Adventures in Raising Honey Bees
When Starting Beekeeping, Expect Many Mistakes and a Few Triumphs
By D. Parnell, Tennessee – I am not a professional beekeeper in any way, shape or form. It’s been said that if you speak with 25 different beekeepers, you’ll learn of 25 different methods raising honey bees. So, here’s my story of many mistakes and a few triumphs.
I started raising honey bees in April 2012, with two hives obtained from a local beekeeper. “They” say when learning about raising honey bees, it’s important to start with two hives so you know what normal beehive activity looks like. It’s true, and it does help a lot. Having loaded the nucs (nucleus—a small colony of bees) inside my SUV, I drove home very early in the morning, sweating the fact that several bees had hitchhiked on the outside of the nucs and were now angrily buzzing at the back window of my car toward the rising sun. Thankfully I was driving west so the sun was at my back. Still, I made it home unscathed although my dog, who eagerly jumped into the opened back hatch before I finished unloading the hives, let out a surprised yelp.
After setting up both hives, it was clear from the start that one hive was much weaker than the other. Whether the queen was older or the hive just not as strong, the colony never seemed to grow like its companion hive next door. I fed it sugar water from a front-mounted jar all summer long. I learned later, this is a bad idea as these types of feeders attract robber bees. It did. By October the hive was completely robbed out—no bees, no honey, a couple of hive beetles and a small amount of wax moth activity. I tore down the hive, threw out the nasty parts, saved the clean comb, and wrapped all the reusable parts in large plastic leaf bags then sealed them with duct tape.
The second hive was looking strong and clean. There was lots of honey in the two supers by November and the hive bodies were looking good with capped brood. Following the advice of experts, I left the open screened board on the bottom of the hive so it could breathe during the winter and not build up moisture. No honey was removed that first year—leaving all for the bees.
Then the rain started. The end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 was cold and rainy for weeks on end. That weather was hard for everything, especially raising honey bees. Even my backyard chickens were wet and discouraged. Finally, in February, a dry, warm day presented itself and I opened the hive. The top super was still full of honey — a good sign. But going further down, the bees were clustered at the bottom of the hive body, all dead. A few had ventured up to try and get some food but were found dead, headfirst in an empty cell. The cold winter had made it impossible for the members of the hive to venture far enough away from the warm cluster to get any honey. They had starved to death with food only a foot away.
Brokenhearted, I culled some of the honey to eat and wrapped the remaining honey-filled frames, again sealing them tightly so no ants or wax moths could infest them. The honey was wonderful with a touch of grape flavor bestowed by a vine that I had let ferment just for the bees in late summer.
By March, I began calling around locally, but there were no nucs for sale. It had been a bad winter for all. At least I took some comfort in that, as an amateur, I faired not much worse than the pros. Buying out of state was the only option. So we loaded up my SUV, this time with several yards of nylon netting and drove four hours to Brushy Mountain in North Carolina. There, I bought another nuc, paying extra for a guaranteed young queen. The car hummed and buzzed all the way home, but this time the bees were all safely under the netting.
The new hive looked great from the start, active and happy. This time, using a feeder frame filled with honey and water that fit inside the hive body, ensured that extra feeding would not attract robber bees. Spraying the ground around the base of the hive with microscopic predatory nematodes helped to eliminate hive beetles larva and planting mint was a natural way to get rid of mice and tracheal mites. There are many great peppermint plant uses for natural pest control. It was a long, cool rainy summer, but that meant lots of flowers and lots of honey. The girls had two supers full by September and the grapevine was loaded with drunken bees gathering more fermented grape juice.
Then, in November, I saw the signs again—robber bees swarming around the front of the hive. Checking one of the supers, it was clear— their honey supply was definitely reduced. I immediately closed up all the hive openings, leaving only a half-inch slot large enough for one bee at a time. The fighting around the opening was fierce and the foraging bees who were coming home with pollen-loaded saddlebags were having a tough time getting inside the hive. Not sure what to do, I watched the hive anxiously when I realized the pollen-loaded bees were crawling beneath the hive. Getting a mirror, I looked under the hive. The ingenious girls were traveling underneath to the open screened board and trading off their pollen to the workers inside the hive!
