Field Guide to Beekeeping archives
The Honey Bee Sting
by Jamie Ellis
Probably most people on the planet interact with honey bees at some point. Those of us who are beekeepers enjoy developed interactions with honey bees that arise out of a respect for and fascination of the bee. However, the interaction that many other individuals have with honey bees is quite negative, usually resulting from the person getting stung.
There are two common questions/comments that I receive from people when they find out that I work with honey bees. The first is “what is killing all the bees?”. This question moved into first place about ten years ago when elevated colony loss rates put honey bees in the living rooms of people worldwide. Until that time, the second most common question I get asked now was the most common and it is “do you ever get stung?”. This question is a bit humorous to me because it makes a couple of things immediately obvious. First, it tells me that stings are what many, maybe most, people equate with honey bees. That is quite sad if you think about it. Second, it reminds me how mortally terrified people are of getting stung, given the nature and prominence of the question (i.e. someone asks about it before they ask about the many other things one could want to know about honey bees). Finally, it tells me that the person suffers from a momentary lapse in understanding dangers associated with certain jobs. After all, carpenters hit their fingers with hammers, football players get concussions, electricians get shocked, and beekeepers get stung. It should be obvious. If you are considering getting into beekeeping and wonder if you can avoid getting stung – the answer is no. In fact, you will get stung, and you probably will be better off for it. ☺
So, of course I get stung…a lot, probably tens of thousands of times over my beekeeping career. I am sure that I have been stung hundreds of times in one day, likely on multiple occasions. And yes, bee stings still hurt me. They hurt me as much as they hurt anyone. Yet, thousands of other beekeepers around the world and I continue to work with bees regardless of the risk and pain associated with getting stung. Are we crazy, naïve, tough or so captivated by our enjoyment of bees that we accept the stings? I suppose the answer to all of these is yes.
Humor aside, stings are a serious hazard of beekeeping. For most of us, stings are just a minor inconvenience, something that we do not like, but something that we permit given our insatiable desire to keep bees. We may get stung many times, most days, and we think nothing of it. However, for many people, stings pose a significant risk, even a fatal one. Worse yet, beekeepers can have kept bees for decades and suddenly develop an allergy to bee stings. Thus, it seems prudent that all would-be and seasoned beekeepers understand the science of a bee sting, what to do when stung, including how to recognize serious reactions to bee stings, and how to minimize the number of stings one receives.
What is a sting and why do bees have it?
Put simply, a sting is a honey bee’s principal means of defense. The sting (Figure 1) is what bees use to tell the victim that their patience is waning. Bees sting when provoked, harmed, or are in danger. For most people, this means that they inadvertently stepped on a bee while walking barefoot in the yard (do people still do that?) or grabbed a bee when reaching for a flower. When this happens, the bee’s natural instinct kicks in and she delivers her sting.
However, most bee specialists agree that a bee does not have a stinger for purposes of self-defense but rather for purposes of colony defense. Bee colonies are full of developing brood (protein), stored pollen (minerals, vitamins, protein), and honey (carbohydrates) and there are a number of organisms on the planet that want to exploit these stored resources. Given that colonies are full of food, they are a prime target for other insects, birds, mammals and various pests. Bees protect these resources and defend their colonies with their sting. The colony is so important to the individual bee that she will risk her life trying to defend it, altruism in the purest sense. Indeed, honey bees lose their stinger when stinging a tough-skinned invader such as mammals. This loss kills the bee. Thus, a bee’s decision to deploy her sting comes at great cost to her. Interestingly enough, bees can sting organisms with soft tissues, such as other insects, repeatedly.
Honey bees are the only stinging insects that...
Mating Biology of Honey Bees
by Jamie Ellis
A few years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Drs. Niko and Gudrun Koeniger. Dr. Niko Koeniger is the former head of the German bee research institute in Oberursel, Germany and professor of biology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. Dr. Gudrun Koeniger worked as a research scientist and editor of the international bee journal Apidologie. Both have devoted a lifetime to the study of honey bee diversity and biology. Among other things, they worked tirelessly to decipher the intricacies of honey bee mating biology. Their work culminated in a book on the topic written for German beekeepers. The book is entitled (English translation) Mating Biology and Mating Control.
In 2014, Niko and Gudrun approached me about producing a revised English version of their German book. Thus, work commenced on Mating Biology of Honey Bees (Apis mellifera), a book we coauthored with Dr. Larry Connor of Wicwas Press. Much of what I share in this article is taken from our joint book. (Caution: shameless self-promotion follows.) Feel free to read the book to discover more information on the mating biology of honey bees if this topic is of interest to you. The full citation for the book can be found in the reference section at the end of the article.
Rearing and sexual maturation of queen honey bees
Typically, honey bee colonies are headed by a single queen whose primary responsibility is to produce offspring (Ellis, 2015c). There are times in the normal lifecycle of a colony when a new queen must be produced. This occurs when a colony swarms (Ellis, 2015a) or when a queen is lost for whatever reason (death, maimed, etc.). I will not spend any time in this section discussing what leads to a colony’s decision to make a new queen, but rather I will discuss queen development from egg to sexual maturity.
Queen honey bees result from fertilized eggs that are destined to become female, but not otherwise predetermined to be either a queen or a worker. The decision to make a female larvae a queen or worker lies with a colony’s worker bees. Worker honey bees in the nest take a female larva that emerges from a fertilized egg and direct her to royalty by feeding her more and better quality food (royal jelly – Figure 1) than that fed to her sisters who are to become workers. This they can do because the female larvae remain bipotent (can become either queens or workers) up to 48 hours after emerging from their eggs. Caste determination of the female larvae becomes final on the larvae’s third day after emergence, at which time the workers begin to offer the developing monarchs copious amounts of royal jelly. This rich food ensures rapid growth of the developing larvae, whose weights increase 600-fold during their first six days of life.
Queen honey bees develop in peanut hull-shaped cells that hang vertically from the face or periphery of the brood comb. This means that the developing queens hang upside down while maturing. It takes a queen about 16 days to develop from egg to adulthood, this likely because of the large volume of good food she receives while young. When she is ready to emerge, the queen will use her powerful mandibles to cut through the cell capping, and emerge upside down into the colony (Figure 2).
The first emerging queen has hit the jackpot, of sorts. She is first in line to inherit the nest and the colony of bees it contains. If she is successful, she will be fed, groomed, and otherwise pampered daily as she progresses through a life that is many times longer than those of her sister workers and eventual offspring. However, she has some work to do before she can receive her inheritance.
Newly emerged queens seek out and eat the food necessary to power their upcoming activities, the first of which involves getting rid of the competition. As you might imagine, a colony does not usually attempt to rear only one queen when they intend to swarm or otherwise need a queen. Instead, they invest in the production of dozens of queens, all of which are developing alongside the first queen to emerge. The first queen to emerge, consequently, becomes a stealthy assassin who searches for her developing sister queens so that she can eliminate the threat they pose to her impending assentation to the throne.
A newly emerged queen will begin checking all of the brood combs in the nest, doing this ...
by Jamie Ellis
You do not have to be around honey bee colonies very long before you encounter one of their most complicated group behaviors – the swarm. Beekeepers usually do not like to see a colony swarm. After all, it means that their colony split in half usually right before or during the major nectar flow of the year. Bees, on the other hand, want to swarm more than nearly anything else they do. This sets the stage for a complicated tug-of-war between colonies that want to reproduce and beekeepers who want to stop this reproduction at all costs. Herein, I discuss the marvel of the honey bee swarm. A lot of what I discuss comes from Dr. Tom Seeley’s (Professor, Cornell University) book Honeybee Democracy or from his lectures on the topic available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnnjY823e-w and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVfC0P_a43o. The book and videos are worth reviewing, especially if this is a topic that is of interest to you.
What is a swarm?
To answer the question succinctly, and to set the stage for the discussion that follows, a swarm is honey bee reproduction at the colony level. This, of course, demands additional information because one must understand what “at the colony level” means. After all, most people believe that honey bee reproduction occurs when a queen lays an egg. Of course, this is true in the simplest sense. A bee making more bees is reproduction. However, honey bees are social insects and social insects have a peculiar reproductive strategy that one can see at the colony level. Colony level reproduction is best understood within the paradigm of the superorganism concept.
Those who study social insects (ants, termites, some bees and wasps) do not look at a colony of social insects only as a collection of individuals. Instead, they look at the colony as the individual. In short, the honey bee colony can be viewed as a type of organism, a superorganism. The prefix super means above, thus suggesting a level of organization above that of the simple organism. The honey bee colony has become a unit of selection, or the most basic biological entity (cell, gene, organism, etc.) on which pressure is exerted, ultimately resulting in a change in that entity. While it is true that individual honey bees reproduce, given we know that queens lay eggs, colonies also reproduce because colonies produce more colonies. In fact, one can argue reasonably well that it is colony reproduction about which bees most care.
Think about it: if bees wanted simply to make more bees, then they would grow their colonies indefinitely, with there being no end in sight to the potential strength and size of a given colony. Yet, they do not do this. Consequently, there must be more to honey bee reproduction than just producing more bees – and there is. Honey bees want, more than anything, to make more colonies. This is important for beekeepers to know and understand. Reproduction is among the strongest drives in any organism. An organism that can reproduce goes to great lengths to make it happen. This is why bee colonies want to swarm so badly, often to the chagrin of their keepers, and why swarming is so hard for beekeepers to stop. Swarming is how honey bees survive.
Given that swarming is colony level reproduction, watching a colony swarm is watching a colony give birth. This is a very poetic way to think about swarming. I often think about a mammal giving birth when I see bees rushing out of a colony, heading to the air, with the resulting cluster of bees very much like a baby bee hive. However, Dr. Seeley notes that bee colonies reproduce much more like an apple tree than they do like a mammal. Apple trees reproduce (spread their genes) two primary ways – (1) by dropping fertilized seeds in fruit to the ground to grow new trees and (2) by spreading pollen that goes out to fertilize the seeds of other apple trees. An apple tree that has produced a seed has invested as much of itself (its DNA) in the seed as it does in the pollen that fertilizes another tree’s seed. Thus, the daughter tree growing from a seed produced by a parent tree (parent tree A) is as related to parent tree A as much as is a daughter tree growing from a seed from a second parent tree (parent tree B) that was fertilized by parent tree A’s pollen.
How, then, is honey bee colony reproduction like that of an apple tree? First, the swarm is analogous to the apple that falls away from the parent tree (the parent colony). That swarm harbors the fertilized seed (the queen) that contains the genetic material necessary to grow a new colony. The swarm, when planted in the right place, grows into a new colony of its own, one that is ready to produce its own fruit and pollen. What is the bee equivalent to pollen? Why, the drones that fly daily from the nest in search of other colonies’ seed (queens) to pollinate are. Thus, colonies drop fruit (swarms) and disperse pollen (drones) in an effort to reproduce/disperse their genes.
