Saturday, 13 June 2015

Things I learned from my first week as a beekeeper

First of all, everything you do will be wrong, at least according to someone, and that’s okay.

Take, for example, when you choose what kind of hive to get – by “hive,” I just mean the wooden box and the pieces inside, as you have to set that up before you put the bees in. All of those modern square hives come in two models, one smaller and one larger, and since every piece is made for a hive of one size or the other, beekeepers stick religiously stick with one model and swear by it. I picked the smaller version, thinking it would be easier to lift when laden with wax and honey – but when I told a local beekeeper, he talked to me about my decision in the delicate but grieving tones usually reserved for a terminal illness.

Then you need to decide where to put this wrong hive, and your spot will also be, according to someone, wrong. Most books, for example, recommend placing your hive where it will be warm and dry, protected from wind and rain. Those books were not written for people in Ireland. Who live in a bog in Ireland.

Thus, we make do -- I chose a place in a corner of our woodland, facing the bog-land and its fields of wildflowers, but wove trimmed stalks of elder between tree stumps to form a wattle-fence around part of it, sheltering it from our fierce winds.

Next you need to fill the hive with wooden frames, those rectangular slices of honeycomb that beekeepers remove to get the honey. Most hives come with slides of wax to help get the bees started, and you have to slip the wax into each wooden frame and secure them in place with wire or nails. When you have done this for all ten slides and put them into the hive one by one, you lift the hive off the shelf, set it down gently. Then you listen to the sound of several wax slides come crashing down, and do it right the second time.

You will also need a smoker – basically a cross between a watering can and an accordion -- to slow the bees down before you open up their home. Despite being the smallest animal we’ve domesticated, they are the only ones we have to sedate before approaching.

The bees will need sugar-water to get them started, before they figure out where all the flowers are in relation to their new home. This is easy to make on the kitchen stove – a kilogram of sugar per litre of water – and most hives, like ours, have a feeder attached. You don’t need to feed them continually – that would rather take away from the point of getting honey – but it does help them through the early days and again through the winter months.

You also need a bee suit, a one-piece outfit which will seem to consist mostly of zippers. Do try to seal all the zippers completely, or the neighbourhood children will see a strange, white-clad figure flailing and dancing the hokey-pokey out of the forest.

Now comes the intimidating bit: you need to buy bees and put them into your new home. You will probably do this by buying a swarm nucleus, or “nuc,” a mini-hive filled with a queen and skeleton crew of her staff to get a hive started. Whereas a full hive will have ten to twenty frames of honeycomb, a nuc will have four or five, which you remove and place in your hive. The rest of your hive will be filled with empty frames – empty but for those wax slides you put in – ready for the bees to use as they expand their population.

 Remember those two basic models of hive I mentioned earlier? Since the honeycombed frames of the nuc have to be removed and placed in your hive, the nuc’s frames must be cut the same size as your hive’s. This is why beekeepers stick with only one model – I had to find someone else with the same kind of hives, who was also ready to sell nucs.

Eventually I found an old beekeeper in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, and drove out to his farm. He cheerfully plopped into my arms a wooden box, secured all around with duct tape and with a wire mesh at the top, and right under the mesh, a swarm of bees writhing like a single organism.

 “How long will they be safe in there?” I asked, looking up at the threatening sky.

“Oh, they’ll be okay for a few days,” he said, “Just make sure they don’t get cold and are kept out of the wind and rain.”

The freezing sideways rain began on my way home over the mountains, each bump further shaking the box in the back seat, which buzzed ever more irritably with each bounce. If you must drive over mountain passes in near-zero visibility, I learned, it’s better not to hear an angry swarm of bees behind you, box or no box.

When I got home it was still lashing rain, and I learned that most bee suits are not waterproof. Nonetheless, I did set up the nuc next to the hive, their entrances parallel. Bees have amazing sense of direction, but they don’t use landmarks like we or most mammals do; they use the position of the sun and moon to create a kind of GPS. With it they can track and find the positions of hundreds of thousands of flowers each day and communicate them to the other bees – an amazing skill far beyond our abilities – but everything hinges on having the right starting point. Move the hive twenty metres to the left, and they are like cars following Google directions from a slightly wrong street – everything will turn out very badly.

Through the next few days of rain I sprayed sugar-water through their mesh to keep them fed, until the sun came out and I was ready to don the bee suit, smoke the bees and put their honeycombs in the proper hive. That was Plan A. After smoking the nuc well and removing the duct tape, I realised that the box was actually held together with screws that would require some tools and tugging to remove – Plan B.

Through all this the box was wobbled around a lot more, causing the bees to get quite agitated when the smoke wore off. Plan C was to smoke them again, until the burning material in the smoker suddenly ran out; Plan D, to stuff more in and re-light it, failed when the lighter jammed.

Plan E, finally, worked -- for my daughter to run in, get matches, run to a nearby stone, leave the matches and run the other direction while I, trailing a cloud of bees, retrieved the matches, ran back, lit the smoker, and finally calmed the bees down while I moved them. Last I checked, they were settling in fine.

Perhaps the most important thing to learn, though, goes beyond beekeeping. Many of us are trying to learn a lot of new skills, often with little proper training and limited supplies. Everything you do will be wrong, at least compared to the ideal scenarios of how-to books and videos. Don't worry about it: you'll learn as you go, and most of the time, you'll come out okay in the end.

Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.


Andy Brown said...

Around here they say, ask three beekeepers a question and you'll get five different answers. Kudos on taking up the beekeeping. I've been doing it for four years, and at times the learning curve still seems steep. But there is literally no sweeter reward!

Anonymous said...

