Beekeeping Basics

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Bill McCullough, MOTHER EARTH NEWS' apiarist, demonstrated the use of a smoker and other beekeeping basics to a group of beginners.
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TOP: He uses his hive tool to pry out a super frame. BOTTOM: Capped and ready-for-the-harvesting honey
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LEFT: This frame section contains both healthy brood (lower right) and stored honey (upper left). RIGHT: A fertile queen bee beside a noticeably smaller worker.
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A foraging worker filling its storage sac with pollen.
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Diagram shows the parts of a beehive. 

The world of men is always uncertain, seldom inspiring,
often a source of discouragement and dismay. But the keeper
of bees, like anyone who has welded his life to the cycles
and patterns of nature, can always turn to his tiny
creatures and his craft …

Even as a boy, driven by the passions and impulses that
make youth so tumultuous and blind and filled with folly, I
noted [the] serenity in beekeepers. From time to time I
would see one sitting out in his battered chair, basking in
the peace and sweetness of the setting … while around
him, in spring, the cherries bloomed and the bees hummed,
just as they had for a million springs gone by, and as they
will for more millions to come.

 

Richard Taylor, The Joys of Beekeeping  


The picture of a serene individual calmly tending to the
“little golden folk” in his or her beehive presents a rare
and heartwarming example of how humans can sometimes work
in cooperation with the natural world. Yet although
experienced beekeepers may lyrically praise the
sweetness of both their labors and their harvests, most
people find the idea of actually caretaking a hive to be
quite intimidating.

Folks are often frightened by the mere thought of
tending to a colony of 30,000 to 80.000 stinger-laden and
venom-carrying flying insects. And individuals who do feel
inclined to learn beekeeping basics find that
many beekeeping how-to guides plunge into such bewildering
barrages of complicated explanations that the books
actually add to the readers’ muddlement.

Well, in spite of the fact that bees do have stingers, that
many texts do seem—especially at
first
—to be almost unintelligible, and that no
beginner can become an expert (and sagaciously serene)
beekeeper in a single honey season … it is quite
possible for an interested novice to learn to work bees and
harvest honey.

As long as there are nectar- and pollen-bearing flowers in
your area, you can become a hobbyist beekeeper and
successfully manage one or more hives to produce all the
fresh unadulterated honey you (and your friends!) can use.
This fact holds true even if you live in the middle of a
large city, as many urban beekeepers keep hives of
honeymakers on apartment house roofs or in attics! (Before
doing so, however, city dwellers should check their local
ordinances.)

This article, then, will introduce you to the
field of beekeeping. It won’t pretend to reveal
all you need to know to undertake backyard
apiculture (much of that information can be had solely
through study and experience) … but it should give you
a feel for what’s entailed in the endeavor and, perhaps, a
desire to try your hand at tending bees.

But What About Stings?

However, getting stung is not a disaster. Sure, it hurts … but most beekeepers soon build up an immunity to the
venom itself, and eventually suffer no aftereffects from
such incidents. (A small minority of people,
though, are especially allergic to bee stings … and
their sensitivity may increase with time. Such
folks should not, of course, even attempt to keep bees.)

In addition, there’s a “secret” technique you can use to
greatly reduce the amount of venom you absorb from
those occasional stings. Simply use a fingernail (or some
other thin-edged object) to scrape the “bee needle” out
immediately … otherwise, the stinger’s venom sack will
continue to pump poison into your flesh for a minute or
more. (Don’t try to grab the stinger with your
fingers—as so many people do—or you’ll actually
squeeze even more venom into your system.)

That beekeeper’s trick will greatly reduce the damage
inflicted by stings … but, of course, your goal will be
to get stung as little as possible while tending hives. And
the following tips should greatly reduce the number of
“injections” you receive.