Stimuli leading a colony to swarm
Given that swarming is colony level reproduction and reproducing is one of the strongest drives in a honey bee colony, why do all colonies not ...
The Tasks of a Worker Honey Bee
by Jamie Ellis
Worker honey bees are marvelous creatures. These females could have been queens, had their older sisters simply fed them more food while they were developing as larvae. The amount and quality of diet they were fed while young were the only things separating them from royalty. If they had been a queen, they could have laid eggs, maintained the colony’s homeostasis, and lived up to a few years. Yet, they were born workers, destined to work their lives away in just a few short weeks.
Many worker bee equals in other social insect colonies, such as ants or termites, are born into a caste system, with a designated task that they perform their entire lives. Not so for worker honey bees. Worker honey bees subscribe to temporal polyethism, or “time related” (temporal) “many” (poly) “behaviors” (ethism). This simply means that worker honey bees perform a number of tasks over time and the performance of these tasks is age dependent. Beekeepers called this phenomenon age-related division of labor. The end result is simple: worker honey bees are not born into a task in which they remain their entire lives. Instead, they progress through a somewhat predictable series of tasks as they march toward the day that they can work no longer.
Interestingly enough, not all workers perform all tasks. Some workers may skip certain tasks altogether as they mature. Furthermore, the task system is not rigid. Old bees can perform young bee tasks and vice versa. This can be exacerbated further given the fact that a worker bee usually performs multiple tasks at any one age. Regardless, enough of a pattern exists in worker task performance that we can discuss these tasks in somewhat of a chronological order, as long as one remembers (1) workers may skip tasks, (2) workers perform many tasks at each age, and (3) workers spend more time resting and patrolling the nest than they do anything else.
Emphasizing point 3 above, I find it quite interesting that workers bees are even called worker bees at all. They spend the vast majority of their lives resting in the nest. Resting, of course, grants a worker needed respite. After all, who does not benefit from a little R&R? Things are not always as they seem, though, as bees are not always resting when they appear to be. Workers may remain immobile while secreting wax, producing brood food, etc. Thus, the period of immobility may simply be times of preparation to perform a given task. Worker bees also spend quite a lot of time patrolling the nest. The performance of this behavior seems to be a worker’s attempt to find out what needs to be done in a colony, with the idea that they are looking for something to do.
Though there is considerable overlap in the tasks that workers perform, there is an overall pattern to where and when they perform the tasks. Young worker bees engage in nest-based tasks while older worker bees perform tasks near the colony entrance or outside of the colony. Generally speaking, the tasks follow this natural progression: (1) cell cleaning and capping, (2) brood and queen tending, (3) comb building, cleaning and food handling, and (4) outside tasks.
Worker progression through their tasks probably is regulated physiologically, hormonally and by colony need. For example, certain glands in workers must develop before the workers are able to perform a given task – after all, they cannot feed larvae without being able to produce brood food. Given that worker honey bees perform the vast majority of essential tasks in the colony, their activity ensures that the colony has all of its needs met. The local environment around the colony also likely plays a role in worker task allocation, given that colony requirements vary based on a variety of environmental conditions and that workers respond to colony needs by doing jobs that must be done to ensure colony homeostasis.
I am going to spend the rest of the article introducing you to the tasks performed by worker honey bees. I will do my best to present the tasks to you in the order that they typically are performed, though admittedly I found this really hard to do given the massive variation in the timing and duration of tasks that workers perform. Keep in mind, bee progression through these tasks varies; only very loose conclusions can be drawn about the order and performance of worker tasks. Much of what I share will be based on the information provided by Winston (1980) and Seeley (1982). The books they wrote are masterpieces of bee biology and ecology. They are worth being in every beekeeper’s library. I provide full citations in the reference section of this manuscript in the event that you wish to explore these books further. The order that I discuss the tasks are the approximate order in which they are preformed, as noted by Winston (1980). I list the common age ranges and the mean age of workers performing each task.
Cell preparation (about 2-16 days of age, mean age about 8 days old) – This is the first task that workers perform when they emerge from their cells as adult bees. This task can be split into two subtasks: polishing cells and cleaning cells, with the latter happening later in the bee’s life. For the former, the workers begin cleaning a cell from the back of the cell, working their way up the walls of the cell and to the entrance of the cell (Figure 1). They will remove the remains of cocoons and excreta left by previous cell occupants. They will cover any remaining adulteration in the cell with a thin layer of wax.
Capping brood (about 3-10 days of age, mean age about 8 days old) – Young worker bees are able to secrete wax in small amounts. This allows them to...
The Internal Anatomy of the Honey Bee
by Jamie Ellis
Last month, I discussed the external anatomy of the honey bee. This month, I will turn my attention to the internal anatomy of the honey bee. I wanted to include high quality photographs of each organ discussed in this article so that the internal anatomy could be illustrated appropriately. However, such photographs are hard to acquire and nearly everything in a bee is creamy white or clear in appearance. Thus, the internal anatomy of a bee lacks visual stimulation, though the various parts are functional marvels. Rather than including color photographs that might be hard to understand, instead, I defaulted to using schematic drawings of some basic internal anatomy. I do not include images of everything I discuss. Instead, I would like to invite you to review the documents that I list in the Recommended Readings section of this article. All of the readings are fantastic references for helping you to understand and visualize bee internal anatomy in general. Some of the sources are even available for free online. As a final note, I list all of the anatomical features that I am discussing in bold font so that you can know exactly what I am trying to define.
Honey bees have an open circulatory system. This simply means that hemolymph (bee blood) does not pump through veins but rather freely circulates in the bee’s body cavity. Hemolymph does not transport oxygen but rather transports nutrients and hormones to the various body tissues. Furthermore, hemolymph picks up waste products generated in the body and transports them to the excretory organs. Hemolymph also serves as a reservoir of food and can aid in heat transfer within the bee.
How does the hemolymph get around to the various organs? Bees specifically and insects in general have a single vessel that runs from their abdomens, through their thoraxes and into their heads. This vessel is arranged dorsally, meaning that it runs down their back. The part of the vessel occurring in the abdomen is called the dorsal heart while the part in the thorax is called the dorsal aorta. The dorsal heart, the part in the abdomen, has small holes in its sides. These holes are called ostia. The dorsal heart pulses, pulling hemolymph through the ostia, into the vessel, and pumping it through the dorsal aorta in the thorax and into the head. From the head, the hemolymph percolates through the thorax and back into the abdomen. It bathes the various internal organs in route back to the abdomen. Once in the abdomen, the hemolymph absorbs nutrients acquired during food digestion and reenters the dorsal heart to start the cycle again.
The digestive system is composed of three main sections, the foregut, midgut, and hindgut. Interestingly enough, the three sections of the digestive tract form separately during bee development. The foregut (first third of the digestive tract) and hindgut (last third of the digestive tract) form as invaginations from either end of the developing bee. Imagine, for example, holding a balloon between the pointer fingers of both of your hands, with the fingers being on opposite sides of the balloon. Imagine, now, pushing your fingers toward one another, pressing both of the sides of the balloon in toward the center. This is a good model for how the digestive tract of the bee forms. The foregut and hindgut develop as invaginations from both ends of the bee. As a result, the foregut and hindgut are lined with the same material that lines the outside of the bee’s body (cuticle), just like the two depressions on the balloon are lined by the external surface of the balloon. Practically speaking, this means that the foregut and hindgut are not sites for nutrient absorption in the bee since nutrients cannot traverse the cuticular lining of either section. In contrast, the midgut is not lined with cuticle, thus making nutrient absorption its primary function. Given that the foregut and hindgut are lined with cuticle, the lining of both are shed as a bee molts (sheds its exoskeleton) during larval development.
The foregut is composed of the mouth, esophagus, and crop (Figure 1) of the honey bee. Food enters the digestive tract through the mouth and travels down the esophagus and into the crop. The esophagus is simply a tube that runs from the mouth in the head, through the thorax, and into the crop in the abdomen. The crop, or honey stomach as it is called sometimes by beekeepers, is a spherically shaped organ in the abdomen that serves as a site for food storage, as a storage place for nectar bees collect from flowers and fly back to the hive, or as an initial site for the digestion of food in the bee. The crop can expand significantly when it is full of honey or nectar, so-much-so that the abdomen swells. The foregut and midgut are separated by a valve called the proventriculus which is located at the end of the crop. This valve can grind and pulverize food particles (such as pollen) and filter pollen out of the crop contents. Food passes through the proventricular valve and into the bee’s midgut or ventriculus (Figure 1).
The midgut is the primary site of enzymatic digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. It is not lined by cuticle but rather is lined by the peritrophic membrane. This membrane likely protects the digestive cells (the cells that line the internal surface of the midgut) while allowing absorption of the nutrients straight into the hemolymph. Because the midgut is somewhat permeable, being so because of its function as the site of nutrient absorption, this is where many viruses and other bee pathogens enter the hemolymph. This is true especially for the Nosema pathogens (N. apis and N. ceranae) and some viruses.
Next along the digestive tract are the Malpighian tubules (Figure 1). These occur at the end of the midgut and are, essentially, spaghetti-like extensions of the tract that float freely in the bee’s body cavity. The Malpighian tubules extract waste products from the hemolymph. They produce uric acid granules and help with osmoregulation (water management) within the bee.
The hindgut, or final section of the digestive system, is composed of the ileum (Figure 1) and rectum (Figure 1). The ileum, sometimes called the small intestines, is a short tube that connects the midgut to the rectum. The rectum is important for the absorption of water, salt, and other beneficial substances prior to waste excretion. There are small areas on the rectum called rectal pads. These sections reabsorb >90% of the water that was used by the Malpighian tubules to collect waste. The latter is an important function. Bees, like most insects, try to retain as much moisture as possible from the food they eat. Thus, they do not excrete nitrogenous wastes in a urine-equivalent as humans do. Instead, they reabsorb much of their water and tend to defecate moderately liquid to dry feces. Uric acid solids and other unused foodstuffs, such as the shells of pollen grains, are excreted as relatively solid feces.
The glandular system of a honey bee has four basic functions: (1) internal (within the body) and external (outside the body) communication, (2) food processing, (3) defense and (4) wax production. The glandular system includes a number of glands located throughout the bee’s body. These glands are organs composed of clusters of cells that produce and secrete various products. Those glands that secrete products inside of the body to produce a change inside of the body are called endocrine glands while those that secrete chemicals through ducts to the outside of the body to produce a change in other organisms outside of the body are called exocrine glands. The chemicals released by ...
