I have no objection to slave labor of the animal variety. Our chickens wouldn’t exist unless we humans had long ago endeavored to domesticate them for their eggs and their meat, and I think we’ve struck a deal with them. Our end of the bargain is to give them a good life and a humane death. Their end is to lay eggs and taste good.

We’re making a similar deal with our turkeys, only without the egg part. It would be the same with any other animal we raise for food. We provide food, shelter, and, we hope, some modicum of happiness. They take advantage of these amenities, and then ultimately give us back the life we gave them in the first place, sometimes providing eggs or milk along the way.

The animals, though, have no say in the matter. If they don’t like the deal, there’s not much they can do. It’s like one of those elections in totalitarian countries – we’re the only choice they have. They can’t really make a break for it, since they’re poorly equipped for life in the wild, and when the time comes for making the ultimate sacrifice, there’s no negotiating. There’s no appeal to a civil court system or board of arbitration. However good a deal it is, it’s a deal we enforce by fiat, despotically.

Totalitarian, indeed.

Bees, though, are different. They can survive perfectly well without our intervention. In fact, if it turns out that the captive breeding of bees (which has only happened in the last fifty-some years), has some role in colony collapse disorder, we will be able to say that they survived much better without us. There’s nothing we do for bees that they can’t do for themselves.

They can also take off, and head from greener pastures, any time they feel like it. Successful beekeeping is all about providing a more hospitable home than your bees could find in a hollow tree. They need to decide to stay.

It’s lucky, then, that they don’t know what those two little boxes on top of their hive are for.

A hive frame. The white cells on top are honey. The darker cells below are brood. The fuzzy spot is on the camera lens.

One of our hives, Big Bee, is doing so well that we added two honey supers a couple of days ago. (Little Bee seems to be fine, but it’s a bit behind.) We’d added the second hive body about a few weeks before, and when we checked it last week the frames were almost all drawn out with comb, and the center seven or eight were quite full with brood and capped honey.

That’s the point at which you’re supposed to give them a new area in which to store their honey, and the two shallow boxes on top of the hive serve that purpose. The bees naturally fill the upper combs with honey and the lower combs with brood, so we can expect that the two honey supers will have almost nothing but honey in them.

Many beekeepers use a queen excluder – a screen that workers fit through but the queen doesn’t – between the top hive body and the bottom super to make sure no eggs are laid upstairs. Our local veteran beekeepers work successfully without one, though, so that’s the route we’re going.

Because there aren’t many plants that bloom in July, it’s late for optimal honey flow. We’re not sure how long it’ll take the bees to fill out the supers, and we’re resisting the urge to check on them every few days.

Right now, I suspect the bees are thinking their accommodations are pretty luxurious. We’ve given them two completely empty boxes in which to store their honey – that’s like giving a packrat a shed. When we wait for them to fill those boxes and then take them away, though, I wouldn’t blame them for hightailing it to the nearest hollow tree.

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  1. Oh man, good luck with all that. I’m kind of keeping bees vicariously through you guys because I so want to keep bees but decided next year- there’s only so much I can do this first year. Bees and chickens, 2011.

    Your beehive is cute, though. I like the bee on the outside. Do you guys ever worry about skunks?

  2. We need your arbitration on this: If bees are essentially undomesticated, do they count under the “one new species a year” rule?

    Mike says no because he wants me to start keeping them now. I say yes empahtically because I can’t fence them in or force them to stay (unlike sheep or chickens) so I must be even more clued up to provide the right habitat to ensure they want to stay. I am using this post in defense of my position.

    I didn’t realise that humans have only been captively breeding bees for such a short time. There’s always interesting facts to be gleaned from your posts.

  3. Here in Vermont–in addition to mites, colony collapse disorder, and the lure of hollow trees–beekeepers contend with the periodic attentions of black bears. At least you and your bees are safe from that last trouble there on Cape Cod. I haven’t seen any bruins on your VarmintCam. Yet.

  4. Paula — I highly recommend bees. They’re fascinating, and relatively low maintenance. The hardest part is not going in all the time to check how they’re doing. As for skunks, I haven’t seen any on the property, but they’re all over the Cape so I assume they come through here. If we see signs of them trying to get in, we’ll have to take steps, but we haven’t had trouble so far.

    Jen — I’d say bees definitely count toward the one-species rule. The idea that they wouldn’t because they’re technically undomesticated seems like pure sophistry to me. The man wants bees, and he’s grasping at rhetorical straws. On the other hand, every one who has ostensibly adopted the one-species rule has violated it within a matter of months, so what the hell.

    I believe, though, that you want to start in the spring. I’m sure there are ways to do it in the fall — an experienced beekeeper could tell you how, no doubt — but I think spring’s easier, and had a greater chance of success. So, next spring? Yes?

    As for the breeding in captivity, I think the whole idea’s fascinating. Until about 50 years ago, bees were simply caught in the wild, and then hives were split or queens taken from existing hives. Then they figured out how to breed queens in captivity, and the impact that’s had on the gene pool is one of the things that may contribute to colony collapse disorder. Just about every other domesticated animal we have has been bred selectively for hundreds, or even thousands, of years, and we’ve learned to do it well. But we’re still on the steep part of the learning curve with bees.

    Tovar — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen pictures of hives destroyed by bears and been grateful that we don’t have them here on the Cape. It would definitely be cool to catch one on the VarmintCam, but I’ll trade that for not worrying about total hive devastation.

  5. July is a slow month for nectar flows, but do you think you will have a fall flow from asters, goldenrod, etc.? Here in Kentucky, the fall flow is dark and strong tasting as honey goes, thus prefered by the beekeepers, but it can really help the girls make it through winter if we leave it on the hives. We have had issues with skunks, oppossums, raccoons, and stray dogs, but so far no un-bear-able encounters here. The cage live traps work well, even with skunks, but releasing skunks from them can be more nerve racking than bees inside the veil. The Fish and Wildlife people are now confirming that we have black bears in this area, so I may take on the anti-bruin electric fence project this fall. Are Small Hive Beetles present in Cape Cod yet? I still have not had an issue with them, but anytime now it is going to happen.

    I really enjoy your blog. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

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