Beekeeping - Swarm Collecting - Honey Production

Beekeeping and Honey Production

Responsive imageBeekeeping is fun, rewarding and educating even for a Homeowner or Hobbyist. AND, I sure am glad Vegan quacks don't eat honey because it leaves more for you and I! Keeping bees has to be the most rewarding of everything we have done, and I can't imagine not having bees no matter where I live.ensp;Even if I moved to the city, I would have to have my bees.

I always had an interest in beekeeping since I was a child, mostly because a neighbor had bees which I was privileged enough to get to watch. I would go over there and watch them though I don't really remember to much detail about it now. The man who had them was probably in his seventies, but he never minded me being there, and he was very willing to educate.  He even gave me one of his hives, which I managed to kill the first winter.  Unknowingly, I took the honey that they needed to survive. That is one of the most common errors beekeepers make to this very day. Even experienced beekeepers do this, and it can devastate the hive.

Many years passed, and then I again had the opportunity to get involved in beekeeping, and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had, I do believe. My wife and I took a class put on by a local beekeeping club, and purchased a nuke (a starter hive) from a local beekeeper. There was an older very experienced beekeeper at the class and coincidently the following "field day" was at his house and property where he had numerous hives. This guy was well known, and it was said by other experienced beekeepers that there wasn't much he hadn't tried or experimented with. My wife and I decided to take his experience and advice and put it directly to work for us. Not to my surprise, we have been very successful thus far. That doesn't mean that disaster won't strike our hives, it may; but so far we have kept it at bay while other more experienced beekeepers we know have had their populations dwindle away. The one thing we know for sure is that we have completely different methods of beekeeping than those beekeepers do.

There are three types of bees in that hive;

  • Queen - Just one, which is obviously a girl, and the only one who breeds. She breeds only one time in her life of approximately 5- or 6-years, that is the only time she ever leaves the hive, then she lays on the average about 2,000 eggs everyday during the working season, never leaving the hive.
  • Workers - All of which are female, whom literally work themselves to death actually flying their wings off. The workers account for about 80-percent of the hive population.
  • Drones - All of which are males, and the only males in the hive. They do no work. They leave the hive daily seeking out queens to mate with, returning late in the day to get fed by the workers. You got it, the drones don't even feed themselves. You might say they have it made, that is until September when the workers kill them off because they are not going to feed them through the winter.

The workers will make new drones in the spring when the queen starts laying that massive amount of eggs again. Make? Yes, the queen only lays one kind of egg, what becomes of that egg is determined by what the workers feed it. It is the workers who decided whether they need another drone, worker, or queen.

Honey Bees collect four basic things;

  • Pollen - Collected from a wide variety of flowers.
  • Nectar - Collected from a wide variety of flowers.
  • Water - Collected from any fresh water source such as streams, lakes and your bird bath if you keep it clean.
  • Propolis - Collected from tree sap from a wide variety of sources.

Propolis is a resinous mixture that bees collect from a variety of saps, buds, and other botanical sources.  Nectar is by far the most collected item. I have heard it said the the bees prefer plants which produce both nectar and pollen, but my observation clearly proves this statement to be false. For example: Corn produces massive amounts of pollen, and very little if any nectar while clovers produce lots of nectar and very little pollen. If you have a corn patch anywhere near your hives, you will see bazillions of bees on the corn everyday during pollination from early morning until about noon when there is no more pollen for them to collect. You will also see them all over the clover all day long sucking the nectar from the flowers. They do seem to prefer different types of clover for example, I have massive amounts of red clover, and some white clover. They seem to prefer the white clover over the red, and prefer alfalfa even more than white clover. I think it may be relative to blossom size, and the consequent ease with which they can collect the nectar or pollen. The alfalfa has a very tiny but high nectar producing purple blossom, the white clover has a much smaller blossom than the red clover.

