Beekeeping Adventures – Part 2

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Adventures in Beekeeping – Part 2 |

Steph’s Note: Today’s post is the second in a series introducing you to my experiences as a novice beekeeper. I was introduced to the idea of beekeeping from my friend Diana Rodgers, and her book,  The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook: Over 100 Delicious, Gluten-Free, Farm-to-Table Recipes, and a Complete Guide to Growing Your Own Healthy Food, helped me get started with understanding the process. To read Part 1, click here.

Why Beekeeping?

We live in a rental home in the city, and there’s no room for us to have chickens or a huge garden. When my friend Diana, author of Homegrown Paleo, asked if anyone was interested in keeping honeybees, I knew this was the right fit for us. I’ve been intensely interested in nature since childhood (even getting my bachelor’s in Biology), and it was our chance to help contribute to the ecological health of our local area by providing a home for more pollinators. We also have the time and resources to do it.

Honeybees and other pollinators are quickly losing foraging grounds as open spaces continue to disappear in the name of development, drought conditions here in Southern California are exacerbating that issue, and worldwide, colony collapse disorder (CCD) continues to plague bees.

Honey collection is not our primary objective. Rather, we want to provide a home for a colony and be its stewards. In order to learn more about this adventure, I read several books (my favorites are this and this), attended a class in my local area, and started visiting my local beekeeping supply store.

Adventures in Beekeeping – Part 2 |

I titled part 1 of this series, “Stupid-Easy Beekeeping,” which was my attempt at being a bit lighthearted, and it garnered some criticism. Does beekeeping require knowledge and an investment of time and money? Yes. (It cost about $500 to get set up with the bees and all the equipment.) It’s probably easier to get a dog or cat as a spur-of-the-moment decision than to get bees. You can’t just walk into a store and buy a colony.

Learning how the equipment works and how to manage the colony means you have to take the time to educate yourself. Being able to make decisions about how and when to deal with pests, harvest honey, and make other critical interventions makes beekeeping a serious endeavor. However, I want to encourage you to investigate it further if you’re ready for the responsibility!  You’ll of course need to check if there are any local ordinances to abide by and if it’s okay with your neighbors. It’s already been a fascinating, rewarding experience.

I’ve found folks react in two ways when I say I’m keeping bees: utter fascination or utter horror. Bees were really scary to me until I learned about how they work and why they behave in the ways they do. Knowledge is power, and understanding them has been essential. For example, people think a swarm of bees is highly dangerous and looking to attack people. Not true. They’re moving from one place to another, looking for a home. Also, bees fly around your face because they’re attracted to the carbon dioxide in your breath, not because they’re trying to annoy you.

If bees seem scary to you, I invite you to delve a bit deeper into their world. I think you’ll walk away with a new respect for these creatures and how invaluable they are to our survival. (One-third of our food crops are pollinated by bees.)

Getting & Installing the Bees

Adventures in Beekeeping – Part 2 |

Back in January, I ordered a “nuc” (nucleus colony) from a local company here in San Diego county. Bees generally sell out quickly, so if you haven’t gotten them yet, chances are you’ll need to wait until next year unless you know someone who needs to split or move a colony that you could have.

A nucleus colony is a small box with frames and bees already inside. It’s like a mini-hive that’s already accepted the queen and is starting to work. The other two ways of getting bees are as a package and catching a swarm.

In terms of cost, nucs are more expensive than package bees, and catching a swarm is generally free. A package of bees is just a box with the bees inside and no frames. The queen isn’t allowed to mingle with the workers yet because they need to accept her by learning her scent, and there’s no comb for her to lay eggs in.

Catching a swarm is definitely something that should be done by a professional. Swarms are generally on the move in springtime, so contact your local beekeeping association to find out if there’s someone who catches swarms. Sometimes there are waiting lists you can get on for a swarm.

On April 18, we drove about 30 minutes north to pick up our nuc. Once home, we placed the nuc in the spot where our hive is and released the bees. They had to be capped during transport, of course. Then, we let them get oriented to their new spot before transferring the frames inside the nuc into our hive.

We waited a couple days before we moved them again by putting them in the hive. Now, beekeeping is as much an art as it is a science and there are different philosophies and methods for doing things. Just know that I’m going off a collection of first-hand advice and what I’ve read from reputable sources. If you keep bees, I’m sure you have your own thoughts on what should be done and when. I welcome sharing knowledge but request respectful discourse.

Adventures in Beekeeping – Part 2 |

Installing the bees into our Langstroth hive was a pretty exhilarating experience. Being properly equipped with a suit and veil, gloves, smoker, and hive tool meant I could focus on the task at hand. I was looking for several things as I transferred the frames into the hive such as brood pattern, pollen and honey stores, and I was lucky enough to see the queen. Getting a day 0 sense of what the bees and their work looks like will give me something to compare against. I documented everything in a notebook so I can look back at what I did and saw and when.

Adventures in Beekeeping – Part 2 |

With the bees safely installed, I closed it up and left it for a couple weeks.

First Inspection

We can see our bees from the kitchen window of our house, so over the next two weeks, I observed them daily to learn more about their patterns of foraging and other behavior. It’s truly an amazing sight to see a worker bee, her legs loaded down with pollen, returning to the door of the hive.

I asked Erin from Bee Happy San Diego to come out and assist me with my first hive inspection. Since I’m a very visual / kinesthetic learner, having her there to point out things I’d read about and reinforce my skills with her first-hand knowledge was invaluable. Partnering with an experienced beekeeper in your area is incredibly helpful.

Adventures in Beekeeping – Part 2 |

We went through each frame, again checking for brood and food stores, plus the progress of the bees in building out comb on the frames I installed from the nuc and the empty frames I installed two weeks prior. Again I saw the queen, and she was definitely very active in laying eggs. We took care of some basic maintenance like scraping comb off the top of the frames, and closed it up.

Adventures in Beekeeping – Part 2 |

It was pretty stunning to see how the bees had expanded since installing them. At this juncture I made the decision to not feed the bees because I wanted to see what they could accomplish on their own. The philosophy of to feed or not to feed varies highly among beekeepers I’ve talked to and read about.

However, after the second inspection, I did decide to supplementally feed and will do so for a short time. The girls hadn’t built out very much comb in the two weeks between inspections, and while we did have some colder, rainy weather, I do want to give them the best chance at strengthening the colony.

Adventures in Beekeeping – Part 2 |

As you can see, beekeeping requires a lot of decision-making and an investment of time, energy and money. It’s also very rewarding. (Note: That’s why I’m not a fan of the Flow Hive invention. It may make honey harvesting easier, but it doesn’t make beekeeping any easier.)

Stay tuned, because I’ll update you as the summer rolls around to see how things have changed.

If you’re interested in learning more about beekeeping, pick up a copy of Homegrown Paleo and do some research about resources offered in your local area. There’s nothing that can replace meeting and networking with other beekeepers that live nearby and also supporting your local businesses.

Questions? Leave them in the comments below!

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