Then I had a thought—if the sugar water attracted robber bees, maybe it could lure them away, too. It worked—a jar of sugar water 10 feet away from the hive distracted the robber bees as they went for the easy haul. Even though I kept moving the jar a little further from the hive every day, it wasn’t a good answer to the problem. The jar had to stay filled and the robbers had to stay diverted. One bad day and my hive would be robbed out completely. It doesn’t take long—especially with aggressive robbers.
A search on the internet provided for this issue with raising honey bees yielded an interesting answer—a front-screened porch. The theory is that the homies can find their way in and out, but the robbers become confused. So I quickly built the screened porch and put it in place overnight, using wire to pull it tightly against the hive body. To be on the safe side, I covered the top of it with a light piece of screen that could easily be removed, but still provided a slight opening along the length of the hive. Success! Most of the robber bees could not get in. The few that did crawled around on the screen and could not find their way back out. But my own girls were coming and going with no problem at all.
Concerned now that the honey supply for my hive was too low for the winter, I bought some bee food online. The ingredients weren’t listed, but I trusted the company—until the food arrived. I was horrified to see that the number one ingredient was high fructose corn syrup. The next was hydrogenated oil followed by genetically modified corn, soy, and other nasty components. The five-pound brick went into the garbage. I don’t eat that kind of junk and don’t expect any of my animals to either.
Luckily, I had also ordered the book, Natural Beekeeping by Ross Conrad, and now read it cover to cover for tips on raising honey bees. For bee food, he offers a recipe of shortening and sugar. You can add peppermint for tracheal mites and thymol for varroa mites. I used organic shortening to ensure there was no hydrogenated oil and used cane sugar since almost all beet sugar comes from GMO beets.
This time, to make sure the hive stayed warmer, I closed it up and transported it to my driveway via the riding lawnmower, where it would get more winter sun and be protected from the north wind by a large shed. I sewed a cover of ripstop nylon and polyester batting that secured with Velcro straps to wrap around the hive. This was breathable, but not waterproof. A tarp draped lightly over the hive solved that. When the wind blew, a tie-down strap held the tarp in place. Even though the screened bottom board was left in place, a piece of greenhouse plexiglass slid underneath the screen provided warmth, with only a small amount of airflow around the edges. The little hive door opening was left passable.
Then winter of 2013/14 hit. It was a bad one. The temperature got down to zero degrees, not even accounting for wind chill. Our pipes froze and the chickens were brought inside the garage on a couple of nights in a dog carrier, just in case. I wondered how my bees would survive.
Finally, a warm day arrived in February and I held my breath as I unwrapped the hive and had a look. Happy bees! And they were ready to do some house cleaning. One girl struggled to pull out a dead bee and went flying across the field with it, hauling it far away from the hive. Other bodies were just pushed out the front door. Still, there were only five or six bodies in front of the hive.
By the end of February with some beautiful weather, the girls were restocking their hive, returning with pollen-filled saddlebags. I have no idea where they were finding any pollen at that time of year, but I’d like to think maybe the nasty robber bees didn’t make it through the winter and my girls were getting their own stores back. The hive was clean and neat. There were no hive beetles and still some food left. After feeding them some more sugar patties, I removed the plexiglass from beneath the hive—lots of debris and two things that might have been varroa mites. So, just to be on the safe side, waiting until late afternoon on a 60-degree day, I opened the hive, removed each frame and sprinkled as many bees as possible with finely ground sugar. Bees swarmed on the nearby shed, but the queen was not with them. They were grooming each other outside the hive, cleaning off the sugar and knocking off any varroa mites that might be clinging as well. Within a half hour, everyone had flown back inside their home. Natural Beekeeping said to make your own finely ground sugar by using a coffee mill. Don’t use powdered sugar as this contains cornstarch, which the bees cannot digest.
The next day I checked the plexiglass, but there were no mites on it. It may have been a false alarm, but now I knew the bees were clean and healthy.
Was this labor of raising honey bees intensive? Oh yes! But a labor of love. My garden, flowers, even my clover-filled “lawn” and orchard will benefit from these wonderful pollinators. And maybe this year, they’ll be able to donate a little grape-flavored honey for my dining table.
My methods are probably not for professional beekeepers who must harvest lots of honey from lots of hives. There are so many chemicals that bees encounter now—pesticides, herbicides, high fructose corn syrup, GMO’s—that I can’t help but think that all these artificial chemicals weaken the bees. One thing I do know—garbage in = garbage out. I’ll give my bees the very best in honest, good clean ingredients and expect the same from them.
Published in Countryside July / August 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.