Some of the most important factors, actions, or lack thereof that are important to beekeeping in no particular order of importance are:

  • Leave those girls alone - First and foremost, don't bother the bees constantly. I hear beekeepers talking all the time about inspecting the hive every seven days or so. Why I say, what does it really prove. If those girls are going to the field everyday, they are doing their job, and that is the first indication that all is well in the hive. Many beekeepers will tell you that they do this to keep the queen cells killed/cleaned off. Let me tell you what a wise old beekeeper once told me; "If those girls decide they are leaving, there is nothing you can do about it". Well he was right, so why fight them? I feel it is better to be ready for the swarm and capture them. It is easy, fun, and it gets you more hives. Bees usually swarm about the third year of a new hive, and then every good year thereafter. They may swarm once, twice, or even several times each spring. It is the very nature of the insect.
  • Medicating - Do this every fall without fail when you pull the supers off the hive. I usually do it in late August or early September since honey production after that time is very slow. The drone kill off also occurs about that time. What are you medicating for? Varroa mites, and tracheal mites. Varroa mites are to a honey bee like a wood tick is on us. If you don't medicate your hives you will see these mites all over your bees.  They are visible to the naked eye, and can be devastating to the hive.  The tracheal mite is internal and not possible to see without dissection and microscopic observation.  You will know if you have a mite infestation as you may observe bees around your hive that can't fly due to their wings becoming detached. Honey bees have two set of wings that are attached by tiny hooks; mites cause these wings to become unhooked, and then the bees can't fly. Although medicating is extremely important, never medicate with honey supers on the hive, you don't want your honey contaminated.
  • Hive body size - This is also a commonly neglected issue. There must be TWO deep bodies (95/8-inch) installed the very first year as soon as practical. NEVER take the honey from these units. This is called the brood chambers, and they must be left alone. The bees sometimes will fill the top chamber early in the year with honey, but don't take it, it is not yours!! This is the bees private reserve, and they will likely die sooner or later if you take it.  Back to the hive body size though; Never use honey supers for brood boxes, they are HONEY boxes, not brood boxes. If you don't install two large brood boxes, the bees will not have enough room to grow. Remember that the queen lays 2,500-eggs every single day once the weather warms, and the hive grows quickly in number of bees. What is the difference between a honey super and a brood box?  The only real difference is what they are used for, and their depth. The bees make a different kind of wax for their brood than they do for their honey; honey wax is very white, while brood wax is brown.
  • Supers for your honey - Don't rob the brood boxes!! The size of the honey supers is entirely up to you. Honey is very heavy weighing in at eleven pounds per gallon. Because of that, it is recommended that supers be of the medium or shallow variety due to the weight issue. A deep super will weigh one hundred pounds when full of honey making it very difficult to handle. A medium super (65/8-inches) will weigh sixty pounds when full of honey. I use the medium supers. Just as an FYI, a shallow super is 511/16-inches deep, and weighs in at about fifty pounds when full of honey.
  • Spare frames and boxes - It is important to have ready a number of frames and boxes your second year, and every year thereafter. You must know that honey bees can and will make excess honey their very first year if there is good nectar flow and they have plenty of flowers close enough. Due to that fact, I strongly recommend that you place at least one shallow super on your hive the first year, and as early as possible. That is on top of your two deep brood chambers that should already be there. I usually put my supers on not later than February first. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER leave unused bee boxes open to insects and the elements. I stack all my used frames and supers and cover them with a wooden top. This allows them to breath while keeping insects out. Don't put them in plastic garbage bags, they'll sour. Putting them in the freezer, or in coolers for the winter is a good idea, but they take up a lot of space. If you let bugs get in them, you will have to burn them, and that is costly.
  • Recognizing Hive Health - You will often hear beekeepers talking about how many healthy hives they have as opposed to unhealthy hives. What makes a hive healthy or not, and how can you recognize the difference?  There are two important factors with regard to hive health; these are the number of bees, and their activity level. The number of bees can be observed leaving and entering the hive, or by disassembling the hive and looking inside. I look inside at the beginning of the season when I place the supers on the hive, and again at the end of the season when I remove the supers and medicate. I take advantage of the later time to determine how many full frames of honey and brood they have in the brood chambers to determine whether or not I will need to feed later in the winter. The activity level is important because if there is no queen, your hive will become inactive. Everything those bees do is in support of the queen, without her they have no motivation to do anything.
  • Chemicals - Don't place your hive in an area where your neighbors are faithful users of seven dust or any other chemical which may end up in your hive killing your bees and contaminating your honey. The bees don't know that humans are addicted to the use of deadly chemicals; they just go to flowers and bring back whatever is on them besides the intended nectar and pollen. I keep a large garden where my bees can safely collect whatever they want. I never use any form of pesticides; rather I let nature do what it does best and it has worked very well for me. I also feed birds which attracts other birds, and they keep my garden picked pretty clean of pests; they also eat a few bees, but that is just the cycle of nature. Humans are quite a dumb animal for being considered so smart; I mean, they use deadly chemicals which kill everything and then they wonder why they get ill, or they wonder why their bees are dying off.

