Beekeeping 4-1-1 with Special Guest, Tim Peterson
Tim Peterson, upon hearing about FarmHouse Magazine in its idea stage said something like this: “Oh that sounds cool. I have a pretty big garden, I keep bees, umm…let me know if I can help out in anyway?” Just a warning never offer help to a FarmHouse girl because she will always, always collect!
So here is Tim in the first, of what we hope are many, articles about the cool things he is doing. Along with his major garden, beekeeping, collecting honey and the like; Tim is a Rotarian, a great vegetarian chef (recipes, Tim, please!) and has very impressive long hair.
FH: So Tim, why beekeeping?
Honey, pollination, fascination, relaxation. Not necessarily in that order.
FH: My understanding is that the American honeybee is endangered? Is this correct? And if so, why is that happening?
“American” honeybee is actually a bit of a misnomer. The honeybees we have in the U.S., Apis mellifera are actually what are commonly referred to as European honeybees. It’s likely true that they’ve been here since the time Europeans colonized North America, brought over by people starting a new life, but there aren’t any truly native honeybees in this part of the world.
Sometime in the middle of the last decade, a large number of beekeepers began to notice something dramatic…large numbers of honeybee colonies being abandoned…open up the hive, and no one’s home. This has become referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. Quite a bit of research has been, and is being, done but thus far, there’s no proven cause for CCD. The most recent information I’ve read suggests that the combination of a fungus which can develop in bees’ guts and a virus is associated with colonies which have collapsed, but nothing’s been proven that they’re the cause.
FH: Now personally I am afraid of bees, but beekeeping seems to be growing in popularity. How long have you been keeping bees? Why do you think it is becoming so popular now?
I’ve been keeping bees on and off for close to 25 years, but most recently started again about 4 years ago after a long hiatus.
It’s only a guess, but I think the people are keeping bees both as a way, having read about CCD, to help keep honeybee populations up, and because, hey, in an era where much doesn’t seem in our control, who doesn’t love the idea of a little self-sufficiency?
FH: How many hives do you have? What is the set-up – screens, depths, levels, etc? And how do the hives function? Do you have any expansion plans?
I currently have two, which both overwintered nicely. I lost one last year, in all likelihood because something happened to the queen, and I wasn’t able to get/raise another one in time to keep the hive strong.
One of them has what’s known as a “double deep” brood chamber. The other brood chamber is a single deep and a medium super.
Both have screened bottom boards, as they’ve been shown to aid in keeping varroa mite populations in check.
I use medium supers on top of both when there’s a honey flow on.
I would love to add a hive or two each year, but I can’t even find time to get my gardening done this year, so who knows?
FH: Ashley here: Could you explain “double deep brood chamber and single deep and a medium super” ??
As far as deeps vs. mediums go, it’s about dimensions. A deep box is around 19 7/8″ in length, 16 1/4″ wide and 9 5/8″ in height. A medium the same length and width, but 6 5/8″ in height. Those 3 inches can make a big difference in weight when moving equipment around or inspecting the hives.
FH: How did you acquire the hives? How did you know the best design for the hives?
As far as the hive bodies go, I bought parts from a beekeeping equipment catalog and assembled and painted them. I assemble my own frames as well – some with foundation in them, and some without.
My bees originally came by mail from Georgia, though we’re many generations away from those original few packages.
Hive design is pretty standard these days. Most beekeepers, myself included, use “Langstroth” hives built from a design by Reverend L.L. Langstroth in the 1800’s. He observed/discovered the concept of “bee space” – that if honeybees have a 1 cm space around/between hive frames, the won’t build comb in it, or seal it with propolis.
FH: How much care is required? Do you have to do bee tending on a daily basis? Or do you just let them do their thing?
Very little care, really. It probably isn’t necessary to open a hive more than 5 or so times a year…maybe even less. Many new beekeepers inspect their hives far more often out of excitement and worry.
FH: So what is an empty cell? Is that a bad thing? When you are checking the hives what kinds of things do you look for?
Whether they’re building on foundation, or without it, bees draw beeswax (formed by glands on worker bees’ undersides) out into hexagonal cells – what we commonly know as honeycomb, though the cells are also used for raising brood in some parts of the hive.
A few empty cells on broodcomb aren’t a bad thing. If there are many of them, it might be a sign of a queen who is getting older and laying fewer eggs, or other “issues” which might need addressing.
