My first Year Keeping Bees

December 16th, 2009 by David LaFerney Leave a reply »

Traditional clay covered straw skep hives in the Basque region

Those cone shaped bee hives are called skeps, and I’m pretty sure that the two simple wooden boxes are bee hives too. In most (if not all) of the United States the law requires that bees be kept in “modern” hives which can be opened and inspected. This marvelous picture is one of many extraordinary images that you can see at The Bee Photographer – www.thehoneygatherers.com.  BTW – that is not me in the picture.

I’ve really enjoyed my first summer keeping bees – Working with, observing, and learning about the bees has been very interesting and enjoyable.  Before I started I read a lot about the subject, but inevitably experience teaches things that I didn’t pick up on during months of study.

You have to feed bees -  And it is more expensive than you would think – ideally bees feed their selves, but if you are trying to increase the population of your apiary you will probably have to feed sometimes – BTW most hobby bee keepers feed their bees syrup made out of plain old granulated sugar.  I haven’t kept up with it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve bought $50 (or more) worth of sugar to feed my 1 1/2 hives of bees this year.

When I feed my bees syrup I use a quart jar with a few small holes in the lid.

When I feed my bees syrup I use a quart jar with a few small holes in the lid.

Bees make honey of course, but they also eat honey. So if you harvest too much, or if it just isn’t a good year for honey production you might have to feed your bees – even after they are well established.  But when you are first starting out and concentrating on growing more bees rather than producing honey it’s almost a sure thing that you will have to feed.  Bee keepers have a saying – You can grow bees or you can grow honey, but not both.  Don’t plan on producing a lot of honey for a year or two.

My mail order “package” of bees.

I started bee keeping by ordering a “package” of bees by U.S. Mail.  Despite placing my order in January I didn’t get my bees until May 10 – a whole month into the TN honey gathering season.  Also being my first year I didn’t have any drawn comb so my bees had only an empty box for a home and had to start out building wax comb instead of raising baby bees and gathering honey.  If one could start with a “nuc” – a small, but complete hive – earlier in the season the hive would get a much better start, and you might not have to feed them much – if at all.

Getting stung is pretty rare – I’ve only been stung 2-3 times, and once was because I put my hand down on a bee.  I know that it varies, but my Italian bees are very mild mannered so far.  Something that I didn’t really know before is that even when you open a hive and take it apart to inspect – almost all of the bees just keep on going about their business.  Unless you really get them upset they don’t all fly out and mob you – that never happened to me.  Very few of them ever try to sting you, and they don’t search for a gap to crawl into your clothes to get at you.  I did several full inspections while wearing regular clothes along with a veil and gloves – without getting stung.  Some bees aren’t so mild mannered, but my commercially raised Italians are.

You don’t really need a lot of equipment – Like any hobby you could spend a lot of money on a bunch of paraphernalia that you don’t need, but there is really no need for most of it.

What you do need:

Veil – A veil keeps bees away from your head and neck, but a mosquito head net from a hunting supply store will work for less than $5.

Gloves – many experienced bee keepers don’t wear gloves, but your hands are the most likely place to get stung and you will be more confident if you wear gloves at first.

Bee hive – A home for your bees.  But this does not have to be expensive.  A simple top bar hive can be built very cheaply, and will work just fine.

Bees

A plan – there was a time when honey bees could be kept successfully with very little human intervention, but because of the globalization of parasites and diseases that is no longer the case.  You need a plan for how you are going to deal with those issues – especially varroa mites.  You don’t have to know before you start, but by the end of your first summer you will, or it is likely that you will  lose your bees within a year or so.  Read all you can.

What you don’t need:

Honey extraction equipment – processing a lot of honey probably won’t be a problem for at least a year or two, and lots of bee keepers do what is called “crush and strain” which doesn’t require anything that you don’t already probably have.

Bee suit – Long pants and long sleeves to tuck everything into will work fine – along with some gloves and some kind of veil.  A roll of tape to secure cuffs and sleeves with will make you more confident, but won’t really be needed most of the time.

Hive tool – a putty knife,  screwdriver or pocket knife will work.  I still don’t have a hive tool.

Feeder – a quart jar works fine.

Frames and foundation – top bars with popsickle sticks will work great for your bees to build comb from.

Chemicals, supplements, medications – You might  have to treat for varroa mites, but I personally don’t buy the philosophy that you should arbitrarily dose your bees with antibiotics and other chemicals whether they need it or not.

If you are starting out with a package of gentle commercially produced bees like I did you could totally do without almost all of the protective garb.  A “real” bee suit will boost your confidence, but a $2.00 pair of work gloves, a $2.00 mosquito head net from any hunting supply store, a standard “hoodie” – sweat shirt, and long pants will work fine.  You don’t have to have a smoker – It is nice for getting the bees to move out of the way, and you will want one sooner or later, but in my opinion you don’t really need it until long after you have installed your package.  New packages are especially docile.

One hive isn’t enough – Starting with one hive is fine – two is probably better, but if you plan to keep bees from now on you will need more than one hive.  Fortunately, your colonies can reproduce and  turn one hive into many if you want to.  The problem with keeping only one or two hives is that if you lose one or two hives (not unusual) you are out of bees, but as long as you have one healthy colony left you can use it’s offspring to repopulate a failed hive.  So, multiple hives allow your operation to be more sustainable.

