I have a good friend named Kat who I’ve known since the fourth grade.  We’ve stuck together for years, and shared adventures, hobbies, and had a lot of fun.  Naturally, I wanted to show her my new bees, and she was excited to see them.  So when I got some new pollen patties in the mail, I called her up, and asked if she’d like to take a quick look in the hive when I put a patty inside.   Being the awesome friend that she is, she dropped what she was doing and jumped in the car.  Unfortunately, I made several mistakes that led to Kat getting stung on her first real visit to the bee hive.  Oops!

Here’s what happened.   I called Kat after work, (about 5pm) and the sun was shining, though it was likely to rain later, and the wind was starting to pick up.  We went down to the bee hive, talking excitedly about what was going on with the colony, and the garden, and I popped on my veil and gloves, lit my smoker, and lifted the lid.  Clouds were gathering by this point, the wind was picking up, and it was getting quite a bit cooler. I pulled the hive open, and Kat leaned over to take a look, both of us still talking excitedly, and moving fairly quickly.  I put the frame perch on the side of the hive, pulled out a frame and showed it to her, then reached for another one as a few bees bounced around, seeming a bit agitated by the disturbance.  That’s about the time Kat said “ouch!”  and backed away from the hive in a big hurry.

A bee had gotten annoyed with all the disturbance, and stung her right on the forehead.  Fortunately, we’d talked about what to do if a bee stings you, and she got well away from the hive, and was able to scrape the stinger out.  I went over and checked to be sure it was out and that she was (mostly) okay, and put the frames back, then closed up the hive.

She doesn't look thrilled, does she?

She doesn't look thrilled, does she?

I made several mistakes here, and I’ll let you know what they were.

  1. I chose a bad time of day. The best time to work with a hive is mid-afternoon, when a lot of them will be gone getting nectar and pollen.  Waiting until evening isn’t the best idea.
  2. The weather wasn’t great.  Bees are really sensitive to the weather, and don’t appreciate having their hive open when it’s overcast or rainy.  The best beekeeping weather is a hot, sunny day.
  3. Moving and talking too much.  Honey bees are usually calm animals, but they don’t enjoy being disturbed, and having loud, fast-moving giants invade their home is worse than having quiet, considerate giants take a look. If we had been quieter and calmer, it’s likely Kat wouldn’t have been stung.
  4. You might think that not having Kat wear a bee suit was a mistake.  However, we’ve had a lot of visitors to this hive since it was installed in April, and Kat’s the only one to get stung so far.  Nobody except me has worn a bee suit, and some people have gotten closer than Kat did, and so far, she’s the only one who’s been stung.

I did buy her a cup of coffee afterward, and she seems to have totally forgiven me and my bees for the sting.  She’s even come back to look at the bees a few times, and had a lot of fun.

Sorry again Kat, and thanks for being such a good sport!

Coming soon: All about stings.

Published in: on 25 June 2009 at 4:12 pm  Comments (4)  

Nectar & Honey 101

Making Nectar into Honey

Pretty much everyone knows that bees collect nectar from flowers to make honey.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m not going to talk too much about what nectar is here.  For my younger readers (Hello to the Mighty Midway 4-Hers!) and anyone else who wants to learn more, the Wikipedia article on nectar is a great place to start, but in short, nectar is mostly water with some natural sugars, and bees have to do quite a bit of work to transform it into honey.


One of my bees harvesting nectar

Warning, some readers might think this next part is a little gross.  Other readers, like me, might think it’s awesome.

The bees drink nectar from the flowers, bring it back to their hive in their stomach, and regurgitate it (throw up) several times so it’s partly digested. The chemicals in bee saliva are an important part of the process that transforms the nectar into honey.  However, it’s still mostly water, so the bees  deposit (spit) the partly-digested nectar in the cells of the honeycomb, and fan it with their wings until most of the water is gone.  This concentrates the sugar, and when the water level is low enough (17% or less), we call it honey.