When inspecting a hive, it’s good to look at the combs for signs of disease, to check for good brood pattern (not too many open cells), for signs, such a queen cells, that a hive might be preparing to swarm, or that the current queen is aging or not functioning well in some way, and in honey supers, to see rough how many cells are capped, as when most of them are, it’s time to harvest!
FH: Do you have a funny net hat and that astronaut-type suit? What is it actually called – and don’t say beekeeping hat and suit because that is just too easy.
I wish I had something clever, but I do have a “beesuit and veil”…
FH: Have you ever seen that great video by Blind Melon for their song “No Rain” with that little girl in the bee suit? Do you have a suit like that, tell the truth?
I have seen it. Mine is less tutu, and more black and yellow kilt. :-p
FH: So describe, if you have not already, what you do as a beekeeper and when you have to do it?
Mostly sit around and reap the rewards. I do check in on them in the spring to make sure each hive has a strong population, and no signs of disease. Later in the spring, I’ll put honey supers on in the hope of getting some golden sweetness. Take the supers off when they’re full and the bees have capped off the honeycomb. In late summer, I’ll super them again, and make a final check in the autumn to make sure they seem to have adequate stores of honey for the winter.
I will, on a weekly basis, walk out to the hives and observe what’s going on around their entrances, as that can be an indicator of problems inside. And it’s soothing to watch the workers coming in and out.
FH: About the Queen Bee. Is there a King Bee? Why? Why not? What exactly does the Queen Bee do?
She lays eggs, emits pheromones which help keep the hive in order, and is tended to by youngish worker bees. On one day of her life she flies out and mates. If she ever leaves the hive again, it’s to go with a swarm to new digs.
No King bees. I’m going to hold off a moment on talking more about different sexes/functions of bees in the hive, because I have a feeling you’re about to ask…
FH: Tell me more about the hierarchy of the hive? What are the different functions of the bees?
There are 3 different type of honeybees in a hive. The Queen (a fully developed fertile female), which I’ve already mentioned. Drones, which are males whose sole function is flying around and fertilize virgin Queens, after which they fall out of the sky and die.
If they’re lucky enough not to fertilize a Queen, generally, once the weather gets cold, they’re shoved out of the hive to die in the elements by:
The Workers. They’re sexually undeveloped females. And they get the job done. From tending to the Queen, tending to brood, guarding the hive entrance, drawing out comb, foraging for nectar and pollen (a hive’s protein source), keeping things clean, patching holes and cracks in the hive with propolis, cooling the hive down, and more, they do it all.
FH: Do the worker bees have a union?
Mine are right to work hives. 😉
FH: Oh, I may have to organize them then myself! So, is there a play time when you just open all the hives and let them fly around?
No mollycoddling in my little beeyard. Actually, they don’t like having the hives tops off. Gets them agitated.
FH: My understanding is that besides having access to yummy honey, and I am totally, as a friend willing to take a couple of jars off your hands, there are some other positive aspects to beekeeping? What are they?
The other big reason, aside from honey collection, that there is a business of beekeeping is pollination. There are operations which truck hives all over the country to lease to them to almond growers, fruit orchards and various types of farms.
And it feels great to eat a teaspoonful of “your own” honey, even though a few tens of thousands of other beings did all of the heavy lifting…
FH: What’s up with varroa mites? Why are they bad for the bees?
Varroa mites and other honeybee pest/diseases could be a whole interview in and of themselves, with someone far more qualified than I.
Varroa destructor is a parasitic mite which I understand was introduced to the US sometime in the 1950s. They feed on the hemolymph of both adult and brood honeybees. Less “blood” and small, but open, wounds left by the mites make bees more susceptible to infection.
They’re here, and there’s no getting rid of them. The also seem to build fairly rapid resistance to pesticides some beekeepers have used inside their hives to keep mite populations in check. It seems, especially for hobbyist beekeepers like myself, that a combination of non chemical methods such as screened bottom boards (mites fall, and they can’t get up) and using bees with some genetic, hygienic traits works pretty well in keeping the mite populations in balance.
FH : Sarah here, Since I’m a sustainable agriculture nut and know these things – what do you think about the role of the Bayer pesticide clothianidin colony collapse disorder? Climate change?
“I think it’s entirely possible that sublethal doses of systemic neonicotinoid pesticides such as imidacloprid and clothiandin are part of the CCD puzzle. Some of the research I’ve read suggests that very small amounts of these compounds may make honeybees more susceptible to viruses and fungi. I also suspect (with no proof I’m aware of to bear it out) that broad use of various insecticides within hives to combat Varroa mites may be playing a role as well.