[1] Wear a snug (“beetight”) veil and light-colored clothing. (White coveralls are excellent for
beekeeping … blue jeans are poor.) Eliminate any
“crawlin” spaces between your garments and skin by tucking
your pants legs into your socks and, possibly, wrapping
rubber bands around your shirt sleeves. Do not
wear wool. And consider not wearing protective
gloves. (During the first few months, you may feel more
comfortable if you do don the hand shields, but
eventually you’ll probably find that it’s easier to work a
hive, without crushing bees, when you’re
barehanded.)

[2] Do not wear clothes that have previously
received stings. Bees release a banana-scented pheromone
when they strike … to alert their comrades to the
threat and summon other bees to sting the same
area. So wearing garments that are still scented with that
alarm odor is literally asking to be stung.

[3] Always use a smoker . The portable
bellows/firebox combination (a standard piece of beekeeping
equipment) enables you to puff plumes of smoke into the
beehive. And for some reason—perhaps because the
nectar gatherers believe they’re getting ready to flee from
a forest fire—bees engorge themselves with honey
whenever they smell smoke… and become much less
aggressive toward intruders. (A smoker is also useful for
temporarily covering up the scent of a bee’s alarm
pheromone if you do get stung.)

[4] Whenever possible, visit the bees on a warm, sunny,
windless day when plenty of nectar-bearing flowers are in
bloom (or, as beekeepers say, when there’s a honeyflow ). On such occasions many of the insects will
be out working in the fields, and the stay-at-homes
will be so busy with their own labors that they’ll hardly
notice your presence.

[5] Don’t block the hive entrance with your body. Tend the
bee house from the side or back.

[6] Try to make all your movements calm, evenly paced, and
efficiently purposeful. Don’t alarm the insects by moving
jerkily or hastily … or try their patience by taking
more time than you should. (Of course, such poise may not
come naturally at first. Keep trying, and your skills and
demeanor will soon improve. And, if at all possible, get
some experience working with other beekeepers. A lot
of their self-assurance will rub off on you .)  

The Hive: Parts and Members

Before you can begin beekeeping, you need to know a bit
about the equipment and community you’ll be working with.
The modern beehive was devised—in 1851—by the
Reverend L.L. Langstroth. His design incorporated two vital
features that are standard today: movable, interchangeable
frames and uniform “bee space.”

The fact that all the interior parts can be easily taken
out and moved about is—in Langstroth’s
invention—what makes precise and nondestructive
manipulation of the hive possible. And since all the
internal pieces of equipment are separated by 5/16″ spaces
(the size of passageway that bees naturally prefer), the
insects usually won’t be tempted to close off their “halls”
by sticking the hive parts together with extra comb or bee
glue (propolis).

The basic parts of the bees’ home are a hive stand, a
bottom board
, inner and outer top covers ,
and—most important of all—open boxes, or
supers, that make up the body of the hive. Inside
every one of the bee-housing boxes are eight to ten
frames (or racks ), and each of these
removable rectangles contains a thin sheet of beeswax
imprinted with hexagons the size of a worker bee cell. Such
sheets of foundation give the bees ordered starting points
for drawing out either egg or honey cells.

The main hive body, or brood chamber (sometimes
called a deep super ) is 9 5/8″ high and used to
house the queen and her eggs (brood ). Many
beekeepers like to keep two brood chambers on each hive.

The shorter boxes, or shallow supers (most
frequently referred to simply as supers ), are
only 5 3/4″ tall. They are stacked on top of the brood
chamber(s) and used primarily for storing honey.

The members of a hive colony are one queen bee ,
thousands upon thousands of worker bees, and a random (but,
in the most productive hives, small) number of drone bees.
The queen, the most long lived member of the colony,
resembles a worker bee with an enlarged abdomen. After her
few youthful mating flights, she spends the rest of her
life (as long as seven years) in the hive, performing one
function: laying eggs … to the tune of more than 1,500
a day during the peak of each season!