The Components of a Honey Bee Nest
by Jamie Ellis
The honey bee is a wonderful creature. Its behavior, physiology, and ecology are marvels to behold. The range of behaviors expressed by honey bees is diverse and sophisticated. Its internal workings keep the bee alive and healthy, ultimately producing an ecology that is profound, perhaps the most impressive of all the social insects. All of these wonders are made possible by the bee’s physical structure. Honey bees have an external anatomy that perfectly complements its function. It is this external anatomy to which I want to introduce you in this article, with the key words printed in bold font.
Honey bees are insects and there are certain physical characteristics that all insects share. Most notably, insects have three body regions and six legs (Figure 1). The body regions are called the head, thorax, and abdomen. Each body regions has its own important role to play in the overall function of the honey bee. Correspondingly, the external structure of each body region is developed to support the given region’s function.
As for other insects, a honey bee’s body is covered in a thick layer of cuticle that entomologists call exoskeleton, or external skeleton. The exoskeleton is made of a few different layers itself. However, it is sufficient to say that it forms the hard structure that protects the bee’s vital internal organs. It also serves as a point of attachment of muscle and other tissues of the body. The exoskeleton of the bee can be pigmented or lack pigmentation. Generally speaking though, the exoskeleton is what gives the bee its dark color since it usually is pigmented black or variations thereof, especially in the head and thoracic regions. That said, there is a special condition where bees produce brown pigmentation in areas that otherwise normally would be black. This produces a bee that is reddish-brown in color. This trait is called cordovan, hence the origination of the cordovan bee. Incidentally, the bee in Figure 5 is cordovan while the one in Figure 1 is not. You can see the clear difference in the coloration pattern of the two bees.
Bees’ bodies also are covered in hair. A bee’s hair differs from ours in one notable way. Our hairs are single shafts while a bee’s hair is branched. This is part of what distinguishes the bees from the wasps. The branched hairs help pollen stick to the bee’s body easier. Furthermore, these hairs build up an electrostatic charge as bees fly. This charge makes the pollen jump onto a bee’s body when she visits a flower. Clearly, these hairs are important to the survival of the bee colony.
The honey bee head is the center of sensory perception for the bee. Almost everything that a bee uses to sense the outside world is part of or connected to the head. The most notable external features of a bee’s head occur on the front or face of the bee (Figure 2). These include two large compound eyes, three small ocelli, two antennae, a tongue, and mandibles.
Bees have five eyes, two large compound eyes and three ocelli. The compound eyes are situated on either side of the bee’s head (Figure 3). The compound eyes are composed of thousands of little lenses or facets. Together, the facets help bees see color, movement, and patterns. The images from all of the lenses in a single compound eye are believed to be joined into a single image in the bee’s brain. The bees do not see images the way we see them. It is possible that they perceive images more like a mosaic, because they are less able to see definition and outlines. Interestingly enough, bees see further into the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum that do humans. Many flowers of bee-pollinated plants have petals containing patterns that only can be seen by organisms possessing the ability to see into the UV spectrum. Of final note, bees can detect polarized light, but do not see as far into the red spectrum as do humans. Red appears black to a bee.
The function of the three ocelli at the top of a bee’s head is less understood. These eyes are arranged in a triangular pattern and each contains only one lens. Ocelli, sometimes called simple eyes, aid in the detection of sunlight, or light intensity in general. Thus, the ocelli help bees navigate during flight.
Honey bees have two antennae that come out of the face between the compound eyes (Figures 2 and 4). The antennae are major sensory organs. They are covered in ...
The Components of a Honey Bee Nest
by Jamie Ellis
In my column last month, I discussed the terminology associated with the members of a honey bee colony. In the present article, I am going to introduce you to terminology associated with the hive and its various components. I put the important new terms in bold font so that you know exactly what I am trying to define.
I will begin my discourse of nest components by discussing the difference between a honey bee colony and a honey bee nest (or hive). In the loosest sense, a honey bee colony is a group of bees, usually sharing the same or a related mother, that together function as a single unit. This “togetherness” confers certain, mutually beneficial attributes that are otherwise absent in a single bee. In laymen’s terms, a colony is the sum total of all the bees that live in the nest. The nest, or hive, on the other hand, is the physical space occupied by the colony and is the sum of the components that together, comprise the nest.
Why make the distinction between nest/hive and colony? Quite frankly, it is because we often use the terms incorrectly or interchangeably. It is very common to hear one say that bees live in a colony or that the bees are a hive (i.e. a hive of bees). However, it is important to distinguish between the two since they do not mean the same thing and conversations become confused when using the words incorrectly. Bees do not live in a colony, neither are they a hive, though the latter use is accepted increasingly. I prefer to use the word nest rather than hive because I believe it is less ambiguous and less likely to be used incorrectly.
With that background, I am not writing about the components of a honey bee colony. That would produce a discussion of the colony members, which I covered in last month’s column. Rather, I am focusing on the components of a nest, the bees’ living quarters. I also am not discussing the parts of a managed hive (the lids, frames, bottom board, etc.). Instead, I am focusing on those parts that are common to all hives, whether managed, wild, or feral.
The honey bees we keep prefer to nest in cavities that are about 40 L in volume and 10 or more feet above the ground. We know this from the work of L.L. Langstroth and Tom Seeley, among others, who conducted elegant studies to determine honey bee nest site preferences. Furthermore, there likely is a number of nests that honey bees will establish per unit area (# nests/unit area = nest density). Notably, honey bees in the wild rarely nest in the densities that we as beekeepers create in our overcrowded apiaries. Bees seem to nest at much lower densities, likely based on the amount of resources available in the environment.
The nesting sites that honey bees choose to inhabit usually meet stringent criteria that the bees desire. I will not discuss those criteria in depth here, but it is worth noting that Tom Seeley, in his book Honey Bee Democracy, covers this topic in considerable detail. I also want to share that Randall Hepburn and colleagues published a book entitled Honeybee Nests: Composition, Structure, Function. The authors of both books more than adequately cover the topics of nest site choice (Seeley) - what honey bee colonies desire in a nest site - and nest components (Hepburn et al.), i.e. the parts of a nest. I recommend reading both if you remain interested in this topic after you finish reading this article.
All honey bee nests have an entrance (Figure 1). In managed hives, the entrance is at the base of the nest and occupies a space that is the entire width of the face of the nest. For nest sites occupied by wild or feral colonies, the nest entrance may be as small as the diameter of a dime, though the entrance most commonly is a few inches in size. Some wild and feral nests even have multiple entrances.
The nest entrance is the exit and entry point for bees leaving and entering the hive. All of the colony’s traffic is directed through the nest entrance. It also serves as the point of entry for would-be colony pests, parasites, and predators. Consequently, the bees work hard to defend the nest entrance against colony invasion and other threats to the colony.
When entering the colony through the nest entrance, one quickly encounters the wax combs (Figure 2) that provide the internal framework for the colony. The honey bees we keep construct multiple layers of wax combs, arranged vertically in sheets in their nests. The bees suspend these combs from the ceiling of the nest and affix them to the nest walls to provide added structural support to the combs.
The combs are made of wax that bees secrete from special glands, the wax glands, located on the underside of their abdomens. Wax production is greatest during a nectar flow because the incoming sugar source provides the energy the bees need to secrete the wax and the incoming nectar needs a place to be stored, thus creating a demand for comb. The bees remove the wax scales from their abdomens and use their mandibles (their chewing mouthparts) to manipulate the wax and place it on the growing comb.
Beeswax, the term for the wax produced by the bees, is an interesting substance itself. New wax is white and its chemistry is fairly well known. The major compound families in beeswax include alkanes, alkenes, free fatty acids, monoesters, diesters, and hydroxymonoesters (Hepburn et al. 2014). Fatty alcohols and hydroxydiesters are minor constituents of beeswax. Hepburn et al. (2014) note that beeswax is a visco-elastic, thermoplastic material.
This simply means that beeswax “flows” at normal hive temperatures, though to the naked eye, it looks as if nothing changes. In this sense, it is somewhat like glass, which behaves like a “liquid-solid.”
In managed hives, bees are encouraged to build their combs within the ...
The Members of a Honey Bee Colony
by Jamie Ellis
There is a lot of information one needs to know before keeping bees. Perhaps the most difficult part of getting started is learning all of the terminology associated with beekeeping. Beekeeping is, in fact, full of jargon. We put frames in supers. Bees pull comb and apply propolis to cracks and crevices around the hive. Worker bees like to waggle dance and drones leave the hive every day in search of a queen at drone congregation areas.
A non-beekeeper would have had a hard time understanding anything I stated in the preceding paragraph. This illustrates the importance of learning to speak the beekeeping language before ever opening your first hive. Therefore, I am going to devote the next few articles in my column discussing common terminology associated with our craft, beginning with the members of the colony.
There are only three types of bees in the colony so one would think that learning the terminology associated with a colony’s members would be easy. However, I feel it is useful to meet a colony’s members and know how to discuss them correctly, especially given that they are the ones that advance the colony and with which a beekeeper must interact, nay, appease regularly. My strategy for emphasizing the terminology I am defining is by bolding the words that should be known and understood.
Adult honey bees
There are three types of bees in the honey bee colony. Some people say that there are three castes, and they are correct, in one sense. However, it may be more appropriate to say that there are two sexes of adult bees in the hive and only one sex (the female sex) has two castes. Regardless of how you define caste, there certainly are three types of bees in the colony and they are the queen, worker, and drone honey bees.
Queen honey bees (Figure 1) are the single most important honey bees in any colony. The typical honey bee colony usually only has one queen. I say usually because colonies often (maybe 5-10% of the time) have more than one queen, though this probably is only a temporary occurrence. I make this claim because I have conducted a lot of research using observation hives and I often see colonies with two queens. I am convinced that the reason we beekeepers do not notice this much is because we stop looking when we see the first queen.
Queen honey bees are not “queens” in the sense that they rule the colony and direct its intentions and behaviors. They do not govern the workers or otherwise tell any other bees what to do. They only make a handful of decisions, most notably: “I want to lay an egg,” “this cell is clean and can receive an egg,” “I am hungry,” etc.
I do not want to over simplify the role the queen plays in the colony. The queen is the mother of all of a colony’s members. During peak season, she can lay 2,000+ eggs per day, over 500,000 in her lifetime! She usually is the sole reproductive female in the nest. The workers take care of her, feed her, spread her pheromones (chemical signals) around the hive, etc. In fact, a queen’s pheromonal bouquet helps to stabilize the nest and to keep the workers from rearing additional queens. Arguably, ensuring colony homeostasis (nest stability and continuity) is one of the most important functions of a queen.