Oh dear! That's put me off bees good and proper. Sorry, but I haven't laughed so much in ages (I know you weren't). I do plan to get bees one day....but have become interested in a Warre hive. I think I could make one myself. Did you consider that sort?

Sarah R said...

Ha! That really made me laugh. I'd love to get bees, but I'm waiting on my local council to change their rules as currently my property isn't big enough. I think I'll feel more confident about it knowing that everything I do will be wrong.

Brian Kaller said...

Andy, thanks! How many hives?

Food, I'm glad I could make your day. :-) I'll confess I don't know much about Warre hives -- beekeepers here use the standard Langstroth models, the larger (Commercial) and smaller (National). Any older hives than that are skeps, baskets woven from straw. Let me know how it works out!

Sarah, a friend of mine in the middle of the city is planning to get some on her balcony, enclosed in a screen. They will be flying in and out far above the level of people's heads, so human traffic shouldn't be an issue. I've heard of other people putting them on their roofs; not sure if that would work for you.

Andy Brown said...

I have two colonies at the moment - one relatively small and the other large and vigorous. The next challenge is to "split" the larger colony, but I've been procrastinating and they may have already swarmed.

My own best comedy of errors didn't go with the hiving, but the first time I tried to collect honey. The bees and I ended up very annoyed with one another!

The challenge here is managing the varroa mites so that the colony is strong enough to get through the winter. I'm curious how bees do in climates like Ireland, where it is warm enough for them to fly all year, but there aren't really many flowers in the winter. Here in New England mild winters are tough, because the bees are more active and more likely to run through their winter stores.

Brian Kaller said...


Varroa mites are a problem here as well, but like getting honey, that's a bridge I haven't crossed yet. Bees here can't do much in the winter either, for while the temperature rarely drops below freezing, the nights are long, the days are dim and the rain can seem near-constant at times. I don't know enough about beekeeping there to make any comparisons, but people here do keep their bees topped up with sugar-water to be on the safe side.

Brian Kaller said...


Varroa mites are a problem here as well, but like getting honey, that's a bridge I haven't crossed yet. Bees here can't do much in the winter either, for while the temperature rarely drops below freezing, the nights are long, the days are dim and the rain can seem near-constant at times. I don't know enough about beekeeping there to make any comparisons, but people here do keep their bees topped up with sugar-water to be on the safe side.

David said...

Enjoy yourself Brian, I was lucky enough to start about four years ago and have enjoyed almost every twist and turn.

It is great to see them thrive, but heartbreaking if they fail to make it through the winter. I'm over in the east of the UK, so a bit drier than you, but we still get grotty damp winters.

Oh yes, and you are right Andy, there are more opinions than beekeepers!


Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,

Your article has some problems. Noted below are the two I think most important:

In the US (where the article was published) there are three box sizes in common use, not two. Mediums and Deeps are commonly used as components of brood chambers and shallows are used in various places for honey production.

In my area anyway, I suspect the greatest number of hives are started from packages, not nucs. Package bees are available a month or two before nucs.


Andrew Dewey
Master Beekeeper

Brian Kaller said...

Thanks David!

Andrew, here the local beekeepers know of two sizes, so maybe you can introduce the third. :-)

The point was that when you try something new, it won't go the same for everyone, or the way it's supposed to. I'm simply describing what happened to me in case other people find it entertaining and/or useful; my experience here will obviously not be the same as someone else's experience in another part of the world.

Cecelia said...

brilliant - loved reading this

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Dear Brian,

Thanks for this wonderful article. Dad (he died 1991-05-01) was the Provincial Apiarist in the Dept of Horticulture and Biology at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College campus, having started his training back home in Estonia before the Hitler war. I now regret not having pursued beekeeping as a kid, when opportunities abounded. - Dad, like everyone in Nova Scotia, used Langstroth hives in his (big, 100- to 200-colony) private operation. But I myself find the idea of the Warre (Warré) hive tempting, since (a) the bees are treated more kindly than under Langstroth, and (b) you get a big harvest of clean wax. (And so one can at the end of the season make real candles, eschewing the miserable oil-well-gunk-wax candles that the cheaper stores sell.) Admittedly, Warré, like everything eco-friendly, has an economic downside. There is no way of putting the combs into a centrifuge extractor in the autumn! You have to crush the combs with hand tools and let the honey trickle out. The final honey yield must, for this and one or two other reasons, be lower than with Langstroth.

Toomas Karmo (www dot metascientia dot com)

PS: Thanks for your bracing reminder that when we are new to a craft, we will make mistakes, and that we have to persist in the teeth of this depressing reality. Your reminder makes me a little less fearful regarding a branch of craft that I am slowly trying to pursue, namely bookbinding. You wrote about bookbinding in February and indicated that you would be writing again.

PPS: Is there any prospect of your writing some day about Latin studies? This I do with some modest SUCCESS at the moment (this spring reading chunks of Caesar's de Bello Gallico and Cicero's Verrines). Most people do not nowadays have access to Latin classes, and **YET** hands-on line-by-line traditional-methods Latin provides a distinctively clear window into the classical past. One recalls here that tear-jerking novella "Good-bye, Mr Chips", which touches inter alia on Latin teaching. The novella was apparently made into one of the all-time great black-and-white films - just before the Hitler war, when people (rightly) saw their future as dark.

Unknown said...

I too live in the bog! And everything I have done so far has been epically wrong. Nice bit of reading, I feel like I just read some thing I can finally relate to! After all the youtubing and reading about how the experts do it, mostly without so much as one of those ridiculous fencing helmets, I managed better than some and way worse than other. Thanks for putting this together. Keep up the good work.