So when you eat honey, you’re eating something that came from a flower, but was inside a bee’s stomach, until they partly digested and then regurgitated it.  I think that’s really  cool, but I realize that some folks might not want to think about it too hard!

Once the bees have evaporated enough water, they put a thin wax cap over the cell, and store the honey for later.

Kinds of Honey

If you go to a grocery store, you can probably find several kinds and colors of honey (if you can only find clover or wildflower honey, try a farmer’s market).  One of the most exciting things about beekeeping is that the color and flavor of the honey depends on what kinds of nectar the bees use to make it.  You can get honey that’s a very pale yellow, a rich golden color, or even a crazy dark brown, and each one will have a unique taste-usually pale honey has a light taste, and dark honey has a strong taste.  If you’d like to see a list of common kinds and colors of honey, the National Honey Board has a nice one.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell what kind of flowers your bees are using to make honey.  If they’re parked in an apple orchard at the right time of year, it’s pretty safe to assume they are mostly getting nectar from apple blossoms.  Commercial beekeepers rent their bees to farmers for pollination, so they get to know exactly what kinds of plants their bees are using.  However, most hobby beekeepers (like me) just have their bees in a convenient location and don’t know what their main nectar source is, so we call our honey “Wildflower Honey.” Next time you see that label in the store, you’ll know that it’s code for: “whatever flowers the bees could find.”

My next post will have more photos, I promise!

Published in: on 19 June 2009 at 3:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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First Inspections

Earlier, I put up a series of posts on installing a package of bees in their hive.  Once they’re in the hive, the beekeeper can breathe a sigh of relief, and start a regular schedule of inspections or check-ups to make sure they’re doing okay. We hope that the bees will accept the new hive, and that the new queen will be healthy and start laying eggs quickly, and that those eggs will develop into a lot of healthy bees, so the colony can grow. In the spring, it’s the beekeeper’s job to make sure the bees have everything they need to grow into a huge, strong colony as fast as possible.

Here’s a quick look at what this beekeeper does during an inspection in the spring.

Early in the year, and especially with a new package of bees, I need to make sure the bees have fresh sugar syrup, which provides a food source right inside the hive.

Adding a syrup pail

Adding a syrup pail

In an established colony, the bees might not need sugar syrup, because they would have stored honey to eat over the winter and on cold or rainy days. A new colony doesn’t have any food stored up, and if their first few days or weeks are cold or rainy, or they can’t find enough flowers in the early spring, they could starve before the weather changed.

The other important thing I provide for my bees is pollen patties

This is a pollen patty-it's icky and sticky, but the bees love it!

Pollen is rich in protein, and bees feed it to their developing larvae, so it’s really important that they have enough, or the babies could go hungry.  I buy pre-made pollen patties  and store them in the freezer until I’m ready to put them in the hive.   They’re strange,  sticky, nasty-looking things, but bees eat them like candy.  You can mix your own, and it’s less expensive, but it’s a terribly messy, sticky job.  I tried it once, and I’m never going to try it again!

I put one on top of the frames, where the bees can get it easily.   They’ll chew the waxed paper away as they start eating the patty.

Here's a partly-eaten pollen patty

Here's a partly-eaten pollen patty

Now that I know the bees have enough food, I need to check that the queen is healthy.  However, finding one bee among all the others in the hive could take hours, and even if I do get a look at her, I won’t really know whether she’s healthy or not by looking.  Fortunately, a good indicator of the queen’s health is looking at her eggs.  Bee eggs hatch into larvae after 3 days, so if I can find eggs in the hive, that means she was there, and healthy enough to lay eggs within the last 3 days-and that’s good enough for me.

Eggs are a little hard to see, but they look a bit like tiny grains of rice stuck to the bottom of the cells.  You usually only see them if you can tilt the frame at just the right angle on a sunny day, and look carefully.  I have trouble taking photos of them while wearing a bee suit, but here’s a link where you can see a good picture. Penn State Entomology Photo Gallery

Now that the bees have food, and I know the queen is healthy, I’m ready to close the hive and go home.  They should be fine for another week.

