Monday, May 27, 2013

Sutton Has Bees!!

I got a call yesterday from the guy from whom I buy my bee packages. They were in, so this morning I mad a drive to Rhode Island to pick them up.

There were surprisingly few dead bees on the bottom. I was pleased with that. I gave the package a good squirt of water on both sides, because water is something the bees can' t get from the package contents.
Remember that a package consists of about 10,000 bees, a queen in a queen cage, and a can of sugar syrup as food for the journey.

Later this afternoon I took the bees over to Sutton, along with the brand spankin' new hive parts I ordered a few months ago. It is nice to see such brand new equipment! It was already painted, so there wasn't anything for me to do.

I decided to make a video of the package installation. It's been a while since I've done a video, and I have a few friends who get a kick out of the videos. You can watch it at the end.

Here's a picture after I dumped the bees in, and replaced the frames. I didn't have my smoker (forgot it!) so I used the spray bottle with sugar syrup. It worked just as well - the bees were busy cleaning themselves of the sugar, and not aggressive at all.

When I was done with the installation, I added a couple jars of sugar syrup (plus the can they came with) to give them a jump start. There is also a pollen patty under the inner cover.

The installation went real well - no problems. After 5 years as a beekeeper, I hope I wouldn't have any package problems!!

And, without further fanfare, here is the video!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Inspection 05-19-2013

It was decent weather for a change on the 19th so I took the opportunity to check on the hives in the backyard.

Green Hive

I had been feeding this hive because it didn't have the population that the Brown Hive had. When I opened up the outer cover, I found a visitor:

If you look carefully, you'll find that a spider had taken up residence in the box. There was even a bee in the web. I introduced Mrs. Spider to Mr. Hive Tool - guess who won? :-)

The bees were nice, and during the inspection I spotted the queen:

I always like taking pictures of the queen when I see her!

She was doing a great job. Here's a frame where you can see a really good pattern:

I took the empty feed jars off - there was plenty of food in the hive.

Brown Hive

Opening up the outer cover, I could see lots of bees through the hole in the inner cover:

The queen was doing a decent job - there were lots of frames with good brood coverage:

One thing I did notice is that the bees of this hive were quite mean. They were buzzing me and butting me more than I preferred. This is the second time that this hive was mean to me. It could be because the weather was so crappy recently. I'll give her one more chance, and if the bees are still mean, I'll have to replace here. I hate to, as she made it through the winter. But I don't want to put up with nasty bees.

One of the other things I did was finish the hive stand. While I had the hives torn down, I moved the cinder blocks to the new area and set up the hive stand. The left column is a little tilted - I straightened it up after I took this picture:

I am pleased with how it turned out. There is room in the center for a 3rd hive, and space on the ends for one nuc each.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bad News At Sutton

Sometimes I am a bad beekeeper. Case in point: the hives in Sutton. I checked this blog (which I use to record what happens in the hives), and the last time I was at Sutton was in late January. That's when I discovered one of the hives was dead. I had fed "bee candy" to the other hive which was still alive, and it looked in good shape.

Fast forward to last weekend. I had plans on getting a new package in early April to repopulate the dead hive at Sutton, and I was going to check on the other (live) hive at that time. But the packages were delayed (still not here yet), and I never made it out there.

I did make it there this last weekend. When I visit the Sutton hives, I usually park in the driveway, get out and suit up and get things ready (light the smoker, prepare the equipment, etc.) before I walk to the hives. This time I though, "let me take a peek at the hive first before I get all suited up."

I did, an instead of a healthy amount of bees flying in and out, I saw a bunch of big black ants crawling in and out of the hive. Not a good sign.

So I started taking apart the hive. This hive went into winter with an extra honey super on top - the frames weren't fully filled by the bees, so I just left it as food over the winter. I opened up the hive and saw the bee candy pretty much untouched from when I put it on in January. Also, I was surprised at how heavy the top was. When a hive dies from starvation,the frames are usually light and empty.

Then when I lifted the top brood chamber, it was also surprisingly heavy. Here are a couple of frames I found:

In these frames, you can see the "cluster" of bees (in #1 they are along the top toward the left; in #2 the cluster is along the bottom toward the left). The wax covered areas (a little on the lower left and a lot on the upper right) is full-fledged honey. I also found full frames of honey in the outer frames.

