Due to the profound interests in backyard beekeeping, join beginner apiarist; Lorraine Glowczak, as she shares her discoveries on her new adventure of keeping honeybees in this monthly series article. Enjoy.
In my last bee installment, I shared the slightly modified (incorrect) way I checked my hive for the first time. Needless to say, I now observe my hive in the more traditional and, what most would consider, proper way of checking in on my sweet little Italian Honeybees. I now properly gather all my supplies which include the smoker, bee jacket, bee tool, a journal to keep notes, and a camera to capture all the nuances of a beginner’s apiary journey. I’ve discovered it makes observation a little less stressful, more fun and much more accurate.
However, with almost everything in life, there is the expected way we presume things will go. As if by textbook standards, everything runs smoothly without challenge and we all live happily ever after. It’s a fact that life rarely happens by textbook standards and we tend to resort to Plan B, especially when dealing with nature herself.
As for me and my beekeeping adventure, let’s first examine the bee smoker. A smoker is a neat little contraption invented by Moses Quniby in 1875 (most credited). It is a small tin device that includes a side bellow. It was made specifically to generate smoke from smoldering fuels (I use pine needles, newspaper and a gunny sack material.) The smoke is “puffed” into the entrance of the hive as well as into the hive itself just prior to bee inspection to help calm the bees. It is also used briefly during inspection when bees become irritated. The smoke not only masks the “alert and attack” pheromones from the guard bees, but leads the bees to believe there is a fire nearby. As a result, they busily focus on gathering the honey as a form of insurance in the event that they need to build another hive elsewhere.
Ideally, the smoker is lit prior to checking the hive with the expectation that it will stay smoking until the inspection is complete. That has only happened once in the past two months since obtaining my bees. With all other inspections, the smoker is either packed too tight and it discontinues burning, packed too light and burns out too quickly, or the inspection takes longer than anticipated and runs its burning course. As a result, the inspection process needs to be stopped momentarily so the smoker can be relit. Not ideal in the bee inspection process.
Then there is the hive itself. Luckily for me, I haven’t had too many issues, just a lot of unknowns to this beekeeping newbie. First, the expectation is that the bees fill out the first deep hive, starting in the middle frames and spreading outward onto all ten frames. Once they reach the last frames on either side of the hive, it is time to put on the second deep hive. This usually occurs approximately three weeks after bee arrival. So, on week three I was anxious to put the new deep hive on. However, they had not spread out enough, so after checking in with Mark Cooper (a Windham Master Beekeeper and my mentor), I waited for one more week.
Week 4. They still hadn’t spread out.
Week 5? Nope. My thought is the queen better get busy if she wants to survive the winter. It turns out they were moving upward instead of outward. I have a hive top feeder. This is a feeder that sits on top of the hive and the bees can get to their food source (sugar water) though a screen. The bees had eaten through the screen and were moving upward instead of outward. Whew! So, on week 6 – I was finally able to put the new deep hive on top so they could grow and thrive.
As I mentioned before, I have taken a beekeeping class this past winter but there are way too many considerations to be taught in a six week course. So, often, you have to learn as you go. During one weekly hive inspection, my friend Alyssa (a beginner beekeeper too) and I had noticed “unusual” black spots on one of the frames. We worried that they might be signs of American Foulbrood (a spore forming disease that is one of the top beehive killers.) To make sure this was not the case, I relied on Mark once again to relieve my fears. He replied to my text within minutes and our “American foulbrood” was simply Bee Bread (bee pollen instead of plant pollen.) A very important factor in the health of the hive. Whew! Relief once again!
Lastly, I have a morning ritual of watering my plants and feeding the birds and the bees (no pun intended.) Of course, I don’t actually feed my bees every morning but because I just can’t get enough of learning from and observing them, I always sneak a peek into the hive feeder to see how much sugar water is left. During one of these morning inspections, I noticed another “unusual” thing. A cluster of bees dancing in one spot just above the hive door. I’m certain Mark must be tired of me by now, so I try to google this “unusual” accumulation of bees. With no luck in my research, I texted Mark again. Within minutes as if he is not bothered by my continual questions, he tells me that the bees are letting me know it is just a tad bit warm in their hive. So I remove the bottom cover and put in a larger “door” so there is more ventilation. Problem solved.
I’m heading into my third month as a newbie apiarist. All is well so far.
When I decided to go into beekeeping, I did so to not only do my part for a greater environmental cause, but to be a student and learn from them. Not only in the form of an amateur entomologist, but about life in general. My most current lesson, it seems, is that although life rarely goes as planned, plan B always works out just as well – if not better.