I’ve read one hypothesis that climate change may be altering the timing of when flowers bloom, and that with the consequent mismatch of when pollinators emerge from their nests, there may be less usable forage . I doubt this has anything to do with CCD, but it isn’t good for ecosystems in general.
I’m not a scientist though. Just a guy who likes bees…” FH: So mid-April to mid-May is busy buzzy (sorry) beekeeping time, what’s going on during this time, or is it based on the climate where you live?
Climate is a factor. Honeybees won’t generally leave their hive unless it’s warmer than 50 degrees (F) outside. During this time frame, I’m not doing much…maybe putting on some supers in the hope that I’ll get honey in a month or two.
During that timeframe, the bees are probably still building up their population (they go into winter in smaller numbers and then build up in the spring), and collecting as much nectar and pollen as they can.
FH: When does the honey come? And how often?
I usually harvest twice a year – once in late spring, and once in late summer, based on what’s known as “honey flow” – basically when flowers which are good nectar sources have bloomed.
FH: Hello, this is a question from Ashley: Why do you get your bees from Georgia?
Spring gets to Georgia more quickly than it does to the northern climes, so many of the large bee-selling operations are located there. Colonies there have time to build up their numbers, and breeders have more time to raise the new Queens which go out with their packages.
FH: From your experience what are the mistakes new beekeepers make? And how can you avoid them?
One of the big mistakes I’ve read about is allowing a queen fly to away when you’re installing a new packaging of bees when you’re establishing a new hive.
It’s a personal opinion, but I think, particularly for hobbyist beekeepers, using chemicals for mite control, etc., is a bad idea. And as much fun as it is to inspect a new hive, while they’re getting established, doing it too often might push a colony into thinking they’d prefer to set up shop somewhere else.
With any new pursuit, I think we’re bound to make mistakes. The best way to keep them to a minimum is having the right information – either having an experienced mentor, or having done a lot of research in advance.
FH: Have you ever seen the video of John Cleese as a beekeeper?
Shush…I mean…shhhhhh (Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGFz9gt0-Fc)
FH: If I wanted to start beekeeping what would I need to do? How would I get started?
Many beekeepers’ associations, and some of the beekeeping equipment sellers, will have classes or field days from time to time. I think they’d be a great way to start. If that’s not an option, some established beekeepers are willing to mentor new folks for a while.
Finally, there’s a ton of great information on the internet. http://www.beesource.com is a great site for information, with message boards where beekeepers of all levels of experience can continue to learn.
FH: Can you keep bees in an urban era? Say if I had a terrace on my apartment on Park Avenue could I be a beekeeper?
Last I knew, there was some sort of ordinance banning beekeeping in New York City*, but people were doing it anyway. I think I may have read something about City beekeepers having a Ball or some other fancy shindig.
If they have to, honeybees will fly a few miles in order to forage, so a home in the city won’t deter them from thriving.
*FH Note: New York City now allows beekeeping! Please contact Board of Health in your l0cal area to determine if you can keep bees as well.
FH: Opps almost forgot, have you ever been stung? Did it hurt? Is that enough to put you off beekeeping?
Getting stung on occasion is a given if you’re going to keep bees, even if you wear a suit, gloves and veil. Getting the stinger out quickly is helpful in minimizing the discomfort from a sting, but it really isn’t that bad. For folks who are more sensitive to bee venom, getting stung can be pretty unpleasant though.
FH: I hear bees are not aggressive but defensive, if you are like me afraid of bees, how do you keep them from feeling threatened?
One of the “tools of the trade” most beekeepers use is a smoker with a bellows attached. A couple of puffs of smoke in the hive entrance, and a couple under the hive lid, and bees will usually be quite docile. It’s thought that this is because they associate the smoke with fire, and will eat a fair amount of honey in case they need to flee the hive. Tough to be mad on a full stomach. The smoke also probably masks some of the alarm pheromones that guard bees might emit.
Really, though, the bees we have today have been bred to be quite docile, and other than in the fall, when there’s no nectar to be had, they’re pretty calm in my experience.
FH: Anything I missed that you would like to add?
It may cost a little more, but buying locally raised honey is a great way to go if you use honey in your tea, or baking, or in yogurt or in any other way you can think of. Buying locally raised anything is good in my opinion.
FH: When am I getting some of that honey?
As soon as a have a full super to take it from.
Okay Tim thanks so much!
Thank you, Tereneh. I could talk about bees for hours…