Saturday, January 29, 2011

How Do Ya Get Bees?

You may be wondering how one might go about starting a hive of honey bees. This is a good question and not always obvious when you ask a beekeeper how he or she started "fooling" with bees. Many hobbyist beekeepers like me are multi-generational and picked up the hobby from a parent who picked it up from a parent, etc. This may give you the incorrect impression that we're working the same hives our ancestors wrangled from a hollow log at the turn of the 20th century.

This is likely not the case. The hives my father inherited from my grandfather were washed away in a flood. My dad's hives absconded in the early 90's because he got too busy to tend them (kind of sad after they endured my fascination with shooting them with a garden hose during my adolescent years). Five of the six hives I established after grad school in the late 90's up and vanished on me for some unknown reason. Further, I am 100% certain that the colony of bees in the sixth hive are not my bees, but rather, a feral swarm that occupied the hive when that colony absconded as well. Parasites, vandalism, bears...yes bears, among other problems are reasons colonies can fail. Also, and hopefully more often than replacing failed hives, beekeepers increase the number of colonies they have from year to year.

There are a few ways you can establish a colony of honey bees. You can make a colony by splitting one hive into two. You can also capture a swarm. But the easiest way, at least for a beginner, is to buy them. Honey bees are usually bought from an apiary. They are sold in packages typically weighing 3 pounds or in 4-5 frame nucleus or "nuc" hives.

3 Pound Package

5 Frame Nuc

What's the difference?

Well, a 3 pound package is just that. You have a wooden and screen package that contains approximately 3 pounds of bees. Inside the package is a small screened box called a queen cage. Oddly enough, there is a mated queen inside the cage.

Picture of a Queen Cage

The reason she is in a cage is because the 3 pounds of bees are not her offspring, and if she were not inside this cage, the worker bees in the package would kill her. To install a package of bees, you basically open the package and shake the bees into a hive body with 10 empty frames. There are further steps to fully introduce the queen to the new colony, but I'll write about that in another post.

A five frame nuc is a box that contains 5 frames generally consisting of 3 frames of brood (eggs, larva & pupae) and two frames of honey and pollen. Depending on apiary practices, the nuc may have a queen that has already been accepted, or a queen cage suspended between two of the frames. To install a nuc, the 5 frames are simply transferred from the nuc into a hive body with 5 empty frames.

Both packages and nucs have their advantages. Packages are easier to ship, are usually more plentiful and are cheaper than nucs. On the other hand, colonies build strength faster from nucs and are easier to install in a hive versus a package. Until now, I've always gone with packages, but this year I'm buying 7 nucs.

Four nucs are from Jennifer Berry. Jennifer is the Apicultural Research Coordinator and Lab Manager at the University of Georgia. She’s actively involved in all aspects of honey bee research and education for the state of Georgia. Her primary areas of research have been a queen breeding program and Integrated Pest Management work for varroa mite control. The breeding project is a long term program in which resistant stock is continually selected for as well as traits for honey production, brood production and gentleness. Fortunately, I live only a couple of hours from Athens, Georgia, so driving there won't be an issue.

Jennifer and a row of her nucs.

Two nucs are from B. Weaver Apiaries in Navasota, Texas. The Weaver family has been in the business of raising honey bees for over 120 years. They introduced a breed of honey bee called the Buckfast, named for the monastery Buckfast Abbey where Benedictine monk and beekeeper Brother Adam developed the breed, to the US.

Brother Adam with Roy Weaver, Jr.

In 1995 Weaver Apiaries divided into two companies: B. Weaver and R. Weaver. R. Weaver still raises the Buckfast and I've tried them, but elected not to this time because I felt the trip from Texas was too stressful on the bees the last time I bought them. Through the process of natural selection, B. Weaver began raising bees, called the BeeWeaver Breed, that were naturally resistant to varroa mites, a parasitic mite that attacks honey bees, rather than treating the colonies with traditional chemicals to control the mites. As of 2001, B. Weaver colonies are 100% chemical free and naturally resistant to varroa. In 2007, B. Weaver began a pick up zone program whereby nucs and packages are trucked directly from B. Weaver Apiaries to one of several drop of locations around the country. This ensures that packages were not dead on arrival, which had been a growing problem, and allows for someone like me, who lives over 2,000 miles away, to purchase a nuc from them. The closest drop off point for me is Carthage, TN, so I'll be making a trip there in April.

Finally, I've decided to purchase one nuc from a local apiary, Porter Farm Honey Bees. Owner, Dwight Porter, raises Russian honey bees, and I figured since the Cold War had been over a while, I'd give the Ruskies a shot. Russian honey bees have been proven to be naturally resistant to varroa mites. Proponents also claim that they are gentle and consume less honey during the winter than the traditional Italian strains of honey bees most often found in the US. This makes for a faster build up in the spring, and therefore more honey for us!

For now, I've got quite a bit of equipment to assemble. In future posts, I'll go through this equipment in more detail to give you an idea of how a bee hive is assembled (by beekeepers) and organized internally (by the bees).

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Capturing a Swarm

At the beekeepers meeting last week, I put my name on the swarm removal list. This means that when someone finds that a swarm of honey bees has formed itself into a gigantic ball of hand holding insects in a low hanging limb of a tree in their yard, the extension service might call me to come and get it. I come out and get free bees, the homeowner gets the bees off their tree, and the bees keep from getting killed. Everybody wins. I was pumped, no doubt. But then I got pessimistic.

What if the swarm is 40 feet up in a tree?

What if the homeowner is some unreasonable pain in the a** that says mean things to me like that lady that I tried to change a tire for who ended up yelling at me because her husband had removed the spare tire from her minivan?

What if I fall off a ladder?

What if I end up removing my area's first swarm of Africanized honey bees and get stung so many times that I throw up?

I won't lie. It had me up nights.

A wise military man or a famous ninja once said something like, "In times of intense stress, we usually fall back on our lowest level of training", and since wrangling a kickball sized orb of bees out of a tree qualifies as an intense situation, I figured some training was in order. It's kind of hard to schedule a scrimmage for catching a swarm of bees. I mean, it's either game time or it's not. So my only course of action was to hunt down some swarm catching videos. The video below is the first one I happened upon. I noticed right away that the overwhelming majority of this guy's ladder had absolutely no support. Envisioning falling through the roof of the building below as one of the top 10 ways I could die, didn't do much to ease my anxiety, although, I did learn a new use for a bucket and pool cleaning pole.

Next I resorted to ordering a DVD from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm called Free Bees for You. The video tracked the escapades of 4 brothers, or maybe it was 3, who had been "hunting" bees for many years by seeking out a feral colony of bees in a tree (not a limb, but INSIDE the tree trunk), cutting down the tree, then dissecting said colony of bees from said tree... WITH A CHAINSAW! None of these old timers wore a veil or anything; just bib overalls and chainsaws. As I watched them being eviscerated about the face and head by an angry colony of honey bees who were having their home demolished by a CHAINSAW I thought, "I don't need free bees this bad".

So here I am, with my name on a list and doubtful of my skills in capturing a swarm of bees. I've found a few informative videos here and there, but it looks like I'm just going to have to jump in and get some on the job training. Hopefully, my fears won't be realized and I'll increase my colonies while managing to stay in one piece. Stay tuned...