While we wrap up our second year of beekeeping, I thought it might be fun to sit down and reminisce about our first year beekeeping advenutures!
2017 was a BIG year for us – we became beekeepers!!
My grandpa, Papa, was a beekeeper as was his grandfather before him. I have fond memories visiting Papa during the summer; my cousins and I would beg him for fresh beeswax, still dripping with honey, as he’d shoo us away from the “danger” of his honey bees. That danger was one I would become well familiar with during my many visits.
Those painful stings did little to dull my fascination with the honey bee and I had always hoped to one day become a beekeeper myself. However, it wasn’t until we bought our homestead, that my hope became a reality.
First Year of Beekeeping
As soon as winter break was over, I was on the phone with our local Community College (over an hour away from us), signing Mr. Misty and myself up for a, “First Year of Beekeeping” class being taught by our local Beekeepers Association.
If you have ever considered keeping bees, I encourage you start with your local Beekeepers Association. Beeks (a nickname for Beekeepers) are some of the nicest people, who strive to help other Beeks succeed.
First Year of Beekeeping Class
Every Saturday, for six weeks we attended the class which taught us everything we would need to know to successfully navigate our first year of beekeeping…. theoretically.
When April rolled around and we had to actually pick up our bees, we felt (and in some cases were) woefully unprepared.
Long Trip Home
The 2 hour trip home with two boxes of bees in the cab of the truck and their cacophony of buzzing, was nothing less than exciting…. and just slightly terrifying! There were a few escapees flying around (I’m sure they were as nervous as we were) but everyone was polite and we all made it home safely.
During our classes and on that long ride home (even now to some extent), my greatest fear was, unintentionally, doing something that would kill off our bees before we get honey next year.
Yes, that’s right – next year.
They say first-year bees are so busy building wax comb in which to store food and to raise brood, the honey they make should be left to them for their wellbeing and to get them through the winter.
There are several ways to start your honey bee colony, but the two easiest are by purchasing a “Package” or a “Nucleus” (Nuc). Out of curiosity, not only did we start with one of each, we also started with two different races of bees: we purchased a package of Carniolans and a nuc of Italians.
There are some advantage to purchasing a “Nuc” over a “Package”, especially if you live in a cooler climate like we do. Packages usually contain 3 or 4 pounds of bees inside a small, screened, wooden box with the queen in a smaller box. Once you remove the bees from their package and placed them in their hive, they quickly got to work creating wax comb in which to store pollen and nectar (food) and to give the queen a place to lay eggs (brood), but it takes time for them to get established.
That’s the main drawback of package bees – time.
A Nuc, on the other hand, is a small box that serves as a temporary hive while the bees are being transported. The box has several established frames of food and brood and the queen and worker bees are free to roam about the box. They do tend to be a bit more expensive than a package of bees, but a nuc gives you about a three to four week jump start and when you live in a colder climate, that’s important.
We were surprised to learn there are different races of honey bees, each with desirable traits depending on your preference. Some are more docile, some more resistant to pests and disease, some are less likely to swarm, some produce more honey and others handle colder climates better.
We opted for a package of Carniolans and a nuc of Italians. Italians are known as good honey producers and easy to handle, while Carniolans are very gentle and handle cooler climates well.
I have to say, the Italians performed the best. Whether it was because they came as a nuc and had a head start or because they tend to be better honey producers, they have outperformed the Carniolans. And, they didn’t swarm!
The 4th of July dawned warm and sunny. I was working on a project when Mr. Misty, with much excitement, called me outside. One of our hives, the Carniolan, had swarmed to the fir tree closest to the house. A new queen had been or was about to be crowned and the old queen, along with half the hive, swarmed in search of a new home.
Amid general confusion and consternation, we frantically tried to remember what they told us in class… the one we had taken almost 6 months prior. While Mr. Misty gathered himself and all the equipment he would need to take care of this, I made a quick call to one of our mentors.
Just a word about our mentors: though ours may live over an hour away, they have been a tremendous support. In fact, I’m not sure we would have had such a successful year had it not been for them!!
Anyway, our mentor assured us we were doing everything right. We had to wait for the bees to settle down and gather together. Thankfully they gathered to a low hanging branch, making it easier for Mr. Misty to collect them into a temporary box.
When collecting the bees, its very important the Queen bee gets collected; if you don’t get her, the bees you are able to collect will not stay in the box, but will gather back around the queen, who has probably now moved to a higher branch (don’t ask how I know this).
