Beekeeping 101

Taking off a perfect frame of honey

The best way to jump-start a conversation at a party is to tell people you are a beekeeper. Inevitably, people will barrage me with questions about my hobby and how they always thought of becoming a beekeeper themselves. Most people don’t have a clue of what is involved and for people who are intrigued but don’t know where to start, the following pointers should help you decide.

A frame of capped honey

How To 

If you are really thinking about beekeeping, first learn all you can about the basics from experienced beekeepers.  Oregon Ridge Nature Center conducts a local course by the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which is called the ‘Short Course in Beekeeping’.  Starting in the early spring for 6 weeks and concluding with a delivery of a package of bees which you take home and install, this will jump start your hobby. Hands on demonstrations in a communal beehive will give you a good idea of how to set up your own apiary. The instructor is the State Apiary Inspector who will teach you basic bee biology, management of colonies, and extraction of honey, or as he describes it ” a full year of beekeeping”.

Join a bee club where you can get a mentor and support, and they order in Nucs for you to pick up

An excellent starter course with lots of reference materials available and encouragement and mentoring from experienced beekeepers, I was primed and ready to go when completed. Even if you are not interested in starting up a colony, the course is fascinating. If you don’t live in MD,  just search for a local beekeeping group to take courses from.  Increasingly, they are being held all over the country.  Attending one of these courses will help you to become a successful beekeeper.

Cross section of a standard hive
Peeking into the spinning extractor
Freshly extracted honey and beeswax

Cost

The expense of starting up a hive is considerable-hive bodies, feeders, the bee suit and hat, smoker, and various beekeeping tools will run a minimum of $600 to $1200.  For all the bells and whistles, it will cost considerably more. A good extractor alone could set you back $1000. I don’t own an extractor as I rent it for a reasonable sum of $10 from our local beekeeping association.  I would advise starting with two hives so you have a backup if one bombs. I sell my honey but only collect a fraction of the cost of what it takes to set up and maintain my hives.  Also, don’t forget that you will be buying many 20 lb bags of sugar a season to feed your bees! So, don’t consider this a money-maker –  more like a money pit!

 

You have to feed your bees sugar water in the spring and fall to keep them going

The initial investment is steep but once you have your basic equipment, the cost levels off. You can add other items that you need later on, such as solar wax melter, honey strainer, pollen/propolis traps, and a long list of beekeeping paraphernalia, which you won’t need right away.

Basic beekeeping equipment for sale

You can also buy used equipment from a local beekeeper to cut down on your start-up costs but make sure that the equipment is disease free. The cost of your initial package of bees with a queen will run around $145. A Nuc, which I prefer, is a miniature beehive with a laying/working queen will run you more like $170. By attending the ‘Short Course’, experienced beekeepers can help you to obtain the proper equipment that you need to get started.

Setting up and leveling two new hives
Knocking the package bees into my newly set up hives
Just hived up two packages of bees
A healthy beehive

How much work is involved?

Another question that is asked of me frequently is ‘How much time is involved?’, in maintaining your colonies. The lion’s share of your time is spent in the spring to make sure that the hive is happy and healthy. I spend at least 4-5 hours a week in the early spring, feeding, inspecting, and manipulating the hives. Manipulating the hives just means you are pulling your hive bodies or boxes apart, making sure that the queen is healthy and producing, and that there is sufficient room for her to lay eggs in the frames.

Caged queen ready to be introduced to the hive

Later when there is a ‘honey flow’, which means the favorite flowers that bees prefer are blooming in abundance, you need to add extra supers, or hive bodies  to your hives to handle the extra honey. Go to my post on Honey Flow to see exactly what this means. Bees normally will not produce excess honey the first year that they are hived as they are just starting out building a new home, but will produce extra in subsequent years. In the fall, I spend time taking off the supers (honey storage boxes), extracting the honey and feeding and weather proofing them to get through the winter.  I set aside one entire day to remove and extract my honey sometime in August or September. Throughout the winter, I clean and renovate my old hive bodies which become gummed up with propolis that the bees deposit on the boxes to seal them tight.

