Country Living Series

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Our new venture

This is a very very long post, so please grab a cup of tea and join me as I tell you about our latest venture. I'll start by telling you a little story.

Many years ago when we lived in Oregon, I worked as a seasonal field biologist. I spent much of my summers tramping through the woods surveying various critters.

It was inevitable that occasional accidents would happen in the woods. My turn came during one of the worst yellow-jacket summers on record. I stepped on two yellow jacket nests about a week apart and was stung a total of sixteen times from those encounters.

Thankfully I didn't have any allergic reactions to the stings, but I developed an enormous phobia toward any stinging insect. I panicked whenever a yellow jacket or wasp got in the house. It was hard to pick fruit because there were yellow jackets or wasps all over the place.

Over the years that phobia has calmed considerably. I'm still wary, but I no longer panic.

This is a roundabout way of explaining why, for so long, I've avoided the idea of keeping bees. Academically I know bees behave totally differently from wasps or hornets. I know that. But I was still juuuust nervous enough about stinging insects in general that I didn't want bees.

Until last year.

With our gardening efforts improving, and as part of our preparedness efforts in general, bees started looking like a better and better endeavor. Pollination, honey, wax -- it's a triple-win situation... if I could get over the phobia.

Because I am so ignorant of these remarkable insects, I decided to maximize our chances for keeping our hives successfully (bee die-offs have become legion lately). So I registered for a beginning beekeeping class put on by the Inland Empire Beekeeping Association.

It was an intense eight-hour class, purely academic, which took place in mid-February. The Association also sponsors four "field days" scattered throughout the year, where participants get hands-on experience caring for hives.

The class was packed with about 100 students from all over the region. I was pleased to see the intense interest in beekeeping from so many people.

The class left with the expectation we would meet again on "package day." A "package" of bees is three (or sometimes four) pounds of bees and a queen, packaged in a special screened box. Before getting our packages, of course, we had to have the equipment in place for the bees.

We found a beekeeping supply store called Sweet & Simple Apiaries about an hour's drive away from us. We visited and purchased all kinds of equipment (cha-ching!). We knew in advance we would be experiencing sticker shock, and made sure we had enough "sticker" with us.

But this place had everything we needed to start the two hives we had planned (including ordering two four-pound packages of "Carny" bees). We got the basic amount of equipment for two hives: "deeps," frames, supers, a smoker, a bee brush, a hive tool, a bee suit and gloves, etc.

Then we waited for our bees. Rather than join the "package day" on April 11 through the class, we opted to wait two weeks longer and did a "package day" on April 25 through the Apiary where we ordered our bees and purchased the equipment.

Meanwhile Don built a rock-solid platform just the right size to hold two hives...

...which he painted white.

As Package Day got closer, we prepped the hives...

...and moved them into position in the garden. (We later took the supers off since they aren't needed yet.)

At this point the hives and frames were squeaky-clean.

At last came the Big Day when we went to pick up our two "packages" of bees. It was very wet on the way there.

We arrived around 3 pm and were among the last to pick up our bees. Some 200 people were before us, arriving in groups of about 20 at staggered half-hour intervals throughout the day. Each hour, the beekeeper would transfer another package to one of his own hives in order to show the novices how it was done. Here are some of the hives.

Here's what a "package" looks like -- one queen (in a special little inside cage) and about about 10,000 workers. There's a can of sugar-water inside the cage as well, to feed everyone.

There were bees everywhere. Because nobody was attached to a hive, none were aggressive.

Here are our two four-pound packages of ladies, in the back of the truck.

With a cluster of about ten novices around him, the beekeeper demonstrated how to transfer a package to a hive. He started by removing all but two or three frames from the hive.

Then he pried off the metal can of sugar water inserted into the box and withdrew the queen cage, capping the box with a small piece of wood to keep the rest of the bees from coming out.

This is the little queen cage, complete with a small metal hook.

He inserted the queen cage so the hook hung down between frames, and the cage was tucked (facing forward) against a frame. The cage is plugged and the bees feed the queen through the mesh, becoming familiar with her scent (since she isn't related to them).

Then he opened the top of the package cage and literally dumped the clustered bees into the hive. And I mean dumped. To get all the stray bees into the hive, he banged the box on the ground and dumped again, banged and dumped, banged and dumped, until most of the bees were inside the hive.