Queen honey bees have many interesting attributes and behaviors. They result from fertilized (female) eggs. They are fed a considerable volume of food as an immature bee. This food, called royal jelly, pushes the female larva in the direction of becoming a queen. Queens only take 16 days to develop from egg to adult. They take one, at most two, true mating flights about one week after they emerge from their cell. They will mate with a wide range (5 - 30+ with the average being 10-17) of drones (male bees) on this mating flight and store all the semen they collect from the drones in a special organ inside their body. This organ, the spermatheca, can nourish the sperm it houses, keeping it ready for use at the queen’s disposal.
Queens return to the hive after their mating flight and live in the colony, laying eggs, and otherwise surviving at the mercy of the worker bees within the nest. Queens can live 2+ years, though I suspect the majority of queens die within 6 months – 1.5 years of emerging as adult bees. I believe this to be true based on data on queen longevity in managed hives that have been published recently.
Worker honey bees (Figure 2), as the name implies, do all of the main tasks in a colony. Like queens, worker bees come from fertilized eggs and are female. This is very important and scientifically significant. Queen bees can elect to lay fertilized or unfertilized eggs (more on that later). All fertilized eggs result in female bees. Notice I said female bees. Every fertilized egg contains the potential to be either a queen or a worker honey bee. The deciding factor that directs the path of the immature female is the amount and type of diet it is fed as it develops. All female larvae receive the same food for the first few days of their lives. After this, worker bees change the volume and composition of food they offer to female larvae that they want to become queens. Queens get more food while developing than do worker bees. Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but queens are overfed workers and workers are starved queens.
I hope you grasp the significance of this concept. A queen could have been a worker while a worker could have been a queen. Their environment (i.e. the amount and type of food they received) dictated their future. I would like to state this another way. Workers possess all the same genes that queens possess and vice versa. Thus, the real difference between queens and workers is the turning on and off of certain genes and gene combinations, or the level of expression (how long a gene is turned on) of a given gene in both types of bees. Queens and workers share all the same genes but are otherwise two different bees.
I recognize that my discussion of queen and worker genetics may appear to be a digression, but I believe it is of critical importance. Consider this practical example: queens can live 2+ years while workers live 6 weeks to 6 months. Two bees with the same DNA have two completely different lifespans. This has considerable implications for the biology of aging. Furthermore, workers and queens look nothing alike, share no tasks, and are behaviorally, morphologically, and physiologically different, yet the same blueprint was used to build both – fascinating.
Ok, so that tantrum highlighted the nerd in me. I will refocus my discussion on worker bees specifically. Worker honey bees take 21 days, more or less, to develop from egg to adult. They possess a few, key morphological adaptations that queen bees do not have. For example, worker bees have stingers that possess significantly sized barbs, making workers more apt to leave the stinger behind in their stung victim. The barbs on a queen’s stinger are reduced, making it possible for a queen to sting her victim repeatedly. Furthermore, worker bees have a pollen basket which is a special feature on their hind leg that they use to transport pollen. Queens do not possess a pollen basket since they do not forage for pollen.
Unlike the worker caste of many other social insects, worker honey bees are not born into a task in which they remain their whole life. Instead, they progress through a fairly predictable series of tasks that ultimately end in the workers’ employment as forager bees, a task that claims the lives of all of its practitioners. We call this task progression temporal polyethism (literally: time-related “many” behaviors) or age related division of labor, the latter being the term most used by beekeepers. Not all workers do all tasks, but all workers progress through many of the tasks in a predictable order. Worker bees are the nursery workers, the queen attendants, the colony’s architects, the cleaning staff, the undertakers, the guards, and the food processors and gatherers. They do all of these tasks selflessly, even being willing to forfeit their life for the good of the colony.
Drone honey bees (Figure 3) result from the queen’s conscious decision to lay an egg that she does not allow sperm to contact. Therefore, drone honey bees are produced from unfertilized eggs and are haploid; they contain half of a complete set of chromosomes (see my article in the American Bee Journal September 2014 issue for an explanation of this process). Drones are the male honey bees. Arguably, they have the easiest life of all bees in the colony.
Drones take about 24 days to ...
Inspecting Your Newly Installed Colonies for the First Time
by Jamie Ellis
I shared how to install packages and nucs in my April 2015 article. Quite frankly, that is the easy part. The work begins once you put the bees in the hive. For all the parents out there, keeping bees is not as difficult as raising children, but it is the same principle. Babies are easy to raise, before they are born. The work begins after they are born. Colonies are the same.
Your new colony needs attention. Of course, you could ignore the bees altogether. After all, bees have done a good job at “keeping” themselves for thousands of years. However, times have changed. The honey bees we keep face a number of pests and pathogens that they do not host ordinarily. Furthermore, the various environments where we keep bees may not favor their survival. Finally, honey bees face a number of stressors, stressors that require beekeeper attention. All of these issues must be addressed by you, the beekeeper.
It is important to know what to look for in, and what to do for, your new colonies. The colonies should be inspected about one week after installation, every two weeks for a couple of months, and then as needed thereafter. What follows is a checklist of sorts, one that can help guide your early colony inspections. These are items that one should look for or things that you should do when working newly installed colonies for the first time, about one week after colony installation. Consider this your first inspection checklist. The checklist is not exhaustive, but it does include most of the pertinent inspection considerations.
1) The new colony should have normal activity at the hive entrance. This simply means that bees should be coming and going from the nest entrance (Figure 1) in a manner that is appropriate for the time of the year and comparable to activity levels of other colonies. In early-to-mid spring, colonies should have a lot of activity at the nest entrance, unless weather conditions are otherwise unfavorable for bee flight. Comparatively high colony activity occurs into summer, but tends to wane as nectar and pollen resources become scare. Flight activity decreases significantly in mid fall and through winter.
2) There should be no, or only a few, dead bees at the hive entrance. A large number of dead bees at the nest entrance (i.e. 50+ dead bees) can indicate that the colony is struggling in its new environment. It could mean that the installation process damaged the bees. It also could mean that bees from neighboring colonies are trying to rob the new colony, more on that in point 3. Regardless, bees in new colonies should experience normal mortality rates, at least mortality rates consistent with bees from other, neighboring colonies. Incidentally, there is a cohort of bees in the nest whose job it is to perform undertaker services. These bees carry the dead bees some distance away from the hive. Consequently, there should never be a large number of dead bees at the nest entrance unless the undertaker bees are not doing their job or unless the colony is being robbed heavily.
3) There should be no robbing at the hive entrance. Robbing occurs when nectar resources are low in the surrounding environment. Strong colonies in search of nectar/honey may begin to infiltrate weaker, neighboring colonies in an attempt to rob the nectar/honey available within. Robbing manifests itself at the nest entrance as bees attacking one another. Furthermore, robber bees (bees from the robbing colonies) fly around the hive and look for other ways to get into the hive. For example, they may cluster around the seams between supers, around the hive lid, or around any external hive feeders. Newly installed colonies are particularly vulnerable to robbing behavior and should be protected. To reduce robbing behavior: (1) reduce the colony entrance to restrict robber bee access to the nest, (2) make sure that the outside surface of external feeders is kept free of syrup, (3) minimize the length of time spent working colonies, (4) seal all cracks/crevices around the nest, and (5) be willing to move the hives if robbing does not cease.
4) Any external feeders present on the hive should be checked for the level of feed they contain. External feeders are useful because one can monitor syrup use in real time and easily provide more syrup without disturbing the colony. On the other hand, external feeders are more prone to incite drift, especially if their outside surfaces are sticky. Internal hive feeders often hold more feed, minimize the occurrence of robbing, and come in a variety of styles. However, they take up hive space that otherwise could be devoted to combs and can only be filled when a colony is opened. Regardless, hive feeders need to be monitored frequently in newly hived colonies.
5) Bees should blanket the tops of most of the frames in newly installed colonies (Figure 2). Of course, it may be a few weeks before a new colony’s population increases. This is especially true for hives created from packages, given that offspring from the new queen have not begun to emerge. Despite this, there should be bees on the top bars of most frames when the nest is opened. Do not expect the top bars of all frames to be covered fully by bees. This is an unreasonable expectation. Instead, one should be able to see bees on and between most frames when viewed from above. The number and density of bees on the frames, when viewed from above, should increase from the outermost to the innermost frames, more or less uniformly.
6) Similar to point five, a removed frame should contain a lot of bees per side of frame (Figure 3). The number of bees on frames in the center of the nest likely will be two or more times that of frames on the edges of the nest. It is important to remember that the bee population in colonies created from packages tends to decrease before increasing significantly, this because the new queen’s offspring have not emerged. Thus, it is common to see a shrinking population in colonies started with packages, especially over the first two-to-three inspections.
7) The outermost frames in the brood chamber should contain stored nectar/sugar water and pollen. Furthermore, you should see bees in the nest with pollen on their hind legs (Figure 4). The bees deposit this pollen into cells, where it is processed into “bee bread” (Figure 5). Generally speaking, bees ...
Installing Packages and Hiving Nucs
by Jamie Ellis
One of the greatest joys of beekeeping is acquiring one’s first hive. I dedicated an entire article to discussing how to acquire bees and queens (see Ellis, J.D. 2015. Acquiring bees and queens. American Bee Journal, 155(1): 29-33). In the current article, I discuss the next step in becoming a beekeeper: initiating your new colonies. Given that most beekeepers acquire their hives as packages or nucs, I feel that it is appropriate to share how to install both colonies of bees into a full size hive.
A package of bees, quite literally, is a cage of bees that one can purchase to install into existing hive equipment. They can be purchased from a number of sources. Usually, packages can be picked up directly from the producer or the producer may ship the package via the U.S. Postal Service or other carrier service. The physical package typically is constructed of a wooden top, bottom, and sides while the faces of the package are screen mesh. There are new, fully plastic packages available on the market. I suspect these will become more common in the future.
Packages are sized and sold by the weight of the bees they carry. This usually ranges from 2 – 5 lbs of bees. Furthermore, packages can be purchased with/without queens, though it is most common to purchase packages with queens.
Nucs, short for “nucleus colony,” are small versions of full size colonies. They are composed of full depth and length hive bodies and supers. However, the nuc hive bodies and supers are narrower and accommodate fewer frames. Nucs are functioning colonies, complete with a queen, brood, worker bees, honey, pollen, and wax. In essence, a nuc is a small colony, ready to grow into a big one.
Nucs are sized and sold by the number of frames they contain. Nucs usually contain three to five frames, with the most common size being the five-frame nuc. Typically speaking, nuc producers sell only the frames/bees and charge more money to beekeepers wanting to purchase the accompanying nuc lids, bottoms, and hive bodies. Many nuc producers will require a deposit for the nuc lid, bottom, and hive body. That way, they make money on this equipment if the beekeeper purchasing the nuc fails to return the equipment. The beekeeper is given his/her deposit back if he/she returns the nuc hive parts to the nuc producer.
