Backyard beekeeping is catching on in the United States, and there is more pressure on local governments to relax laws that prevent people from doing so. There are many misconceptions about beekeeping, and many keepers treat the bees cruelly in their pursuit of bee products. Bees are honey hoarders, so taking some honey from a hive isn’t going to do them harm. Taking too much starves the hive during non-pollen times and is cruel. Bees are complex, fascinating, and are disappearing for unknown reasons. The most evidence to explain Colony Collapse Disorder links it to a combination of Genetically Modified crops, pesticides and herbicides, and the waves from cell phone and power towers. In other words, we are screwing them up, and we will suffer for it.
About six years ago, a bee swarm set up house in an old couch I had outdoors for my dogs to lay on. They stopped laying on it. I left the hive until I had to get rid of the couch. I was writing for the magazine Edible San Diego and interviewed a couple who were beekeepers (http://www.ediblecommunities.com/sandiego/pages/articles/summer08/secretDances.pdf ). They came over and helped me move the hive. Actually, I took photos and watched as they worked as a team. When they turned the couch over, the honeycomb hanging in contoured patterns from the springs was incredibly beautiful. I thought at the time that I understood organic beekeeping, but I doubted many of the things that I was hearing. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about working with bees without doing harm. I glean a lot of information from Organicbeekeepers@yahoogroups.com , which is a listserve that fields questions about natural beekeeping.
My son and I off loaded the heavy thing and left it in front of the Langstroth hive where the colony would be moved to. That way the bees could familiarize themselves with their surroundings and mark pollen-gathering sites while still in their comb. The other day I took apart the containers and moved the colony into the hive. It was a good thing that I did because the comb was so convoluted that the swarm would probably have suffered soon. Bees build comb hanging down from a surface, securing it to sides if it is available. They do this by festooning, which is where they hold on to each other’s legs across and down, and make wax from bodily secretions into linked chambers in perfect distances apart. The containers had been tipped over, stood up and moved over the roughly year and a half that the swarm inhabited them, and the comb was proof of it. The following image is of the container on its side.
It wasn’t a large hive, only about 15,000 bees. A large colony like what was in my couch could contain 30,000 to 60,000 bees during peak pollen season.
Feeling awful about having to disrupt the bees, but knowing that I was actually helping them (ants were also getting into their hive), I began to cut out the comb, looking for larvae, and attaching it to frames that would fit into the Langs. To do this you need a knife, empty frames and pieces of pre-cut wire, rubber bands, or I’ve heard, those jaw-like hair clips. All your equipment should be ready to go because it is very, very hot in the bee suit, the bees are angry with you and the more time you spend the more harmful for them, and your gloves are covered in honey and you stick to everything that you touch. When bees are under attack they send out a pheramone (which smells a little like banana) telling the returning workers that there is trouble. When they sting, they also release a smell that tells other bees that there is an intruder. However, it also alerts bees from other hives that there is a ruckus, and they are attracted so they can try to rob the hive of honey. Very much like looters taking advantage of an emergency.
I do use a smoker. Smoke doesn’t calm the bees, it just makes them order their priorities away from attacking you. They think that fire is imminent, so they begin gorging themselves with honey in an attempt to save as much food as possible in the event of hive destruction. I use only a little smoke because too much hurts the bees and doesn’t make them eat any faster. Mostly the smoke ends up blowing in my face the whole time. I used to not have any reaction to bee stings, but in the last couple of years I develop a large swelling with blisters, so I wear the full bee suit with thick clothes underneath despite the heat, rubber bands around the pant legs or boots, I use smoke and take allergy medication before I begin (I’m usually sneezing from hayfever anyway so it helps keep my nose from running while I’m suited up.)
The comb must be cut to fit, hanging the same way it did originally, and must be attached so that it hangs evenly. Otherwise the bees will attach it to the next frame with burr comb (comb that is used to attach honeycomb to support surfaces) and it will be hard to later remove the frames for examination without harming the bees and brood.