The bees stay clustered because they're disoriented, so they're easy to dump. No smoker is needed. The open package is placed next to the hive so stray bees (and there are a lot!) can find their way out of the package and into the hive.

Very carefully, one by one, he re-inserted the frames right on top the clustered bees. Because there were so many bees underneath, the frames wouldn't fit all the way down. But the beekeeper said bees are smart and get out of the way. Sure enough, as we watched, each frame sank downward as bees got out from underneath it. When it was settled in place, the beekeeper inserted another frame, until all the frames were in.

Most of the bees clustered around where the queen cage was inserted.

Then he put the lid on top.

He told us the bees should stay in the hive, undisturbed, for about two days. Then we were to lift the lid, remove a frame or two (to make room to work), remove the queen cage, remove the plug (making sure the queen doesn't escape), and replace the plug with either a sugar plug or a mini-marshmallow. Then we were to replace the queen cage. The bees will chew through the plug and release the queen. A day or two after that, he told us to remove the queen cage (making sure the queen was released), make sure the bees have food, and close the hive.

Then we were on our way with our bees, knowing we have to repeat these steps once we were on our own.

And we did. Once home, I donned the beekeeping suit, opened the hives, and did exactly as the beekeeper demonstrated.

Here's what the seething mass of clustered bees looked like, after I dumped them into the hive.

As the beekeeper showed us, I carefully slid the empty frames in on top the bees, and sure enough they sank slowly down as the bees got out of the way, until all the frames were in.

We repeated this for the second hive, replaced the covers, and left the bees alone.

By evening, there were still many small clusters of confused bees that didn't make it out of the package cage, but the vast majority were inside the hive. The beekeeper assured us not to fuss over small groups, but instead look to the hive as a whole.

It was quite chilly overnight -- a low of 31F at dawn -- and despite being told not to worry about the bees outside the hive... well, I worried about the bees outside the hive. They were frosty and miserable and I thought they were dead.

But in fact the beekeeper was right: I shouldn't have worried. The day warmed up, the bees defrosted, and most of them made it into the hives by afternoon.

Two days later, we needed to use the smoker for the first time to open the hive and replace the plug on the queen cages. I removed some of the unused frames so I could push other frames aside and make room around the queen cage.

Using needle-nosed pliers, I pulled out the small cage, which was absolutely covered with bees. These I gently brushed off with the bee brush.

The queen was alive and active. I carefully pulled the plug out...

...and covered the hole with my finger while I picked up the mini marshmallow I had ready. I used the needle-nosed pliers to stuff the hole with the marshmallow.

Then I replaced the queen cage...

...and replaced the frames. As you can see, the bees are still heavily clustered on one side where the queen is.

Then I replaced the cover, trying not to crush too many bees. I used the bee brush to scoot them away from the edges.

I repeated the process with the second hive.

Two days later (no photos, sorry) we opened the hives to remove the queen cages and confirm the queens had been released (they had). The bees were still clustered and I saw no evidence of comb-building.

We've been opening the hives twice a week and adding more sugar water to the internal feeders. New hives need to be fed until the "nectar flow" starts -- early to mid summer -- and the bees have been voraciously sucking down the syrup. The last time I opened the hives, the bees were spread out much more evenly and there was active comb-building taking place. I was so excited! I'll try to get photos next time.

So despite starting this venture scared to death of stinging insects, I must say I'm tickled to pieces to be entering the fascinating world of apiculture. We won't harvest any honey this year -- all extra stores will need to be provided to the bees for over-wintering purposes -- but our garden should benefit from the active pollination taking place.

A few weeks ago, when trimming the raspberry canes, I alluded to "an exciting new development that will boost the raspberries considerably." This new development is the bees, who apparently adore raspberry flowers.

And just look at these ladies -- aren't they beautiful?


  1. Gratz on the bees!!!

    When you get some burr comb saved up melt it down and coat the plastic foundation on the frames heavily with extra wax. It makes the bees start using them sooner than building on bare plastic even though the foundation suppliers insist they coat the foundation ahead of time it isn't enough to satisfy the bees.

    1. Patrice - if you ever need help or have questions or whatnot - PioneerPreppy above is the master beekeeper! he has many fascinating bee-related posts on his blog!

