Ed and I first got interested in beekeeping in the winter of 2012. We found a class offered by our local Beekeeper’s Club, BONS, Beekeepers of the Northern Shenandoah, and signed up for a class that began in February. It lasted about eight weeks and consisted of one, two-hour class a week. I was a little reluctant because I’m not a great at sitting still for extended periods of time, so two hours at a stretch was going to be tough for me. I have to say, though, that those two hours flew by each week! We learned a great deal about bees and their anatomy, life cycle, and habits. We also learned about building the hives and ordered the wooden ware to build two. I will admit that Ed was the one who tackled that tedious chore. The good news is that you can buy the hives preassembled if you’re willing to pay the cost!
You can see that my main job was photographing Ed in our basement workshop. It really was tedious work, particularly when he was building the frames. Beehives consist of the boxes and you have a choice between medium and large. A lot of people choose 2 large boxes for the base of the hive to house brood, and medium boxes (supers) above those for honey production. We chose to build our hives with all medium sized boxes and the reason is all the frames are the same size. In other words, if you mix box sizes, your will have to have specific sized frames for each size box. We also chose to go with an 8 frame medium box over a 10 frame medium box because a medium box full of honey (a super) weighs approximately 50-60 pounds. When you’re lifting them off the hive, the weight and size is easier to handle.
Each of our boxes has 8 frames, which are panels of wood or plastic that are inserted vertically into the box. These are where the bees build their wax and subsequently store either bee brood or honey, and these frames are removed from the super individually so the beekeeper can inspect the hives easily. The frames are built by constructing the wooden frame, then inserting wax foundation on which the bees will build out their wax comb. One thing we learned was that the honeycomb is the most important product of the hive. In the first year, your hives may not produce as much honey because so much of the bees’ energy is spent building the comb. By the second year, this work is already done so the bees can focus on filling it up with honey.
There are two ways you can purchase bees. One is by ordering a package of bees, which consists generally of three pounds of bees and a queen, who is housed in a separate box from the others for shipping. I won’t go into the method of transfer in this post, but promise to at a later date. Another way to acquire your bees is by buying a nuc, which consists of frames of brood, a queen and worker bees. A nuc, or nucleus colony, is a small honey bee colony created from larger colonies. The term refers both to the smaller size box and the colony of honeybees within it. The name is derived from the fact that a nuc hive is centered on a queen, the nucleus of the honey bee colony. When you purchase a nuc, the frames from it are transferred into your existing hives (empty frames are removed for use later) in order to create your own colony.
We opted to buy nucs in our first year from our teacher in the bee class, who has hundreds of hives. When the nucs arrived in early spring, he and Ed set about loading them into the waiting hives. Here’s a collage of photos on bee deliver day.
Once the frames from the nucs are in place, the hives should remain undisturbed for about a week so the bees can settle into their new homes. After that, you’ll want to check them at least once a week to make sure the queen is still present. Within a few weeks you should start noticing that the bees are creating comb in which the queen is laying eggs. These are brood cells, where the baby bees (pupae) grow and develop. Nurse bees help them along by feeding them royal jelly for the first three days, then progressing to feeding them a mixture of honey, bee milk, which they produce in their heads, and pollen. Here’s an interesting fact: if the hive is in distress and have set about creating their own queen, that larvae is fed royal jelly for the duration of it’s time in the comb. The queen is larger than worker bees and similar in size to drones, but her body is long and quite unlike any other bees in the hive. She is usually marked with permanent dot, the color of which determines the year in which she was born.
In the sealed cells, the larvae become pupae. The adult queen emerges from her cell after just 16 days, whereas the worker bee after 21 days and the drone (male) after 24 days. There are many fascinating facts about bees and here’s a really good, very easy to read site that offers many of these. It’s specific toward bees in Africa, but the information about the beehive activity and types of bees is universal.
Speaking of interesting, did you know that the drone bees’ (males) only job is to mate with the queen? They don’t forage or help with anything else, but they do eat a lot and move about the hives making lots of noise. They are also fatherless, being the product of a queen who lays unfertilized eggs in cells which are larger than regular worker bee cells (the worker bees, all female, are the product of a fertilized egg). If the drones are fortunate enough to actually get lucky with a queen, the mating process kills them. Google images for drones mating queen bees and you’ll see some pretty interesting images you never imagined before.
This year we have three full boxes of honey to harvest and we’re looking forward to enjoying it through the winter months. In future posts we’ll talk more about caring for hives, problems such as varroa mites, hive beetles, robbing, and swarming, and harvesting honey.