(Continued from Part 2. This concludes the article.)
V – The Bees
Apis milifera is the Latin name we’ve given the bug we call the “Honeybee”. Not to be confused with the bumble bees, wood bees, sweat bees, and other pollinators we share this planet with. It is a specific breed and different than the other small bees you come across in your environment. It took me several years before I could visually discern the difference, and there are even differences within the types of honeybees. Much like dog breeding, it is becoming a whole additional avenue in the hobby.
All bees produce honey. It is their food store for winter (and what they feed their kids!) Apis milifera has been domesticated because of its willingness to, docile nature, abundant honey production, and ease of management. These bees have been bred and maintained around the world for centuries. As with most domestic animal supply there are concerns about in-breeding. Lately there have been some new varieties introduced, and several other ‘strains’ being monitored and developed. It really is an exciting time to be in the hobby as there is a lot of new research and information coming out. Far beyond the scope of this article, it is one of the things that I find entertaining: there is a lot of new information coming out constantly.
The most affordable way to acquire bees (capturing swarms aside) is to purchase a package. Bees are usually offered as packages or Nucs (short for ‘Nucleus Hive’), with a queen marked or un-marked. The local clubs here do a group-buy of package bees every spring, or you can order them shipped to your door. A package of bees typically includes ~ 3 lbs. of mixed bees (all ages) and a queen in a separate container called a “queen cage”. The ‘package’ is a cage about the size of a shoebox, wood framed with wire mesh or plastic, and buzzing like all get out! If you have them shipped to you, call your local shipper’s office ahead of time to let them know. They will be very appreciative of you picking them up ASAP (and you’ll want to get them quickly too, rather than bouncing around in the back of your local delivery vehicle all afternoon).
Nucleus hives are small little hives (typically 4 frame mediums) where the bees and queen are already mixed and established. With the current precautions due to the Chinese Kung-Flu I would not ship at this time – people are receiving dead packages because the carrier applied disinfectant to the entire container. I’ve only ever purchased packages that were picked up and never once had a problem. I recommend purchasing a package through your local club or find a distributor reasonably close and make a day of going to pick them up! I recently took a 3.5 hr. ride over the mountains to pick mine up, it was a fantastic day trip, gorgeous countryside! The dog and I had a blast!
Purebred bees of one flavor or another are difficult to come by due to the nature of their mating. A queen bee will leave the hive once after being born to go on a ‘mating flight’ and will mate with any available males (drones) in the area (what a tramp!). As bees will travel upwards of 5 miles from their hive, this is difficult for the average beek to control. Most registered breeding programs are isolated geographically to ensure genetic control (most in the US are on islands off the coast of Georgia and Alabama). You can even buy queens today that were manually inseminated! If you are interested in a breed, ask questions about your supplier’s rearing facility. Most breeders will have mixed genetics or ‘mutts’ (not all are honest about it). There may be a dominant strain or influence, but unless very strict breeding protocols are in place, they cannot ensure pure genetics. When just starting out that’s just fine.
Specific breeds of bees are much like specific breeds of dogs. The experienced hobbyist may have good reason, but most folks are fine with a rescue mutt from down at the local pound. For your first hive don’t worry too much about specific breeds or traits, get some healthy bees from a reputable source that have a demonstrated ability to do well in your area. I would gladly purchase a package from a local beek vs. buying a package from a big distributor across the country, as I know those bees have done well in this locale. Once again, your local contacts or beekeepers club can help immensely.
Italian Bees – Originally came from Italy. They are used throughout the world and have very good honey producing capabilities. Italian bees are the oldest honeybee genetics. They are extremely gentle and are very common.
Carniola Bees – Are some of the most common bees you will find Stateside, very docile, abundant honey producers, very easily managed. Most domesticated bees available in the US have at least some Carniola in them. They have proven to be a reliable and predictable animal to work with.
Russian Bees – Originally imported from the Eastern shores of the Soviet Union by the USDA in the 1980s. They demonstrated a strong hygienic trait and developed some natural resistance to/coping strategies against certain pests. Several lines were imported through the USDA and breeding was managed very carefully. The project has since been turned over to industry, and there is a group of established breeders controlling genetics and breeding doing a fantastic job.
Saskatraz Bees – are some of the more esoteric ones and highlight some of the interesting developments taking place in the hobby: privately bred queens. Like emergent dog breeds (is there anything they won’t stick a poodle with?), experienced people like to operate at the fringes of the hobby – you should pick an established variety of bee. This is one example however, of the twists and turns the hobby can take for you. Maybe you’ll go on to develop a queen breeding program of your own and get to name them?
