To bee

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Two weeks ago, we went to our first night of Bee School. What we learned about bee habits and feeding had us wondering whether, with our wooded property, we were a good candidate for a bee hive. After a site visit from Andy (one of the instructors) and a canvas of our holly tree population (bees love holly), we determined that we shouldn’t get a hive – we should get two.

Two hives means twice the chance for a successful colony. It means being able to compare hive behavior and habits. It’s means twice as much honey. The only downside is the money.

I have provided insect housing before, but this is the first time it has cost me. I’ve certainly paid to get rid of them, but never to put them up in the first place. They’ve come, of their own accord, to live in my pipes, or my collard greens, or my corn flakes.

Bees, though, aren’t content with stale cereal or household crevices. They need a hive, and hives are expensive. With the boxes, the frames, and the accoutrements, you’re looking at $250. per hive, easy. And that’s without the bees! You wouldn’t think it would cost so much to house something, which, left to its own devices, lives in a hollow tree.

A bee bruch

A bee brush

Since we were looking at a bill approaching $500., I started scrutinizing the list of equipment, looking for anything we might be able to do without. There wasn’t much. The list was put together by the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association, and they tried to keep it to the bare minimum necessary for a new beekeeper to get started. Still …

“Do you think we need the bee brush?” I asked Kevin. A bee brush is a soft-bristled brush that you use to remove bees from a honey-filled frame so you can put it, bee-less, into the extractor.

“Of course we need a bee brush,” he said. “What are you going to brush them off with, your bare hands?”

Ice scraper brush

An ice scraper brush

“We could use the brush from the ice scraper we keep in the car.” I asked. “It looks just like it.”

Kevin rolled his eyes. “The scraper brush is a hard brush.” He picked up the sample bee brush to show me. “A bee brush is a soft brush.” He brushed it on my hand to demonstrate.

“We could use it gently,” I suggested.

“It’s $3.95!” he exclaimed, with more than a little exasperation.

I gave in on the bee brush, but I’m sticking to my guns on the bee suit.

A bee suit

A bee suit

A bee suit is a full-body, white zip-up number that, with hat and gloves, is supposed to keep bees out. The full suit wasn’t on the BCBA list, but several people suggested that we get at least one, and preferably two. A quick Internet search revealed prices in the $100 – $200 range.

“It looks like a Tyvek suit,” I told Kevin, who was marginally more receptive to this suggestion.

“Tyvek suits cost six dollars,” I went on.

“They’ll be really hot in the summer, and I’m not sure I want to tend bees while I’m sweating in a Tyvek suit.” He was still skeptical. “Maybe bees can smell discomfort the way wolves smell fear.”

“I don’t think the heat will be that bad,” I said. “I’m at least willing to try it.”

A Tyvek suit

A Tyvek suit

“You are SO getting stung,” Kevin told me.

I’m getting stung?” I exclaimed. “Why should I get stung? You’re the one who’s going to get stung.”

You’re going to get stung because you insist on cutting corners on the equipment,” Kevin said, irritated. “Why do you think I’m going to get stung?”

You’re going to get stung because you’re careless?”

“Careless!?”

“Honey, you’re covered with cuts and bruises you get from doing ordinary household chores. A few months back, you put a nail through your finger with a nail gun. Your nickname is Crash.”

He had to concede that there was something in that. My husband isn’t known for following, or even reading, instructions.

“Bees are different,” he said.

“And why are bees different?”

“Bees can sting,” he explains. And that, presumably, makes them scarier than nail guns, or chop saws, or boats. Oddly, I think we’ve found the one thing that scares Kevin more than it scares me.

We haven’t gotten the bee suit, yet. We won’t need it until April, when our bees come. And then we’ll see who gets stung first, the cheapskate or the daredevil. My money’s on the daredevil.

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Comments

  1. The expense is just one reason I’m putting off bees until next year- my biggest reason is that I don’t have any fodder, as yet. Well, that and the expense- I’ve already spent a couple of hundred of dollars setting up my seed table and buying seed, horseradish, and asparagus crowns, and our Visa will get hit with another $300 when the nursery ships the fruit and nut trees.

    If I tried bees this year I think my husband would croak and roll over and die.