Published in: on 5 June 2009 at 4:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tools and Toys

In the last few posts, I’ve mentioned a few of the tools I use when I’m working with my hive, but here’s a quick introduction to the supplies I carry around in my bee bucket.  I think that only two of them are really important for most beekeepers, and the rest are fun and useful toys that are more of a choice than a necessity.

This is my Hive Tool

My Hive Tool

The most useful tool I have is called a hive tool. It’s basically a mini-crowbar, and beekeepers use it to pry parts of the hive apart, scrape and clean parts of the hive, move things that are covered in bees…pretty much any time you need to poke something, scrape something, or pry sticky things apart, this tool is your best friend.  I keep mine in a little pocket on the right leg of my bee suit, where it’s easy to reach when I need it.

The other important tool that most beekeepers use is a smoker.

My smoker, with the inside grate pulled out

My smoker, with the inner grate pulled out

Smoke encourages the bees to crawl back down between the frames and out of the beekeeper’s way, and which makes it a lot easier to work with a hive.  Lighting and using it can be enough of an adventure that I should probably devote a whole post to it soon.

Now for the toys-these are things I like to use when I’m working with bees, but at the end of the day, they’re optional, and it’s up to the beekeeper whether they use them or not.  Some beekeepers use more toys than me, many probably use fewer.  It’s all about what makes you comfortable.

This is a bee brush

This is a bee brush

I use my bee brush for exactly what you’d think-brushing  bees out of the way.  It has very soft bristles, so the bees won’t be hurt, and I mainly use it if the bees are crawling on the edge of the hive when I’m trying to get it closed-I don’t want to squish any of them if I can avoid it. I usually keep this in the pocket on my left leg while I’m working-I don’t need it very often, but when I do want it, I want to be able to get my hands on it right away!

This is a frame grabber

This is a frame grabber

Frame grabbers  make reaching down to pull out a sticky frame covered with stinging insects a lot easier-I always worry that I’ll squish bees or get stung (or both!) when I’m shoving my fingers in between frames and trying to grab one.  I find that it makes pulling a frame out of the hive a much more graceful experience, and I don’t worry that I’ll drop one nearly as much.

This handy toy is a frame perch

This handy toy is a frame perch

A frame perch (see arrow) hooks over the side of the beehive, and I can rest frames on it while they’re out of the hive, rather than setting them on the ground or keeping them in my hands.  I just bought it this year, and I already don’t know how I lived without it!

That’s pretty much everything I use when I’m working with the beehive.   It’s not a hobby that requires a lot of tools or technology.

Published in: on 22 May 2009 at 5:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Her Majesty

The most important part of hiving a package is making sure the queen is installed safely in her new home. Before a package of bees is shipped, the queen is placed carefully in a queen cage, so she’s protected on the journey, and so the beekeeper can find her among the two pounds of bees in the package.  Once I had the workers dumped into the hive, it was time to say hello to Her Majesty.

Queen Cage

She was really active, running all over the queen cage as if she was showing off for us.  This is a great sign-you want a queen who is young and sprightly, because she has a lot of work ahead of her!

My next  goal is to get the queen into the hive safely, so she won’t fly away or get hurt somehow.  Most people are pretty experienced when it comes to squishing bugs, but when you have one very special insect that you absolutely cannot squish or allow to get away, but really, really don’t want to sting you, there’s a handy procedure to follow.

opening queen cage

The queen cage is solid wood on four sides, has one open side covered with screen, and one end with a hole drilled in it, and plugged with a cork.  I used a tiny nail to loosen up the cork, waited for the queen to skitter down to the opposite end of the cage, quickly pulled the cork out, and covered it with one gloved finger.  Unlike every other bee in the hive, the queen can sting as many times as she wants, so I don’t want to take a chance with a bare finger here!

