The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden (Quarry Press, 2018), by Kim Flottum gives expert advice to beekeepers of all skill levels, including those just beginning to participate in this increasingly popular hobby. The following excerpt is from Chapter 5, "Rules of Modern Beekeeping."
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1) Seek continuing education.
2) Know all about beekeeper safety.
3) Food safety isn't the last rule, it's the first.
Beekeeper Rule Number 1: Seek Continuing Education
I have yet to meet a beekeeper who knows it all. Some are pretty good, but nobody, absolutely nobody, gets it right all of the time. And just when you think you do, something changes.
When starting out, read, read, read. Not just the new beginner's books. Get the classics. There's lots that's new in the last 100 years, but there's lots more that's the same.
Take a beginner's class or two. Every instructor has strengths and weaknesses, and you'll gain from both.
Find a mentor, work for free for the experience. You will never learn as much sitting in a class as you will watching, doing, and doing again with the guidance of a skilled and experienced beekeeper.
Join a local beekeeping association and a regional association so you know what's happening nearby.
Join a national association so you know what the government has planned, what the newest pest is and the treatment for it, and what is going on five states away and, eventually, in your state. Attending meetings is often difficult, but web pages, newsletters, and webinars will keep you up to date on the issues that will put you out of business, kill your bees, or make you a criminal if you don't change your practices.
Learn what they call advanced skills, even if you never have more than a couple of colonies. Learn the biology and techniques of the many ways to rear queens. Take an artificial queen insemination class. Make your own equipment. Learn to make and sell nucs with your local queens.
Volunteer to work with a beekeeper who does things you don't do. Move bees for pollination. Shake packages. Make comb honey or liquid honey. Try top bar or other styles of hives.
Try new things as often as possible. New equipment, new techniques, new people.
When you travel to someplace new, look up a beekeeper or an association of beekeepers. Go to their meeting. Work their bees. Finding local associations is easy on the web and, from there, a beekeeper is right around the corner.
Teach a class. You'll never learn more than when you have to teach. Queen rearing. Making splits. Making equipment. How to use a solar wax melter. Have a field day at your home and show how you do things. Do part of the annual beginner's class. Hold a special advanced class and bring in an advanced beekeeper to help.
Take one of the many online courses available. There are more every year, and they get better every year.
Buy at least one new book a year. Read it. Get the new DVD and see if they do it right.
Try this at least once: Make up a super colony. Fortify it with lots of bees, brood, and food, and see how much honey you can make. Go for a record.
Learn how to make honey with a two-queen colony.
Move bees at night, with someone's help.
Never quit trying something new. Different. Better. Faster. Easier.
Beekeeper Rule Number 2: Know All About Beekeeper Safety
There are a lot of ways you can do harm to yourself or others when dealing with bees, some obvious, some not so. Here are a few of the major ones.
Stings. Bees sting, and stings around the face can cause permanent injury. So wear a veil when working bees. Bee suits help prevent stings to the rest of your body but serve more to keep you clean. However, sometimes, bees have to be worked when the weather is bad, at night, or after they have been harassed by harvesting, moving, being split, skunks, a bear, or other problems. Defensive, protective behavior can border on downright aggressiveness, then. Wear a veil, suit, and gloves. Seal pant cuffs. Cover rips and holes with duct tape. Enduring the pain of a sting or two is one thing, but lots of stings can render you ill or worse.
Lifting. If you spend your days lifting, bending, carrying, pushing, and working hard, you already know how to lift, how not to twist, and to get help when needed. But most of us tend toward computer and couch time, and working out is more often limited to an occasional game of golf, tennis, or a jog in the gym.
Beekeeping isn't like that. It's bending and stooping and lifting boxes that weigh 40 to 100 pounds (18 to 45.4 kg). And you are lifting them, if you set them on the ground instead of on a stand, anywhere from 3' to 5' (0.6 to 1.2 m). And often you turn to one side, pick up the box, lift with your back and not your legs. Then, rather than take a sideways step, you twist to set the box back on top of the hive. So you've thrown out your back and pulled every muscle from your hips to your shoulders. Have fun at that computer on Monday.