Gardening for bees

What to plant for bees? Will they collect from whatever is in your garden? The short answer is no. Bees are going to collect whatever produces the most product for the least amount of work, they are not stupid. If you have a rather small garden, you are not likely to see many honey bees working it, there just isn't enough there to be worth their time, and they know it. That doesn't mean that a hive won't do well at your place, it will, those bees will go where they need to go to find what they need. On the other hand, certain plants do produce a lot of what they like, and if you have that in your garden, you are going to see a lot of your bees on it. Corn for example, produces a vast amount of pollen, and honey bees will be all over it from about 9am to noon or shortly thereafter when pollen production ceases. Turnips also produce a lot of pollen, and like corn, the bees will be all over it, so a small turnip patch is a good thing to let go to seed especially over winter.

Bees don't exchange duties mid stream so-to-speak.

Each bee has an assigned task (how it gets assigned I don't know), hive duty, collecting pollen, collecting propolis, collecting nectar, or collecting water. The water bees just collect water, the propolis bees just collect propolis, etc. The nectar and pollen collecting bees collect only one type of product from one type of plant until it is exhausted, and then they move on to another. Now that is not to say that the entire population of nectar collecting bees collect only one flower type, no, a group of collectors collects one thing. Of course the bees prefer the greatest producers of product that is the closest to the hive. If your hive is in the middle of a rich clover patch, you are going to have clover honey. No bee is going to pass over that clover to go look for something else farther away.

How far will bees travel?

Bees will travel as far as they need to go to get whatever it is that they need at the time. However, remember that flying distance determines not only the life of the bees, but also who much they can produce. The more time they spend in the air traveling, the less time they spend in the field or hive. You could keep a clean water source such as a bird bath near you hive, but you need to clean it often as they will stop using it when the water gets polluted. As stated in the gardening parts above, plant near your hives, or put your hives near where you plant.

Honey extraction simplified for the home owner/hobbyist.

Now you talk about something that will make a mess of your kitchen and everything in it, try honey extraction without some proven method. You will have everything in your kitchen covered in honey, wax, and propolis. Propolis is a substance made from tree saps which the bees use to coat and waterproof everything in the hive. It is extremely sticky and very effective. You can hardly clean it off your hands much less clothing and utensils. It seems that it wouldn't be so hard to get the honey out of all those cells, but that assumption would be incorrect.

Commercial operators use a fancy device that spins the honey out, and they even have a neat electrically heated knife to remove the cappings (the cappings are those cute little white coverings of wax the bees make to seal each individual cell of honey). There is a much easier way for the hobbyist beekeeper. Most people will tell you that you need to beg, borrow, or steal the equipment or maybe rent it. I didn't want to do any of the above, so after three years of trial and error, I came up with a very simple method. Keep in mind that the bees know very well how to make the wax structures to support all that honey without any help from us humans, so everything we do to help them just makes their job a little easier, and it gives us a controlled method of collecting and controlling their lives and products.

