Why are my bees going crazy?!

It happens to all beekeepers.

You’ve done your homework (you think) on backyard beekeeping. You built (or ordered) a hive. You received your bees, and even managed to get them into your hive without getting stung!

And then it happens…right around dinnertime…your bees go CRAZY!

Are they swarming? Do they hate their new hive? Are they going to all fly away? Did something get in the hive that shouldn’t be there? WHAT’S GOING ON?!?!?!

Relax, new-bee. (See what I did there?) Your bees are most likely just participating in their first training flight.

A training flight is how new, adolescent bees learn to remember where the hive is when they first go off foraging. It usually happens an hour or two before sunset, and it’ll happen just about every sunny day for the lifetime of your hive. The bees you are seeing are taking their first flights outside the hive, and you’ll notice they’re all facing in exactly the same direction, towards the hive.

Basically, they’re imprinting the hive’s location in reference to the sun and also what their hive looks like from the outside. And more importantly, they’re doing just fine. The show lasts for about 20-30 minutes, and then your bees will head back in the hive, ready to begin their lives as foragers from there on out.

So fear not, beekeeper. This will be a long, weird journey of bee ownership, and about 90% of the time, you’re not going to have any idea what these little buggars are doing. But the training flight need not be one of your worries.

Why The Internet-Famous “Flow” Hive Is a Terrible Idea

Because I’m a beekeeper, anytime someone hears something interesting about bees, they tend to tell me about it.  For that reason, I’ve probably been sent the Indiegogo page for the Flow Hive well over twenty times by now.

And I’m not the only one, apparently.  The thing has raised a startling $12 million dollars so far.  It’s one of the most successful crowd funded ideas, ever.

But whenever someone sends me this “really great idea,” I have to sigh, and calmly explain to them why it’s a really, really bad idea.

The Flow Hive is nicely engineered, and when it comes to efficiently harvesting honey, I’ll admit it’s a novel concept. But harvesting honey is an infinitesimally small part of being a beekeeper, in the grand scheme of things.

Last weekend, for example, we harvested six pints of honey from our hive.  The harvest took place as part of a larger effort to re-queen our hive in order to keep it healthy. The overall time we spent working the hive that day?  Three hours. The total time devoted to harvesting honey? Five minutes.

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The hubby, inspecting a frame of brood.

And that’s the problem.  A LOT MORE WORK goes into beekeeping than simply harvesting. Put in the hands of inexperienced and untrained beekeepers, these Flow Hives are going to result in a whole lot of sick and dead bees.

The main premise of these hives is that you can have “honey on tap” able to harvest whenever you like.  One problem: in order to stay healthy, your bees need their honey too.  They need it to feed themselves through the winter, through storms, and through months when pollen is hard to come by. If you harvest it and leave the bees without their source of sustenance, the bees will become weaker and will be more susceptible to pests and diseases. Or, they’ll just starve completely, and die.

Further, the millions who have bought these hives for the promise of beekeeping without all the hassle are going to be in for a nasty surprise.  Keeping a healthy hive means checking on your bees at least monthly during the working season to make sure your queen is productive, that you don’t have mites or foul brood affecting your hive, that there’s adequate spacing, etc. It’s part of the responsibility of keeping bees.

One unhealthy hive can affect all other hives within a three mile radius. And when bee populations are already declining as a result of colony collapse disorder, the last thing our fragile pollinators need are a bunch of inept hipster “wanna-bees” growing bored of their hives while their bees languish and die.

I don’t begrudge the guys who created the Flow Hive. It’s a neat idea, and, in the hands of a capable and knowledgeable beekeeper, it could work.

But the mass marketing of these things to people who have no idea what they’re doing?  That idea needs to buzz off.

Beekeeping 101: Replacing Your Queen Bee

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Our new queen in her insertion cage. She’s the one with the blue dot.

There ain’t no drama like queen bee drama cause queen bee drama don’t stooooooppp.

When we went into our hive for the first time this spring to see how the bees were doing after the winter, we got a nasty surprise.  Our queen had gone rogue. Meaning, our original queen – the one we got with our nuc – had died, been killed, or swarmed and flew away.  Anyways, she wasn’t there anymore.  Instead, we had a new queen.

And not to sound a little Deliverance-y about it, but we didn’t know who this new queen had been mating with. *Cue banjo music.*

You see, in Texas, about 20% of the wild bees in the area are Africanized bees, aka “killer bees”.  And when our new rogue queen went out to mate (which is what all queens must do before they can start laying brood) there’s a good chance she may have mated with the Africanized bees, which are more aggressive, less mite-resistant, and not as good at producing honey as our specially-bred queens.

So…we had to kill her.

Except first, we needed a new queen.  So, we ordered one from our local apiary, Beeweaver Apiaries.  Unfortunately, since we were ordering late in the season, we couldn’t pick up our new queen until this week, meaning we’ve missed a good portion of the spring honey flow harvesting season.

But, as of today, we got our new queen and were ready to get in our hive to find (and then kill) the old queen. This, we found out, was easier said than done.  The control queens are easy to spot – they have a marker on their back that corresponds to the year (2015 is blue.) But as for our rogue queen…we had to spot her only by her slightly larger body, thicker back legs, and pointed butt.  And we needed to find her among about 50k other worker bees.