Based on what I saw, I think the bees died when an extended cold snap trapped them in a small cluster and they were unable to get to the honey right next to them. The cold did this hive in.

Because there was plenty of honey in the hive, I don't know what else I could have done. I've heard of other beekeepers who late in the fall go in and rearrange the frames for the optimal overwintering configuration (according to the beekeeper). But generally the bees do that themselves.

Here's the bottom board:

That's a thick layer of the dead bees.

The one good ray of hope in this hive is that there is still a lot of honey in the frames I can use to feed the bees I am going to replace in here. And wax moths didn't take over the hive. That means it's like a fully furnished apartment with a full fridge - waiting for new tenants.

It's too late to order a package of bees for this hive. So I plan on making a "split" from the other hive (which is yet to be created) about a month after the other hive is started. Then I can build up this hive over the summer and fall. Because the owner is more interested in the bees for pollination rather than the honey, this will work.

How To Get Into Beekeeping

I've been asked by quite a few people recently how I got into beekeeping, or how to get into beekeeping. The question usually comes in a Facebook message or e-mail. So instead of typing a lot for an answer each time, I decided to make a blog post about it; then I can just refer people to this post. Be warned - it's a long post. But I think it's worth reading.

Like most things on this blog, these comments are my opinions. In beekeeping, there is very little which fits into the "hard-and-fast rule" category. That's what makes it interesting - you can try things, and if it works for you, keep doing it. But what works for you may not work for your buddy, and vice versa. Also, what works here in the Northeast doesn't necessarily work in the Southwest. There's a joke that if you ask 5 beekeepers a question, you'll get 10 answers. There is some truth to that statement! Other people have made information available similar to what you'll read here. Read and compare.

How To Get Into The Hobby

First of all, the type of beekeeping I am doing is considered hobbyist beekeeping. That's where you have a dozen hives or less, and have full time (paid) employment elsewhere that is your main (only) source of income. You may sell some honey on the side, but that's a bonus. The second type of beekeeping is called sideline beekeeping - someone who has a lot more hives (less than 100 or so), and uses beekeeping as a sideline income; a sideliner may have other employment as well, but devotes a considerable amount of time to the beekeeping work. The third type is the commercial beekeeper - those with hundreds of hives, and that work is their full-time employment. Commercial beekeepers usually focus on honey and maybe bees as their income from the activity. They may also do pollination services, where they truck their hives to other locations.

The stuff that a beekeeper does for each of the 3 types of beekeeping differs, as do the priorities for why they do what they do. A hobbyist may spend time building something that would not be cost effective to a sideliner (they would just buy it); commercial beekeepers have to justify every hour spent vs. income, so don't spend a much time in each hive as I do. If a hive is struggling and not productive, a commercial beekeeper would tear it down and spread the resources to other (productive) hives; a hobbyist will try to nurse it to full strength.

Beekeeping is a seasonal activity. It's not something you can easily jump into mid-season. The season generally starts around March (when the flowers start to bloom), and the major work ends around November, when the bees should be ready for the winter. There is considerable mental, emotional, and physical preparation needed to start keeping bees. It's often better to wait for the following season than try and rush things. Also, beekeeping takes time. I had a friend who really wants to be a beekeeper, but he feels he can't dedicate the time he thinks it'd take to do a good job. He doesn't want to fail at beekeeping just because he didn't spend enough time. Smart man.

You should start thinking about beekeeping early enough to have everything ready for March. In fact, if you are ordering a package of bees (common for new beekeepers - see below), you may be out of luck if you don't get your orders in before the end of the prior year. You also need to start getting together the beekeeping woodenware (and paint it, etc.) and your personal equipment (smoker, bee suit, etc.)

Beekeeping is an agricultural activity (something I forget about sometimes). Bees are like farm animals; they can get sick, get hurt, and act up on you. Just because you are doing everything right doesn't mean something won't happen which is not in your control. In fact, last October we had a hurricane storm and it knocked over a tree and took out my hives.

There's a joke that you can read all the beekeeping books in the world, but the bees don't read those books. But don't let me scare you off - it's not hard to be successful as a hobby beekeeper.