The worker bees are all females that lack fully developed
reproductive organs. These multitudes of industrious
insects run the hive; feed and clean up after the
queen; gather honey, pollen, and water; keep the
internal temperature of the hive constant (they can both
cool and heat their enclosed environment!, feed the
larvae; and build all the honey and brood
comb! (No wonder they’re called workers!)

In contrast, the drones–very large, very indolent
male bees—never lift an antenna to help out around
the place, but simply eat honey (that’s why you don’t want
too many of them in your hive) while waiting for an
opportunity to mate with a young queen (a fatal—but,
one must hope fulfilling—experience).  

How to Get Started Keeping Bees

In order to begin raising bees, you’ll have to get some
equipment. The two biggest U.S. suppliers of beekeeping
gear are Dadant & Sons. Inc. and the A.I. Root Co. Both can provide excellent
equipment, including beginner’s kits that consist of
everything you need to get started—except bees and
honey supers—and sell for around $75. (Some less
expensive beekeeping supply companies run ads in the
magazines listed in this article’s sidebar.)

When it’s time to obtain your “winged livestock,” you can
either [1] mail-order a nucleus of “package bees,” [2] buy
a working hive from a local beekeeper, or [3] catch a wild
swarm.

Catching a swarm isn’t really as difficult as you might
imagine: The tight, homeless clusters of bees—usually
seen hanging from tree limbs, posts, or shrubs—tend
to be remarkably mild-mannered. Still, if you’ve never
handled bees before (or if you don’t want to depend on the
chance occurrence of finding a swarm), you may
prefer to start out by purchasing your
honeymakers.

It’s often possible to buy a strong established colony from
a local beekeeper. Such a working community may cost around
$100, but for that price you should get about 50,000 bees
along with a complete hive (you’ll still have to purchase
such gear as a veil and smoker), and—if subsequent
weather and honey flows permit—you ought to be able
to harvest 50 to 100 pounds of honey your first season.

Many states require that such purchases be examined by a
bee inspector (contact the agent through your county
agricultural extension service). The examiner will inspect
the colony for signs of highly contagious bee diseases,
such as American foulbrood. (If you don’t have an
inspector look into your hive, you should both expect the
seller to go through the hive in your presence … and have
read enough to be able to spot problems
yourself .)

Some beginners start their colonies with mail-ordered
package bees (a cluster costs around $25), and this is
surely the safest way to be sure you’re buying the kind of
bees you want. (There are several varieties of Apis
mellifera
, but the vast majority are variants of the
“Italian” strain.)

If you choose to go the package route, however, you should
place your order as soon as possible because most bee
suppliers will become quite busy in the warming months
ahead. Your package—which will be shipped four to six
weeks before the first spring bloom—will contain a
healthy, mated young queen, two or three pounds of
worker bees, a can of syrup for the insects to eat
en route, and complete instructions for both
installing the colony in your hive and feeding its members
until the first honey flow. This method costs less
initially than buying a working hive, but remember
that—since you’ll be starting out with a small
nucleus—your new bee community may not make any
surplus honey (beyond their own wintering food
needs) during the first year.  

Comb of Liquid

After your bees are in place and prospering, you should
consider adding your first honey super to the hive. But
before you can take this step to expand your colony’s
lodgings, you’ll have to make another fundamental
beekeeping decision: whether to harvest comb (chunk) or
liquid (extracted) honey.

Chunk honey, you see, is produced in frames that contain
thin, chewable foundation … while the foundation used
for honey that is to be extracted must be thicker
and reinforced with either preset or hand-inserted wires
(so that it will be sturdy enough to withstand the pressure
of the centrifuge machine, called a honey extractor, that
spins the liquid harvest out of its combs).

As a beginner, you’ll probably encounter less trouble and
expense if you start off using comb foundations. By doing
so, you’ll be able to harvest your golden goody by simply
cutting the honeycomb and all—out of the frames.
Then, if you want to separate some liquid honey
out of the yield, you can smash all the comb cells with a
kraut chopper (or a beater from an electric mixer) and let
the honey drain out through a small-mesh screen lined with
cheesecloth.