Adding feeders in the fall

Will they sting?

I have noticed a greater presence of honey bees in my flower and vegetable gardens and generally around my property. The bees use a nearby pond next to my patio for their water source, so the honeybees are very close to where people frequent. The hives are set about 100 feet from my house.

I created a meadow around my beehives

I have been stung many times as I manipulate the hives or extract the honey because the bees are protecting their territory and that is a natural response.  But if I am working in the garden or just sitting on my patio near the pond they never bother me. Guests have never been stung either.  Honeybees are non-aggressive unlike yellow jackets and wasps, and on their daily trips to collect pollen, nectar, or water, they will ignore you and go about their business. I have noticed improved production of my veggie garden and love that aspect of beekeeping.

Bee on butterfly weed

How about my neighbors?

Neighbors are definitely a consideration when you start your own hives. The best way to approach this is to let them know of your intent and to educate them about bees, i. e. – they rarely sting and will not cause problems with their family. I also screen my hives with some spruce trees so that they are not out front and center of my property and there is a buffer between my bees and the neighbors. It also helps if you present your neighbors with a gift of honey!

The gift of honey

Most people are fascinated with beekeeping and are quite curious about what you are doing.

The tall boxes are called supers and contain excess honey

Do you get honey? 

I have 3 hives now on 2 acres of property.  I normally will harvest about 150 pounds of honey from my hives each season and sell it to friends and give it as gifts. It is a fascinating hobby that you can practice on smaller pieces of property, even in a city.

My winter hives

By producing your own honey, you are getting a natural, unadulterated product that has no additives. Read my post about buying honey. Your own honey contains nectar from local wildflower sources  that is supposed to help people with allergies to pollen. I use my honey and beeswax not only as a sweetener, but for healing and cosmetic purposes.

Lavender scented body butter

Managing your own hives also makes good garden sense as it increases the pollination of your garden and will improve the yield of your vegetable garden.  Find out which plants to plant to attract bees at Planting these For Bees. Beekeeping is a big investment in time and money.  Hopefully, reading this will help push you to the tipping point in deciding if this hobby is for you.

Picking up bee nucs

Remember, that the honey bee is not native. Honey bees were brought over with the early colonists across the ocean to join the native American bees. But the European honeybee is the only one that produces honey.

Installing a package of bees in the spring

Pets

If you have dogs, especially black dogs, bees seem to target them. My previous border collie Gypsy, was so terrified of bees that as soon as I got my bee hood out of the shed, she fled! My current Border, Tori is totally unconcerned when I look at the bees but I have seen the bees go right for her and burrow into her fur and drive her crazy. So, now I just put Tori in the house when I open the bees up so that she is not tormented.

Bees do not like border collies!

If you live in areas where bears are common, beware! Winnie the Pooh’s favorite food was “Hunney” and bears are drawn to honey like kids to candy. I have relatives in Vermont who are always battling black bears.

A bee swarm on my property; Go to It is that time of year again

All the bad stuff

Yes, there are lots of drawbacks.  Your bees will get diseases and mites.  Mites are like little ticks that suck their blood and weaken the bees. As for disease, I couldn’t believe the number of maladies that bees can contract and pests that they attract! There is foulbrood, chalkbrood, colony collapse, wax moths, small hive beetles, deformed wing disorder, and numerous others. The list goes on and on and every year, it seems that a new malady is added! There are various chemical remedies and some organic ones also.  But it seems you are always trying to stay ahead of the latest disease.  You deal with these problems as it happens.

If that isn’t enough, queens are notoriously fickle and hard to find in your hive. The overall health of your hive depends on the state of your queen.  She must be young and fertile to lay those thousands of eggs a day!