Join a Club

My number one advice is: join a beekeeping club. Join it even if you aren't sure if you want to be a beekeeper. You don't have to keep bees to belong to a club (in fact, most clubs will let you come for quite a while as a visitor to check things out).

Second behind that main piece of advice would be to attend a "Bee School." Most clubs put on a 6-8 week beekeeping training school starting in March or so to help beekeepers get ready for the season. The cost of a Bee School is usually reasonable (my club offers Bee School for $30, and that gets you your first year's membership dues in the club as well). Clubs aren't in the Bee School business to make money - they want to teach new beekeepers!

In my case, I started attending the Worcester County Beekeeper's Association in October before my first season keeping bees. This was before I decided to jump into it. The WCBA holds a bee school every year, but I didn't attend. There are a lot of current beekeepers who attend, as well as those newbees just starting out.


Next advice: read, read read! I checked out a bunch of beekeeping books from the library. I also read as much of the beekeeping information as I could on the web. Beekeepers as a whole are very gregarious and like to talk about beekeeping (myself included). So you'll find a lot of blogs by individual beekeepers and some by the beekeeping supply companies. I subscribe to over 220 beekeeping blogs - most of those aren't very active. But there are dozen's of messages each day. There are also beekeeping forums on the web - my favorite is BeeSource. There are some very famous (in beekeeping circles) people who will answer questions and otherwise comment on BeeSource.

Also, the bee clubs usually dedicate a lot of their monthly meetings to education. I learn a lot from the meetings I go to.


You have a few choices in regards to the wooden beekeeping equipment: 1) built it yourself; 2) buy it in parts; 3) buy it assembled. What you choose depends on how much money you want to spend (as compared to time building) and how good you are at woodworking. I bought my stuff from the start. Langstroth hives have very standard dimensions, and there are free plans available for building your own.

Wood is heavy, and if you buy the beekeeping woodenware from a beekeeping supply house, you need to watch out for shipping charges. That can add up fast! But most places will have a free shipping policy if you have a $100 order. A couple of good on-line places I've done well with are Brushy Mountain and Mann Lake. Dadant is another popular site. These are not the only ones, nor are they necessarily the best. There are also a lot of smaller places as well.

You can also find more local supply houses if you Google around. My first hive was from a local (well, 1 1/2 hours away) supply house.

Then you have to get the rest of the stuff you need - like a beekeeping suit and/or veil; gloves; hive tool; smoker; etc. etc. You can go nuts with all of the various accessories for beekeeping. I won't begin to suggest what you need - there are other pages which can do that. Or talk to another beekeeper face-to-face.

Don't You Need Bees?
Yes, you need bees. The standard way new beekeepers get bees is by buying a "package" of bees. Packages usually come from Georgia, which the weather is warmer earlier so the bees will be ready when flowers start blooming in the north. Generally there is a beekeeper or two who collects orders for packages, and then arranges to drive down and pick them up (sometimes hundreds of packages) in a truck.

Bees can also be sent in the US mail, but you end up paying a whole lot more for shipping and it's not worth it. Plus it's a lot harder on the bees when they are shipped through the mail.

You can also buy a nuc, or nucleus hive. A nuc is a mini hive, all ready to go. It usually costs more than a package (50% - 75% more in some cases), but you start out a little bit ahead of the curve. Because nucs need time to develop, they are available later (by a month or so) than packages. I started out with bees from a package, and the later with a nuc.

There's also the ability to get "free bees" via a swarm, but due to the unpredictable nature of swarms, it's usually not a good choice for first time beekeepers.

How Much Money?

Full hives usually cost around $250-$300 each, depending on if they are assembled, and painted, etc. A full hive consists of 2 deep brood chambers, and 2 honey supers; plus the top and bottom parts. A package of bees is around $100. The other equipment will cost around $200 one-time.

The only recurring expenses are for feed (sugar), medicine (if you decide to medicate), maybe replacement queens, and replacing old/damaged woodenware. I would guestimate arond $50 per year, depending on how much you want to expand. And you will want to :-)

I thought I was sinking a lot into my hobby, until I compared it to other hobbies like golf (clubs, green fees, etc.). Then it didn't seem so bad. Plus, you can save some money if you invest a little "sweat equity." 