  2. Have you considered topbar hives? Not sure whether they’d be suitable for your climate, but I’m considering them for here in Australia. You can make them yourself pretty easily and very inexpensively.

    I’m with you on the white suits – I’m planning to use a Tyvek suit as well. And rather than a centrifugal extractor, you can crush the comb and let the honey drip through a sieve.

    • I am a third year beekeeper. One point, when you crush comb you are destroying a very valuable assset in the hive. Once extracted, the comb can be put back into the hive and the bees do not have to make new comb. Their energy can go towards making habitat for egg/larvae and honey cells. I only know this because I made did what you are proposing my first year and then understood the importance of drawn comb my second year.

  3. Paula — Bees are great, but definitely not worth losing a husband over.

    Darren — I think topbar hives are interesting, but I’ve read that management is little more difficult than with conventional hives, and you get less honey. Our plan is to start with two regular hives, and then maybe build a topbar to have at the ready in case we have access to a swarm. As for climate, I’m not sure what the implications are — I’m too new at this. Glad you’re with me on the suits!

  4. I listened to one of my hives today and found silence, a bad sign. So, it is refreshing to be reading about the excitement of new hives – I’ll be needing some of that energy this Spring when I have to order more bees. (We get Northern-bred queens and nucs from Western Mass.) There is another benefit to multiple hives. If one of the hives does well and the other is suffering (as in, not enough bees, not enough honey to make through the winter) you can steal frames of bees and honey from the thrivin’ hive.
    Many beekeepers use just the jacket with the hood and veil, they’re much cheaper and you pair it with a pair or two of light-colored pants. Of course, the really tough beekeeps use just the veil and hat – no gloves. The big difference between the Tyvek and the bee suit is the weave of the fabric. Bee suits are heavier and have a tight weave, so when you get stung, and you will, it isn’t as bad – the stinger can’t get in as far.
    As bees walk more than they fly in their lives, they are keen on walking up your shoes and getting in your pant leg or under the tongue of your shoe. Then, when you move, they sting you. Other than the hand stings, the ankle and leg stings seem to be the most prevalent. I usually just duct-tape my pant legs to my boots, or rubber band them. Sometimes a bee manages to crawl into the suit, and when you move they nail you – that’s always a surprise.

  5. Oh yeah, one other thing. If you do go for that Tyvek thing, you really need to figure out a veil. When you open a strong hive on a hot summer day, the bees rise up and cover the veil. If you don’t have one, they will cover your face. Are you up for a beard of bees?
    And I’m sure you can borrow a centrifuge. We have a big Maxant you can borrow if you need to.

  6. T,

    you’re nuts. in the entire scheme of bee keeping, the ONE thing I’d spring for is the suit. Infact, i’d pay extra. “Can I supersize this sucker? maybe one that comes with a built in smoker? or titanium plating? government is doing interesting things with body armor these days..got any of that?”

    course, we actually have killer bee swarms in the parts I hail from, so perhaps my fear is unrealistic. but still.

  7. Cape Cod Rose says:

    I’m with Amanda.
    I’d consider putting on two tyvex suits, just in case one rips.
    And what about gloves? What will you wear? Anything?
    Will you carry an epi pen just in case?

  8. Beth — I do plan to have a veil and gloves, and I think the Tyvek suits have elastic at the wrists and ankles. They are meant for hazmat, after all. I hope your hive recovers.

    Amanda and CCR — I suspect I’ll be in your camp the moment I get stung for the first time.

  9. I would love to have bees, but sadly it’s just another thing my town doesn’t allow. That said, I am irrationally more afraid of bees than most other things that could hurt me. Probably because they have a mind of their own, and that mind can be evil…

  10. Jen — I’ve heard of towns outlawing chickens, but bees? How do they expect pollination to happen, divine intervention? Perhaps you should consider a move …

