Too lazy to read? Check out the follow-up interview with Ben!
Slight departure today: I’m off on a geology adventure to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so in the meantime I’ve lined up my friend Benjamin Gajewski to give a beekeeping overview! He is a hobby beekeeper in Geneseo, NY and part of the Ontario-Finger Lakes Beekeepers Association. From his hives he is able to harvest honey for gifts and small scale sales, but more importantly enjoys the beekeeping process and learning about bees. A full time conservationist, Ben is also a freelance photographer. He’s a decent photographer and recently started keeping bees, which seemed a good combination for a guest post. I will have a follow-up Q&A with Ben in a week or two (Update: the interview is here), so leave a comment if you have any questions! Photo and text credit go to Ben.
For a newbie (pun intended) honeybees can be obtained through purchase of a package (a screen box containing 3lbs of honeybees, sugar water for food, and a caged queen that is new to the bees), a nucleus hive or nuc (five honeycomb frames split from a pre-existing colony containing eggs/larva in all stages, workers, a queen, pollen, and honey), or by capturing a wild swarm or extracting bees from a wall or other structure. Seen here, a swarm clings to a tree branch allowing for easy capture.
Once the colony (a group of bees) is installed into a hive (the physical space a colony inhabits) it is helpful to ensure the bees are aware they are in a new location so they do not attempt to return to their previous hive. Placing grass clippings and leafs in front of the hive entrance will alert the bees they are in a new spot.
Short circular orientation flights will take place as the bees first exit the new hive prior to longer work flights to find flowers.
The Langstroth hive (above) is the most widely used worldwide and is designed to provide an agreeable space for bees. Placing frames with foundation (a thin sheet of plastic or wax with a honeycomb pattern) or foundation already drawn out with honeycomb will help keep the bees from leaving their new hive. Adding feeding jars will also help prevent the bees from absconding; seen here 1:1 sugar-water is being added through the inner cover. The outer cover, leaning on the hive will prevent other insects from being attracted to this food source.
Bees will immediately start to draw out comb to allow the queen to begin laying eggs to increase the colony’s population. A swarm or package may only be one tenth the size of the ultimate colony population. A colony can contain upwards of 80,000-100,000 bees. Honeycomb will also provide for the storage of pollen and nectar, and eventually honey that will be capped for future use.
Once oriented, bees will quickly begin their work looking for nectar and pollen sources. Food brought from their former hive and the sugar water feed will only temporarily sustain the bees.
When a worker finds an ample nectar or pollen source, they will return to the hive and dance to allow others to return to the site. Two bees (on right) dance here, one leading with precise angles and distances to describe the location, the other bee follows behind to learn the location.
Nectar is retrieved from flowers. Nectar will be processed by the bees into honey for later consumption.
Pollen, collected and stored in pouches (yellow here), also brushes against a bee’s fuzzy body and will pollinate other flowers the bee visits. Pollen is used directly in the hive as a source of protein.
The Langstroth hive design allows for easy removal of neatly drawn out comb with honey. An uncapping tool is used to carefully remove the wax cap on honey cells.
Various hand and electric extracting machines exist to spin frames, flinging honey out of the honeycomb onto the side walls where it drips to the bottom of the container.
A series of filters are used to remove wax and other debris that gets mixed in with the honey during the extraction process. Honey is edible straight from the hive but impurities can limit salability.
A sweet reward for a season’s work. Properly harvested and bottled honey will last indefinitely.
Extraction of honey may be the end to the season, but preparations must be made to help ensure the hive will survive through the winter. Beekeepers use various methods, or none at all, to aid bees during the winter months. Here two hives have been wrapped with tar paper. Holes are left at the bottom and toward the top of the hive to allow for proper circulation and bee exits.
During the winter short cleansing flights will take place on sunny days when the temperature allows bees to leave the hive briefly. Bees will leave the hive to defecate and remove dead bees to help keep the hive clean cold periods when leaving the hive is not possible.