The whole process was slow going and resulted in more than a few stings for my hubby, our main beekeeper.  However, at the end of the day, we were able to insert our new queen (kept in her protective wood and sugar cage, which keeps the worker bees from killing her for a few days before her nubile queen pheromones intoxicate them) AND we were able to steal two frames of honey, resulting in about six pints of the good stuff!

We’ll give this gal about a week to settle in, then go in to check on her and see about harvesting a few more frames…we’ve got Christmas presents to fulfill, after all!

Anyone else replaced a queen this season?  Tell us about it in the comments!

So…how much honey does a beehive produce?

photo 1 (9)It’s about the eight-month anniversary of this blog.  Hooray!  And since that time, one thing has been very consistent. I get a LOT of search traffic from the terms:

  • “How much honey does a hive make?”
  • “Beginner Beekeeping Guide”
  • “How much does honey weigh?”
  • “Backyard beehive setup”
  • “Laws and restrictions backyard beekeeping”
  • “How hard is beekeeping?”

So, I figured I’d set up a little FAQ to keep the search engines happy while also providing some good ol’ fashioned education.

1.  What’s our beekeeping setup?

We have a pretty standard backyard beekeeper setup – two brood boxes, two honey supers.  We got the bees as a “nuc” mean “nuclear family” – essentially we bought a smaller group of bees that could, with the help of a productive queen, build a very large hive if given the right amount of time and resources. We hope that by next year, our hive is big enough that we can do a split and/or catch a swarm to set up a second hive.

(Click “continue reading” to see more beekeeping FAQs!) Continue reading “So…how much honey does a beehive produce?”

Backyard Beekeeping 101: Our First Honey Harvest

Honey in mason jars

This weekend, for the first time ever, we harvested honey from our backyard beehive.  I found it incredibly exciting – and I was shocked at just how much honey our little hive had produced – we ended up with just under THREE GALLONS (!!!) of honey (which I canned in half-pint glass jars, for gifts).

photo 3 (5)So how did we get the honey out?  Well, it was a learning experience for us too!  First, Carl (in his very sexy beekeeping garb) smoked the bees, and started inspecting the honey supers.  We were looking for capped honey, which is light yellow and wax-covered.  What we wanted to avoid were any frames that might hold brood (slightly raised, capped dark tan or brown colored comb) or uncapped honey (no wax cap on top).

From our two honey supers (each of which has 8 frames) we were able to identify 6 frames that were ready to be harvested.  The rest, we left for the bees to help sustain them in times of low pollen. Next, we cut the comb from the frames over our extractor box – essentially, a small tub with a sieved bottom, a nylon filtering membrane, and then a larger tub with a spiggot at the bottom.

photo 1 (14)After cutting the comb, the honey slowly drained through our extractor until we were able to jar it.  The comb we squeezed to release as much honey as possible, and are now storing in tupperware until I can use it to make soaps and candles (more on that in an upcoming post!)

We *may* get one more small harvest before winter, otherwise, this’ll be it until about March. But considering how low maintenance the bees are, I’m calling it a huge win.  And bonus – once I’ve made the soap, Christmas presents for the family are officially DONE.

Have questions about harvesting your honey or backyard beekeeping?  Ask away in the comments!

Backyard Beekeeping 101: Making Your Own Brood Boxes

As I mentioned in a previous post, Carl and I are enjoying our first season as backyard beekeepers. This weekend, an inspection of the hive showed us that our bees have been quite busy!  In just a few short months, our bees had nearly completely filled their existing brood boxes.

Carl builds a Langstroth beehive brood box
Cutting the notches for the joints

So, Carl got to work building a new brood box.  Of course, you can buy pre-fab brood boxes from bee supply stores – the empty, unassembled boxes + shipping costs will run you about $35-$40.  But since Carl had some scrap pine lying around and will use just about any excuse to play with his table saw, he decided to make his own.

To do so, you’ll need a dado blade set – essentially, a circular blade that is roughly 1/2″ thick – in order to make most of the cuts. First, you’ll want to cut your boards down to the appropriate size, using a table saw.  Next, if you’ll be making a Langstroth hive (where the joints fit together like a jigsaw puzzle), you’ll need to make a jig to use with your dado blade set and a clamp in order to get the spacing right.

Next, cut the hand holds and frame rests, before eventually cutting your joints.  Finally, affix your sides together, securing with finishing nails and a bit of wood glue (and use an L-square to keep it straight!) The goal is to get a completely air-tight seal so that your bees can spend as little time as possible sealing up holes and instead keep on producing honey. (Click “Continue Reading” to see more!) Continue reading “Backyard Beekeeping 101: Making Your Own Brood Boxes”

Backyard Beekeeping: An Introduction

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Back in May, I became the proud co-parent of a few hundred or so bees.  (By now, we probably have a few thousand.)

Bees.  Yes, beeeeeesss.

And since then, we’ve had a lot of people ask exactly how to get started in this whole thing, so I thought I’d share what I know. Keep in mind though – we’re still learning as well!

First of all, before you do anything else – find a local mentor.  Yes, there are tons of videos on YouTube, and those will be helpful.  But there’s nothing that can substitute for having someone you can call up when your bees start doing something new or you’re not sure how to use a piece of equipment.

Carl also went to Beekeeping 101 class at Round Rock Honey, which offers classes around Texas, California, and in Madison, Wisconsin; there are other similar schools around the country. You can also find local beekeeping groups in many areas that have frequent meetups and online discussion forums. (Click “continue reading” to see more!) Continue reading “Backyard Beekeeping: An Introduction”