Raise Bees in Your Backyard
By Jerry Hayes
Those of you who are now or will decide to become beekeepers and get started with beehive plans will become a very small subset of those reading Countryside. And an even very smaller subset of the rest of the population. You will be thought of as perhaps unique, interesting or even weird. Remember that the whole population, even beekeepers, can be entomophobic — afraid of or disgusted by some insects. Some people find it hard to believe there is this small but valuable group that likes this particular insect, the honeybee, and even more incredible to your neighbors — it’s an insect that can hurt you.
Why are honeybees important? Honeybees are important not because of honey, which certainly is a tasty, nutritious and more importantly, environmentally neutral sweet, but honey is simply a by-product of pollination.
Pollination is the most important thing honeybees do. Pollination is the transfer of pollen (male) to structures (stigma) on another flower of the same species. From here, under normal circumstances, the pollen deposited on the stigma will grow a channel or tube (pollen tube) down to the ovule/egg and the sperm will travel down this tube to meet up with and hopefully fertilize the egg and seeds will form.
When a seed is fertilized, the plant will devote the resources to build a fruit or fleshy vegetable around the seed to protect and nourish it. This could be something familiar like a blackberry, apple or cucumber. Or not so familiar like a lychee, longan or some other exotic fruit. Ever seen a crooked or curved cucumber? Or how about an apple that was flat on one side? These are examples of incomplete pollination and thus incomplete fertilization. A seed was not fertilized, so the plant did not expend the energy to produce a fruit at the site. These incomplete fruits are less valuable on the market and provide less food value for the consumer. And, for those seed and nut crops that require honeybee pollination (buckwheat, canola, almonds), if the seed is not fertilized that part of production is lost.
Honeybees are the fundamental keystone pollinator species. Yes, some pollinators like bumble bees or solitary bees are terrific pollinators. However, honeybee colonies can be managed to have tens of thousands of individuals that can be transported and moved to a particular crop and out again, something that is not possible with other pollinators. They can blanket a crop with redundancy and then move on under the beekeeper’s direction.
The standard rule of thumb is that if honeybees ceased to exist today, approximately one-third of the food you and I eat every day would simply disappear. An example I use when I speak to school groups is ice cream. I ask the kids how honeybees are responsible for ice cream, and of course, they don’t know, which is good, or my talk would end more quickly than planned. I tell them that honeybees pollinated the thousands of acres of seed alfalfa which is used to plant and produce high-protein forage alfalfa hay for dairy cows. Of course, dairy cows make the milk that makes the ice cream. See, it is all connected.
I addressed the NAS (National Academy of Science) last year on the subject of the loss of pollinators in North America. The NAS had been tasked by the federal government with producing a report on this issue which has strategic consequences. The basic question is if we turn our food production over to other countries because it is easier, quicker, or cheaper, and do not devote attention to the slowly shrinking population of honeybees in the U.S. that produces a third of our food, what does that mean? Do we want a significant portion of our food production to be in the hands of foreign nationals? Do we want food production in our growing population to follow the same short-sighted route of energy production so that there will be a fruit and vegetable cartel that controls and distributes food to us just like oil is now? Good questions for those who see to the horizon and non-important for those who choose not to see to the horizon.
Honeybees still do extraordinarily well, with the novice working toward being a master beekeeper. More has been written about starting beekeeping than any other subject except religion. Being #2 in that category tells you how fascinating and rewarding beekeeping is.
What you need to do now is see if you want to go forward. The only way you can do that is by acquiring knowledge. At this stage, having access to a computer and the Internet is a good thing. There is a lot of junk information available on bees and some very good stuff as well. The problem is separating the two. You can learn a lot about beehive plans, beekeeping hardware, and equipment by reading catalogs.
Request a beekeeping magazine or catalog from:
- Dadant Inc., www.dadant.com, 888-922-1293
- Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, www.brushymountainbeefarm.com, 800-233-7929
- Mann Lake, Ltd., www.mannlakeltd.com, 800-880-7694
- Glory Bee, www.glorybeefoods.com, 800-456-7923
When you get these catalogs, pick out a beginner’s book like First Lessons in Beekeeping, or The Beekeeper’s Handbook. There will be how-to videos available, also.
Every state has a state beekeeper’s association. Google your state beekeepers association and contact them for information on local and regional beekeeper groups. There may be a beekeeper mentor out there with your name on him or her. Beekeeping is a lot like other activities in that seeing how something is done and having hands-on assistance the first time with your beehive plans is good for some people.
Two Weeks Later (If you have followed my suggestions)
If you are ready to start and have read the catalogs and books, then you know what equipment you need and where you can purchase packaged bees. If you read the chapter in the how-to book, you know how to install the package. If not, here it is.
Installing Packaged Bees
Various bee supply companies and commercial bee producers sell packaged bees. Orders should be placed early so that the bees can be delivered during April and the first half of May (fruit and dandelion bloom). A three-pound package with a queen should be ordered if you are going to introduce the bees to a foundation. The following steps should be observed to avoid problems with installation:
- When packages arrive, place in a cool, dark room; ideal temperature is about 65 to 70 degrees F.
- Feed bees by sprinkling or spraying sugar syrup (1:1 ratio of sugar to water) over the screen surface.
- A one-story hive (bottom board, deep hive body, 10 frames, inner cover, and outer cover) must be ready before the bees are installed.
- Install bees in the late afternoon, so they will settle down and not drift.
- Reduce the hive entrance with an entrance reducer or lightly stuff green grass in three-quarters of the entrance.
- Shake the package vigorously so the clustered bees will fall to the floor.
- Remove the wooden cover of the package.
- The feeder (a can) will then be exposed; remove this can.
- Remove the queen cage, found generally suspended from inside the space where the feeder was, and check the queen to make sure she is alive.
- Using a nail, carefully puncture the soft candy in the queen cage, so the workers can release the queen easier.
- Half of the 10 frames should be removed, leaving five in the hive. Wedge or snug the queen cage with the candy end up between two frames in the hive-the cage screen should be exposed to the bees.
- Spray the package bees one more time with sugar syrup and then shake and dump the bees out of the package into the large empty space in the hive. (Wear your bee suit.)
- Replace the removed frames so that there is a total of 10 frames.
- Then, the package bee cage can be placed in front of the hive entrance so the few remaining bees will crawl into the hive.
- Next, provide the bees with an entrance feeder or internal frame feeder of sugar syrup.
- Place an empty hive body on top of the new hive.
- An inverted syrup can or jar with small holes in the lid (read your book) is then placed inside the hive body, resting on the top bars of the frames. Put the hive top on.
- The feeder should be checked in about five days and refilled if empty. (It is very important to provide sufficient food for the bees.)
- In about a week, inspect the colony for eggs and larvae.
- Remove the empty queen cage.
- If the queen fails, a new queen should be introduced immediately; if not, unite the bees with another colony or package.
This is learning curve time. The important thing to remember is to stay calm. We have had a relationship with honeybees for thousands of years. You are not the first, nor will you be the last. There will be plenty of time to “panic” later.
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