Becoming a Beekeeper

By W. Cooley 5-2021

I started out beekeeping exactly two years ago. I thought that it was an amazing natural process, liked the suits, would get my own honey, and seemed like a cool thing to do. That was pretty much the reason- a random interest. I bought a book called Beginning Beekeeping that is 185 pages- all of which I read on a flight from Cincinnati to Salt Lake City with my chin dropped in awe of the amazing creatures that bees are. Let us start with some basic facts that common folk don’t know... Did you know that bees stay alive throughout the whole winter balled up around their queen buzzing to maintain a temperature of 94 degrees to stay warm and keep her alive? Did you know they kick all the male bees out of the hive going into winter because it is the women who are worker bees and the men are not much good for anything more than mating? Kick ‘em out; that’s one less mouth to feed and we will make more in the late winter to early spring when we need you (VERY SMART). Also, did you know that the worker bees decide the sex of the bee the queen lays by how the cell is built in accordance to the needs of the hive? The queen will actually fertilize an egg intended to replace her by becoming the new queen. When it comes down to it—the queen is really the slave. But let’s move past that as there is much to discuss!

After reading this book, I was confident in my move to push forward with bees. I found a bee store about an hour from me in which the man working was extremely helpful. I left the store having bought a package of bees that come in a deep box with a bottom board, frames and foundation, a telescoping inner cover, and a top lid! I also bought a super, a smoker, a bee suit, gloves, a J Hook hive tool, and a bee brush. When my bees arrived, I received a phone call to come pick them up. A complete hive kit of bees was taped shut with mesh screen stapled over the opening slit between the deep box and bottom board. I placed the hive right into the trunk of my Corolla and nervously drove home ready for the bees to attack at any minute. At this point I had already mapped out where I wanted them per my reading. They would be at the side of my field, with the entrance facing south towards an open field of clover. Here, they would receive as much light as possible from sunrise to sunset, be close to my creek for a water source, and a couple hundred feet from my home to not be in each other’s’ path too much.

I placed a black mat down for heat, to prevent weed growth, less bugs to deal with, and easy to sweep off and clean. There, I laid 4 cinder blocks, 2 sets of 2 high for the hive to sit on. Ideally, having the hive off the ground helps prevent animals, rodents, and bugs from entering your hive as easily, as well as keeping the weather elements from entering your hive or breaking down the boxes. I placed the complete hive on the blocks and left the mesh screen on for the afternoon to let them settle down. I did not want to remove the screen with them angry, especially after the quad ride over to their new area, so I waited until late evening to unblock their entrance. I placed the entrance reducer so that the larger opening was showing. When I visited them the next morning they were exploring and quite kind! My bees were good to go after adding a medium super with frames above them!

Note: During your first year of beekeeping, do not expect to harvest any honey. During this time, the success of the hive and your NEXT year’s honey yield is dependent on the steps you are taking now. So, let us talk about what I did and what you should do. I limped my way through the year without a mentor by just reading books, having lots of honeysuckle and other pollen sources, being next to a creek and then finishing with a very mild winter.

During the first year, I got in my hive maybe all of four times. I did not want to disrupt them, I was scared to smash the queen, and I did not want to interrupt what they had going on. My first time was to add a super, my second was to add another super, my third to treat them for Varroa mites before entering the winter, and fourth to remove the mite treatment strips and remove the top super as it had basically nothing in it. I figured the top super would only be additional space to have to keep warm over winter at that point. I still have not seen my queen to this day as she was unmarked and I have always tried to let the brood be. Adding supers seemed intuitive: make more room and let them build wax to store honey and get them through winter. My first time being overwhelmed with having bees was simply trying to figure out how to treat for Varroa mites and watch for pests like moths and beetles. Everyone had preached to me to do an alcohol wash to get a mite count, but I don’t like killing anything. I read that you can do sugar rolls with them and count the mites without killing the bees, but then I thought--- if these people are treating for mites regardless going into winter, how about I just treat them and skip the counting. So, then I began reading about treating for mites and acid treatments that require removing the honey. I was confused about the whole process and stumbled across HopGuard, a product that does not require removing honey. I bought the product and it was as simple as putting a couple strips into the brood box for one month.

The next step was getting through winter. I was overwhelmed by feeding styles and I was not sure what was best. I bought a liquid feeder set up but realized bees don’t drink that below 50 degrees. So then I read about a candy board and was going to make one but was not 100% sure on details and read that if I leave it in too late in spring it will attract beetles and I thought to myself that I did not take any honey, it was a good year, let us try to get through it. So, I began feeding them 2:1 sugar water in the fall to beef up their honey stores. Eventually, I turned my entrance reducer to the singular small hole, and placed a top insulation board. Winter came and went, and was luckily very mild. On warm days the bees would peak their heads out and fly a bit. On cold days in the midst of winter, I could hear them buzzing inside the hive giving me reassurance they were still alive. Once early spring came in March, I set out flowers and 1:1 sugar water on days over 50 degrees. In May, I walked over to the creek and noticed the bees were thick all over my hive and thick in the air; I thought they were going to swarm. They were everywhere! I quickly threw on my suit, removed my entrance reducer, and added a super. I left the top off for thirty minutes because I was worried they had good nectar flow and I was just blocking their exit. I put the top back on after thirty minutes and the hive had returned to a normal state with bees carrying in pollen and not covering the box in its entirety! I put the entrance reducer in with the long slot open so that the hive could still be guarded but allow room for them to freely come in and out. Whether they swarmed or not that spring, I was never sure as I did not witness it and never sorted through brood to look for my queen or signs of queen cells.