Heat and then cool the leftover comb shards in a double
boiler, too, and you’ll gain some more honey … topped
by a solid layer of yellow beeswax. (Don’t throw that
substance out! You can either use it for making wonderful
candles or save it until you accumulate enough to sell to bee supply companies, other beekeepers, or craft
shops.)

Because bees use a lot of honey and energy while building
their combs, you can harvest about 50% more honey
from your hive if you extract the sweetener and reinstall
the still-intact cells in the hive rather than cut
the combs out altogether. Ah, but there’s a rub: The
smallest handcranked extractors cost around $150, more
than all the other one-hive start-up expenses combined!

However, if you want the increased yield possible with
extracted honey without the full expense of
purchasing the necessary machine, you might be able to
share the purchase cost of an extractor with some other
small-scale beekeepers … or pay (with honey) a nearby
commercial apiarist to do your comb/honey separating.  

A Visit to Your Hive

To give you a better feel for what it’ll be like to tend a
“flock” of insect livestock, let’s pretend that it’s a
sunny day in June. Wildflowers are blooming like crazy,
your hive seems to be prospering (in fact, you added a
honey super to it two weeks ago), and you’re a mite curious
as to just how well those bees are doing. In short, it’s a
perfect day to inspect your little apiary.

Having donned your beetight garments and started a steady
fume-producing flame in your smoker, you approach the
hive from the side and watch for a moment. Yep,
there’s a good honey flow on. Plenty of bees are flying in
and out of the wooden home … and the ones coming back
are so laden with nectar (bees convert that substance to
honey inside the hive) that they almost “droop” their way
through the air.

So, you put the tip of your smoker right in the mouth of
the hive’s low entrance and puff a couple of clouds into
the brood chamber. The bees near the entrance buzz around a
bit, but soon most of them go into the hive.

A minute later, you lift off the hive’s outer cover and
blow smoke down the narrow hole in the inner lid. You wait
for a short time after this … then, using your handy
hive tool (an inexpensive crowbar-like implement that’s an
indispensable beekeeper’s aid), you pry the Inner cover’s
corners loose and lift that thin top off.

Using your hive tool as a lever, you now carefully pry up
one corner of a spare frame until you can grab that rack’s
wooden top edge with one hand. You then pry up the opposite
top corner, grab that end, too, and—pulling slowly so you
don’t crush any workers—lift the entire bee covered frame
out of the hive. Some of the cells you examine are capped
with white beeswax (indicating the presence of
ready-to-harvest honey). Most of the hexagonal units,
though, are unsealed and contain clearly visible honey.
Since such ambrosia needs further curing by the bees, you
know it’s not yet time to make your first harvest.

In fact, you’re just about to seal up the hive and leave
for the day when you recall an old apiarist’s saying:
“There are two kinds of folks who fool with honeybees: the
bee keepers (those who conscientiously work with
their bees) … and the bee-havers (the sluggards
who have hives but for the most part leave their
bees to the insects’ own good or ill fortunes).” You know
that the chief trait distinguishing a beekeeper from a
bee-haver is the willingness to examine and learn from the
brood chamber … the heart of the hive. So, since you’d
like to become a true apiarist, you decide to take
a practice “trip” into your main hive body and see how your
queen is doing.

After carefully replacing the frame you’d previously taken
out, you give the entire super a few puffs with your smoker
and then start prying that honey-holding box free from the
brood chamber. Even though the super has been on the hive
only a short while, the bees have already stuck it tightly
to the brood box, and you have to free all four corners
carefully with your hive tool and then slowly twist the
upper story sideways to break the gummy seals.

The super’s not very heavy (if it were full, it would weigh
at least 40 pounds), so you’re able to lift it off easily
and set it on the overturned outer cover. You then grab
your smoker again and give the bees at the top of the brood
chamber a few brief puffs.

