Homestead Buzz – Adventures in First Year Beekeeping

And…. We’re back!!

It’s been a while since we posted anything. Did you notice? Probably not. The blogshepere can be quite the noisome place, where in the cacophony of so many voices, some get lost.

Though we’ve been quiet on the blog front, our homestead has been quite a buzz.

Can you guess about what?

Well, the biggest buzz coming from the homestead is… we are now Beekeepers!!

Mr. Misty inspecting a frame from one of the Carniolan hives.

My grandpa was a beekeeper while I was growing up and I have fond memories of summer visits; my cousins and I would beg him for fresh beeswax, still laden with honey, before he’d shoo us away from the ‘danger’ of bees, one which we encountered many times as we frolicked in his yard.

Those painful stings did little to dull my fascination with these beautiful creatures and I had always hoped to one day become a beekeeper myself.

It wasn’t until we bought our homestead, last year, that hope became a very good possibility.

FIRST YEAR OF BEEKEEPING

This time last year found me on the phone with our local Community College (over an hour away from us), signing Mr. Misty and myself up for a “First Year of Beekeeping” class being taught by our local Beekeeper Association.

If you have ever considered keeping bees, I recommend you start with your local association. Beeks (a nickname for Beekeepers) are some of the nicest people, who strive to help other Beeks succeed.

First Year of Beekeeping Class

For several hours every Saturday, for six weeks, we attended the class which taught us everything we would need to know to successfully navigate our first year of beekeeping…. theoretically.

When April rolled around and we had to pick up our bees, we felt (and in some cases were) woefully unprepared.

LONG TRIP HOME

While there was still a bit of snow on the ground, we picked up our bees. The 2 hour trip home, with two boxes of bees in the cab of the truck, with their cacophony of buzzing, was nothing less than exciting…. and just slightly terrifying! There were a few escapees flying around (I’m sure they were as nervous as we were) but everyone was polite and we all made it home safely.

Feeling a bit of trepidation about having bees in the cab of the truck with us.
One of the many that covered the INSIDE of the window nearest my head.

During our classes and on that long rde home (even now to some extent), my greatest fear was inevitably doing something that would kill off our bees before we get honey next year.

Yes, that’s right, next year.

They say first-year bees are so busy building up their hive, storing food and raising brood, that the honey they make should be left to them for their wellbeing and to get them through the winter.

The white box on the left is a Nucleus of Italian Bees. The box on the right is a Package of Carniolan Bees

There are two ways to start your bee colony – “Package” or “Nucleus” (nuc for short). Being new beeks, we not only started with one of each, we started with two different races of bees. We purchased a package of Carniolans and a nuc of Italians.

There are some advantage of purchasing a “Nucleus” (called a Nuc) over a “Package”, especially if you live in a cooler climate like we do. The package contained approximately 4 pounds of bees, which came inside a small screened wooden box with the queen in a smaller box. Once we placed the bees in their hive, they quickly got to work creating wax comb in which to store pollen and nectar (food) and to give the queen a place to lay eggs (brood).

That’s the main drawback of package bees…. time.

This frame contains both food and brood… and if you look closely, you will see the Queen. The little white rice-like things in the black cells are eggs and the orange cells are pollen.

A Nuc, on the other hand, is a small box that serves as a temporary hive while the bees are being transported. The box has several established frames of food and brood and the queen and worker bees are free to roam about the box. They do tend to be a bit more expensive than a package of bees, but a nuc gives you about a three-four week jump start, which when you live in a colder climate, is important.

And, there are different races of Honey Bees, each with desirable traits depending on your preference. Some of more docile, some are more resistant to pests and disease, some are less likely to swarm, some produce more honey and others handle colder climates better.

We opted for a package of Carniolans and a nuc of Italians. Italians are known as good honey producers and easy to handle, while Carniolans are very gentle and handle cooler climates well.

I have to say, the Italians performed the best. Whether it was because they came as a nuc and had a head start or because they tend to be better honey producers, they have outperformed the Carniolans. And, they didn’t swarm…

THE SWARM

The 4th of July dawned warm and sunny. I was working on a project when Mr. Misty, with much excitement, called me outside. One of our hives, the Carniolan one, had swarmed to the fir tree close to the house. A new queen had been or was about to be crowned and the old queen, along with half the hive, swarmed in search of a new home.

Amid general confusion and consternation, we frantically tried to remember what they told us in class… the one we had taken almost 6 months prior. While Mr. Misty gathered himself and all the equipment he would need to take care of this, I made a quick call to one of our Mentors.

Just a word about our mentors: ours may live over an hour away, but they have been a tremendous support. In fact, I’m not sure we would have had such a successful year had it not been for them!!

Anyway, our mentor assured us we were doing the right things. We had to wait for the bees to settle down a bit, stop swarming all over and gather together. Thankfully they gathered to a low hanging branch, making it easier for Mr. Misty to collect them into a temporary box.

Mr. Misty and a helper cutting the bees out of the tree.
He got the majority of the bees in the box. As the bees calmed down and smelled their Queen, the rest of them entered the box.

While he was collecting the bees while in “proper” beekeeping attire, I was documenting it all with the iPad while barefoot, in shorts and a t-shirt.

What? Shorts? T-shirt? Swarming bees?

Yes. An interesting thing about swarming bees, they are actually pretty docile when they swarm.

There are several reasons a colony might decide to swarm. Not enough room to grow, undesirable hive conditions, a weak or ineffective queen – just to name a few. In our case, we never figured out the “why”.

The old Carniolan Queen took half the workers, who had filled their bellies with honey, enough to sustain them until they found a new home.  And that – fat bellies – is why swarming bees tend to be so docile. They are far too heavy and far to busy looking for a new home to really care much about bothering you.