He got the majority of the bees in the box. As the bees calmed down and smelled their Queen, the rest of them entered the box. Whew!
While he was collecting the bees in “proper” beekeeping attire, I was documenting it all with the iPad while barefoot, in shorts and a t-shirt.
What?! Shorts? T-shirt? Swarming bees?
Yes. An interesting thing about swarming bees, they are actually pretty docile when they swarm.
The old Carniolan Queen took half the workers, who had filled their bellies with honey, enough to sustain them until they found a new home. And that – fat bellies – is why swarming bees tend to be so docile. They are far too heavy and far to busy looking for a new home to really care much about bothering you.
In general, honey bees, unlike wasps, hornets and other flying… hmmm… JERKS, really don’t want to sting you. When a honey bee stings you, it leaves the stinger behind which is connected to its innards, essentially eviscerating it and it soon dies. On the other hand, flying jerks do not lose their stinger and can (and will) continue to sting you seemingly without reason or consequence.
There are several reasons a colony might decide to swarm; not enough room in the hive to grow, undesirable hive conditions, a weak or ineffective queen – just to name a few.
In our case, we never figured out the “why”.
Remember me mentioning that beekeeping is a fairly expensive hobby? Mr. Misty was able to capture the swarm and get them into a small hive where they were able to settle down and get comfortable while we tried to figure out where we were going to purchase a new hive on such short notice…on a holiday!
A basic hive consists of many components. On the bottom is a screened bottom board. On top of that goes a large box (called a deep) that holds 8-10 frames for the bees to build comb, raise brood and store food. On top of the deep is another deep which gives the bees room to grow in number. If you’re lucky enough to get honey, another box goes on top of the deep called a honey super. On top of the honey super or the deep if you don’t have a honey super, is something an ‘inner cover’ and then, finally, a lid.
It’s easy to spend $200 just on a new hive set.
Here’s an article from Illinois University about the cost of beekeeping – keep in mind this information is from 2012 – prices have only gone up since then.
Two weeks later, the original Carniolan hive swarmed again. We now have four hives and are even considering getting more this coming spring!!
Ah… the life of a beekeeper. The fun never ends.
A few weeks after the last swarm, we were inspecting our hives and were met with very agitated Italian bees. Normally, our most docile and easy to work with hives, not only were the residents pissy, ‘boiling’ out of the hive as we pulled out frames to inspect, each of those frames were dripping with honey!
Some photos and a quick call to another of our mentors, it was determined the hive was ‘honey bound’, which means the bees had filled the hive with so much honey there is no room for the queen to lay eggs and no more room for them to store additional honey. Believe me, this makes them VERY testy…. and us too!
Land of Milk and… Well, a Land of Honey
As I mentioned before, first-year beekeepers are generally told not to expect any honey from their first-year bees. First-year bees will need all of their first-year honey to survive the winter. The Italians were so honey bound, we had to buy MORE boxes (honey supers) for them to fill with honey. By the time the Italians were done, not only did we have to purchase a total of FIVE honey supers (actually 10 because the other three hives decided to get in on the fun), they gave us 10 gallons of honey – an amount that far exceeded their overwintering needs!
Understand, the fact we got to take honey from first-year bees is the exception not the rule.
Between woodenware, bottles, labels, etc., we were not prepared for the expense this excess honey presented us with, however, we quickly realized there is a pretty good market for honey – REAL local honey.
Our local beekeeping association holds several different workshops a year – one of those was how to extract honey. We took 70 pounds of honey and frames to the workshop where they had a large extractor set up.
This extractor was pretty AMAZING – not only did it hold 9 frames at a time, it but was also ELECTRIC so no hand spinning required! When you have as many frames to extract as we did, that’s pretty important!!
A few weeks later it became very apparent that we would need to extract honey from the other hives. By the end of the season, we ended up with a total of 16 gallons (10 from the Italian hive and 6 from the Carniolan hives) of honey that we safely and humanity extracted and bottled for sale!
Our property backs up to National Forest and we have an abundance of Fireweed plants, so our honey was light in color with a delightful sparkly flavor that people can’t seem to get enough of. Thankfully, we stashed away a couple of quarts for ourselves, because our honey sold out quickly and we still have people calling for more!
Though this wasn’t near everything we encountered during our first year of beekeeping, we wanted to share a bit of our adventures with you. We are still wrapping up our second year and soon will be beginning our third. While it can get expensive, beekeeping is a lot of fun and very fascinating!
Do you keep bees? Leave a comment with some tips or wisdom.
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