirements dictated by the USDA.  Arguably for the better whole, and you’ve got to have standards somewhere.  But hey I know my little bees are making really healthy honey.  Maybe I’m just lucky that they’re doing okay and it’s only a matter of time.  I don’t really know for sure- but if they ever have problems I’m just going to keep trying, and keep it natural.

The bees really just tolerate me of course.  When I go to work with the hives I try to make it a relaxed process, yet there’s an unmistakable air of tenseness or “being on edge.”  Part of that is me, and sometimes being uneasy with so many flying around and in the hive.  Or the knowledge that if you bang a frame or brood box too hard you’re going to have thousands of bees reeeaaallly unhappy with you!  Just a little bump makes thousands of bees go “Buzzzz!” all at once in some innate shared response.  That really gets your attention- maybe I should make a recording of it for an alarm clock for the 8 year old :)

And the bees watch me too… a dozen or more guard bees sitting upright on the top edge of the frames, wings erect and ready to fly, turning this way and that, landing on my veil or crawling on the hive tool as I manipulate the frames.  Sometimes hives can become “hot” and the bee’s defensiveness is magnified.  Some beekeepers routinely are stung several times or more, but with a “hot hive” most will replace the queen and the hive will become more gentle with time and different genetic traits.   My bees have been very gentle over the past two years.  But when they do become upset they fly around my head, banging on the protective veil to let me know of their displeasure.

removing-supers-from-apiary

The other thousands of bees are busy with their work, but they know something’s up. I try just to focus on what needs to be done- pulling out frames filled with honey, or inspecting frames of bee larvae and pollen looking for any sign of disease or other problems with the queen.  The more you learn, the more interesting it becomes though. 

We pulled off two full supers and a few other frames that day.  Not all of the frames would be extracted, but we removed them with relatively little fuss.  I used a “fume board” and some herbal-based solution to help move the bees out of the supers.  You put the board on top and they don’t like the smell so they move downwards through the hive.  Then you lift off the super- or take frames out one by one if desired.  A cordless blower vac helped gently blow the leftover bees from the frames- they don’t seem to mind the wind because its a natural event perhaps, and they fly back to the hive. 

There’s a tendency to really want to watch what the bees are doing… to mess with the hive too much, and to try and see everything.   So instead I just walk outside with a cup of coffee, and watch them coming and going from the hive.  You can’t help but feel a sense of ownership, or stewardship really, to make sure they’re doing okay.  I’m still amazed by what they do and how they fit in to the natural world with us. 

We’re getting there…  Show me the honey!  I’m thinking while I roll 50+ pounds of honey on the handtruck back to the house.  I remember working and waiting for over a year with these guys to get to the first harvest.  So in a virtual sort of way, I’ll share it with you next time in The Honey Harvest Part II!



Windy Fun, Bees in the Sun

March 9th, 2009

So much wind this weekend, and the weather was beautiful.   A few heavy rainstorms came through, but the sun came out and the wind blew and blew… too strong for kite-flying, but who knew how much fun an umbrella could be?

Playing with an umbrella

And my goodness the past few days were really warm.  Saw the temps hit 80 degrees on Friday and I decided to really inspect the bee hives.  Hard to imagine how the bees come and go in such strong winds, but they seem to manage.  It’s quite a project to go in and take a bee hive apart, especially when you have two large hive bodies (or boxes) that you need to separate.   In concept it’s not a big deal, but to really get a good look you need pull out and inspect many of the frames and take the boxes apart down to the bottom board.  It’s important to take a good look at how the bees are doing after they’ve been eating through their honey stores during the winter and to look for disease or other problems.  My goal was to find out where they were and how much honey stores they had left to feed themselves over the next few critical weeks before the weather really warms up.

I’ve been fortunate that my bees are fairly gentle, and not easily stirred up.  I was a little hesitant to mess with them while the wind was blowing so strong- they don’t like being meddled with when it’s cold, rainy or windy.  But for a couple of hours the wind seemed to ease up and change directions a little so I seized the opportunity.  When you do this you try to move slowly and deliberately while working the bees and taking the hives apart… only makes sense right?  But it’s a compromise between wanting to get the job done expeditiously and standing around too long with a bunch of frustrated little bees all about.  I’ve heard stories of beekeepers being run out of the apiary because the bees were very aggressive or angry with being disturbed.  Hope I don’t see that with these guys, and so far it has been quite the opposite.  That may change as they build up their honey stores this year, but we’ll see.   They look so calm before you start…

Bee hive

So I took the top hive body off the first hive and set it down on top of a couple bricks to hold it steady.  “Clunk!” I jarred the hive body setting it down and thousands of bees in unison give a loud “Buzzzzz!” and settle down again.  I pulled several frames to inspect them- lots of honey, a little brood pattern here and there.  It turned out that most of the bees were in the upper hive body with the lower one nearly completely empty.  So the bees were clustered in the upper box for warmth during winter, and with the queen and honey stores to keep themselves fed. The weight difference was amazing- the upper hive body easily weighed around 40-50  pounds, but the lower one was very light and almost totally empty of both honey stores and bees.  

One of the challenges for the bees can be overcrowding that leads to swarming in spring (two-thirds of the hive may head out to find a new home), so some beekeepers like to reverse the hive body boxes- putting the honey/brood-filled box on the bottom (with all the bees and the queen), and moving the now empty bottom hive body up to the top.    Bees do not like being too croweded, and the queen likes to move up when laying eggs within the brood nest.  So after reversing the hive bodies, the queen has lots of new room upstairs for brood rearing and additional food stores. Not everyone does this… but beekeeping seems to be as much or more art than science anyway.  So even though it may have been a little early, I went ahead and reversed the hive bodies, and took the time to clean up the bottom boards and such.  