Robbing. Honey bees are opportunists. If they find a source of food close by, they'll take it. If they find one with lots of sugar, they'll take lots. If they have more kids to feed than they have food, they'll find it somewhere. Put some combination of these together and you can initiate a robbing situation in your apiary. Strong colonies will rob weaker colonies. Having a nectar source stop producing nectar early in the day, with no other sources the rest of the day can set off a robbing spree. All manner of things can start a robbing event.
Once begun, robbing escalates rapidly, and just as rapidly, safety deteriorates. The colony being robbed is protective, biting and stinging the robber bees trying to gain entry. The robbers sting back. Most of this happens on the landing board outside the colony. Soon, the entire apiary is filled with the alarm pheromone. A slight breeze wafts it into your front yard, then on through the neighborhood. The rest of the colonies in your apiary are now on alert, as are those hives a block away. A dog walks by and gets stung, then the man walking the dog, then the kids next door.
Avoid setting up a robbing situation. Keep colonies approximately the same strength. Small or weak colonies should have the smallest possible opening, which is easier to defend. And keep cracks and openings from broken equipment sealed. Don't work colonies during a dearth, which sends the smell of honey to foragers from all colonies. Don't leave colonies open while you go back to the garage to get the tools you forgot. And don't throw bits of wax and comb on the ground when working a colony during these times. Give bees in the apiary no clue there is food nearby. They will find it, and they will start robbing.
Harvest time can be particularly troublesome. There are some guidelines to follow that can increase your safety and that of your family and neighbors. If possible, the day before you harvest, go to the beeyard and loosen every box you are going to harvest from. Simply lift it up so one end and both sides are separated. This action breaks all burr and brace comb between boxes and frames, along with all the propolis bonds. The bees will clean it overnight, but they won't have time to seal it again. The next day the box or frames will be much easier to move, and more importantly, there won't be liquid honey exposed to incite robbing.
If you are removing individual frames because the super is too heavy or too high to lift, there are some precautions you can take to reduce the tendency to rob, which can be high in the fall when there are fewer nectar sources available and lots of bees are home. Have replacement frames ready (drawn comb best, foundation next) to replace those removed. To begin, quickly remove a capped frame from the super while still on the hive, gently brush bees off at the front door and not back into the super so you are removing bees rather than concentrating them in the super. If feasible, leave part of the box you are removing frames from covered, with the inner cover, or simply a piece of board or cloth. Be gentle so you don't break a lot of cappings and quickly place the frame in a bee-tight box. When done, replace the honey frames with the empties you brought.
If removing entire supers, once the bees have moved down from the fume board or escape board, remove the device from the top of the super. Then lift the super off the hive, and place it on a flat board or an overturned cover you have prepared ahead of time. Immediately cover it with another cover or flat board to keep out any curious bees. If you are using the device for another hive, place it on that hive right away so it can start moving bees down while you finish. Or, place it on the super below as soon as you have the first one off. If using an escape board, remove the cover and inner cover, then the super, leaving the escape board on the super below for the moment. Place the super on your prepared, overturned cover or flat board and cover immediately with another flat board. You can then put the escape board on another hive, or below the next super, and return tomorrow to repeat the process.
When finished extracting, let bees clean out the wet supers (boxes that have been extracted but are still sticky with honey residue) by placing them back on the colonies just harvested. Do not simply place them outside in the apiary as this will attract not only your bees, but those from other apiaries or nearby feral colonies and you will set off a robbing event of unimaginable scale, plus contribute to spreading diseases and mites from those other colonies. Don't share.
But what do you do when your prevention actions fail and a robbing situation starts, it gets out of control, and you are in the middle of what can truly be a dangerous, perhaps deadly, event?
Control strategies range from being very aggressive to simply making a few changes. The first and most important thing to do is protect the colony(s) being robbed. Replace the covers, block the entrances, stop any and all opportunity for conflict between robbers and robbed. You can put screens in the entrances if you have them, but that's not often the case. Rather, use entrance reducers, grass, rags — anything to completely seal the entrances. If there are several colonies robbing, consider turning the tables: Remove the covers and inner covers of every colony that is robbing. This suddenly puts them on the defensive, and they need to protect rather than attack. In extreme cases, placing a lawn sprinkler on the apiary may help. The confrontation between robbers and robbed has to be stopped or it will spread. Leave the robbed colonies blocked overnight if possible, and when opening, provide as small an entrance as possible.
