Introduction to Beekeeping
This class is NOT enough instruction to allow you to be ready to keep bees. This is just to point you in the right direction of where to learn more. I recommend learning as much as you can during the rest of this year including finding an opportunity to open a hive to experience it, and maybe even get stung, before deciding if beekeeping is for you. If so, order your bees this fall. I highly recommend Italians for their gentleness. Though many a new beekeeper got started by catching a swarm, I don’t recommend it since you never know what you’re going to get and very well could end up with extremely mean bees.
A note about stings: Many people say they are allergic to bee stings when they’re really not. Normal reactions to a sting are severe pain, swelling, redness, fever, and itching in the sting area lasting for a few days. A true bee allergy involves signs and symptoms that show up away from the sting site and is a true emergency. These occur in only 5% or less of the general population - fatal allergies in only 1% of children and 3% of adults.
Beekeeper’s Wife Allergy: Long-term exposure to the dried venom while not being stung can bring about an allergy. Usually, being stung keeps this from developing, but sometimes can actually bring about the allergy.
You never know when or if a true allergy will develop, so be aware of the signs and symptoms in case this happens to you. When in doubt, call 911, then head for the hospital.
Colony’s Social Structure: Workers, Drones, usually one Queen.
Life cycle: Egg, Hatch, Larvae, Capped brood, Emergence, Nurse Bee, House Bee, Guard Bee, Field Bee (See more below)
Colony: The group of bees themselves. Consists of mostly workers, drones, and usually one queen.
Hive: What the bees live in.
“Hot” hive: MAD and agressive bees. Any bees can be aggressive, even docile European types.
Foundation: Pre-formed sheets made of wax or plastic with honeycomb pattern stamped on. Thought to give the bees a head start in building comb.
Foundationless beekeeping: Letting the bees build all comb.
Natural Cell Size: What the bees build naturally. Usually smaller than standard foundation size.
Bee space: 3/8” - The space between combs, which must be that specific width or bees will build burr comb.
Burr comb: Sideways or otherwise “out of place” comb.
Nuc: “Nucleus”- a small but complete colony with four or five frames of brood and honey, bees of all stages, and a queen.
Package of bees: A “box o’ bees” containing one queen in a queen cage and a few thousand bees. They are usually sold by the pound, with about 3,ooo bees per pound. The more bees a package has, the more workers, therefore the faster it will build up large enough to make a surplus of honey.
Queen: The only bee that lays fertile eggs. She can sometimes be identified as the one with the longer abdomen, though in winter when egg-laying slows severely, her abdomen can shrink, making her harder to spot.
Flow: When flowers are blooming and bees are making a lot of honey.
Dearth: When flowers aren’t blooming and bees aren’t making a lot of honey.
Basic equipment: A smoker, a veil or suit, a hive tool, and a hive – cost ranges from $200 to over $2000. Cheaper: building a top bar hive and wearing thick, light-colored clothing that covers every inch of your body, along with a purchased veil. Not as cheap: purchasing a Langstroth hive that consists of two or three hive bodes (“boxes”) filled with frames, along with one bottom and one top (top can be a simple piece of plywood, so long as it seals along the top edge).
Notice no extractor. Small beekeepers can crush and strain, use gravity extraction, or borrow their club’s.
Types of Hives:
Langstroth – the white boxes.
Pros: Most common, so very easy to find parts to borrow/buy, including resources to strengthen a weak colony. Much easier to find a solution to any problem (feeding, excluding, robbing, etc.). Also easier to get advice.
Cons: Expense, weight (10-frame deeps can weigh 80+ pounds when full of honey, though you can use all mediums or even 8-frame mediums.
Top Bar –
Pros: Cheap and easy to build (Les Crowder’s plans are online for free). Easy to work if you have problems bending or lifting. Not being able to exchange equipment with other hives can stop pest or disease infestations.
Cons: If you have only one and need a frame of brood, you can’t just “borrow” one from a fellow beekeeper who has Langstroth. Some problems are hard to find a solution for, such as queen excluding should you need to.
Long Hive – a long (3-4’) box that Langstroth frames fit in. Sort of a top bar and Lang hybrid.
