Friday, January 23, 2009

Its Cooooold!!

Here in New England we've been having a cold spell - many days of teens and lower temperatures. How do bees handle this cold weather?

Well, it turns out that bees have a unique way to survive the cold weather, while maintaining a healthy temperature in their hive.

When the season starts turning toward fall, the beehive will start to prepare for the winter. Drone bees (the males who do nothing but lay around, wait for mating flights, and consume food) are unceremoniously kicked out of the hive (whereupon they die, since nobody is willing to feed them). As the weather gets colder, the bees which are left form a "ball" where they vibrate their wing muscles. This activity generates heat, and the queen in the center is nice and toasty. The bees on the outside circulate towards the center, and the bees in the center move to the outside, in order to give everyone an equal chance to help generate heat.

Since the hive is warm, and the air and outside is cold, condensation forms in the hive. Dripping water is a danger to the beehive - bees can survive the cold just fine, but wet and cold will kill them. Therefore, a hive needs to be slanted slightly so the moisture doesn't drip down on the center of the hive (where the bees are).

Because the bees are all clustered together in the center of the hive, they don't go foraging for food (the temperature needs to be around 50 degrees before the bees will fly out of the hive). They must survive on the honey they have stored up in the hive. But the honey needs to be reachable by the hive cluster - it can't be too far away, or the bees will starve. I've heard of stories of hives dieing with good honey just a few frames away. So sometimes beekeepers need to supplement the honey with sugar syrup (if it is not too cold) or granulated sugar.

Friday, January 9, 2009


Beekeeping is an interesting hobby. Because bees are living, breathing, thinking creatures, they don't always do what you want. Their environment is somewhat delicate, especially if you want to keep bees in the cold climate (like Massachusetts). Therefore, one of the first things you need to do is to educate yourself on bees and beekeeping (you should do this even before you decide to be a beekeeper, because what you learn may affect your decision).

For me, the education process started with scouring the web for websites, articles, blogs, etc. relating to beekeeping. I checked out a lot of books on beekeeping from the library, and ended up buying a couple for myself (see below).

What I've learned is that there is not a lot of 'hard science' about beekeeping; sure, there are certain facts on the bee that are known and understood. But there is a lot which is unknown, like exactly what causes a beehive to decide it needs to swarm. Additionally, there is a lot of misinformation - one of the first pieces of advice Rick at New England Bees gave me is to not take as gospel what you read and hear from other beekeepers. Every keeper has his/her ways of doing things, which may or may not work for you.

So what did I do to learn about beekeeping?

First I found a lot of web pages on beekeeping. Most (if not all) of the major beekeeping clubs have web sites. There are some Q&A forums available (Beesource Beekeeping Forums is one of my favorites). Many people keep blogs (like this one!) with their experiences. I especially like Linda's Bees and Long Lane Honeybee Farms (Long Lane has a set of beekeeper intro articles which are very good). Also, searching for "beekeeping" on YouTube will find you a lot of videos - beekeepers like to film their activities (as I will probably do too!). Finally, you can talk to actual beekeepers! Go to a local beekeeper club meeting, and you'll find many people willing to educate you.

I own the following books and found them to be very helpful in learning about beekeeping:

My favorite is probably Beekeeping for Dummies. Like most Dummies books, they have a good mix of novice and advanced information, with some humor thrown in. They don't presume you know much.

The Backyard Beekeeper is also a good one. The author, Kim Flottum, also publishes a beekeeping magazine called Bee Culture. I don't subscribe to the magazine, but I probably will eventually.

Kim Flottum also wrote New Starting Right With Bees. It's a smaller book, but also full of good information.

So if you are interested in learning more about the hobby (even if you don't want to be a beekeeper), scour the library and web and you'll have plenty to keep you occupied!

Why Bees?

Someone asked me what got me interested in becoming a beekeeper. After thinking about it, I really can't point to some event where I said, "I want to keep bees!!"

I've always been aware of bees, and what they do to help us. When I was a kid, we had a lot of clover in our yard. One of the things I used to do is go "bee catching" - I'd take a tupperware bowl and lid, and sneak up on a bee on a clover (I thought I was so clever to do that!). Then I'd drop the bowl over the bee. The bee would suddenly be aware of her predicament, and fly up, which would be to the bottom of the bowl. Then I'd slide the lid under the bowl to capture the bee! On a good day I could get 3 or 4 bees that way (any more, and one would usually escape during another's capture). Then when I was bored with them (maybe 5 minutes later), I'd toss the bowl and lid into the yard and run like heck away!! I've also had my share of bee stings, usually due to walking barefoot on said clover in the summer (when there happens to be a bee between my foot and the ground).

As an adult, I learned about Colony Collapse Disorder (which I'll discuss in a future post), and a little about what it means to the food supply. I also started noticing a few beehives scattered around the places I'd drive. I checked out some books, did a lot of web reading, and the interest just grew!

I found out there is a local club, the Worcester County Beekeepers Association. I went to their November meeting, which happened to include a big meal with an auction (incidentally, I won a nice pair of rubberized elbow-length bee gloves there, so it must be karma!). I spoke to a few people, and it just slowly materialized that I was going to actually do it.

I'll talk later about what it took to convince my wife of the wisdom of keeping bees...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Adventure Begins...

Well, I guess it's official - I've entered the world of Beekeeping!

This Christmas Santa brought be a new beehive:

(Son #1 put his Webkin on the top - he thought it needed a little class!)

The hive is from New England Beekeeping Supplies. But having an empty hive isn't what made it official; I also put in my order for a "package" of bees, so it's no going back!! A package consists of a wooden and screened box, with a queen bee and about 4 pounds of 15,000 workers bees! Here's a picture of a package:

Beekeeping really starts up in the spring, and the bees will arrive in April. Since the place I ordered the bees from is local, I'll go and pick the bees up. But believe it or not, bee packages can be sent through the US postal service (how'd you like to be the postman who receives 15,000 bees in the mail!).

I'm also trying out my hand at blogging - I figure this'd be a good experience to discuss. Even though the blog is called "Steven's Bees" I don't promise to keep things focused on beekeeping; I may stray into politics, current events, religion, family, or some other topic. Tough - my choice!

Even though the bees don't arrive until spring, it doesn't mean I don't have a lot ot do before then. Winter is time to prepare the hive (I need to paint it, and build a stand for it, etc.). Plus there is a lot of education and training which occurs over the winter. I'll discuss these aspects and other beekeeping issues in future blog posts.

In the meantime, if you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave them on this blog.

The adventure begins!!

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