Archive for November, 2013

A Rookie Bee Keeping Experience



I hadn’t anticipated how entertaining keeping honeybees was going to be.  My brother Don had enjoyed his hobby of beekeeping for a number of years but last year had been a difficult one.  He kept his bees on our mother’s farm and only one of his seven hives survived. He was somewhat discouraged.

My husband Mike and I raise beef cattle about 20 miles away.  We have plenty of pasture so we invited Don to experiment with honeybees on our farm.  He took us up on the offer and in mid April, he set up three packages of honeybees from Georgia in various locations, one in direct sunlight, and the other two in a slightly wooded area.  Every week or two Don came to check on them and they seemed to be doing quite well, though perhaps a little slow building up due to the unusually cool spring and early summer.

Our new farming venture was exciting and, like little children with a new toy, we told friends and neighbors all about it.  One neighbor was especially interested.  A couple of summers ago he had a swarm of honeybees move into the siding of his house just beneath an upstairs window.  He was reluctant to kill them, as they weren’t causing any real harm, but he was equally reluctant to allow them to stay. 

No one we knew, including my brother and his beekeeping friends, had any experience in successfully removing bees from a home.  We understood however, that established colonies like the one in this house tend to swarm so we decided to place a ‘bait box’ nearby, just to see what would happen.  Within a week we caught a swarm!  Like a kid catching his first bass we were thrilled!  My brother had paid $70 for each of the three Georgia packages and we had just caught one for free!  And this one seemed more natural, like a newborn calf.  However, our neighbor now had two honeybee colonies whereas he really wanted none. So we decided to move the new swarm back to our farm next to the hive in the sunshine while we continued thinking up a plan to rid the house of the extra (unwanted) guests. 

In mid-June during a routine inspection, Don found neither eggs, nor the queen in one of the shaded hives.  He had informed us that he really only needed to see eggs and to see how full the brood pattern was to assess the quality of the queen.  He was surprised to find only queen cells, and capped brood in this particular hive.  It was the smallest hive of the three packages and had plenty of empty brood comb, but it appeared to have swarmed.  Thus was puzzling because such a thing usually only happens when the colony runs out of space inside the hive.  Since we weren’t home when he visited, Mike and I were unaware of this finding.

That evening, we drove our Kawasaki Mule around the pastures, checking on the cattle.  As we swung by the shaded hives, Mike looked up into the trees, and noticed a swarm of bees about 20 feet up, like a football caught in the branches!  Needless to say, we were quite excited and I called Don to find out how to ‘catch’ them before they moved on.

Early the next morning, we drove our versatile tractor to the site, and raised the front-end lift arms high enough to reach the limb with a chainsaw.  Mike dropped the limb, football and all to the ground!  Quickly he scooped them up and placed them into an empty hive.  By evening, the bees had settled in and we now had a second “baby” honeybee hive to care for!  We placed them near what we believed to be the parent hive; the queenless hive Don had discovered the day before.  Having accomplished such an adoptive mission, we felt as vulnerable as we did when we first ventured into parenthood.

 Meanwhile, Mike and I had been researching how to help our neighbor with his home invasion.  An Internet article suggested building a funnel-shaped device to cover the hive opening.  My husband-farmer is very talented at making something from nothing.  After examining both the siding site and the article, he built a bee-escape cone and secured it to the wall around the entrance.  We were worried that the altered exit would cause the honeybees to enter my neighbor’s home in search of an alternate route, but fortunately this did not occur.

The internet article also suggested moving an established hive as close as possible to the siteso that the returning bees would have a place to go with their nutritious cargo.  Once accepted in the new hive, they would not have to try to get back into the house-hive.  Mike built a scaffold near the wall where the house bees were and moved our newest swarm hive from the wooded area to the scaffold next to the funnel.  We chose this newest hive because it had been a mid-June swarm and would benefit from some additional help getting ready for winter.

This whole project turned out to be a lot of fun as we watched the bees, loaded primarily with pollen, return to the siding and look for a way back in.  At first there was quite a large mass of bees coating the cone, but it became smaller by the end of the week.  That first day, Mike even reached his bare hand into the mass of confused bees and shook them into the nearby hive to give them the idea of where their farmer wanted them to go.  They were farm bees now and were to be treated no differently than his beef cattle.  Then we just watched the process.  We wondered if the fact that most bees were carrying pollen meant that their priority was to build more brood to replace the diminishing number of worker bees.  We also hoped that it meant they were using up their honey stores, so it would be less messy for the owner to repair his home come spring.  The plan was to weaken the house bees to the point they would not be able to survive the coming winter.

In mid July, we received a call from another neighbor.  A swarm of bees had moved into their mailbox!  Evidently the bees had ignored the prohibition by the post office for non-authorized use of a mailbox.  I’m told that many beekeepers don’t bother with swarms this late in the season.   Our Michigan weather isn’t generally very kind to swarms trying to regroup this late in the summer.  Yet the hive on the scaffold was getting heavy and hard to manage.  A new smaller hive would be an ideal replacement.  So since this whole summer was a fascinating experiment, we caught the mailbox hive, moved the June swarm from the scaffold to the sunny spot back at our farm, and placed the mailbox swarm up on the scaffold.  Once again, we watched and waited and we hoped for a warm and sunny August and September to grow the weaker colonies. 

To our delight, the August days were fairly warm, though the nights remained cool.  September was actually warmer than August, with many sunny days, and cool nights.  Then in mid-September, Don said it was time to harvest the honey.  One of our original ‘starter’ hives was healthy and strong, and yielded two supers of honey!  We invited some more interested neighbors over and had an extraction party in our basement!  One of the other spring package hives had only a few frames of excess honey so we donated these to one of the other weaker hives.   The hive that had requeened itself and swarmed produced only enough honey for its own winter use. We were pleased with our overall experience and count ourselves successful.  Not only did we double the number of managed honeybee hives from spring to fall, but we are eating and sharing our own honey with our friends and neighbors!

Farming is an interesting and unpredictable occupation.  It has been very enjoyable to become involved in yet another agricultural pursuit.  We’ve always welcomed the bees’ intervention in the pasture and in our garden.   This year we seem to be more actively involved in “keeping” them safe and thereby enhancing not only our produce, but also nature itself.  We had previously been aware of several ‘bee-trees’ in our area and were saddened whenever spring came and we found the bees hadn’t survived.  Honeybees have been struggling to survive, and we are pleased to be able to assist them.  We know there is no guarantee our bees will survive this coming winter.  But we will do what we can to protect and encourage them, for they most certainly do their part to contribute to our welfare and livelihood.

We look forward to next year’s beekeeping, and hope to learn more of their activities, and good management practices.  One of our family members gently ‘warned’ me that most beekeepers do not ‘catch’ swarms so easily.  Well, good.  Then I guess we are off to a most excellent start, here at the end our rookie season!

Submitted by Don Rewa, based on his sister’s rookie bee keeping experience from the summer of 2009.