It is difficult to be “chemical free” your first year -  Most commercially produced bees don’t have very much resistance to parasites and diseases, and it is likely that you will choose to treat them, however there are effective alternatives to expensive synthetic chemical treatments.  There is also a lot of bad information about alternative treatments – so choose your plan of action carefully.

Bee hives come in all shapes and configurations and can be an attractive addition to a garden.

Bee hives come in all shapes and configurations and can be an attractive addition to a garden.

Honey bees don’t really care what kind of “house” they live in.  If you are building your own hive – woodenware as bee keepers call it – there are good reasons to use a standard configuration, but the bees won’t care if you don’t.  For centuries mud covered wicker skep hives like the ones in the top picture were used all over Europe.   Skeps are against the law in most parts of the U.S. however, because they are difficult to inspect.

Online forums are a great source of information – However, anyone can contribute to the conversation even if they don’t know what they are talking about.  I highly recommend that you check some of them out, but take everything with a grain of salt.  BeeMaster.com is one of my favorites, but as with any forum be prepared to filter.

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11 comments

  1. Great site. Enjoyed the pics and reading the article. Stop by and see over three hundred hive designs and many DIY projects.

  2. Vicki says:

    Love the article. I have been keeping a few hives for sometime now. I am wanting to know where the hives came from in your article and if they are yours and if plans are available for them (wood) or directions somewhere to build?
    Thanks

  3. I came across your blog when I was searching for pictures of bee gardens. I LOVE that you have different hives and how they are set up, the colors and the embellishments, so pretty.

    Where on earth did you find that hive on the left? Those are antiques! I would love to find one, please let me know if someone is making those.

    Thanks
    Michelle

  4. Matt says:

    I’m glad you decided to keep bees, the benefits are many, from increased resistance to allergies *(due to being exposed to microscopic amounts of the irritants in the honey) to increased garden vigor and fruit production.

    There are a couple of things worth mentioning. The personalities of hives do vary. If you don’t plan to requeen with Italian blondes or similar, the personality of the hive may change over time. Not that this is entirely bad. It happens due to the hive requeening itself as the first queen ages. The new queen will sometimes mate with a non-domestic drone and introduce other genetic characteristics.

    The bees you have mentioned are on one end of the spectrum of behavior. There are bees who behave more like the stereotypical image. It only takes a couple of stories about these to start a lot of bad press for the bees. However, it should be mentioned that the closer one gets to that other end of the spectrum the greater safety precautions need to be taken.

    My father kept bees the whole time I was growing up, and there were certain hives where you had to use smoke no matter what. I think the most we ever had was 25 hives, and out of that 25 only 2 of them were ill natured. Most hives you didn’t need any protection at all except for your hands in case you accidentally crushed a bee. Occasionally we would get a hive which seemed to be a little more ill tempered. After you learned which ones were that way you knew to treat them with a little extra caution.

    One last thing, unlike most other bees, honey bees die in the act of stinging. Something that we noticed over years of having bees is that bees can seem to sense when an animal (including the human animal) are sensitive to their sting. A person who is allergic to bee stings will get stung while doing something around a hive that the bees feel is a little threatening while a person who is not allergic will be left alone until they are really agitating the bees. This is an impression of bee behavior from almost 30 years of working and living around them. So if a person or anyone in a person’s family is allergic, something that results in 0 stings for a non-allergic person may result in a sting for an allergic person. Keep it in mind.

    Great stuff, keep up the good work!

    Fuzzy

    • I know that you are correct – some honey bees are gentle and some are quite hostile – I hope that I conveyed in the article that these particular bees are gentle. I do suspect that most commercial Italians will be similar though.

      I’m planning to order some Carniolan queens for a couple of splits, and I also plan to rear a few queens in the future. One of my hives already has a home grown queen in it – I removed those bees from a concrete block wall – another story.

      Thanks for the informative comment.

  5. Angela says:

    Hi David,
    I am a first year bee keeper and you have a lot of terrific information that I think is very beneficial to all bee keepers.
    I really like your conservative approach on the medicines.

    Happy New Year with your bees ;)

  6. Janette says:

    I loved reading your story David and do hope you are planning to use your honey to keep yourself fit and healthy. I am in the process of learning all I can about beekeeping for when I venture into keeping my own bees and I loved the fact you advise others to learn all they can first. I always recommend the same and also a beekeeping mentor if one can be found.

  7. Dave says:

    Very neat! It would be tempting to start a hive for that fresh honey but I’m afraid my wife would nix the idea in a second. Maybe when we have some acreage sometime down the road. Good info though!

    • David LaFerney says:

      Your wife very well might balk, but the “danger” zone extends no more than 10 feet from the hive – mostly in front. And even that isn’t really a “danger” zone unless you are weedeating or something noisy. If you are being calm they won’t pay any attention to you if you are 1 foot away. I often sit on a lawn chair 3 feet in front of the hive and watch the bees come and go. Very relaxing.

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