Every beekeeper has his/her preference regarding nucs and packages. To be sure, there are advantages and disadvantages to starting with nucs and packages. To help you decide between nucs and packages, I developed a table (Table 1) in which I compare various aspects associated with nucs and packages directly. Furthermore, I provide below step-by-step instructions for installing packages and nucs, with many photographs that illustrate what I discuss. Finally, I provide additional pointers regarding nuc and package bee installation that I hope are of some use to you. At the end of the day, every beekeeper should install a package and a nuc, just to experience the work associated with doing both.
Step-by-step instructions for installing packages
Step 1 – Acquire your packages (Figure 1).
Step 2 – Know the parts of your package (Figure 2). Packages typically have wooden tops, bottoms, and end walls. The faces of the packages are made of screen wire. There is a wooden lid on top of the package. The lid covers a large hole that accommodates a metal feeder can that extends about 3/5 of the distance into the package from the top. The feeder contains sugar water or corn syrup and has holes in its bottom surface. The caged bees feed from these holes while the package is in transit. The feeder rests on a small piece of wood that runs between the two screen faces of the package. The package also contains a small queen cage that houses the queen and sometimes attendants, the latter depending on queen breeder habit (i.e. some queen breeders add attendants, worker bees who “attend” the queen, to the cage while others do not). The queen cages usually are made of wood or plastic.
Step 3 – Get your hive components together and make them ready to receive the packages (Figure 3). In Figure 3, the hives are composed of single deep hive bodies and contain wooden frames outfitted with plastic foundation. If is, of course, OK to start colonies on pulled combs as long as the combs are pest and disease free.
Step 4 – Take the packages to the hives in which they will be installed (Figure 4).
Step 5 – Spray the packages with water (Figure 5). Bees lightly misted with water cannot fly, making package installation significantly easier. Many people use sugar water for this purpose. However, sugar water makes the package and bees sticky, attracts robbing bees, and is not necessary. Regular tap water will do just fine. First, mist the bees with water through both screen faces of the package. Next, lightly bounce the bees down to the bottom of the package by giving package a firm tap on the ground. Spray the bees as they cluster on the bottom of the package. Next, firmly tap the package on one end. This causes the bees to fall to one end of the package and allows one to mist bees that were in the center of the cluster originally and, consequently, were not sprayed earlier. Then, firmly tap the package on the opposite wooden end, causing the cluster of bees to slide to the opposite side of the package. Repeat this procedure 2-4 times, misting the bees every time. This should be done until all of the bees in the package are misted. Do not over mist the bees. You do not want them to drown or chill if daytime temperatures are cool.
Step 6 – Remove the wooden lid from the top of the package using a hive tool (Figure 6). Bees cannot escape the package with the lid removed since the feeder blocks the opening.
Step 7 – Remove the feeder from the package using a hive tool (Figure 7) and place the wooden lid loosely over the package opening. The sugar water in the feeder can be added to a hive feeder to feed a colony. Thus, it is useful to have a can opener on hand.
Step 8 – Remove the queen cage from the package. Often, the queen cage will have a metal tab or something similar affixed to it so that it can hang on the frame beside which it is installed. If this metal or similar tab is not present, staple a piece string (about 6 inches or 15 cm) to the back of the cage (Figure 8). Make sure the staples are not long enough to go through the cage walls and into the space where the queen and workers are. This could damage the bees within. Also, the string should be stapled to the end of the cage containing the “candy” so that this side of the cage will be facing up when hung between frames.
Step 9 – Remove four frames from the hive (Figure 9). I usually remove the frames from one side of the hive if I am going to install the bees by placing the entire package into the hive. I remove the frames from the middle if I am going to install the bees by shaking the bees from the package and into the hive. Both methods of package installation are discussed below.
Step 10 – Suspend the queen cage between two frames before the bees are added to the colony (Figure 10). The frames in the colony in Figure 10 only have foundation. There are no frames with pulled combs. Thus, the queen cage must be secured between the two frames using the string stapled to the cage.
Step 11 – Staple the string affixed to the queen cage to the top bar of a frame (Figure 11). This will suspend the queen cage close to the top of the frame. This step is not necessary if the frames between which the cage is installed contain pulled combs. Cages can be secured between two frames containing pulled combs simply by squeezing the frames together and allowing the queen cage to sink into the wax of both combs. Figure 12 shows the correct placement of ...
The Basic Start-up Costs Associated with Keeping Bees
by Jamie Ellis
Beekeeping is not a free endeavor. Very few people inherit bees and all of the equipment needed to keep them. There are costs associated with becoming a beekeeper, and these costs can be unpredictable to, and perhaps unanticipated by, the new beekeeper. I sympathize with new beekeepers. They often jump right into an endeavor that is hard to understand and, worse still, hard to know where to start.
A good first step when getting into beekeeping is to contact an equipment manufacturer/provider to request a copy of their equipment catalog. Most equipment supply companies have online catalogs that can be browsed easily. Though these catalogs provide a useful way to learn the terms associated with beekeeping (they are, after all, a visual dictionary of all of the parts of our craft), they can be impossible for the new beekeeper to navigate. They are full of equipment, supplies, and choices. They are a veritable smorgasbord of confusion for the person who knows little about the craft they are beginning to embrace.
So, how does one know what equipment is needed to become a beekeeper and what are the startup costs associated with becoming a beekeeper? I get this two-part question a lot. Thus, I decided to write an article that can be used by new and seasoned beekeepers alike to understand what the basic costs are associated with getting started in beekeeping. I hope this article will provide the new beekeeper a blueprint for deciding how to move forward. I also hope that seasoned beekeepers can use this article when training/mentoring new beekeepers.
How many colonies should the beginner purchase?
It is important to know that I wrote this article with the true beginner in mind. The article does not reflect startup costs from bees, to honey house, to a full-size pollination business. Instead, I focus on the new beekeeper who wants to acquire one to three colonies. For the record, I tell all new beekeepers to begin with three colonies, this up from the two colonies I recommended for years.
Why start with more than one colony? First, starting with a single colony is a gamble because you never really know if the colony is doing well or if it is failing. This occurs because you have no other colonies to which you can compare the one. Is the colony succeeding or floundering? Is it producing a normal amount of honey for the area or under producing? Should it be bringing in pollen, raising brood, or shrinking in population? These questions are easier to answer if you have multiple colonies that you can compare to one another.
A second reason to start with multiple colonies concerns having the biological material needed to remedy a weak colony. What do I mean by this? Well, a known reality of beekeeping is that colonies falter, stumble, and otherwise succumb to stressors throughout the year. Knowing that this is happening is one thing, but being able to remedy the situation is another. Imagine that your one colony becomes hopelessly queenless and failed to make viable queen cells (something that happens enough that it cannot be considered an anomaly). What are you going to do? Order a queen? Sure. That might work during spring or early summer, but what about if it happens in fall? Having a second, or third, colony allows you to give the queenless colony frames of eggs taken from otherwise healthy colonies. Beekeepers find themselves needing to exchange frames of bees, brood, pollen, and honey between colonies for a number of reasons. This cannot be done if you only have one colony.
Third: colonies die. This can be extremely upsetting to the new beekeeper, so-much-so that they become too discouraged to begin anew. Starting with two-to-three colonies makes a new beekeeper more likely to remain a beekeeper since they must continue to keep their remaining colonies alive. New beekeepers already are making a significant investment in the craft so they might as well set themselves up for success.
Finally, starting with more than one colony allows the new beekeeper to grow his or her operation, if so desired, because of this simple truth: bees make bees. Having a few colonies allows you to make a few more the next year, and a few more the next year still.
I understand that starting with three or more colonies can be cost prohibitive for many new beekeepers. However, I would not recommend starting with only one unless there simply are no other options.
Table of the startup costs associated with beekeeping
Having been asked the question “what is this going to cost me” over and over, I decided to develop a table that outlines the startup costs associated with keeping bees. In Table 1, I list only the costs associated with acquiring essential personal protective equipment, some basic tools, the “complete” hive, and some miscellaneous components, including bees. I do not include any costs associated with extracting and processing honey, running a pollination business, or becoming a nuc, queen, or package bee producer. I consider these costs to be outside the ordinary realm of costs necessary to become a beekeeper. Sure, the average beginning beekeeper will need access to honey extraction and processing equipment. However, this specialty equipment often can be accessed via one’s beekeeping mentor, through one’s local beekeeping club, or even through a beekeeper who lives nearby but to whom you otherwise have no tie. This type of equipment is not needed on the front end.
I am sure that there are items I inadvertently left out of the table. Hopefully these overlooked items will not otherwise prove necessary. It is important that new beekeepers shop around when considering what equipment to purchase. This ensures that they will get the most out of their investment. It also behooves the beginning beekeeper to work with their beekeeping mentor to identify reputable equipment manufacturers who sell quality items and stand by their workmanship.
Below, I provide a key for understanding ...
Stocks of Bees in the United States
All beekeepers must choose the type of bee that will be the workhorse of their beekeeping operations. Which bee to use can be the subject of intense debate among beekeepers. Should you use Russian bees or Minnesota hygienic bees? Which is better: Italian or New World Carniolan bees? The answers to these questions are not easy. There are, in fact, no right answers to these questions. The average beekeeper will use multiple types of bees during his or her journey through beekeeping. Part of the joy of beekeeping is figuring out which bee(s) is best for you.
What is a honey bee “stock”?
There are a number of terms associated with types of a given organism. These include breed, line, stock, pedigree, etc. Some use these terms interchangeably with the terms subspecies or race. However, each term has its own definition and it is important to use the right one when discussing the types of honey bees available in the U.S.
To understand “type terminology” best, it is important to appreciate a little about honey bee biogeography. There are multiple species of honey bees in the world, perhaps 7-9 depending on who you ask. We use the one species whose natural distribution is exclusively outside of Asia: Apis mellifera, the western honey bee. Western honey bees are distributed naturally in Europe, Africa, and parts of the Middle East.
Apis mellifera, as a species, can be divided further into subspecies, or races. The race name would be the third name in the Latin designation. For example, Apis mellifera ligustica is the Italian honey bee, with the race or subspecies name being ligustica. Races of honey bees each have unique physical and behavioral attributes and typically a limited geographic distribution, all of which allow them to be distinguished from other races of western honey bees. These differing attributes, or “phenotypes” as scientists would say, confer varying characteristics to the bees, meaning that no two races of honey bees are exactly alike. It is this diversity that is celebrated among beekeepers as it produces bees with varying characteristics that are more/less desirable, depending on the view and management practices of the beekeeper. For example, some bee races swarm more than do others. Some bee races can be quite defensive while others tend not to sting as much. Some bee races overwinter better than do other bee races. Thus, beekeepers are free to choose a race that works best for them, in their particular management system.
