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Monday, March 30, 2015

Back in Bees

I dabbled in beekeeping about 13 or 14 years ago I guess. My last honey from the final harvest lasted until this past year, and according to the lid it was the summer of 2002. But besides getting a plethora of honey, at that time I'd decided the bees were more trouble than they were worth, especially after all the colonies at Pat & Elaines (I think I had three and they had three or four, I can't remember for sure) failed to overwinter.

I had to get in my pickup (I had one back then) and drive over to their place to work the bees, which were in conventional Langstroth hives. I recall having to give courses of antibiotic laced sugar to ward off foulbrood diseases, as well as the mentholated cake that protects against veroa and trachial mites. Which had to be applied at a different time from the antibiotics, which had to be applied I think two or three times at a specific interval. I don't know, like I say, it's been a day or two but the spring of 2003 came around, I had couple hundred pounds of honey in my basement, enough to make many batches of mead, and buying more packages of bees and starting the chore over again just didn't make sense.

But these days, what with our 36 raised garden beds, fruit trees (a peach, an apricot, two dessert apples, two cider apples, three hardy figs), assorted berries, well, we need pollinators in Lobsterland.

We get some, the peach tree was being visited by a couple dozen bees today, so someone probably has a colony within a mile of my house, that's about the range limit. Or my friend Patrick thinks maybe there are wild bees somewhere in the area. My understanding has been that with the rise of the various mites, foulbrood diseases and so on, that wild honeybees were essentially extinct. Years ago when I got into it, an old time beekeeper said up into maybe the 1980s, people would call beekeepers when they spotted swarms, and beekeepers would go capture the swarm and install it in a hive.

Swarming bees scare civilians because they imagine they're going to go bad-movie killer bee any minute, though lacking a home to defend swarm bees are the most docile bees you'll ever meet. But anyway, the way this guy told it, when people called him the past few years saying they had a swarm or bees setting up shop on their property where they didn't want them, he didn't even go out to check. It was never honeybees, it was always some other type of bee. There's lots of kinds of bees, and as far as I know they're pretty much all beneficial pollinators, but a beekeeper is interested in the apis genus exclusively (and really only a handful of species of that).

So I tried last year to find a beekeeper to just park a hive in my back yard, and didn't hit pay dirt. Then I thought to ask my friend Patrick, who's been keeping several hives at the Switzer Community Farm in Westside. I'd heard they were losing their lot to development, and while I think their eviction has been delayed maybe another season, I thought perhaps Patrick would have a hive or two needing a home.

I remember all the work that went into building those Langstroth hives, and no small expense to boot, so I had kind of ruled out getting back into the beekeeper thing on my own. Patrick obliged, bringing over a top-bar hive. Even went half on the expense of the colony, so at $75 I'm definitely getting into the game as cheaply as you can, a borrowed hive and half price bugs. I still have my old bug-baff and gloves, the only equipment I might need here that I don't presently own is a smoker.

The top-bar design, he's played with it as well as Langstroth and Warre. Of the three he thought the top-bar would be most suited to my situation. Like the Warre, it's a more natural setup for the girls than a Langstroth. The Langstroth was genius when it was developed in that it allowed non-destructive harvest (not having to basically wipe out a colony to get the honey), and it allowed a more industrial production setup. You pull the supers off, cut the caps off the frames and put them in a centrifuge and spin the honey out, then put the frames back in the supers. But apparently what's easier on the beekeeper is harder on the bees, and from what Patrick says they need far less medication and suffer far fewer maladies in hives that more closely imitate their natural home (such as a hollowed out log or tree stump).

With the top bar hive, you're probably leaving more honey in the hive for the bees to sustain themselves (meaning they're getting less of their nutrition from sugar water the beekeeper supplies), and that probably helps with the bees being happy and healthy as well. We probably won't harvest any honey (perhaps one or two combs) the first year, so it'll be less productive honey-wise than what I'd get out of a Langstroth. But there's significantly less maintenance to do. And it's right in the back yard, no having to drive a half hour to tend them.

The other charm of this setup, from my point of view, is the carpentry is considerably less involved. Just looking at this one, I can see how easy it would be to build a few more. And the space I have for them, I could easily put four to six of these back there if I were inclined to do so.

In another week or so our package of bees should arrive and we'll pour them in (I'll try to shoot video of that process, I remember it being visually very interesting).

The aluminum you see is a separator to keep the colony building in the front initially. Then it comes out and they build their way back. When you harvest honey, you pull up the strips with the comb from one end and break off the comb, then return the bar to the opposite end. It's pretty slick.

Oh, and I can hear the nervous nellies wondering about the menace to the neighborhood my little box might pose. Relax. Honeybees are purely beneficial insects, and they really only sting to defend their hive. Walk up and give a swift kick to the supports on this guy, yeah, they'll sting the shit out of you. Hang out in the first few feet in front of the mouth, you'll get buzzed plenty as they fly past you on their way to get food and water. But mostly you won't even know your next door neighbor has bees if you don't know what those white boxes are. If my neighbors notice anything, it's likely to be that their fruit trees are more productive.

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