Confessions of a Beginning Beekeeper

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Photo by Hannah Rose

Recently we switched from the Langstroth hive beekeeping method to the top bar hive.

One of the reasons I like the top bar is that it is more in keeping with a natural bee hive. The natural design is best for their survival by helping them fight off predators. You will get more honey with the Langstroth or box type of hive, which is more commercially represented, but be prepare to be well suited up each time you go into the hive.

With the top bar, even the most amateur beekeepers can go in with limited protection. For instance, no veil or gloves; two of the most hindering and clumsiest of beekeeping gear.

In addition, with the smaller output of honey in a top bar, it’s easier to determine what blossoms the honey was derived from. Anyone who needs their fruit trees pollinated and wants honey for their own use can keep a top bar hive and you don’t necessarily have to be a bee whisperer.

A lot has changed in the way of beekeeping in Hawaii. It used to be that anyone could set up some boxes and a few months later go and collect buckets of honey without too much maintenance or effort – at least for the beekeeper. That all changed when mainland pests started to arrive — mainly the SHB or small hive beetle, the varroa mite and nosema (a fungal parasite). The game totally changed on how to keep the bees healthy and alive.

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My first Langstroth hive

There are so many methods on how to go about keeping bees and they change weekly. What was thought to be working today, may not be in use tomorrow. It’s hard to keep up with the changing beekeeping methods especially if you are only maintaining one or two hives and don’t have lots of hives to learn from. It’s good to talk to professional beekeepers because they are up on the latest.

I managed to keep my bees in Langstroth hives for over a year, when most all of my neighbors lost theirs to the insurgence of pests. Eventually, I lost my bees when it rained for two months straight and it hindered my ability to check on them every two weeks which was the standard protocol at the time. I also did something quite stupid and in a tenuous situation of survival stupid can’t be recovered. They left me and they had every right to go.

My neighbors and I stopped seeing honeybees for months. How odd to be in an orchard of fruit trees and not hear them buzzing and see them doing their work. All was quiet. No longer did I have to fight them off the atemoya blossoms as I competed with them for pollen in order to hand pollinate my trees. They were gone. I started seeing more carpenter bees and small strange looking bees that I had never noticed before. All of a sudden, it became a priority to stack dry wood for the carpenter bees to make homes and reproduce.  If we didn’t have honeybees we needed some type of pollinator.

I implored to my neighbors for help. If I was the only one within a 1/2 a mile that was willing to do the work and keep bees, I felt they needed to at least chip in financially to the effort. After all, I couldn’t very well tell my bees to stay within my nine acres. They would be off pollinating flowers within a 2 mile radius. Some conscious neighbors donated old bee equipment and offered cash.

I turned down the cash after I came up with my new plan. I knew beekeepers! All I needed to do is convince them to bring hives to my land. Easier said then done because beekeepers were busy working hard to keep their bees alive and didn’t have a bee hive surplus. I heard through the coconut wireless that a beekeeper I knew had some hives stolen. Wow! Are we at the level that bees are considered worth stealing? Not only did beekeepers have to worry about 6 legged pests but two legged ones too!

My land is a nine-acre fruit orchard with over 600 fruit trees. It is totally fenced in, including barbed wire on top and bottom. I have locked gates, seven dogs and there are always at least two humans on the farm at all times. Perfect haven for beekeepers to keep bees under the current conditions. The deal was made and soon hives started to arrive. It was such a pleasure to see and hear bees again. I’d stop and stand there watching them fly from flower to flower with a deep love and appreciation. The bees were back.

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My first top bar hive

We made me a top bar hive from plans we got on the Internet. I also got a few construction tips from Jen, my friend and local beekeeper. The tidal wave of pests was over, they were not gone but the surge and learning curve was. It was time to start my own hives again. I tried to catch a swarm but the timing was off and I grew impatient.  Jen, who had gotten into beekeeping just about the same time as me, had gone professional and was now a well known natural beekeeper and owner of Paradise Nectar apiaries . I was able to purchase from her a swarm at a good price.

I am a strong believer in when you want to learn something you just do it. Sure you are going to make mistakes but you are also going to learn by doing. I read a bee book, First Lessons in Beekeeping by Dadant & Sons, twice. At the time, I couldn’t get enough of bees. I wanted to read everything I possibly could. Get your bee gear on and learn to beekeep! Over the years, I got a few young people who stayed on my farm interested in beekeeping. Once you get in a hive, it’s not rocket science.

We host young people on our farm year round, and one day about eight years ago, a man showed up with beekeeping experience. He saw our dilapidated hive boxes and he cleaned them up and had two hives going before he left. I don’t know why but after he left, I became obsessed with learning how to bee keep. Why hadn’t I been interested when he was here, I thought. But, I was interested now and nothing was going to stop me and I was going to learn.

I kept Langstroth boxes for a few years and actually harvested 15 gallons from two hives once. We just used the last of it. I was ready for a change. Something that was more natural for the bees. A hive where they could decide how much comb and what size each cell would be, not me or man.