How Many Hives?

That may seem like a strange question, but it is meaningful. Consider this: if you have one hive, and are a new beekeeper, then you don't know if things are going well or not in your hive. You have nothing to compare your one hive to. If you have two hives, you can judge how one hive is doing compared to the other. Plus, if you have a problem with one hive (like you lose your queen bee), then you have another hive you can steal from. Besides, the amount of work to inspect / deal with 2 hives isn't much more than one.

I heard that advice, but ignored it. I started with one hive, but then realized I didn't know how things were going. So I arranged for a friend to make me a nuc, which arrived in August (which is very late). It took some work to get that hive built up strong enough to last through the winter, but it did. Now I generally keep 3 hives in my back yard, manage another 2 at a remote location, plus I usually run a few (3-4) nuc hives at the same time.

Don't I Need A Farm?

Believe it or not, it doesn't take a lot of space to keep beehives. The main thing you have to consider is the nuisance factor of your beehives. You don't want your beehives right on your property line with your neighbor; nor do you want them right against your house. Bees get very active in the summer, and it's a bummer not to be able to use your back deck because you have a beehive on it.

I live on a 1/4 acre residential lot, and I don't have any problems with my neighbors. In fact, I've gotten compliments from my neighbors on how nice their flowers are doing (thanks to the increased bee presence). One neighbor had a pool, and he told me he would fish a few bees out of his skimmer every once in a while, but wasn't bothered by them. My other neighbor is allergic to bees, but is very supportive of my hobby. I make sure to give them jars of honey on a regular basis to bribe them maintain that friendship. You can see where my hives are in this blog post.

Then there are local ordinances to consider. Until the last couple of years, it was illegal to keep beehives in New York. Other places have other restrictions relative to lot size, hive locations, hive quantities, or registration requirements.

Here in Massachusetts, as screwed up as things are with taxes and politics, it is surprisingly free of regulations with keeping bees. MA is an "agricultural friendly" state where they encourage agriculture, and bees are agriculture. The only thing you should do is get your hives inspected each year, which is free. In the WCBA, one of the active members (and leaders) is the Worcester County bee inspector. So if you go to the meetings, your name gets added to his list for inspections. It's great, because he has tons of experience keeping bees himself, and gives good advice.

What About Vacations?

As I mentioned, the bee season starts in March and goes through November. But there are definite busy periods. In the late spring / early summer, I plan on inspecting my hives about once a week. That's what it takes to keep on top of potential problems. Other times you can get away with an every other week inspection.

The amount of time for an inspection varies, depending on how the hive is going, and what you plan on doing. You can sometimes spend 10 minutes per hive to check for the big problems only; I usually spend about 20 minutes per hive so I can go through things frame by frame.

And then in the dead of winter there is nothing to do with the beehives; most beekeepers use the winter months to rest, and do projects (like building hives) to prepare for the following season.

Advanced Beekeeping

There are some more advanced aspects of beekeeping, after you have a year or two of experience. These include: building more specialized beekeeping equipment; rearing your own queens; breeding for certain characteristics; making and selling nucs. But I'd wait until you have the basics under your belt before you jump in to the other activities.

The Rewards!

Aside from the satisfaction of working with some of God's more fascinating creatures, you sometimes get honey - liquid gold! If you've never tried local honey, you're in for a treat. It's true: once you try local honey (especially your own), you'll never go back to the store-bought version again! You aren't guaranteed to get honey - especially the first year, when the bees spend their efforts building up.

Plus, you can start evangelizing for the beekeeping cause. All of my friends know that if they get me talking about bees, they should be prepared to listen for a while!


I've just scratched the surface of all of the intricacies of beekeeping. Refer to advice 1 - join a club. And read. Like I said, I am blessed to belong to one of (I think) the premier bee clubs in the country. It's been around 117 years now (it's the oldest county beekeeping organization in the country), and we have a wonderful executive board who brings in class act speakers and educators (some of those famous people mentioned above).