Uncorking Queen Cage

Then I took a deep breath, and grabbed the mini marshmallow I’d brought along for the occasion.  With a little squishing, it plugs up the hole perfectly.  The queen is still stuck in the cage, but the bees will eat the marshmallow and let her out in a few hours.

queen cage with marshmallow

We pounded a small nail into the top of one of the frames so I could attach the queen cage with a bit of wire.  I don’t want to take any chances that the queen cage will fall to the bottom of the hive, or that the queen will get stuck inside, so positioning is pretty important.

Inserting queen cage

This might be the last time I see the queen face to face, so I take one last look, and then tuck her inside.

wired queen cage

With the queen inside, it’s time to close up the hive.  I brush as many bees inside as I can, put the inner cover on the hive, and add the pails of sugar syrup, upside down, so the bees will have something to eat right away.

Closing Hive

I’ve already put a specially made piece of wood in the front of the hive to reduce the entrance, so my small colony will be able to defend itself if mice or other bees come sniffing around, and the last thing I do is plug up that reduced entrance with grass, so the bees inside can’t leave right away.  Keeping them in the hive for a while, and keeping the queen in her cage for a few more hours makes it more likely that they will accept their new home, and not decide to vacate the premises and look for a better spot.  The bees will pull the grass out of the way before tomorrow morning, but by that time, they should have decided that this house will be sufficient for their needs, and ready to go look for nectar.

enterance and grass

That’s it! The bees are installed, and I get to go home with a smile on my face.  I’ll come back in a few days to make sure the queen got out of her cage,  but my work here is done!

Next time: Beekeeping tools

Published in: on 7 May 2009 at 2:10 am  Comments (2)  
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Hiving the Package

So I’ve got bees, a hive, and all those supplies, and now it’s time to put them together.

I pull out four of the frames so there will be a place to put all the bees, and spray them really well with the sugar syrup.  This keeps them from flying too easily, and makes my job a lot simpler!

Bee Equipment

The next step is to make sure the sugar can in the package is loose, then take a deep breath, and bonk the package firmly on a hard surface so the bees fall down.

Bonked Bees

Once that happens, you can see the cage holding the queen (it’s attached to the little metal tab to the left of the can in the photo above), but the bees are starting to crawl back up, so I need to hurry.  I pull out the sugar can, set it aside, and wiggle the queen cage free.  I was lucky enough to have a helper, and I handed the caged queen to her.

I’m a little slow, and by the time I had that done, the bees were crawling all over the sides of the cage again, so I bonked them one more time before dumping and shaking them into the hive.

Dumping bees

Shaking a box of bees is a little disconcerting, but they tumble right out and mostly land in the hive. A few of them are flying around at this point, but they’ll find their way home on their own.

Finally, it’s time for the most important bee in the hive, her Majesty the queen.

Her Majesty

This post is getting a little long, so I’ll explain what we do with her next time!

Published in: on 1 May 2009 at 4:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Bees Come Home

Bringing home bees is always exciting.  After weeks or months of preparation, planning and dreaming, you finally get to hold a little wooden box full of honeybees, and listen to them hum, and for me, it’s a moment full of hope.

Like I’ve said before, these bees had a long journey to reach the garden.  On Wednesday, they were loaded onto a truck in California, and started driving Northeast.  By Friday morning, they were in Iowa, and the driver made several stops to drop off packages of bees along the way.  By dinnertime on Friday, they were halfway across the country in Stillwater, Minnesota, and ready to be picked up.  I drove out to get my package on Saturday afternoon.

Here’s the garage with all the waiting packages of bees.

Garage Packages 2

Garage Packages

After months of waiting, one of the beekeepers shows me my package of bees. They look great!

Package 1

The package has about 2 pounds of worker bees, and one queen bee.  The metal can inside is full of sugar syrup so the bees have something to eat on the journey.

The bees are all clustered around a tiny wooden cage somewhere on the right side that holds a queen bee.  She’s the most important part of the package, and I’ll be very, very careful introducing her to the hive.