The Ultimate Challenge
The worst-case scenario is that a colony or colonies become completely out of control, stinging, harassing, and endangering everything within sight. At some point, the decision may be made that this colony is a danger and must be destroyed. This is certainly more common in urban settings than country beeyards, but be prepared.
There are two good ways to do this that work well and fast. When you know that a colony must be destroyed, do not debate the decision. Act now!
1) Have on hand two medium-size dishwashing detergent containers, two 5-gallon (19 L) pails, and enough water to fill them.
2) Fill each pail, and mix one container of dish soap into each.
3) Wearing protective gear, completely block the entrance of the colony to be dispatched. If using a screened bottom board, insert the winter block so the bottom is solid.
4) Quickly remove the cover and inner cover and pour the contents of the pail into the hive, moving the stream of water from side to side and front to back. When empty, replace the cover only.
5) Wait 5 minutes and pour the second pail in the same way.
In 5 minutes or less, almost every bee in that colony will be dead or dying. You have solved a serious, dangerous problem.
1) Buy a box of black lawn waste bags large enough to cover your colony when it's as tall as it will get mid-summer.
2) Leave the box in the beeyard in case of an emergency.
3) If a robbing situation starts, slip the bag over the offensive colony, lie the colony down and tie it shut. If you have to, slip another one over the bottom.
On a sunny day, the colony will perish very quickly and the bags will stop bees from coming and going.
These include some things you might take for granted, such as good lifting practices. Know the symptoms of heat exhaustion and stroke, and always have water with you. Hot days, no breeze, and a full bee suit can lead to overheating and serious illness. Know, too, the first signs of an allergic reaction. It happens, even to beekeepers with years of experience. Watch out for shortness of breath, itching, hives, or dizziness. Have a sting kit handy. You'll need a prescription — they are not inexpensive. Take your cell phone with you and make sure someone knows where you are going and when you'll be back. Every time.
Even if nobody in your family has anything to do with bees, they can be affected by having them around. Besides the occasional duck and dodge to miss getting that errant bee in their face, a more common allergic event can occur when you wash your bee suit with the regular wash. The small amount of venom released can become part of the wash solution, and some will become imbedded in the other clothes in the machine. This doesn't change the veno's chemistry or dilute it, apparently, and the person who later wears those clothes is exposed to a tiny bit of venom. After many of these episodes, that person may develop an allergy to bee venom that will cause issues down the road. Short lesson: Wash your bee suit or work clothes separately.
Beekeeper Rule Number 3: Food Safety Isn't the Last Rule, It's the First Rule
The honey, pollen, propolis, and even wax you harvest from your colony are food products. At all times, you must treat them as such. Use as little smoke as possible when working in honey supers. Make certain you do not use chemicals in your hive when honey supers are on. Replace brood comb that has been exposed to Varroa control chemicals other than organic acids every year to avoid residue build up. And replace comb in honey supers every two or three years (longer if no brood has been raised in them) to avoid exposure to residue that will build up, either beekeeper, farmer, or nature applied.
When harvesting with fume boards, use as little as possible for as short a time as possible to avoid tainting the honey. When moving honey supers, keep them completely covered so dust and debris cannot enter the frames.
In the honey house, don't warm the honey higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit before uncapping, and for no longer than a day, if you warm it at all. Keep your uncapping area clean, your uncapped frame area especially clean, and your extractor cleaned between uses. To avoid hive beetles damaging honey in supers, extract as soon as possible — ideally, the day of harvest.
Store extracted honey in clean pails, and make sure your final container is clean before filling. If using a bottling tank, do not leave any honey in it between bottling sessions. Clean any pipe filters between bottling sessions. Let extracted honey sit for at least a day before bottling it so any small particles can rise to the top and be skimmed off.
Clean pollen before selling using a blowing machine or picking out nonpollen pieces. Store in a tightly sealed container or freezer before selling.
Allow bees to clean supers of residue honey before storing, and store unused supers to allow light and air between frames, while using excluders or screens to keep mice out.
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Excerpted from The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. Used with permission from Quarry Press, ©2018.