Bees are making a new queen which is located in a peanut shaped cell

To be a good beekeeper, you should not have a fear of being stung and you should also be strong. The hive bodies when full of honey can easily weigh more than 50-80 pounds. You have to be able to lift them up and move those heavy boxes around by yourself.

Hives are heavy; these nucs weigh at least 35 pounds each

But beekeeping is such a rewarding and fascinating hobby, I continue to do it. I have been a beekeeper for over 20 years and feel that I have only scratched the surface in learning about this hobby. Maybe in another 10 years, I will feel that I know more about what makes bees tick, but I doubt it. It is always an adventure!

I am helping my neighbors set up their own hives

 

 

Beeswax-Honeybee Gift

Beeswax pillar candle from  https://www.etsy.com/shop/PeaceBlossomCandles
Beeswax pillar candle from
https://www.etsy.com/shop/PeaceBlossomCandles

A beekeeper for over 15 years, I have accumulated pounds of beeswax as a welcome byproduct of my honeybees.  A substance formed by insects, it is simply amazing that it has been in use for millennia, even found in tombs of the pharaohs, and caulking the ships of Vikings. Think of it as the duct tape of ancients! Here are some interesting beeswax facts.

Beehives and giant birdhouse at Ladew Topiary Gardens
Beehives and giant birdhouse at Ladew Topiary Gardens

 Beeswax Facts

  • By consuming honey, honeybees produce beeswax. It takes about 8.5 pounds of honey to produce one pound of beeswax. When the bees make one pound of beeswax into comb, it will hold 22 pounds of honey.
  • Honeybees collect nectar from approximately two million flowers to make one pound of honey. If you do the math, nectar is collected from 17 million flowers to make one pound of beeswax!
  • Secreted in the form of a scale about the size of a pinhead by worker bees, there are eight wax secreting glands located under its abdomen. It takes 800,000 of these scales to make one pound of beeswax.
Beeswax scale pictured on the bottom row as clear flakes -from Wikipedia
Beeswax scale pictured on the bottom row as clear flakes -from Wikipedia
  • The beeswax scale when first secreted is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, nothing like the golden brown aromatic final product.
Beeswax cakes from my hives which has been melted down and cleaned
Beeswax cakes from my hives which has been melted down and cleaned
  • Beeswax obtains its natural color of golden-yellow due to propolis, which is basically tree sap that bees collect to seal up their hive, and from pollen brought into the hive.
  • Beeswax obtains its distinctive aroma from the storage of honey and pollen in the honeycomb. The proximity of the honey gives the beeswax the strong smell of honey.
  • Over time, beeswax will develop a whitish coating called bloom. This is the result of softer oils rising to the surface and can be removed with a soft cloth or hair dryer. The appearance of bloom is  proof that you have 100% beeswax.
  • Some various uses of beeswax are: candle making, batik art, leather products conditioning, waxing wooden windows and drawers, quilting(thread strengthener), cosmetics, furniture polish, soap, and fly tying.
  • Beeswax is very stable; samples of thousands of years old beeswax is identical to new wax.
  • The oldest known notebooks used sheets of beeswax  for pages. Recovered from ancient Mediterranean  shipwrecks, stylus marks pressed in the wax pages can still be read after centuries on the sea floor.
  • Of 100 volatile constituents in beeswax, only 41 have been identified.
  •  Beeswax forms the oldest known dental filling.  A fragment of beeswax was found in a 6500 year old jawbone, being used to plug a gap in a tooth, predating the first recorded amalgam filling by around 5,200 years.
  • It is a wonderful furniture polisher and is what the professional antiques industry uses to beautify its furniture.
  • In the 11th century there are records of huge quantities of beeswax being used by the Church, usually in the form of candles. Every monastery and abbey had an apiary to meet this need.
  • Beeswax candles burn brighter, longer, and cleaner than any other candle. In the process of burning, the candle gives off negative ions that are known to clean the air and invigorate the body.
A perfect frame of honeycomb that is capped with wax, ready to be sliced off to remove honey filled cells
A perfect frame of honeycomb that is capped with wax, ready to be sliced off to remove honey filled cells
Removing beeswax cappings with a heated knife. The darker area is an older honeycomb that was formed earlier. The comb darkens with age.
Removing beeswax cappings with a heated knife. The darker area is an older honeycomb that was formed earlier. The comb darkens with age.