There are a lot of threats facing the beekeeper that should be at least mentioned. If your location is truly ‘out there’, you may experience problems with bears raiding your hives, and they won’t look like Yogi and Boo Boo. Powerful electric fencing is about your only option (very powerful, not solar). Other 4-legged critters can be deterred with portable electric fencing – skunks, raccoons, etc. Mice can be another problem and certain entrance reducers are sold to combat them. The biggest problems come from the other insects and are a whole topic unto themselves. The ones that have caused me the most trouble are varroa mites, wax moths and small hive beetles.
There are several chemical treatment options for varroa that the hobbyist can apply and should be viewed as part of your IPM (Integrated Pest Management), but the whole topic is far beyond what I can describe here. Much of the science is still emerging. Your mentor or local club can get into much more detail but be advised it is a problem that will require some attention. Using a hygienic breed like Russian heritage is part of my IPM treatment for Varroa. I treat chemically usually once in the Spring and once in the Fall as well. Hive Beetles are a real challenge for me. There are several tools and techniques you can try. I have used various traps to treat and am trying Diatomaceous Earth (DE) this year around one of my hives to see if it improves conditions. Wax moths are mostly a storage problem, but you may encounter them on inspections. There are a variety of treatment options for most pests, both natural and chemical.
There is quite a bit to these little girls, and I barely scratched the surface! They are an emergent field in science due to the understanding of their role in our food chain. An immense amount of our food supply is created by pollinating bees, and bees have had a challenging time of late. For people with an interest in science and biology, this may be a great hobby, or it could easily parlay into a professional career in the fields of biology, medicine, ag-science, etc.
VI – Putting it All Together
So you have some bees, and you have a box to keep them in. Now you put them together.
Hive placement is unique to your environment. Find an area sheltered from the winds that gets morning sunshine. I have mine along a (wooden) fence line under some tall Pine trees. I used concrete blocks from the local hardware store for a base and place the hive approx. 2-feet off the ground. You should acquire and setup your hive prior to your bees arriving. Paint the outside surfaces only with quality outdoor house paint. You can decorate as much or little as you want, the point is to protect the wood. I have seen beautifully painted hives done by true artists, they look amazing in your bee yard (apiary). This could be a money-maker if you’re an artist who can find clients.
The first step to installing the bees in your hive is inspecting the queen to make sure she is healthy and alive. In packages of bees, the queen is shipped in a separate ‘queen cage’. The queen cage usually has the queen and a few attendant bees inside. Take a good look at your queen, chances are it’s the last time you’re ever going to lay eyes on her! If you are able, get a package with a marked queen – she will have a dot of colored paint on her back making her infinitely easier to spot. There is usually a small plug covering a piece of fondant/candy in one end of the cage – remove the plug and place the queen cage inside the hive (the worker bees will eat away the candy and release the queen into the hive in a few days).
Take the remaining box of bees and dump and shake them inside the hive. The cloud of bees will quickly dissipate into the hive and find their queen. Don’t be shy, shake the container out and get as many bees inside as possible – some inevitably will remain in the shipping container, possibly for 2-to-3 days. Place the container outside the entrance to the hive, they’ll figure things out eventually. Within a few days the queen should be released from the queen cage and begin laying. With luck and care, you are on your way to having a healthy hive.
Caring for the bees is an involved topic, far beyond the scope of this article. You can find detailed discussions online or in many books. Feeding is easy, sugar water in a 1:1 ratio is all I’ve ever used. Several methods and tools are available, I’m a fan of in-hive feeders vs. outdoor community feeders. They are not always needed however – most bees can find enough food from their environment. You may want to supplement their diet in Spring and Winter. Your climate and environment will determine your needs for winter preparations. Bees naturally can adapt to a wide range of climates but finding out which ones work well in your area is worth the effort to learn.
You can find a wealth of info in books but online seems to have the most current and up to date information. There are a couple chat boards, I encourage you to join. Great places to post pics and ask questions. Bees are in the news of late, and there is quite a bit of academic research being focused on them, much available to the public over the internet. There is also a lot of disinformation out there, so take everything you read with a grain of salt. Remember: Just because a technique worked for someone else and their bees does not mean it will work for you and yours. The folks keeping bees up in Alaska do some different things than the people in Alabama! That certainly applies to any advice I tried to dispense in this article – this is just what worked for me.
Finding a local mentor that can help with your first couple years will be a huge help. Local clubs are some of the best ways to find that person, and online forums may prove useful as well. Several of the large distributors run educational camps and instruction classes out of their facility at various times of year. Make a weekend getaway out of it! Beekeeping is fast becoming a popular hobby, and easy to get into. You don’t need a ton of specialized knowledge or equipment (though some biology helps), and it is possible to participate whether you live in a city, suburb, or rural setting. At the risk of repeating myself, the interactions with local club members at meetings and hive-side have been most valuable in advancing my knowledge. Please take the time to search out and connect with your local resources. Everyone I have met has been so friendly and welcoming, you’ll be glad you did.