Europeans brought honey bees to North America hundreds of years ago. Consequently, the honey bees that we use mostly descend from European races of honey bees. I say “mostly” because we do have one African race of honey bee in the Americas. This is the “killer” bee of lore – Apis mellifera scutellata. The various races of western honey bees can hybridize with one another. To be fair and accurate, we no longer have European races of honey bees in the U.S. Instead, the bees we use are derived from purposeful and/or natural breeding between the various European races that were introduced into the U.S. I like to use the designations “European-derived” or “African-derived” honey bees when discussing the bees we have in the U.S. After all, they are no longer European or African! The lines maintained from the original or subsequent introductions of honey bees into the U.S. can be considered “stocks.”
I provide two good quotes that will help explain what I mean when using the term “stock.” First, Dr. Al Dietz explained the concept of bee races, and how we use them in breeding. He noted:
“The geographic races of bees are the results of natural selection in their homeland. That is, the bees became adjusted to their original environment, but not always to the economic requirements of beekeepers. Therefore, they are not the result, but the raw material for breeding.” – Dietz, A. 1992. Honey bees of the world. The Hive and the Honey Bee (J. Graham, ed.), Dadant and Sons, Hamilton, IL, USA. 1324 pp.
I really like Dr. Dietz’s description of a race and how he noted that bee races provide the raw material for breeding, ultimately producing the stocks that we have in the U.S. today.
Second, Dr. David Tarpy wrote a North Carolina State University Extension Bulletin and made the following statement on bee stocks:
“The term “stock” is defined as a loose combination of traits that characterize a particular group of bees. Such groups can be divided by species, race, region, population, or breeding line in a commercial operation. Many of the current “stocks” in the United States can be grouped at one or more of these levels…” – David Tarpy, 2005. The Different Types of Honey Bees. AG-645, NC State University, Cooperative Extension Service, http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/entomology/apiculture/pdfs/1.12%20copy.pdf.
It technically is incorrect to claim that we use one race or another in our beekeeping operations. We have stocks of honey bees that originated from multiple European races and one African race, or crosses between the races. Granted, some of the bees available for purchase may exhibit characteristics principally associated with a given race, but they almost certainly are not pure, unadulterated descendants of the original bees of that race. For example, you might purchase Italian-derived honey bees that are yellow in color, produce large colonies, are relatively gentle, and are prolific honey producers. However, they almost certainly are not “pure” Italian honey bees, descended from the original stocks imported into the U.S. Genetic analyses of honey bees across the U.S. support this assertion.
Points to consider when deciding which bee stock to use
There are five key considerations one must remember when searching for and purchasing one’s bee of choice. First, many bee breeders claim to raise a given bee race. However, I hope you now appreciate that there are no “pure” races of European honey bees in the U.S. Most of the race designations are assigned based on a given queen’s color, the color of the queen’s offspring, and sometimes on the colony’s behavioral attributes. Color can vary tremendously within a given bee stock (see Figure 1 as a great example). Thus, a bee’s color cannot be the sole indicator of its race. Furthermore, even a queen that is true-to-race (i.e. “pure”) supplies only ½ of the genes carried by her female offspring. Given that queens mate in the air, away from the nest, usually with multiple, unrelated drones, I suspect that most bees available for purchase in the U.S. are mixtures of multiple stocks. I have known beekeepers who breed multiple stocks of honey bees in the same apiary, selling the queen offspring based solely on the color of the queen. Hmmmmm………
Second, not all members of a bee stock exhibit the same ch
Acquiring Bees and Queens
One must have bees in order to be a beekeeper. It is not always easy to find and purchase bees, especially if one is a new beekeeper and does not know how to obtain bees. Furthermore, bees can be hard to acquire given the level of beekeeper demand for bees today. I have been keeping bees only 25 years; so, I do not have a long history of following the supply and demand trend for bees. However, I feel that it is safe to say that the demand for bees has never been greater during my beekeeping tenure. In Florida, the state where I work, we have gone from about 900 registered beekeepers to over 3,500 registered beekeepers in the last eight years. All of these new beekeepers need a source from which they can acquire bees. This insatiable demand for bees seems similar almost everywhere I travel.
Along with this demand for bees has come a dwindling supply relative to the number of people wanting bees. I am not suggesting that we have fewer bees available to us. I am, instead, suggesting that the number of people wanting bees, and the number of colonies they want, is outpacing the bee suppliers’ ability to produce bees and have them available when beekeepers want them. Bee availability when needed seems to be the biggest problem. Bees are easy to acquire during some parts of the year, but difficult to acquire at others. Generally speaking, the highest demand for bees occurs in late winter and through spring. Thus, you need to get on purchase lists early, usually by summer the preceding year, if you want to have your bees in time for spring use. On the other hand, bees can be quite available through summer and into early fall. There often is not a waiting list for bees that time of year, though how the bees are “packaged” for sale (nucs, packages, full size colonies, etc.) can be limited seasonally.
Beekeepers can acquire bees in six main ways, as: (1) nucs, (2) packages, (3) full size colonies, (4) swarms/bait hives, (5) cutouts (feral colonies removed from a structure), and (6) splits from their existing colonies. Some of these ways of acquiring bees further require you to obtain queen bees separately. For example, you will need a new queen if you split your own colonies because either the parent hive or the split will be left without a queen. Thus, it is helpful to know that one can acquire queens by (1) purchasing mated queens, (2) purchasing queen cells, (3) purchasing virgin queens, (4) grafting and producing one’s own queens, and (5) allowing one’s colonies to requeen themselves. In this article, I will describe and review the pros/cons associated with the various ways of acquiring bees and queens.
*Terminology note: Throughout this article, I use the word “colony” to describe the adult and immature bees collectively and “hive” to describe the physical structure (lid, hive body, bottom board, etc.) in which the colony lives.
(1) Nucs – Nucs (Figure 1) are small colonies, or “nucleus” colonies. Nucs accommodate full-size, Langstroth-style frames. This simply means that the frames that come out of a nuc can go into a standard Langstroth colony. Nucs generally are sold by the frame, with three and five frame nucs being the industry standard. Currently, nucs are priced around $20 - $30 per frame, meaning that a typical 5-frame nuc costs $100 - $150. You usually do not get to keep the hive components (lid, hive body, and bottom board) with the purchase of a nuc. Rather, you only purchase the frames and the accompanying bees. Consequently, you must have a full size hive body ready to accommodate your nuc upon purchase and you must return the nuc’s hive components to the producer after the installation of the nuc. Of course, I am confident the nuc producer would sell you the hive as well, for an additional fee.
Nuc producers/distributors usually have nucs available during much of the production season, this being spring through fall. However, the majority of nucs are produced for a spring distribution. Nucs are in high demand throughout spring. You need to get on nuc purchase lists with your nuc producer of choice about 6-8 months before you want/need the nucs. Otherwise, you get nucs when the producer has them available, which could be much later than you want them.
The producers of nucs create the nucs as splits from their existing colonies. They usually add a queen cell to the nuc, the cell being purchased from a queen producer or one that they produced themselves. Less often, the nuc producers will move the old queen from the parent hive into the nuc or allow the nuc to requeen itself. The latter is an acceptable practice, if monitored closely to ensure that a quality queen is produced, the former less so since you would be purchasing an older queen, possibly at the end of her productive life.
The advantages of starting with nucs is that nucs are functioning colonies. They have a queen, brood, honey, pollen, and wax comb. They come ready to work. They do not have to take time to establish, as they already are established. Furthermore, they come with frames and pulled combs. That is hard to beat. Think of nucs as “starter colonies,” waiting for the opportunity to expand their colony and become productive. If timed correctly, a new nuc can be hived and make a surplus crop of honey for the beekeeper during the first season. Incidentally, this is why they are in such high demand in early spring. Beekeepers are trying to get them hived and established before the main nectar flow. Many commercial beekeepers increase their hive numbers by purchasing and hiving nucs. Nucs are one of my preferred ways of starting hives.
There are some potential downsides to starting with nucs. First, many nuc producers see selling nucs as a way to get rid of the old combs in their production hives. This helps them because they constantly are circulating new combs into their production hives. However, it could be a potential problem for the consumer because there could be pesticide residues in the combs and/or pest and pathogens that accompany the hive equipment. I often say that starting with nucs is a good way to start with another beekeeper’s problems. Nucs are a great way to start a hive. However, it behooves the consumer to (1) inspect the nucs before purchasing them, (2) ask the nuc producer about the history of treatments and pests/pathogens in his or her colonies, and (3) discuss the source of the queen in the hive. The latter is especially important given that there often is little-to-no selection of queens that end up heading nucs.
(2) Packages – As the name implies, packages (Figure 2) are small cages containing bees, a feeder can, and a separate small cage containing a queen. The queen is kept in a separate cage because she is unrelated to the bees in the package and will need to be introduced to the bees slowly and methodically. The standard package contains about 3 lbs of bees. I have seen 2 and 4 lb packages, but they are not as popular at 3 lb packages. No, the package producer does NOT weigh the package to ensure that you are getting the weight of bees you purchased. It is more of an estimation. You get what you get. These days, the going rate for a 3lb package of bees is about $70 - $120, depending on what part of the country you are purchasing them in. You often can negotiate a reduced rate if you order packages in bulk. You also can order queenless packages at a reduced rate, usually about $20 to $30 less than the price of a queenright package.
Package producers shake bees into the packages, the bees originating from strong production colonies. The queens typically are produced, usually via the ...
Assembling Wooden Frames
Frames are the workhorses of the manmade parts of a honey bee hive. They provide the structure in which bees build the combs; thus, frames bear the entire weight of a colony’s wax infrastructure, honey/pollen stores, and brood nursery. They are spaced from one another and the hive’s walls a distance of 3/8s of an inch. This spacing, termed “bee space,” limits bees’ placement of propolis or wax in the area between adjacent frames and between frames and the hive’s walls. Herein lies the simple beauty of a Langstroth colony. The frames lack attachment to other structures in the hive because of the use of bee space. Resultantly, they can be removed from the hive with ease. The discovery and exploitation of bee space ushered in modern beekeeping. For the first time, combs could be inspected and colonies intensely manipulated.
The basic frame is simple in design and the vast majority of frames are made of wood, a smaller minority of plastic. The wooden frame has four basic parts: a top bar, two end bars, and a bottom bar (Figure 1). Top bars (Figure 2) have a flat upper surface, two “lugs” that overhang the joint they share with the end bar, and a lower surface that contains a groove. The groove is flanked by two bulges of wood I will call “ribs.” Top bars are either “grooved” (both ribs are attached to the top bar) or contain a wedge cleat (one rib is attached to the top bar). The wedge cleat can be removed from the top bar to make it easier to install Crimp-wired foundation.