Comb with brood goes into the middle of the bottom box, which is larger and called a brood box. A couple of frames with honeycomb go on either side of the brood for insulation and food. The frames are spaced evenly… bees like a particular width between combs. In the second box which is shallower, called a super, more honeycomb goes in along with enough frames to fill the box. Frames are traditionally fitted with pre-made wax comb on which the bees build more comb, ensuring that the comb is straight and giving them more time into honey production rather than comb production.
Some use a plastic comb. Also, if you are extracting honey with a centrafugal extractor, the pre-made comb doesn’t break off as easily as regular comb, and it can be re-used. I’ve always wondered about this, since I’m not a large-scale honey producer and am mostly interested in giving the bees safe harbor, although I do like honey and pollination. I’ve recently learned from a seminar from the Backwards Beekeepers (http://beehuman.blogspot.com/) in Los Angeles that using empty frames is just fine. Giving the bees a place to start, like a thin line of beeswax or a popsicle stick helps. For these first two boxes I put in pre-formed wax frames… just a couple… between the moved honeycomb. In the other boxes that I’ll gradually stack on top as the hives grows, however, I’m going with empty frames. Let the bees do what they want. Also it has been shown that bees naturally make slightly smaller rounds in their comb than the ones of the pre-pressed wax foundation, and may be less suseptible to the mites that are a deadly scourge of honeybees.What comb I couldn’t fit into frames I swept clean of bees as well as I could and dropped into a covered pail for later crushing and honey extraction.
With most of the comb gone, there were still several thousand bees in the container that needed to be moved. I hadn’t seen the queen, and she may well have been in that last batch. I had to lift the container (which was big, round and heavy) and gently tap the bees into the open box.
- Tapping Them Out Into Hive
The ones that didn’t tap out I gently brushed with a bee brush.
Still more bees were on the bottom of the other container. I placed the hive lid on the ground in front of the opening to the hive like a ramp and tapped and brushed those bees onto it. Bees like to climb, so up they went into the box! There was a lot of debris in the containers such as dirt and leaves, so I had to be careful not to get too much of it into the hive with the honeycomb.
After I moved all the bees I could into the hive, I moved my equipment away and left pieces of honeycomb on the piece of plywood next to the hive. The hive stand rests on long screws, which are placed in cans of oil to prevent ants from invading the hive, so I didn’t worry about all the drips of honey being invaded. Many bees sat on the outside of the hive and waggled their bottoms in the air producing pheramone messages. One of the messages was to inform returning gatherers how to get into the new hive, another would be the state of emergency and who to look out for. I’d hate to know what they were waggling about me!
I covered the hive with a California off-set cover, which allows ventilation in our hot climate and another place for entry. The bees settled in and by this morning they were gathering pollen, cleaning up the honey and going about their business.
There is so much to say about bees, and there is so much we don’t know about them yet. Some interesting facts are that honeybees are not native to the US, and of the 3,000 types of bees they are the only ones that make honey. Almost all bees are female except a handful of drones who have the purpose in life of hopefully mating with a new queen. Worker bees start out tending their queen, where they acquire her particular pheramone, then they move up to housekeeping and then feeding larvae. When they get to middle age, they go out for their first flights and spend the rest of their lives as gatherers. That yellow blotch on your windshield is first-flight bee poo. Worker bees make the larvae develop into drones, queens or workers by feeding them different foods such as bee bread, honey and royal jelly.
If you are interested in backyard beekeeping, attend a meeting of the San Diego Beekeeping Society (http://www.meetup.com/The-San-Diego-Beekeeping-Meetup-Group/ ), which meets the third Monday of each month at 6 pm at Casa del Prado, Balboa Park, room 104. Read books such as the Barefoot Beekeeper by P. J. Chandler or Natural Beekeeping by Ross Conrad, or read this wonderful blog http://beekeeperlinda.blogspot.com/2007/06/honey-harvest-crush-and-strain.html. I live in San Diego County, and I have a permit for beekeeping.
Honeybees sting in defense of their colony, and with the sting comes part of their abdomen and they die. Here is a photo of the stinger that was left on the tip of my son’s nose while he was photographing me. Although stung through the suit many times (with the regretful loss of bee life that entailed) no sting reached me during this process.