    2. That is true, PP has so much good info!

  2. Occasional reader here. I saw the piece on getting started with beekeeping. We kept bees 30 years ago, and are thinking of starting up again. I don't know if Idaho has a program similar to what we have in Colorado, but here bears are a big problem for beekeepers. To reduce the number of bears shot for raiding hives, our Division of Wildlife has a program where they will give a free fence charger and solar set up to keep the batteries charged if you build a fence to their specs around your hives. Don't know if you have bear problems in your area, or if Idaho has a similar program, but it would be worth checking on. I've had two neighbors lose their hives to bears when they tried going without a charger.

    Looking forward to a follow up on your "ladies".

    Subotai Bahadur

  3. Well done! And very informative, Patrice.
    My Mom used to have bees, and when she became widowed it fell to me to suit up and take care of them. I liked it, and got pretty comfortable with it in a short time.
    She had one of the big cans into which the combs are put and then spun, using centrifugal force to extract the honey. Spinning that thing was the hardest part of the work.
    She got lots of high quality honey, because in addition to seasonal fruit trees she a large, constantly producing orange tree, which the bees naturally loved.
    I'm very much interested in setting up some hives here on our place, and the local bee keepers association is eager to assist and be supportive.
    You've inspired me to get back on track with my apiary plans.

    A. McSp

  4. Beautiful bees!
    One question:
    What made you decide on the particular breed of bees that you got?

  5. Congrats!

    Please please please keep us updated on as much of the bee-keeping aspects as possible! I've been looking at possibly adding honey bees in the future here. Though I'm not phobic about stinging critters I still find the concept quite daunting and am trying to gather as much input as possible!

  6. Wow! 'Just awesome!
    'Hope everything goes well with the little critters. :-)
    Melissa in MI

  7. Oh, that's the bees knees!

    I have loved bees since being a wee small lass, catching jars full, which my mother made me release every afternoon. My grandpa had hives at his farm and he'd let me hang out as he worked them. Grandpa didn't have a suit but he did smoke them. He is the one that taught me to not fear God's best little workers. I hope to have a hive or two next year for my apple orchard, which like the bees, needs to be protected from the bear that raided it last year.
    I am so happy for you and look forward to enjoying your new venture with you.

  8. Wonderful! I started keeping bees 10-12 years ago to get over my hatred for yellow jackets - same as you - funny thing is that while I love my honeybees, I still despise the yellow jackets because they EAT honey bees - they get in the hive and eat the larva, yuck. I've had Italians and Carnies and Russians. The only thing you have to watch for with the Carnies is that they DO like to swarm away. It's not a big deal the first year, but watch for it next spring. Beekeeping for Dummies (yes, really) is a great resource for starting out. Good luck and have fun with this!
    Xa Lynn

  9. We just got bees too! But mine are mean - they keep dive bombing my head.

  10. Congrats... I have bees here in Texas... ours are strong and very, very aggressive.. you should have a wonderful docile colony where you are...Yep, I think mine are now Africanized.....I have a special suit made for us in the South.. Enjoy! maybe a new income source as well?

  11. Bees are fascinating! I don't think I will ever forget what I learned about them in school, how social they are, and especially "dances" they do to communicate with other bees. Did you learn about the "waggle dance" in your beekeeeping classes?

  12. Honey bees have another use, too -medicinal! I used the direct stings of bees to ease symptoms of a neurological disease (many people with MS self-sting with bees). The little creatures do give up their stingers and their lives to give wonderful relief; their stings are also said to relieve arthritis pain.

    My husband SHOULD have a phobia about bees -one night he reached into my live bee jar to pull out a bee with long tweezers and the bee got loose. He quickly captured it again, but it broke loose from the light grip of the tweezers and flew right into his ear!

    My husband is brave (and SMART), and so he patiently but nervously waited for the bee to come back out. It did come out, but then decided to go back in. I was afraid it would sting him inside his ear if he let it go in a second time, so I urged him to swat it "NOW"! He did, and it stung him on the cartilage of his ear which hurt way more than if it had stung on a fleshy area, but at least it did not get back inside his ear.

    Had it been me, I never would have gotten near a bee again (although I have taken up to 30 bee stings on my arms, legs, and back per night). The thought of it crawling inside the ear gave me the willies. Fortunately, he continued to capture the bees to give me the "injections" of bee stings!