She hung out on my finger, posing, for quite some time.

In general, bees, unlike wasps, hornets and other flying… hmmm… JERKS, really don’t want to sting you. When a honey bee stings you, it leaves the stinger behind which is connected to its innards, essentially eviscerating it and it soon dies. On the other hand, flying jerks do not lose their stinger and can (and will) continue to sting you without seeming reason or consequence.

Notice this little gal’s innards. She tried to sting me through my flannel shirt and the stinger stayed attached to her, yet still evicerated her.

Back to swarming bees…remember me mentioning that beekeeping is a fairly expensive hobby? Mr. Misty was able to capture the swarm and get them into a small hive where they were able to settle down and get comfortable while we tried to figure out where we were going to purchase a new hive on such short notice.

A basic hive consists of many components. On the bottom is a screened bottom board. On top of that goes a large box (called a deep) that holds 8-10 frames for the bees to build comb, raise brood and store food. On top of the deep is another deep which gives the bees room to grow in number. If you’re lucky enough to get honey, another box goes on top of the deep called a honey super. On top of the honey super or the deep if you don’t have a honey super, is something an ‘inner cover’ and then, finally, a lid.

It’s easy to spend $200 just on a new hive set.

Here’s an article from Illinois University about the cost of beekeeping – keep in mind this information is from 2012 – prices have only gone up since then.

Two weeks later, the original Carniolan hive swarmed again. We now have four hives and are even considering getting more this spring!!

Ah… the life of a beekeeper. The fun never ends.

HONEY BOUND

A few weeks after the last swarm, we were inspecting our hives and were met with very agitated Italian bees. Normally, our most docile and easy to work with hives, not only were the residents pissy, ‘boiling’ out of the hive as we pulled out frames to inspect, each of those frames were dripping with honey!

The bees boiled out of every box as he inspected them.
Honey was dripping from these boxes

Some photos and a quick call to another of our mentors, it was determined the hive was ‘honey bound’, which means the bees had filled the hive with so much honey there is no room for the queen to lay eggs and no more room for them to store additional honey. Believe me, this makes them VERY testy…. and us too!

LAND OF MILK AND… WELL, A LAND OF HONEY

As I mentioned before, first-year beekeepers are generally told not to expect any honey from their first-year bees. First-year bees will need all of their first-year honey to survive the winter.  The Italians were so honey bound, we had to buy MORE boxes (honey supers) for them to fill with honey. By the time the Italians were done, not only did we have to purchase a total of FIVE honey supers (actually 10 because the other three hives decided to get in on the fun), they gave us 10 gallons of honey – an amount that far exceeded their overwintering needs!

EXTRACTION

Between woodenware, bottles, labels etc., we were not prepared for the expense this excess honey presented us with, however, we quickly realized there is a pretty good market for honey – REAL local honey.

Our local beekeeping association holds several different workshops a year – one of those was how to extract honey from the frames. We took 70 pounds of honey and frames to the workshop where they had a large extractor set up.

This extractor was pretty AMAZING – not only did it hold 9 frames at a time, it was also ELECTRIC so no hand spinning required! When you have as many frames to extract as we did, that’s pretty important!!

The electric extractor loaded with some of our frames of honey!
What the frame looks like after extraction.

A few weeks later it became very apparent that we would need to extract honey from the other hives. By the end of the season, we ended up with a total of 16 gallons (10 from the Italian hive and 6 from the Carniolan hives) of honey that we safely and humanity extracted and bottled for sale!

Mr. Misty filling our FIRST jar of honey!
We sold honey at the local Farmers Market, Holiday Bazaars, Etsy and people even knocked on our door for it! It was some of the best honey I’ve ever tasted!

Our property backs up to National Forest Lands and we have an abundance of Fireweed plants, so our honey was light in color with a delightful sparkly flavor that people can’t seem to get enough of. Thankfully, we stashed away a couple of quarts for ourselves, because our honey sold out quickly and we still have people calling for more!

Mr. Misty in his full bee suit during a visit from one of our mentors… who only wore a hood and some thin rubber gloves.

Though this wasn’t near everything we encountered during our first year of beekeeping, we wanted to share a bit of our 2017 adventures before we got much further into 2018. Our goal is to share our adventures on a weekly basis, but if you find you miss us too much, you can always visit us on Facebook!

Do you keep bees? Leave a comment with some tips or wisdom.

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Content and Photos by Misty Meadows Homestead and S.Lago © All Rights Reserved 


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12 thoughts on “Homestead Buzz – Adventures in First Year Beekeeping

  1. That’s a great post – so many details! We raised Italian honey bees the first couple of years on our farm using top bar bee hives. They eventually left and after doing some research I found out that was natural for them to move on. It was a fun experience, and since our focus was just to have them for pollination we were fine with them leaving. I found the journey to be very calming. I recently found out in Texas you can raise bees towards an Ag extension, that’s pretty sweet for folks who want to work the land I’ve often thought about ordering a batch for spring or summer and just releasing them to live naturally. Any thoughts on that?

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    1. If you are just interested in pollination, have you considered Mason Bees? I don’t know a lot about them, but do know there is very little maintenance required and they are great pollinators! Regarding the Texas Ag extension, I’m not familiar with that. Maybe talk to someone in your local beekeeper association about that. 🙂

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  2. Wow! Congratulations on such a successful first year! It is so interesting reading about other’s beekeeping adventures, because there is always something more to learn!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So sorry to hear about your bee loss, it is sad, though they are ‘just’ bees, I also care, they are so important. Here in Oregon, our weather has been similar, we’ve been having a Spring like warm stretch, a couple days last week were 71* now they say possible winter mix coming in a couple days. I’ve thought about the bees, worried.

    Liked by 1 person

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