Finally, I loaded the bees into the car for the trip home.  As I sat down and reached for the seatbelt, I felt a sharp poke in my right armpit.  A bee that had escaped from some other package had flown up my shirtsleeve and when I moved my arm, she stung me!  I jumped back out of the car, and jogged over to the folks in bee suits, and said “I just got stung inside my shirt!  Do you have anywhere I can go to get the stinger out?”

They let me into their house, so I could use the bathroom to take my shirt off and then carefully scrape the stinger out.  Getting stung in the armpit sounds awful, but it actually wasn’t bad.  I think it hurt less than getting stung in the face or on the hand! As I’m writing this, (about 48 hours later) there’s still a little red spot about the same diameter as a pencil eraser where I got stung, and it itches a bit, but never got really sore.

Next time: Hiving the Package (or, putting bees in their hive).

Published in: on 28 April 2009 at 5:50 am  Leave a Comment  

They’re Here!

The bees made it here yesterday and were installed in their hive without a hitch.  Over the next couple days, I’ll show you what it’s like to install a package of bees in a new hive.

First things first.  Bees need something to eat when they move to a new hive, so before they arrived,  I heated about 2 gallons of water on the stove, then mixed in about 8 pounds of white sugar once it was close to boiling and stirred until everything was dissolved.  This is called light syrup, and it’s what beekeepers feed to their bees in the spring.  If they need food in the fall, I’ll use about twice as much sugar in the same amount of water.

Once it’s ready, the syrup goes into two pails and a spray bottle.

Here’s the syrup cooling on my front steps.

Sugar pails & sprayer Sugar Syrup

The pails will go inside the beehive, upside-down and the bees will be able to crawl under and get a drink.  There are tiny holes in the lids, and the bees can drink from them without the syrup flooding out and getting the hive wet.

Here’s a lid so you can see what I mean.

Pail lid

Once they were cool, I left the syrup pails by the hive, and took the spray bottle along when I picked up my bees.

Tomorrow: picking up a package of bees!

Published in: on 26 April 2009 at 7:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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Shopping List

Wow, this month has really flown by.  I realized yesterday that my bees arrive on Saturday, and while I’ve thought about them a lot since I put that check in the mail, I’m not quite ready for them.

So today I went down to my garage after work and looked through my pile of bee equipment, cleaned up some of it, tossed my bee suit in the washer, and made a list of the things I still need to buy before I pick up my bees on Saturday.  Here’s the shopping list:

  1. 10 pounds of white sugar (used to make sugar syrup so the bees have something to eat)
  2. 1 grill lighter (for lighting the smoker)
  3. 1 bag of hamster bedding (the aspen kind makes great smoker fuel)
  4. Spray bottle (for sugar water)
  5. Mini marshmallow (to plug the queen cage)

I guess I’m going shopping tomorrow!

Published in: on 23 April 2009 at 2:33 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ordering Bees

Today I mailed a check for $64.00 to Nature’s Nectar to reserve a two pound package of honeybees. They should arrive in late April, and will go straight into the hive in the garden.  I have plenty to keep me busy before they arrive-I have to check all my equipment, hang the “Warning: Bee Hive” signs on the fence, and buy about ten pounds of white sugar and some pollen substitute so the girls will have something to eat when they arrive.

The bees will be at the end of a long journey when they get to our beehive; days before I see them, the folks from Nature’s Nectar pick up hundreds of packages of bees in California, load them onto a truck, and drive to Stillwater, Minnesota, where a lot of excited beekeepers will be waiting to meet them.

Once we pick up our packages, it’s important to make their transition to their new home as smooth as possible, so most beekeepers will have a spray bottle of sugar water to give their new bees a little extra food to eat while they’re making the last part of their journey home.  When I pick up my bees, I’ll bring them straight to the community garden, where I will have a pail of sugar water and a pollen patty waiting for them to eat once I tuck them into their new hive.

More updates and photos to come as I get ready to bring the bees home!

Published in: on 25 March 2009 at 8:14 pm  Leave a Comment