Later in the spring, I removed the entrance reducer altogether and added another super. I soon after harvested my first honey which was amazing. The spinning of the honey was a little more tedious than I had thought as far as the rocking of the spinner and cleaning up the honey afterwards inside of it as it was a bee’s delight and they would not leave it alone! I spun the honey in my front yard and kept the spinner there because I did not want to put it by the hive and attract animals over the night as it was still a bee’s treasure cove! I used an uncapping tool and knife but wasn’t getting a lot of bang for my buck due to my lack of experience. I eventually used the uncapping tool to remove nearly everything off my frames and filtered it into a bucket. I spun down what was left on the frames and collected the wax. I put the super and frames back on the hive and harvested again in the fall. Later, I learned for every pound of wax they created, the bees consumed approximately eight pounds of honey! Oh, that hit hard knowing I took their wax while harvesting honey.

My next time in the hive, I noticed hive beetles! I picked out the few that I saw but nearly a week later I got back in and noticed a few more so I began combing through the frames and noticed thick areas of bees. After brushing them away, found that they were all attacking little beetles hidden in the frames. I combed through the frames for some time and was so nervous about the beetles and their possible feces or larvae that I removed the box. After all, the frames were nearly empty and thought I had a super too many if the bees were not able to defend it well enough. Further into fall, I removed the top super giving me some fall harvest that yielded a much darker color that I learned was due to the different types of flowers available during that time. For instance, in the spring the honey is lighter because there are mostly white flowers like clover and honeysuckle, whereas in the fall goldenrod is a deep yellow. The harvest was not near what I was able to get in the spring but it had been dry and I did not supplement with sugar water so I expected that. Moving into winter, I took the top super off and left the hive at two boxes- one deep brood box and one full honey super. My reasons for removing the top super were because it only had a few frames of honey and wasn’t worth defending, it seemed like it would take more energy to warm up all that space, and because of the spacing and emptiness of the box I thought it would increase their chances of starving by not moving together within the hive even though there would still be food available on other frames in the lower super. Additionally, the year before the bees had the same set up and survived. I repeated the same process as last winter but in the single digit days I taped the cracks where the boxes met up and put foil insulation inside a black contractor trash bag and taped it around the boxes for the cold week we had. My hive lasted the winter and was bustling at the start of spring. With my aim at expanding my “apiary” by catching a swarm or two and/or splitting my hive has created some learning experiences for me here in my third year as a beekeeper.

I caught my first swarm this spring after a coworker noted them in her tree roughly ten feet off the ground. With a little help, I set a light colored sheet on the ground with a deep box on it. With the top cover off and a few frames missing (one of the frames remaining in the box drawn out with comb), I shook the branch and watched the bees drop down next to my box. Unfortunately, this was not exactly where I had hoped they would fall. So I took the box off the bottom board and placed it over the bees with the telescoping inner cover on over the box. I cut the remaining twigs where the bees were gathering and placed them across the top of my cover. In no time, the bees were congregating in the box. Eventually, I placed them on the bottom board and the noted bees fanning at the entrance. The bees were walking into the hive and not regrouping in the tree I had cut them from- all good signs I had the queen in my box. I put the lid on and came back late that evening to make sure I had all if not the mass majority of bees in my box. I put the entrance reducer in with mesh wrapped around it so they would not get out but allow an opening of air flow. I ratchet strapped the box tight together and placed it in the trunk of my corolla once again, like the day I received my first hive. I took them home and now have a booming hive with two supers on top.

With two hives now, I invited a member and the librarian of my Southeastern Indiana Beekeepers Association club over to inspect my hive with me. For the first time, I inspected the brood and learned the differences in the cells and the countless queen cell cups throughout my hive. With the hive packed full and capped queen cells noted, we split my hive creating my third hive! Unfortunately, the artificial swarm I created by splitting the hive wasn’t enough and three weeks later with the brood emerged, I witnessed my first swarm- a REMARKABLE SIGHT TO WITNESS! I was outside planting tomatoes when I heard a loud buzz; I looked around me and noticed a black tornado moving over my house and across our horse field. Hoping that they were moving to a swarm box I had, I threw on my bee suit and raced our ATV towards the other end of our property towards the box and in the direction the swarm was heading, but they never came. I took the ATV down fifty feet or so to the road and when I turned it off, I could hear the buzzing across my road. I put my hood up and ventured through the woods following the sound to its strongest point across a creek where I looked up and saw them approximately 20 feet in the air in a branch overhanging the creek. At this point, my best bet was to pulley a swarm box up to them but the next day they were gone and my swarm trap empty. I lost a really good queen but witnessed an incredible event and learned a lot. Three hives remain at this point and I look forward to learning from the many more experiences I will encounter.

Jason Morgan demonstrates an alcohol wash at the SIBA May meeting to monitor varroa mites.

As a member of the Southeastern Indiana Beekeepers Association, and now newsletter editor, this is starting to become more than a hobby! Our minds have really shifted to watershed and animal/bird/insect health. We have moved to friendly fruit spray brands organic and gentle for bees, switching from weedkiller to weed burners and a lot more weed whipping around our garden lines. With meetings once a month on the current topics privy to the season, a new location that has two hives on site to work with and provide demonstrations, and 50-100 beekeepers at every meeting to share their experiences there is a wealth of knowledge to absorb! Our last meeting covered moving a colony from nuc to hive, finding the queen, performing mite washes and counts, and treating for mite prevention which was certainly helpful for me as my only prior experience had been with the HopGuard strips I had been using. I still consider myself very new to beekeeping. I am a minimalist through and through as to let things be as natural as possible. Most of that reasoning is because of my lack of understanding and mentoring until now, which is why I am excited to write this article and let everyone new in beekeeping know the things I have done and learned. Additionally, because of my basic knowledge, I can share my learnings with you as I go in very laymen’s terms. I look forward to learning and writing more articles to share that hopefully aren’t so green for you seasoned readers out there.

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