I'll update this blog post with anything new that comes to mind. Feel free to ask me questions. And if you get into the hobby, have fun - it'll be a wild ride!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

First Outdoor Bee Meeting, and a Quick Check

With the warm(er) weather upon us, the bee club starts having the monthly bee meetings outdoors, at the home of (usually) a club member. During the winter we have meetings at the KofC hall, and spend time learning and socializing. During the summer, we spend the time getting into hives, and socializing. The club is very focused on hands-on learning and experiencing. It is one of the better clubs, from what I have observed!

The meeting was at the home of the club president, Norman. He has many acres and about 20 hives spread out on them. Here's a shot of the group assembled:

For these meetings, Ken Worchal (the Bee Whisperer) usually opens up the hives and shows us what is going on, what to expect, and answers questions. He has like 800 years of beekeeping experience, and is a wealth of information!

I'm into my fifth year of beekeeping, but I could listen to Ken all day. I scribbled a couple of notes to remind me of some things based on what Ken was saying. You always learn something new!

Here are a few of Norm's hives:

A couple of interesting comments on the turquoise hive in the picture above. One is that it has a different type of handle on it - ones you can grip easier. I suspect that's so that the hive is easier to handle. You lose the ability to set hives up right next to each other (front to back), but that's only important for hives which get put on trucks for pollination services.

The other thing to note is the black hive stand - that's one of the new plastic hive stands that Dadant sells. They are nice, but run about $80 each (they aren't called Ultimate for nothin'!) Those two pieces of wire on the right are an integrated frame rest - someplace to put the frames on while you are inspecting the rest of the hive.

I also saw a couple of hives on a hive stand like I am going to build:

Each year the club holds a Bee School. And they make a t-shirt each year. This is this year's t-shirt, a take-off of the "give peace a chance" logo:

Also, I just had to take this picture:

It's a bunch of old-time "seasoned" beekeepers, just sitting around chatting about something (reminds me of old timers sitting in rocking chairs on a porch reminiscing). But there's something unique about this picture - these guys are sitting among fully functioning and active bee hives! Granted, the bees are coming and going from the side facing me, but it struck me as funny they were just chillin' out sitting next to beehives!

After Ken finished with his instruction, the group broke up into smaller groups, and selected club members went to the other hives for a more one-on-one opening instruction.

With the smaller group you can get more up close and personal with the bees, and ask questions of the person doing the explaining.

We also do a lot of passing around of the frames, so other can see whatever it is the instructor is point out.

To people not used to it, it may seem strange to see this. "Here, grab this frame from the hive covered with hundreds of stinging insects!" But you really learn a lot this way. These people below are looking for eggs:

Again, no bee suit, no veil (for most of the people). If you are calm and slow, the bees don't mind a little inspecting.

All in all it was a fun event. Like I said, I took a couple of notes and actually got a little sun burn! The sun was out, but there was a decent chilly wind which lulled you into a false sense of security.

After the meeting, I wanted to give my hives a quick check. I wanted to check if my assumption of where the queen in the brown hive was, and I wanted to get started on the hive stand (since I saw the ones at Norm's).

I popped the top of the Brown Hive, and checked through the frames in the honey super (above the excluder). I saw a lot of empty cells from hatched bees, and I didn't see any new larvae. That is good - maybe my assumption was correct.

So I went into the next frame down, to see if I could see the queen. Success!

With the yellow dot on her, I know she is the same queen I marked last fall, according to my Bee Heritage spreadsheet.

So I was feeling pretty lucky. I checked the Green Hive to see if I could go two-for-two, and another success! This time it was an unmarked queen, which tells me she was born late last year. I grabbed her and marked her, with a yellow dot (since she was born last year):

So now I know I have two good queens in my hives - yay!

I also started setting up my hive stand. I needed to dig down on the right side to level the cinder blocks, and it was here my good luck ended. I hit a very large rock right where I needed to dig down another 4 inches or so - boo!

It was too big to move, so I decided to improvise. I had a half-high cinder block that I put on top of the rick (with some other shoring up, it was right about the correct height). Here's the stand so far (you can see the half block in the upper right):

I need two more cinder blocks to complete it, but I didn't want to go buy any more since I have 4 perfectly good blocks under my two existing hives. So I'll wait until I start to move the hives, and that'll free up 2 block so I can complete the stand.

It was a very busy bee day for me, and I am tuckered out!

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