  11. Hello Tamar,
    Glad to hear you are interested in beekeeping. I have kept bees off & on for the last 40 years myself.
    Never made much money at it but every dime I spent on beekeeping was one of the best investments I have ever made. Bees are the most incredible creatures!
    You will be amazed at what they can do.
    Do yourself a favor & beg, borrow, buy a copy of Ormond & Harry Aebi’s books.
    “The Art & Adventure of Beekeeping” & “Mastering the Art of Beekeeping”.
    They have generations of Beekeeping experience between them. A father & son who have built there own beekeeping equipment all of there lives. They seldom use gloves, veil, or bee suit to work their bees, just a smoker & allot of LOVE! I personely have watched Ormond work a 8+ honey supered hive without injuring one bee!. Ormond also happened to have made the Guiness Book of Records in 1974 of 404 lbs. of honey from one hive in one season.
    If you happen to have any woodworking skills you can make your own hives. I just recently made two myself for about $100.00 each. I will warn you Beekeeping IS allot of work! To say nothing. It is MUCH cheaper to buy honey.
    Good luck to you, Greg

  12. I encourage your foray into beekeeping; it is such a wonderful way to observe nature at its best. You will be amazed at how the bees work tirelessly to provide and protect their home. I have been a hobby beekeeper for over 25 years and I still get excited to go and watch their daily activities. Enjoy them and help yourselves by attending outdoor workshops, lectures, etc. to better understand the nunances of beekeeping.
    Also, you might want to review my website http://www.gropole.com to learn about our newly patented and unique adjustable plant stake called the GroPole that grows with your plants. View the video and consider them for your garden.

    Happy Gardening

  13. Regarding bee suits, I have one; but, in earlier times I also used just heavy cotton light colord slacks and a jacket. I use a baseball cap with a veil I purhcased at a bee supply company very inexpensively that simply ties under your arms. I also purchased a pair of velcro straps to wrap around your ankles; bees like those exposed areas that many forget to protect. By the way, buy longer than normal pant legs for this purpose. Also, I use work boots that cover my ankles for added protection.
    Bees by nature are a gentle lot. You can tell immediately if their in a good mood when you open the cover. If they immediately start bumping off of your veil and in a frenzy simply close the hive and wait another day. Go on sunny days over 70 degrees with little wind and enjoy observing their work.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    I’m a hobbyist in Montana – surprisingly, one to the top honey-producing states in the nation – this will be my sixth season and I have had varying results every year, the first and last being the best. One has to come to the conclusion that, in the end, the bees are in charge and there’s only so much control we have over their production. My most important equipment include my bee suit and hand tool for prying and lifting frames – I tried going the no-gloves rout early on and discovered I wasn’t good enough yet to make it worth the stings I received on my hands (not fun!). A suggestion: see if you can find used equipment (Craig’s list? who knows?) or contact a bee supplier (Western Bee in Polosn, MT is where I go) for hive-building kits; they make the parts, you assemble and finish – Western Bee is pretty reasonably priced compared to some other sites I have explored – also, I have to admit I use “Beekeeping for Dummies” more than any other resource (and I have lots) – it’s truly meant for beginners (dummies!) and is very easy to follow. Good luck!

  15. Greg — Thanks for the book recommendations, and for the enthusiasm. Both are appreciated.

    Hank — We’re going your way — we got the tie-on veils, and we’ll use light-colored clothing, gloves, and ankle straps. We’ve been warned before about only working the bees when they’re in a good mood, and I’m glad to hear that it’s easy to tell!

    Elizabeth — One of the great things about having a site is that, out of nowhere, I can have a conversation with a beekeeper in Montana. Your point about the bees being in charge is well-taken. I think the best we can do is provide a hospitable home and hope nature takes its course. We’ve gotten most of our equipment already — from Brushy Mountain — but it’s good to know of another supplier. As for “Beekeeping for Dummies,” it’s on my bedside table!

  16. Hi Tamar,
    I would like to mention another book I found recently from Dadant & Sons. As Ormond & Harry’s books are probably hard to come by since they have passed away. It is “Natural Beekeeping Organic Approaches to Modern beekeeping” by Ross Conrad who lives in Vermont.
    This book is also an wealth of knowledge with an Organic approach. Which is much needed these days in my opinion. Also I have recently started a new hive (last May) & have had good results with treating for Varroa Mites with “Apiguard” a essential-oil-based treatment of Thymol gel. In addition to using SCREENED bottom boards which Ross Conrad explains in his book.
    Here is a link to the web site of University of Florida which has allot of good information about mites & how to treat for them on video’s.
    http://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/honeybee/extension/index.shtml

    P.S. Bees can be worked without veil, gloves & bee suits & without being stung. Believe it or not.
    I learned how from Ormond & Harry Aebi. I have been doing it for 40 years. But I cannot say I have never been stung. And I would recommend a beginner us them.