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Jen holds up top bar with comb

Jen came by with a captured swarm and a few combs from one of her existing hives and put them in the newly constructed top bar hive. The juvenile queen stuck around for two weeks and then left. Jen brought me a new seasoned queen who began laying eggs immediately. She explained to me how fast they’d grow and they did. Every two weeks, we’d check on them to see that they were building their combs straight and cleaned up any wayward comb on the box. We’d check for the queen and see if she was laying eggs. Plus, check on the honey progress. She told me that when the box was full of bees, they’d look to swarm and to keep my eye open for any queen cups.

She was right about everything. Two weeks before the swarm we saw three queen cups and marked the bar. We were just finishing up construction on a new top bar hive when they started to gather at the entrance and hang on the outside of the box. They were running out of room and we were running out of time.

I was talking on the phone to my friend, Yeshuah, a farmer and beekeeper, when suddenly I just got up from my desk with my phone in hand and found myself about 200 ft. from where I was and not far from the hive. I heard a loud buzzing and started to look around and walk towards the sound. I walked into the clearing where I keep my hive and there they were bees everywhere flying in a huge whirlwind. What a sight to behold! My bees were swarming! I was so excited! They rose up toward the top of a black sapote tree and within minutes they settled on a branch forming a ball; and if you didn’t know it, you never would have guessed that they left the hive or where they went. I marvel at the fact that I walked to my hive, while I was on the phone, at the precise moment they swarmed. Imagine that!

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Bucket to catch the swarm

They settled pretty high up and if it wasn’t for Dan, an intern who has been living on my farm for six months, I would have left them there hoping their next stop would be one of the three swarm traps I had set up.  A swarm trap is basically a reduced-in-size bee box with a bee lure scent to attract them. Bees typically swarm first very close to their original hive and then the scouts seek out a spot they will permanently settle in within three days or so. Once the bees agree on a new hive spot, they all move there. But Dan volunteered to climb the tree fully bee-suited with a five-gallon lidded bucket to capture them.

Once in position he held the bucket under the balled up bees and shook the branch they were on very vigorously. Bees rained down through the tree branches. I couldn’t help but giggle as they were flying everywhere around me. I guess maybe most people wouldn’t be standing under the tree at this point laughing but I wasn’t afraid of the bees at all. He made two trips up into that tree to shake most of the bees into the bucket. After the first trip, we poured the bucket into the new top bar hive and then he went back for more. The trick is to get a lot of bees, at least three pounds, and the even bigger trick is to get the queen along with them.

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Dan and Yeshuah

You will soon know whether or not you got the queen because a box full of bees without a queen will fly away but if the queen is there they will stay where she is. We put a queen excluder on the box which prevents the queen from escaping. The worker bees can come and go because they are smaller and fit through the slats but not the queen. We also placed two bars from the old hive in the new box so they had comb, eggs and honey. Another attempt at keeping the bees in the new hive is to furnish it with live comb. Soon, we will go into the hive and check for her and see if she is laying and if the bees are busy building new comb. The queen excluder will eventually be taken off. If all the signs are there, then they have accepted this box as their new home.

Next, we had to go into the old hive and tidy up. Once that many bees leave there won’t be enough left to guard the comb and protect such a big hive from predators. It’s a good time to reduce and to harvest honey. Yeshuah came by and helped which was a blessing. My experience with top bar hive is very limited and she probably saved my hive that day with her knowledge and bee handling.

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Avocado honey

We were able to harvest several combs of honey that were not there two weeks ago. The honey was light and had a golden hue. Since many of my 125 avocado trees were now in bloom and have been these past two weeks,  I surmised that this honey must be avocado blossom honey. I was always puzzled at how some beekeepers labeled their honey coming from this or that fruit tree. I mean, one could see if it was a whole orchard of almonds or oranges but how were they able to detect such minute differences as to say if the honey was from a passion fruit or mountain apple in a farm full of many types of fruit trees? With the top bar hive, you could! Because the harvest are so small (not gallons) but quarts and with the ease of convenience of the hive it’s easier to check for sealed honey comb.

I know I’m no bee whisperer and sometimes when they crawl or sting me, I semi-freak out. Maybe it’s lack of experience and one day magically I will be at one with them but it’s not necessary. I will still keep at my beekeeping regardless. I really can’t imagine not having them and their being here is a gift to the farm and me.

ParadiseNectar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Confessions of a Beginning Beekeeper

  1. Thank you for sharing your insightful experience. It is good for all of us to hear about both the ups AND the downs, so we can all learn together. I hope to be keeping bees within the next year, and this post contained both helpful new information and that which reinforced other things I have read too. Thanks again!

    • Love to hear about people getting into beekeeping. Watch out it’s very addicting! I just learned a good lesson yesterday about swarms. Luckily, I was able to retrieve it one more time. I’m going to write a story on how to retrieve swarms for the novice. It’s really not rocket science.

  2. I almost cry reading this about how wonderful bees are! I am so happy I begged you to do this!! For sure you have a book here!!!

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