Bees, Organic Gardening & Farming

The Joy of Beeing

A few years ago, I decided to become a beekeeper. I read every book and article I could find on the topic. I joined a beekeeping club and attended meetings for a full year before purchasing any bees. I attended Indiana Bee School. I made decisions about the type of hive I would use, and how many hives I would start with. I built two top bar hives from scratch. I researched all the kinds of bees (there are several “races” of honeybee within the species Apis mellifera), and studied their characteristics. I still found myself rather unprepared for this undertaking, and I made mistakes. I am sure I will make more mistakes, but I will not make the same mistake twice. That is the learning process.

A couple years ago, my bees absconded (left). I decided not to bring in more bees right away, to focus on other farm projects. At last, it is time for bees again!

Note: You may notice from the pictures that my hives look a little different than the rectangular stacking hive boxes you are accustomed to seeing. I use a type of hive called a Top Bar Hive. It’s a really accessible style of hive that is easy to build and customize, fun to work in, and lends itself well to natural beekeeping practices. I built these hives and all their accessories myself on a small budget. If you’re interested in exploring this style of beekeeping for yourself, I recommend Les Crowder’s book “Top-Bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health”.

To prepare my old hives for new bees, I cleaned all the hive equipment with boiling water and a scrub brush. Bees are very sensitive to chemicals, so it’s not a good idea to use any cleaning solutions on bee hive equipment, even natural ones. Boiling water is the safest and best option. The hot water removes old wax and propolis very effectively, and provides some degree of sanitation. Bees can get sick just like people do, so it’s nice to offer them a clean home. Plus, people might eat some of the honey they make inside the hive.

Soaking top bars in boiling water to clean them

After cleaning, I repaired any loose or damaged parts, then gave the exterior of both hives a fresh coat of paint. Paint or other weatherproof coating is needed on the outside of the hive, because those outer surfaces may be exposed to rain, and may rot. It is neither necessary nor recommended to paint the inside of the hive. I also built brand new lids for both hives, since the old ones had fallen into disrepair.

Sugar Board

Once the hives were clean and placed into their permanent location, I filled a homemade sugar board for each hive. This is basically just a giant sugar cube. It’s something I normally place inside the hive for winter, just in case they run out of honey. It’s not usual to offer this to them in the spring, but there were some cold days in the forecast when they would not be able to leave the hive, and I didn’t want them to go hungry. They won’t eat the sugar if they have honey available. Note: it’s not recommended to feed bees honey that they didn’t make, or that didn’t come from your own apiary. Commercial honey could make them sick.

Installing a package of bees into a top bar hive

Bees can come in two different ways: packages and nucs. Nuc is short for nucleus hive, and it consists of a small family of related bees with some comb that they’ve made and some honey and eggs that they’ve stored. I would prefer to purchase nucs instead of packages to start my hives, because there are many more local, small farm businesses who offer their bees that way. However, nucs are always made of rectangular frames that only fit into Langstroth style bee hives (the rectangular box kind). The rectangular frames will not fit into my half-hexagonal shaped hive boxes, so I must always purchase packages. Although they’re not ideal, I’ve had pretty good luck with package bees in the past. You can see the package pictured above, it’s a small wooden box with screens covering the largest sides. Inside the package, there’s a can of sugar syrup for the bees to eat during transport, a tiny box that holds one queen bee, and three pounds of worker bees.

Queen Cage Inside Hive

To transfer the bees into the hive, I partially open the hive for their access by removing three bars (top bar hives have bars instead of frames). I place the queen bee in her little box inside the hive (there’s a tiny cork to remove first, so she can eventually get free), and then set the box upside-down with the opening facing the inside of the hive to encourage the bees to go in after her. Some people shake the box so that the bees fall into the hive, but I don’t like to do this. The bees usually find their own way. If they don’t figure it out, I’ll come back later and shake them into the hive. The hive does need to be closed (with the lid on) in time for sunset or inclement weather, for their safety.

Once bees are in the hive, there’s nothing forcing them to stay. You hope they like the hive you made for them, you hope they like you, and you hope they like their queen. If they don’t like it, they can leave. This is one major lesson of beekeeping: bees are free. Bees choose what’s best for their colony. Bees will live in your hive only if they feel like it’s a good deal for them. That’s one of the reasons why I put so much work into making the hive a welcoming place, nice and clean with good smells and a candy buffet.

Two top bar hives

Once the bees were all in, I closed up the hives and placed the lids on securely. Bees fly in and out freely through the entrance holes even when the hive is “closed” with the lid on top.

sugar syrup

Honeybees need a lot of energy to build wax combs where they can store honey and raise their babies. I’m not a big proponent of feeding my bees sugar, but I do always offer it to them during times of stress, like when they are first moving in or when there aren’t a lot of flowers blooming. Sugar isn’t the healthiest food for them, but it’s better than going hungry. I tried out an herbal bee tea recipe from Mountain Rose Herbs as the base for my sugar syrup. I offered both the herb-infused sugar syrup and plain sugar syrup, and it really seems like the bees prefer the herbal infusion.

After the bees had been in their hive for about a week, I opened the hive to inspect their progress. I’m happy to report that both hives are thriving! They have made very different design decisions. Hive #1 really went wild with the sugar board, and built an amazing amount of wax combs that are all white. They built their combs starting in the back, next to the sugar block. Hive #2 didn’t use much of the sugar, and they have built a smaller but still respectable amount of wax combs that are bright orange and located in the expected place, near the entrance. I look forward to all the lessons these bees will teach me in the days, weeks, months, and hopefully years to come!

bee keeper in bee suit