Other Uses of Beeswax

Food Storage

I found a new product called Bee’s Wrap, which is a beeswax/cloth food storage solution and is found at www.beeswrap.com. This is an innovative product which claims to be the new “old fashioned” alternative to plastic wrap. Environmentally friendly, beeswrap is a reusable cloth impregnated in beeswax that with the warmth of your hands, can be formed around pieces of cheese, bread, or cut pieces of fruit, keeping the moisture in. Once in the fridge, the cold keeps the wrap stiff and in place. Ingenious! Fully washable, the cloth can be reused over and over. I am using this for all my cheese and fruit from now on.

Beeswrap around a chunk of cheese
Beeswrap around a chunk of cheese

I wanted to see if I could make something similar with my store of beeswax. It is a ton of work to grate beeswax, but if you want the DIY method, here it is:

DIY Beeswax cloth
DIY Beeswax cloth

Basically, I cut a piece of unbleached muslin and placed it onto an aluminum foil covered cookie sheet. After evenly grating a chunk of beeswax over the fabric, I placed the cookie sheet into a preheated 170 degree oven for about 15 minutes. Making sure that the beeswax melted completely to fully saturate the fabric, I pulled the sheet out, removing the fabric from the foil immediately. When cool, I used pinking sheers to cut around the entire piece so it doesn’t fray.

I loved doing this but since this was so much work, I think that this was a good case of buying it rather than making it! Buy at Beeswrap.com.

Arts and Crafts

Beeswax can be dyed different colors and used in different applications, like modeling or sculpting. For tips on dying beeswax with natural spices, like turmeric and cinnamon, go to http://www.wikihow.com/Add-Color-to-Beeswax.

Dyed beeswax for modeling purposes
Dyed beeswax for modeling purposes

Beeswax ornaments for Christmas will literally last forever and add a faint scent of honey to the room along with pine scents from the tree.  To make an ornament, beeswax is easily melted and poured into molds and inserted with a hanger to make a beautiful Christmas ornament.

Beeswax bunny ornament
Beeswax bunny ornament
Dyed beeswax ornament rolled in cinnamon
Dyed beeswax ornament rolled in cinnamon

Candles

Beeswax candles from my hives
Beeswax candles from my hives

Candles are the most common use of beeswax for crafters, as it is easy to pour the wax into molds or roll sheets into tapers. Beeswax candles are environmentally friendly with no chemicals discharged such as benzene, styrene, toluene, acetone, and particulate matter, which paraffin candles emit polluting your indoor air.

Beeswax Candles
Beeswax Candles, on the right natural colored, on the left, bleached

Soap/Cosmetics

I love making soap using beeswax. For posts of soap making with beeswax, go to Orange Citrus Soap with Beeswax, and DIY Soap. Beeswax adds a welcome honey scent to the bars.

DIY Soap with Beeswax
DIY Soap with Beeswax

Body Butter

Body Butter is expensive to buy and I have found a very simple recipe, that prepared with just five ingredients, an immersion blender, and about 45 minutes of your time, you can make enough butter for the dry winter months ahead. Go to Luscious Honey-Scented Body Butter to see the step by step process. If you need beeswax, I found a source at http://www.beeswaxco.com/catalog/12/Bulk-Beeswax where you can buy a one ounce bar for just $2.00. For any of these projects, a small amount of beeswax goes a long way.

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Finished body butter ready to use
Finished body butter ready to use