So there I was, all dressed up for a bee party with a hive completely disassembled, sweating in the 80 degree late winter sunshine.  It was pretty exciting until the bees let me know of their displeasure.  Now they didn’t sting or become too aggressive, but pretty soon this great cloud of bees were buzzing all around what should have been the entrance to their winter home… and it wasn’t there.  It was laying around in pieces being inspected by some wahoo in a white suit!   I’m trying to get the hive bodies back together, and there’s something blocking it when I try to lay one on top of the other. Back off again, and I look underneath to see a couple of rocks that got stuck to the bottom of the frames.  Ever heard the term bee glue?  That’s propolis, which the bees make to cement everything together in the hive, sealing up drafts and such.  It’s a very sticky substance.   Ugh, I must have got rocks underneath when I put the hives down… I pull them off, and then finally get the boxes back together.

I don’t know about other beekeepers, but after a while you like to think that you have some kind of ongoing relationship with these little guys… or girls to be more precise, since all the worker bees are female.  Wouldn’t it be neat to think that the bees get to know the beekeeper?   That they know you’ve only got their best interests at heart?   I like that idea… but no one asked the bees.  Everytime I go inpsect the hives it seems like a half dozen or more end up squished between the boxes somewhere.  I try really hard not to squish the little gals, but with many thousands of them crawling quickly all around it’s hard not to.   That probably doesn’t inspire confidence from the bees perspective…  Ah, but in my finest anthropomorphic beekeeping manner, I figured they were just being patient with me as I reassembled their home.  

Bees with pollen

Finally, with most of the hive put back together, they started plopping down on the landing again, packed with big globs of pollen, and marching right inside as if nothing had changed.  It must be a disorienting episode, and I was worn out, but the bees didn’t seem to mind too much.  In fact they looked pretty good- I saw brood in a few places which meant the queens were doing okay, the bees health looked strong with no apparent disease and lots of honey remained to carry them through early spring.   Couldn’t ask for more than that.

Just Bee Happy

March 5th, 2009

It’s so warm out now that it feels like the middle of spring.  We’re not there yet, but winter is giving way and the days are getting much longer.   Yesterday was time to remove the insulation from the bee hives.  I went out early with temperatures in the low-40’s, and cut off the packs of insulation material.   I wasn’t sure how the bees were faring, and had not checked on them for a couple of weeks.  I slowly peeked inside each top cover and Buzzzz! they let me know they were still fine, thank you very much.  As I stood nearby a lone bee flew back to the front of a hive and crawled inside.  I had never seen the bees flying in temperatures so cool. 

I came back a couple hours later when it was nearly 60 degrees F, and hundreds of bees were flying around actively in front of the hives.  Awesome!  I watched in admiration, thankful they made it through winter thus far, and was surprised to see bees bringing back pollen.   I then took a short hike down the hill and looked up at some of the larger maple trees, and sure enough- they had begun to bloom.

Maple tree in bloom

I can’t say for sure, but maple is my best guess since there’s not many plants other than red cedar or elm that have begun to bloom.  Bees don’t really use anything from the cedar trees and I’ve seen only a few elm trees anywhere.  There may be a willow blooming somewhere too, but I haven’t seen it yet.  However there are lots of maple trees around and the bees can get both pollen and nectar from them.   

I’m excited that the bees are doing so well.  My goal is to foster honey production and local pollination while caring for the bees in a natural, healthy manner.  I don’t want to use chemicals or synthetic treatments for our bees if at all possible.  I first wondered how to produce organic honey, but after a lot research I believe it’s nearly impossible for most beekeepers to achieve.  You can find “organic” honey on the internet, and from other countries, but I believe honey labeled as organic is a dubious distinction because you don’t really know where the bees go.   Maybe you’re paying extra for a label that really isn’t accurate.

 How many bees can you see with pollen? 

Missouri Bees with pollen in March

With a hive of 50,000 or more bees, who knows what pollen and nectar sources they visit?  How do you know the bees have not visited a plant or flower with chemicals on it?  Their normal range is two miles in all directions, with some research showing flights up to five miles! I suppose if your hives are in the middle of a 3-4 square mile area with no farming or other residential/commercial activity you can reasonably be sure the bees are encountering only natural forage.  But more importantly, is the honey raw and unfiltered?  Has it been pasteurized or heat-treated to prevent crystallization?  There are many enzymes in raw honey that are destroyed by heat treatment.  Pasteurization of honey is not really a health issue anyway- it is primarily used to kill sugar tolerant yeasts that might lead to fermentation, hence longer shelf life.

The USDA requirements are fairly strict too- and seems to classify bees as livestock. To certify livestock as organic, a farmer/producer must be able to prove that the animals have not come into contact with certain chemicals or genetically modified material.  Not going to happen with bees for most beekeepers in the U.S.  And did you know by many organic standards that even organic honey can come from hives in which antibiotics have been used during the year?  Doesn’t make sense to me.   You can find organic honey imported from other countries too, but I would like to think that natural, local honey would be healthier and preferred by most people.  Unfortunately, the imported honey is often cheaper than what a small producer can offer.  Still I would like to think that most people will pay a little extra for a quality, local product that they know where it comes from and helps support the community.

My goal is to harvest raw, unprocessed natural honey, while keeping healthy, untreated bees.  I don’t intend to become a commercial beekeeper on a larger scale- just big enough to have some honey and sell it in the local area.  But many beekeepers believe bees simply won’t survive without antibiotic or other treatments due to the mites and other diseases they can catch.  Maybe so, but I’m going to give natural beekeeping a try.   If all goes well this year maybe we can add to the number of hives.  At any rate, it’s time to get the rest of the equipment ready so the bees can make lots of honey this year!

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