    Best wishes to you, Greg

  17. Greg — I’m glad you told me about your experience with Apiguard. Varroa mites seem to be the bane of beekeepers everywhere. We do have screened bottom boards — I think they’re becoming the industry standard — but I know we’re still going to have to be vigilant. As for the protective garb, I’m sure your right. The people who don’t use it are the people who don’t worry about getting stung, not the people who don’t believe they’re going to be stung. Thanks for the references and the enthusiasm!

  18. Hi, my name is Rodney, I too am starting beekeeping this year. One resource that I have spent days and days reading over is a little website by a fellow in Eastern Nebraska named Michael Bush. I’m not sure of the exact time frame but Michael has been a beekeeper for over 30 years. Initially he spent a lot of time and money worrying about what most beekeepers worry about, the moths, the mites,the mice, the diseases etc. However over the years he began to do “less” work with the bees, and allowed the bees to do more for themselves. He also did a lot of observing (he suggests investing in or building an observation hive early on) On his site at http://www.bushfarms.com/bees.htm he describes a lot of what he has seen and how he manages bees. I won’t go into it all but a few things that are notable and that i’m going to try this year are top entrances and natural bee cell size through foundationless frames. In his experience he says that these things have reduced and at times removed most of his beekeeping problems including the mites, the mice, the moths etc. Just thought i’d share this at the very least you may enjoy the reading as much as I have.

    Rodney

  19. Bruce Eickmeyer says:

    Anyone interested in keeping bees should read the late, great George Imirie”s pink pages.

  20. Rodney — Thanks for a great reference. I spent some time on the Bush Farms site, and I think he makes a compelling case for several things — foundationless frames among them. Naturally, I’m reading all this as our completed hives sit outside awaiting our bees, so most of our decisions are already made, but there’s always next hive. Good luck with your new hives. I hope you’ll keep me posted on how you do.

    Bruce — Thanks for yet another excellent reference. You gotta love Imirie. The trouble, though, is that there are so many different opinions out in the beekeeping world. Rodney sent me to read a guy who pumps for foundationless frames, and then I read Imirie, who uses plastic foundation. This is my first foray into bees, and I’m finding it very hard to sort through it all.

  21. Believe me I understand the frustration of sorting through all the opinions and Information. The best I can tell from everything I’ve read so far is that if you ask 5 different Beekeepers their opinion on a subject related to beekeeping expect to get 10 different answers, lol, and none of them is entirely right or wrong, just all different and each with usefull tidbits. With these little live critters there are a million and one variables, and ultimately it will be the buzzing ladies who decide the final direction. All we can do as “Beeks” is to lend them a hand in doing their job.

  22. Another great source fo r info and chat ishttp://www.beesource.com. I use the forums for questions and research along with the "Build It Yourself" link for woodworking plans. You will also find lots of references and links to the Bush site. Good luck

  23. Hi Tamar
    I thought I might give you an update on my bees. Last mid April my one & only hive swarmed several times at least 6 that I observed. Twice they went back to their hive. Four times I caught the swarms & combined them into one hive #2. Hive number two has required 9 yes, nine medium 6 5/8″ supers for honey storage. About mid July I thought hive #2 could use more honey storage space so I started extracting honey so that I might give them more empty supers as nine where all that I had on hand, also all nine of the supers I gave them were new i.e. new foundation, wooden supers & frames. As of today I have extracted five 5 medium supers for a total of 9+ gallons or about 110 lbs. of honey. And I have another 2-3 supers yet to extract in addition to anything more the bees have refilled in the five supers I had already extracted.
    Rather amazing amount of honey for the bees to make & in such a short time! Also I use (as per Ormond Aebi’s my beekeeping teacher’s design) only ONE, yes, 1 full depth brood chamber & a queen excluder. I certainly am awed by what these bees have done & only since mid April. Rather hard to believe & I have watched the bees do it all. REJOICE! as Ormond would say.
    Hope you are having as good a time with your bees as I am. Bee Well, Greg