    1. Would you be able to elaborate on this subject? My brother-in-law has MS

    2. Tried to reply yesterday, but my computer went haywire. Google Bee Venom or Bee Sting Therapy. Ten or twelve years ago, people thought it was wacko-bird, but now it more accepted -or at least acknowledged as a way to help ease MS and other symptoms. It doesn't "cure" MS, but it sure helped most of the sufferers in my circle of 7 or 8 fellow sufferers who had it. And many old timers will tell you that bee stings help with the pain of arthritis.

  13. Patrice,

    I'm so excited to follow you on your new journey..was just thinking the other day that I need to learn more about beekeeping to see if it's a viable option for us. I'm also very proud of you - getting over a phobia isn't easy, and you deserve kudos for jumping in and being so hands-on!


  14. Bees are so dang interesting. My husband and I are on our second year. We had three hives, but lost one to wax moths. Those are nasty little creatures! Our bee mentor, who is fantastic, has been working bees for over 35 years and says he has never seen such docile hives. We don't even have to suit up or smoke. Although he will still caution us that they can still react like an attack dog.

    One of our hives was getting a little crowded, so we went in, found queenie and clipped her wings to avoid swarming, found some queen cells and started a nucleus to start a new hive! Absolutely AMAZING! I think I'm addicted to the smell of beeswax! Just wanted to share!
    Good luck with your new adventure!

    1. I came home from work yesterday and saw what I thought was a dead animal just to the left of our hives. Instead it was a swarm! Free bees!
      I have got to start carrying my camara. We wanted to work fast in case the scout bees returned and swooped them away. We were glad we had another super ready!
      So interesting!

  15. I'm not knowledgeable about keeping bees, but my dad kept a plug of tobacco around in case of a sting. He'd take a small bit, wet it with saliva, and slap it on the sting. It works very well to draw out the poison. Another way to use the tobacco is to shred it, and take petroleum jelly, that you melt, add the tobacco and let the petroleum jelly solidify. You can re-melt it and strain the tobacco out of it in a few days, or just leave it in there. The longer, the stronger. Just dab it on any stings, from any stinging insect. It does help.

  16. Well, that explains the current header picture...the beautiful shot of the bee in the blossom. One of yours?

    Beekeeping is the final frontier of homesteading. Nicely done.

    Just Me

  17. Fun! We're likely taking the same plunge in a year or two (one thing at a time, a few other house projects take precedence). As for bee sting pain - we swear by hydrated clay. Stops a crying-in-pain 5yo within 15-20 minutes after getting stung, it's glorious. Just have to put a bandaid on to keep the clay from drying out.

  18. Awesome! My husband got the bee "bug" this year, but he is hard-core DIY. He built a Kenyan top-bar hive from scrap wood, baited it, and hoped for a swarm (it's swarming season here). Then our daughter's PE teacher told us there was a swarm at the school, so he captured them and brought them home. They've stayed a week and are "prettying up" the hive with propolis, so they might like us. He's opening the hive today for the first time to check for comb. Good luck to you and your ladies!

  19. Congrats on your new "workers" :-) .

    I started out a few years ago with the regular hives as well, but after two seasons switched to top-bar hives (which I built myself for about 1/3 the cost of regular ones) and have found the bees to be MUCH calmer during inspections (I hardly use smoke anymore and am usually in shorts, t-shirt and barefoot) and they have wintered a lot better, too. One drawback is that you cannot reuse your comb as you have to press the honey out instead of extracting it like you do with Langstroth frames. You do end up with more wax, though.
    If you get more bees in the future look for Russian or Russian/Carniolan crosses. The Russian bees are much more adapted to Varroa mites and will bite them off each other. You can also grow some thyme around your hives. The Varroa mites do not like the odor (one of the commercial mite treatments is a thyme-oil-based product).
    Good luck and enjoy them!!!

    Kyle MacLachlan

  20. My parents have a hive of wild bees in their eaves. On a sunny winter day, a few bees will come out, shut down from the cold, and drop onto the snow. But they will revive if you pick them up and hold them in the sun (so I learned).

  21. I am saving up for this hive.

    Just love the idea of having bees with out the fuss.
    Good luck on your new adventure.

  22. Please keep posting about the bees. I got two packages last month and have no problems until the past week. I added a honey super to each hive and the bees are not drawing out any comb above the queen excluder. I've been spraying the frames in the honey super with sugar water with honey added to encourage them. So far it hasn't helped. If I don't see some construction going on later this week, my mentor has offered some frames with comb already on them.