On April 16th, we hived an order of Carniolan honey bees. It’s good to have bees again.
I love the idea of keeping bees. What’s not to love? The ultimate in a “local” sweetener, the increased yield from fruit trees and garden plants, a source of wax for making lip balms and hand salves, not to mention the pure fascination of having this colony of insects living in harmony with humans. Bees are just amazing!
My first foray into bee keeping was in 2008, when I hived two boxes of Buckfast bees in Colorado. What originally got me interested in raising bees, aside from all the benefits mentioned above, was the discovery of “top bar” hives.
If you’ve been paying attention to bees at all, perhaps you’ve heard of Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD? CCD occurs when all the worker bees in the hive up and leave, abandoning their hive. No one is sure why they do this or where they go but it is believed that they die. The impact to our food supply can not be understated, as bees are responsible for pollinating more than 1/3 of our food crops. The current research on CCD suggests it is caused by a combination of factors including disease (parasites, viruses), environmental stressors (moving of hives, monocrop food source) and pesticide exposure. Thankfully, one of the unexpected outcomes of CCD is that a lot more people getting interested in backyard beekeeping.
The typical commercial honey bee hive is treated almost continuously with antibiotics and other nasty stuff in an effort to stay ahead of disease and parasite issues. But like any arms race, this has resulted in selecting for the critters that can survive this medical arsenal. Meanwhile, the bees are not very healthy because in order to kill the diseases, you almost have to kill the bees themselves. I really had no interest in this method of bee keeping.
But along comes a more “natural” approach. Actually, it’s really just a combination of close observations of what healthy bees do naturally, and bee keeping methods that date back hundreds if not thousands of years. The idea is that in the last 100 years, bees have been bred to be larger than normal, and have been forced to build comb to a man-made specification, all in an effort to increase honey yields. By letting the bees return to their natural instincts, and build comb to a size that they prefer, there are less disease problems and stronger bees.
We chose to build top bar hives for several reasons, not the least of which was that we could build them ourselves for not much money. I also really liked the idea of not having to lift a “super” of honey that weighed 60-100 lbs. There are some cons to this method, one of which is that you may end up with something called “cross-bar” combs, in which the bees ignore your suggested comb guides and build their comb across several bars, making inspecting the hive very difficult. There are ways to avoid this, but I was not aware of them with my first hives.
My beekeeping in Colorado was not terribly successful. One hive, that was very strong going into winter, did not survive the spring. They essentially ate all of the food they could reach in their football sized “stick together and stay warm” cluster, and did not move to the right or left enough to eat the additional honey stores available. They essentially starved to death with food in the hive because it just did not warm up fast enough for them to move around. I harvested more than a gallon of honey from this dead hive. I made a batch of mead (honey wine) and am just now using up the last of the honey. Lesson learned: I needed better insulation through the winter and hives in full sun to warm up faster.
The second hive did survive, but then proceeded to swarm, and swarm, and swarm again. Then, one of the swarms (never did figure out where they had gone) came back to the hive and cleaned out any remaining food stores, until the whole hive was empty. This hive had a cross-bar issue, and so I was not doing a good job inspecting it. No doubt it was queenless and there was nothing to keep the remaining bees around. This DID make moving the hive boxes to Washington a breeze, so all was not lost. Lesson learned: inspect your hives regularly, and anticipate swarms.
So now we start again. It’s been cold and rainy (unseasonably so, but I’m getting really tired of that phrase – it’s pretty much been unseasonably something since we’ve been here these last 10 months). The weather has made inspecting the hive impossible (one should not open the hive when temperatures are under 50 degrees or a lot of bees will die from the cold). I was able to get into it enough to remove the queen cage and the feeder can, but that’s been it so far. But the hive is active, and happily eating the sugar syrup I am providing for them until the “nectar flow” (i.e. plants in bloom) starts. Fingers crossed. It is now my understanding that you really don’t know if you have a successful hive until they make it through the first year and a half to two years.
If you are interested in beekeeping, I recommend, along with the natural beekeeping site above, the Bush Bees website, which has lots of great information on natural beekeeping and why you might want to try it. I also recommend Beekeeping for Dummies. While this book does not deal with natural beekeeping, it does do a great job of explaining the biology of the hive, the different seasons, and what different diseases/issues might look like.
I still have a lot to learn. And I’m still trying to find a happy medium between highly manipulated hives and natural hives given a helping hand when needed to survive in our climate. I’ll keep you posted.
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2011, where I’ve yet to be stung by one of my bees, but you can bet I look smashing in my bee suit!