With the aforementioned in mind, and a little forward thinking, we can make our jobs a little easier too. First, when you start making your hive bodies, consider using one piece Pierco plastic frames instead of wood and wax foundation. I promise you the bees don't care what is in that box when it comes time to build, they are going to use what they have. The will even build if there are no frames or foundation at all. They have been doing it for millennia, and they know how to do it well.

If you use the one piece Pierco frames, you need to drill a ½-inch hole in each upper corner when you install them. But come harvest time all you have to do is take a spatula and scrape the wax, honey and all into a container. Now for some reason, that sounds all to simple doesn't it. Well, it isn't quite that easy but it could be.  You see, the wax is much lighter than the honey is, so it floats. Ah, but all those cappings are hard to separate from the honey. All you have to do is put it all on a screen. Common window screen works just fine. The honey flows through the screen, and the wax stays on the top. My wife likes to wring the honey out of the wax like wringing out a wash cloth. We of course use plastic window screen which works perfectly for this type of job.

Consider your hive placement carefully.

Some important consideration are that bees like afternoon shade most importantly during mid summer heat; Skunks eat bees, and Raccoons and Bears like honey just as much as you and I. Horses and cattle will knock your hives over. The horses and cattle are an easy fix; you just fence them away. You can avoid the skunk problem by keeping the hives high enough off of the ground that they can't reach them. Two eight inch concrete blocks is high enough. To protect from Raccoons takes a little more work. I sometimes keep my hives strapped together with a light duty ratchet strap which works good enough that when one of my horses got out and knocked the hive over it stayed together., but I've never had a Raccoon interested that I know of, so the method has not been proven. One thing we know for sure is that Raccoons can take an unsecured hive apart, and they will absolutely destroy it as will Bears. One well proven method is hives located atop buildings or poles. When you consider hive placement, you should also consider how far the bees will have to go to collect fresh water. The farther the hive is from a fresh water source the more bees that will have to collect water and not nectar. Bees will not collect dirty or polluted water so a dirty or stale bird bath near the hive won't work unless you keep in cleaned out and filled with fresh water daily, then the bees will indeed use it. Always keep in mind that the distance your bees have to fly to any source they need is the greatest negative factor in their life span.

The life of bees

Bees work very hard during the normal production season so during that time their life is very short at about six weeks on average. The bees literally fly their wings off during the later two weeks of their life. Every morning you can watch the bees culling out the dead or wingless bees; it is interesting to see. The first four weeks of a bees life is spent on hive duties including cleaning, feeding, storing, guarding, and fanning pheromones. The last two weeks is spent in the field collecting one of the four products that they need. The guard bees usually spend their time on the porch watching the surroundings. If you sit near the hive, you'll see them watching you. The pheromone fanners sit facing the hive with their butts raised in the air fanning their wings rapidly.

Catching a split or swarm

There is no adventure more fun I reckon, and no cheaper way to start a bee hive. In the spring of 2012 our large hive swarmed twice within two days. We were lucky enough to be home and we also just happened to have enough materials lying around to quickly put together two boxes to put them in. Our lesson of the time was to never get caught without boxes and frames on hand. The bees swarmed into a nearby tree where I was able to reach from the ground and cut off the branch they were hanging on then shake them into the hive. It all sounds easy, but it really is a little more complicated than that. That ball of bees is heavy, and if you shake it to much before you get to the box they will fall off prematurely and swarm to another branch which could be higher like our second swarm did. I had to get a ten foot step ladder to reach that swarm, but I got them.

Another important lesson we have learned over the years catching swarms is that you need to take the swarm to the hive, not the hive to the swarm. If you take the hive to the swarm, you'll have to carry that heavy thing back to where you want it later and that's a lot more work. END