The end bars of a frame (Figure 3) are what give the various sizes of frame their names. This is because there are three heights of end bars: tall, medium, and short. This, then, makes frames “deep” (when the tall end bars are used), “medium” or “Illinois” (when the medium end bars are used), or “shallow” (when the short end bars are used). End bars have notches at the top and bottom that are cut to accommodate the top and bottom-bars respectively. Most end bars contain two-to-four holes that are used when wiring foundation into frames.
The bottom bars of a frame come in three types: (1) solid, (2) split, and (3) grooved (Figure 4). The grooved bottom bars are the most common, followed by the split bottom bar. I rarely see solid bottom bars used any longer.
Frames are a very important part of the bee hive so it is essential that they are assembled correctly. Frame assembly is a simple process, but there are a few key points one must consider in order to maximize the long-term usefulness and integrity of the frame.
1) First, frames are under a lot of pressure in the hive. They are suspended by their lugs which rest on a special groove present on the front and back internal walls of the super in which the frames are placed. The weight of a deep frame full of honey can exceed 10 pounds. This, coupled with the fact that frame lugs are glued into the hive boxes by the bees using propolis, means that great force must be used to free the frame from the hive when removing them for inspection purposes. Thus, frames must be assembled in a manner that they can withstand the pressure placed on them by their own weight and a beekeeper’s hive tool.
2) Frames should be assembled with wood glue (Figure 5). The glue should be applied on all frame joints prior to fastening the parts together with nails or staples. Wood glue helps the frame parts stay together better. It reinforces the holding power of the nails or staples that will be applied later.
3) Most people who assemble frames fasten the frame parts together using nails or staples. Staples are a nice option because they are, essentially, two nails held together by a small bar (or crown). Of course, one can use nails to assemble frames. However, it takes twice as many nails as it does staples to assemble a frame. In the end, staples are less work.
4) A common mistake when assembling frames is to use too few nails/staples (“fasteners”) when assembling the frame. Of course, a top bar and bottom bar must be secured to the end bars using fasteners driven straight through the one and into the other. Usually, beekeepers will drive a fastener (1) through the top of the top bar and into the end bar and (2) from the bottom of the bottom bar and into the end bar. These are the “essential” fastener positions, but they are not the only place that the fasteners should be inserted. A frame assembled using fasteners only in these positions can come apart when being removed from the hive. This is due to two reasons. First, bees glue frame lugs to the hive walls using propolis. Thus, a hive tool must be wedged under the top bar of the frame and pressure applied in a downward direction to lift the frame out the hive. Second, fasteners driven into the frame in the opposite direction that the force is applied from the hive tool can slide out of position if other parts of the frame are glued securely to the hive wall. So, it is common to pop the top bar of a frame from the end bars while the rest of the frame remains secured to the hive body with propolis. The way to get around this phenomenon, which happens often and is very annoying, is to apply fasteners in a 90° angle to the direction of the force applied by the hive tool when loosening/removing the frame from the colony. This will make more sense when you read the step-by-step instructions for assembling frames, where I use figures to illustrate this point.
5) Frames do not need to be treated with wood preservative. They remain inside a colony their entire life. I mention this because many new beekeepers hear about treating colony woodenware and assume the frames should be treated as well.
6) A properly assembled frame must be square, i.e. each corner in a frame must be a 90º angle. A properly assembled frame is a rectangle, not a rhombus. I like to take my frames and apply the “wobble” test once I have finished assembling them. I use one hand to grab the top bar of the frame and a second hand to grab the bottom bar of the frame. I, then, try to force the top and bottom bars in opposite directions, back-and-forth. It the frame wobbles, it needs more fasteners.
You might find the following recommendation strange given all of the information I just provided on assembling frames. I believe it is easier and more economical to purchase assembled frames. Most equipment manufacturers/vendors sell assembled frames. These frames usually are assembled with glue and staples. Furthermore, the frames often are assembled with an extra staple driven through the face of the end bar and into the rib of the top bar (a figure illustrating this follows). This extra staple provides extra support to the top bar of the frame, making it very unlikely that you will pry the top bar from the end bars when attempting to remove a frame from the hive.
Furthermore, the added price of a preassembled frame over that of an unassembled one, i.e. the price you pay for the frame’s assembly, usually is considerably less than the value of your time assembling the frame. In summary, preassembled frames are assembled well and worth the slight increase in price over unassembled frames. Of course, every beekeeper should assemble a frame, or even a hive’s worth of frames. However, I believe it is usually more economical to purchase frames fully assembled. Since this is true, I believe it is overwhelmingly more economical to purchase frames rather than make them from scratch. I have made frames from scratch and it was a fun endeavor for me. It was not, however, an economical one.
Step-by-step instructions for assembling frames
1) Collect the following equipment/supplies: Wood glue (Figure 5)
Staple gun (or hammer) – Staple guns that are run using ...
Assembling Wooden Supers
The Langstroth hive is simple in design. It is based on the use of one-to-three, roughly cube-shaped boxes, or supers, that form the core of the hive and to which additional supers can be added as the bee colony grows (Figure 1). Most beekeepers use hives made of wood. Of course, other options are available for hive construction materials, including plastic and Styrofoam; yet, wood remains the most popular construction material out of which hives are made.
The life expectancy of a physical hive (not the bees, or colony, within, but the hive structure in which they live) is correlated with how well the supers, lids, bottom boards, and frames are assembled. Thus, it behooves beekeepers to invest time and energy in assembling hive components right the first time. In this article, I will share with you some pointers to remember when assembling wooden supers. I will follow this article with a step-by-step pictorial guide to assembling supers.
Water: a wooden super’s worst enemy
Wooden supers eventually rot and decay, a process brought on by the equipment’s exposure to water and microorganisms. Wooden supers are in a race that inevitably leads to their loss of use and functionality. Beekeepers cannot stop the ultimate demise of their supers, but they can do a lot to slow it by focusing on a few key issues that will limit water’s ability to age and destroy the super.
1) Use rot-resistant wood. Not all wood is created equal. Pine is a popular wood used in super construction. It generally is light, cheap, and easy to work. I also have seen supers made of spruce, cedar, etc. Some wood, especially old-growth cypress, has rot-resistant qualities while other woods rot at the first sign of moisture. No wood is fully immune to the impact of water and the microorganisms that moisture promotes, but using rot-resistant wood such as cypress certainly helps prolong the life of the super. Rot-resistant wood can be hard to find or expensive. Yet, beekeepers should consider using rot-resistant wood for super construction purposes, given that it will help prolong the life of the equipment. There are a few beekeeping equipment supply companies that specialize in the production of cypress and other rot-resistant woodenware.
2) Be picky about super joints. In carpentry lingo, a joint is where two pieces of wood meet. The Langstroth super has four joints, the corners. The joints form a seam, or crack, that runs the entire length of area where the two pieces of wood touch. The joints are the most water-vulnerable parts of a super. Consequently, you should take care to use joints that minimize the length of the seam and the overall end grain exposed as both make the super vulnerable to water damage. Take a look at the joints of the two deep supers shown in Figures 2 and 3. Both figures include a super having a “box” joint, where two sides of the super interlock much like fingers in a clasped hand. Box joints are slightly different from “dovetail” joints where the interlocking fingers are tapered. Both figures also include a super having a type of “rabbet” joint which is where one side of the super fits snuggly into a special grove cut into the adjoining side of the super (the special groove can be seen in Figure 4). The end result of a rabbet joint is a joining of the two sides at a simple, straight line, or seam, that is present only on one side of the super. On the other hand, a super with box joint has a seam that zigzags down both faces of the interlocking sides. I have never done the math, but there is easily two-to-three times more surface area to protect on a box joint than there is on a rabbet joint.
Another disadvantage to using a box joint is the amount of end grain that is exposed to the elements. Wood is milled from trees that originally grew in such a way that channels were produced throughout the wood as tree rings were added annually. These channels run up and down through the wood (the tree), and allow the tree to transport nutrients throughout its structure. These growth patterns form the “grain” of the wood. Wood, typically, is cut “with the grain,” a process that makes the wood stronger. Consider the common 2×4 for example. A 2×4, before it is cut out of the tree, would run up and down the tree, with the tree’s grain. Once hewn from the tree, the 2×4 is strong because it was cut out in a pattern consistent with the growth pattern of the tree. The four long faces of a 2×4 are the most water-resistant parts of the wood, since they run with the grain, making it difficult for water to be absorbed into the wood. On the other hand, the ends of the 2×4 are spongy, being the end of the grain, or the “end grain”. The two ends of the 2×4 are more vulnerable to water damage than are the faces of the board. This is why the ends tend to rot first when exposed to the elements.
Similarly, joints on a wooden super contain some end grain, just due to the nature of the way the sides of the supers were milled at the saw mill. Have another look at the joints represented in Figures 2 and 3. You will notice that there is minimal end grain exposed in the rabbet joint relative to that exposed in the box joint. Correspondingly, the rabbet joint is easier to protect and slower to rot.
3) Take extra care to protect the joints. This is done easily after the super is assembled by applying a ...
Hive Choice and Configuration
(1) Type of hive
There are a number of hive types used by beekeepers in the U.S. and around the world. I will limit my discussion to only a few of the available types, namely the Langstroth colony, top bar hives, Warré hives, and other, miscellaneous, hive types.
A) Langstroth hives - I discussed Langstroth hives (Figure 1) in detail in my March 2014 ABJ article so I will not review these hives in any great depth here. This hive is the U.S.-standard hive that beekeepers use; its basic design is used around the world. It is not the only hive design used around the world, but it possibly is the most popular design.
B) Warré and top bar hives – I grouped these two hive designs because they share some similarities and because they probably are the second most popular hive types in the U.S. Do not hear me wrong; far more people in the U.S. use Langstroth colonies than any other hive type. Top bar and Warré hives are a distant second and third, respectively, hive type used by beekeepers. Both hive types are based on the top bar approach. Top bar colonies do not use the traditional frames that are present in Langstroth hives and their relatives. Rather, the bees are placed in the hives and given only a series of top bars from which the bees suspend their combs. These hives typically do not contain foundation so the beekeepers have to use management techniques to encourage the bees to suspend one comb per top bar rather than across many.
- Mangum, W. 2012. Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom & Pleasure Combined. Stinging Drone Publications, Bowling Green, Virginia, USA. 411 pp.
- Heaf, D. 2013. Natural Beekeeping with the Warré Hive. Northern Bee Books, Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, UK. 106 pp.
C) Miscellaneous hive types – This is the catch-all category of hive designs. There are two basic categories: (1) moveable frame hives and (2) fixed comb hives. To be honest, almost every country and/or region has its own unique hive type. For example, the British Standard National hive is popular in the United Kingdom, but is virtually unused in the U.S. Thus, it would be hard to purchase and maintain with additional equipment since the hive and its components are largely unobtainable in the U.S. Then, there are the WBC hives, Long Box Hive, etc. Many of these are based on the movable frame concept, but they would be impossible to support unless one made their own equipment.