Pros: Much better for beekeepers with a bad back.
Cons: Can’t find available retail easily, so will likely have to be home built.
Flow hives – A recent innovation that allows the honey to be harvested without opening the hive. Still unknown if it’s practical over the long haul. All other beekeeping practices are the same – doesn’t lessen any beekeeping work except harvest.
Pros: Lessens work during harvest.
Cons: Expensive and untested.
Observation hives – A hive with a “window” in the wall to see inside. (Also, a glass/lexan “box” that you put frames of bees in temporarily.)
Pros: Incredibly interesting teaching tool. Interesting for those wanting to see the inner workings of their hive. Inspections are very easy since there’s no need to suit up completely and use a smoker – you can just look in.
Cons: Expensive to buy. Heats up too hot if you forget to close the cover.
What I use and why: Both 8-frame and 10-frame Langs (mediums and deeps) and a couple top bar hives. I prefer Langstroth 8-frame mediums because they are easier to lift, and having all the same frames means I can move any frame to any other box/hive in the beeyard. 8-frame boxes also make great nuc boxes for starting small colonies.
Timeline of work (Beekeeper’s Calendar)
I constantly watch them come and go from their entrances and notice what flowers are blooming when.
Spring: Inspect for stores (honey and pollen both), brood buildup, queen cells (indicator of swarming), make splits if needed, and test for mites, then treat. Monitor flow and add super (extra box on top) if needed.
Summer: Watch for dearth and install robbing screen. Inspect stores of honey and harvest if there’s a surplus. If low, feed through summer. Test for mites and treat before September.
Fall: Most times we have a fall flow when flowers bloom again. This is usually left on the hive for the bees to eat during winter, though at times there’s a surplus that can be harvested. Test for mites and treat.
Winter: Feed if they run out of stores. Test for mites and treat. Fix equipment, order/build more.
Site selection for the hives: Preferably facing east or south, morning sun, and sheltered from the north winds.
Inspections (things to look for): stores (amount of honey and pollen), brood (capped, larvae, eggs if you can see them), queen cells (to know if they will swarm soon or if they’re replacing a queen), and signs of disease or pests (varroa mites, viruses, small hive beetles, wax moths, EFB, AHB). Each of these things would mean you would intervene to help solve the problem noted.
Feeding bees – Use only refined pure cane sugar, not organic sugar since it contains impurities. May need to feed pollen substitute as well at times. And water. With salt can be good.
My favorite sites:
Les Crowder – top bar hives
www.bushfarms.com/bees.htm - Langstroth
Tanya Phillips: BeeFriendlyAustin.com
Tara Chapman: TwoHivesHoney.com
Austin Area Beekeepers Association: Meetup.com/Austin-Urban-
BusyBeeSupplies.com – Florence, TX, just north of Georgetown
BeeWeaver.com – bees and some supplies
MannLakeLtd.com – free shipping if you spend $100
Dadant.com – also free shipping if you spend $100
Colony’s Social Structure
Queen: Only fertile female member of the colony. The “Mother of All”. Lives for a few years or more.
Workers: Infertile females who do all the work in the colony except laying eggs. Live six weeks or so in warm season, longer during winter. They hatch, then become
Drones: Haploid “males” who develop from an unfertilized egg. Their only purpose is fertilizing queens from other colonies.
Life cycle of a worker bee
Days 1-4: Egg
Days 4-8: Hatch, Larvae
Days 9-15: Capped brood
Day 16: Emergence
Days 1-11: Nurse Bee
Days 12-17: House Bee
Days 18-21: Guard Bee
Days 21-death: Field Bee
In spring, new queen cells are made and new queens reared. As soon as the first queen cell is capped, the old queen leaves with a group of workers to find another home. Sometimes the first queen to emerge from a queen cell leaves the hive with more workers – this is a secondary swarm led by a virgin queen. Once this type of swarm find a suitable home, the queen goes on her mating flight.
A queen mates only once in her life, within a couple weeks of hatching, and hopefully with many drones. A few days after hatching she flies to a drone congregation area and breeds, usually many times over a few days, then comes back and never leaves the hive again unless she leaves with a swarm.
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