One by one, now, you pull out a few separate frames from
the central hive “room.” Except for the less occupied outer
racks, each frame you examine is—as some beekeepers
say—”slam full of brood.” A large semicircle of dark
convex cappings covers much of the surface (some cells
contain uncapped white larvae) … and honey or pollen is
stored in the frames’ corners.

You don’t happen to spot the queen as you forage through
the chamber. (Many beginners stare at the moving masses of
bees in their hives and despair of ever
identifying the large-abdomened egg-layer. But rest assured
that—as another old time beekeeping saying
states—”you’ll know her when you see her.”) However,
since your colony is so full of fine brood, the hive is
obviously healthy and “queenright.” So you don’t bother the
bees by needlessly searching for her today but, instead,
carefully reassemble the hive and head back home.

To give this tale a sweet ending, though, let’s come back
to the scene a week later. By now, your honey crop is 80%
sealed and ready to harvest. Of course, you could
leave a “one-way bee escape” (a gateway that lets bees out
but not in ) under the super, walk off, and reap
insect-empty racks in a day or so. But you’ve just got too
much of a hankering for some homegrown honey to wait, so
you pull out the sweet-filled frames one by one and simply
sweep all the bees off with a soft-bristled brush—the
critters don’t seem to mind, either!—and take your
golden gatherings home.

Beekeeping’s Vital Season

Every beekeeping season has its own annual tasks. Summer
work includes jobs such as adding supers and perhaps
harvesting. Fall is the time to make sure your bees have
all their winter stores built up. And, before winter hits,
you need to add some hardware cloth to your hives’
entrances (to keep out mice) and start assembling
gear for next year.

But the most crucial beekeeping season is surely the
spring. Many colonies—having made it through the
winter on their own supplies and ready to begin foraging
anew—are then faced with a few change-of-season weeks
when no harvestable flowers have yet bloomed. If the
nectar-gatherers don’t have enough extra stores to see
themselves through this increasingly active period,
you’ll have to provide some sugar or honey syrup
(and perhaps some pollen or pollen substitute). Otherwise,
your bees may have survived the winter … only to starve
in the spring!

The warming weather after along winter brings yet
another threat to your colony’s productivity:
swarming. In the wild, bee colonies
reproduce—annually—by division: Many of the
workers and the old queen emerge from the hive and fly off
to find a new home. If your bees swarm, a new “replacement”
queen and some workers will be left behind to carry on. But
much of your best winged livestock will have flown the
coop, so the hive will probably not produce a good honey
crop the following season.

Although you can take some hive-saving steps, you
won’t prevent all swarms from occurring. You
might, however, balance your losses with gains, since
spring is also the season to catch stray runaway clusters
and thus increase the number of hives in your apiary!

The danger of swarming—as well as the quality and
number of bees that do desert the hive in such
instances—decreases as spring turns to summer. As an
old nursery rhyme notes: “A swarm in May is worth a load of
hay. A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon. But a swarm
in July isn’t worth a fly.”

Sweet Rewards

If you take up beekeeping and manage your honeymakers with
care, you’ll have the pleasure of learning about one of
nature’s most intriguing phenomena. (The intricate patterns
of bee behavior provide continual discoveries to the most
experienced apiarist.) In addition, you’ll begin to
understand how to cooperate with—rather than lord
over—the only livestock creatures whose wills have
never been crippled by domestication.

And although this article has emphasized the commitment and
labor that beekeeping will require of you , the
colony’s caretaker, you’ll probably learn to feel humble
when you compare your efforts to those of your winged
partners. For, as long-time beekeeper Richard Taylor has
artfully phrased it, “The truly monumental work of
apiculture is always done by the bees themselves.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: MOTHER would like to thank Bill and Nancy
McCullough (leaders of our summer beekeeping seminar),
Lawrence Goltz (editor of Gleanings in Bee Culture), and
several thousand Apis mellifera for their help in gathering
much of the information related in this article.