(2) Hive configuration
My definition of “hive configuration” is the approach you take with the boxes when developing the hive you manage. For example, many beekeepers run (a beekeeper term for “use”) single deeps. This simply means that they have a single deep brood chamber serving as the core structure of their colonies. On the other hand, ...
Choosing the Right Location for Your Apiary
An apiary is an assembly of one or more bee hives at a single location. I once believed that you could establish apiaries anywhere and that the bees would thrive and make honey by the bucket. Boy, was I wrong. I grew up in central Georgia and had only one apiary site during my early years. My grandfather was a dairy farmer and he was gracious enough to allow me to keep my bees on his farm. The site was great. I enjoyed many years of keeping bees and making honey. The apiary location was good for the bees, but it significantly skewed my view of beekeeping. When I began to teach about bees and beekeeping, I would scoff at people who would tell me that their bees were not making honey at the apiary site they chose. I always believed that they had this problem because they did not know how to keep bees. After all, bees make honey everywhere.
Then, I moved to High Springs, Florida. I was told, before moving to the area, that it was a difficult place to keep bees. Local beekeepers told me that bees survive just fine in the area, but that they do not make honey. Of course, since I knew everything, I believed the people just did not know what they were doing. I would keep bees in High Springs my way, and sit back and watch the honey come in by the gallon.
I failed to make any honey the first year I kept bees in High Springs. Surely, that was an anomaly, an unlucky twist of fate. Of course, it happened again the second year. I began to question my tactics. By the third year, I was convinced that one could not make palatable, surplus honey in the city I now call home. I had learned an important lesson. Not all apiary sites are created equal.
This article is about choosing the right apiary site to locate your bees. The characteristics beekeepers look for in apiaries vary by how they intend to use the apiary. For example, staging yards (apiaries where colonies are put temporarily for purposes other than pollinating crops and/or making honey) can just be large fields and relatively void of good forage for the bees. On the other hand, you have to put bees close to nectar-rich plants if you want to make honey. Regardless, all “good” apiary sites share common characteristics one must value in order to maximize colony production and beekeeper enjoyment of the craft. Just like in real estate, all that matters when choosing apiary sites is location, location, location.
Before discussing some “apiary essentials,” I want to note that I realize that beekeepers, especially hobbyist beekeepers, often have little choice when picking a good apiary location. Sometimes, your only option is your only option. There is nowhere else to go. However, there are good pointers to remember even when your options are limited.
20 Characteristics of a Good Apiary Location
1) There must be copious, quality pollen and nectar sources nearby (Figure 1). Honey bees thrive when floral resources abound. However, a plant does not necessarily produce quality nectar and/or pollen just because it blooms. Have you ever had tulip honey? Even if a given plant produces a lot of nectar, there must be enough of the plants around in order for the bees to make honey. I often get the comment that “I have a citrus tree in my yard and I do not get any citrus honey”: of course not. Bees have to forage from numerous citrus trees in order to make citrus honey. The same is true of whatever nectar source your bees are pursuing.
One also should be careful to believe the distance rule of foraging behavior. We have all read in books that bees will fly two to five miles from the nest in search of nectar and pollen. Though this is true, do not expect a crop of sourwood honey if there are five acres of sourwood four miles from your apiary. The best apiary sites are those located as close as possible to the quality forage resources.
Furthermore, a potential apiary site may yield honey, but it may not be palatable. For example, my bees make a super of wild cherry in February and one of Spanish needle in September. Neither honey is palatable to most humans. There is nothing else in my area the rest of the year except pine and oak trees (Figure 2). Neither are known to yield nectar that bees can use to make honey. My bees are able to sustain themselves on the cherry and Spanish needle honey, but they do not produce a marketable crop for me.
My advice here is simple: check with other beekeepers in your area to determine if the area has a history of providing major nectar flows and quality pollen. I find beekeeper advice quite valuable in these instances. At the end of the day, however, there is no substitute for giving the area a try. You really will not know if nectar and pollen resources abound if you do not place colonies there for some years. My rule of thumb is that I will give an area three years with five to ten hives before I consider it a resource desert.
2) There should be a source of clean water near the colonies. Bees need water to survive. They are going to forage for water at the nearest quality source, which always seems to be exactly where you do not want them to forage. Consequently, a convenient source of water should be available to the bees at all times during the year so that the bees will not congregate at swimming pools, pet watering bowls (Figure 3), or other watering sources where they may contact humans, birds, or domestic pets. Some sources of water that beekeepers can provide include: (1) a tub of water with wood floats to prevent the bees from drowning, (2) a faucet in the apiary that is left to drip steadily, or (3) filling Boardman entrance feeders (quart jars with holes in the lids) with water and placing them in the colony entrance (Figure 4). If using tubs of water, the water should be changed periodically to avoid stagnation and mosquito breeding.
3) Apiaries should be established away from where people or animals frequent. Most people are scared of bees. Some are allergic to bees. Nothing will kill your beekeeping hobby quicker than neighbors who are upset at you for allowing your bees to drink water from their pool. Most beekeepers adopt the “out of sight, out of mind” policy with locating their hives at a suitable apiary site. For practical reasons, and to promote public safety and reduce beekeeping liability, one should not site apiaries in proximity to tethered or confined animals, students, the elderly, general public, drivers on public roadways, or visitors where animal/bee and people/bee interactions may have a higher likelihood of occurring.
4) Apiaries should not be visible to vandals. There are two reasons to “hide” apiaries from others. The first we addressed in point 3 when we noted that bees can be a public safety issue in some circumstances. The second reason is that bee colonies can be the target of vandals. Colonies and colony equipment are stolen regularly. It is a good idea to keep your colonies out of site.
5) Apiaries must be easily accessible. I have traveled all around the world and seen people keep bees in the hardest possible places to access. I have seen colonies on roofs, in narrow mountain passes, in the thickest imaginable bushes, etc. I take the completely opposite approach. Beekeepers should be able to get to their bees easily. The access road should be navigable and not be prone to flooding. Apiaries should not be located in bushes or on the edge of steep grades. Of course, one should not make it easy for others to find and access your apiary. Yet, you should be able to access your bees when needed. I feel that you should be able to drive a truck and trailer to your bees and have enough room to turn the vehicle around easily.
6) It is a good idea to have a written agreement when locating apiaries on other peoples’ property. Beekeepers often need to locate apiaries on property owned by others. Commercial beekeepers do this all the time. Many hobby beekeepers I know, especially those living in subdivisions, also have to ...
Know Why You Are Keeping Bees
by Jamie Ellis
In my February 2014 article, I discussed why people keep bees. I outlined a number of reasons that people pursue a relationship with colonies of insects known for their pointed stingers and sweet honey. Practically speaking, however, honey bees can be used to generate income. Of course, many people keep bees as a hobby for reasons other than generating income. Yet, honey bees can be an expensive hobby if they fail to pay for themselves. With that in mind, I note that it is important to understand what you want to accomplish with your bees if beekeeping is not simply an artistic/spiritual pursuit for you. Your goals with your bees will shape your approach to managing them.
Generally, there are three recognized sizes of beekeeping operations and any size beekeeping operation can be used to generate income a number of ways. Regarding operation sizes, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services – Division of Plant Industry, Apiary Inspection Section recognizes the following three groups: (1) niche pollinators (formerly “hobby beekeepers”), 1-10 colonies, (2) sideline/part time beekeepers, 11-200 colonies, and (3) commercial/full time beekeepers, 200+ colonies. This grouping is similar to that used by most other states, though the category names and number of colonies can differ slightly.
Regardless of operation size, beekeepers in the three groups can make money with bees the following ways: (1) honey production, (2) providers of pollination services, (3) production of alternative hive products, (4) queen and package bee production, (5) nuc/split production, (6) make and sell beekeeping equipment, and (7) honey packers. There are, of course, subcategories within each endeavor and most beekeepers use their bees to make money in more than one way.
Understanding what you want to accomplish with your bees is of primary importance since it will dictate how you develop and structure your beekeeping operation. It determines what equipment you should purchase, where your bees should be located and even what type of bee you should use. Most importantly, your production goals as a beekeeper necessitate certain management practices. There is no “one size fits all” when discussing bee management. You must know what you want to accomplish (i.e. why you keep bees) in order to make the most informed decision regarding appropriate management practices. What follows is a discussion of the principal ways beekeepers can generate income using bees. I briefly discuss some important considerations for each category and will expand this discussion in subsequent articles.
Some considerations apply across multiple strategies for generating income with bees. Perhaps the most universal of all of the rules concerns business experience. It is helpful, or essential, to have some business training or to contract with a business consultant or accountant in order to make informed business decisions. Otherwise, you are not likely to maximize your profit, or worse yet, you may actually lose money in the endeavor. Furthermore, there may be local, state or national laws that govern the industry in which you are engaged. It is important to note these when developing responsible business and management plans.
1) Honey production – Many new beekeepers get into the craft because they want to make honey with their colonies (Fig 1). Of course, there are a number of beekeepers who are only interested in producing honey for consumption at home or for sharing with friends, family, and neighbors. Yet, many (perhaps most) beekeepers want to produce honey, package it, and sell it to generate a steady stream of income. There really is nothing like producing honey where you live and seeing it for sale in local markets, on the tables of community restaurants, and in the homes of citizens around town.
Many people erroneously believe that they can purchase a colony, put it in the backyard, and produce copious amounts of honey all year. Nothing could be further from the truth. Honey production take focus and work, especially if you want a predictable, yearly supply of honey that is of sufficient quality to sell. If honey production/sale is your goal, you must keep the following pointers in mind.
Not all land is conducive to honey production. Bees cannot make honey if nectariferous plants are scarce or absent. My own bees are a good example. I am surrounded by oak and pine trees. I have yet to make a drop of oak or pine tree honey (or any other honey for that matter).
Beekeepers interested in producing honey have to be willing to move their bees to areas where important honey plants are located. Depending on the size of your operation, you will need equipment to move colonies: trucks, trailers, forklifts, pallets, etc.
Queen management (especially swarm control) and disease/pest control are the two principal management techniques that must be undertaken if honey production is your goal.
Other management issues are worth considering. How many colonies can an apiary support? Is your production area home to plants that produce prized honeys (sourwood, tupelo, citrus, etc.)? How many colonies are too many for one person to manage when producing honey (that number seems to hover around 700-800 colonies)? Are you in an area where bears live (see figure 1)?
Not all bees work equally well in all areas. So, it is important to network with local beekeepers to determine which bees are the most prolific honey producers where you plan to have your operation.
Honey production is a lot like growing crops. To be successful, you are at the mercy of a lot of factors that you cannot control. This includes rainfall, soil type (which influences plant productivity), heat, available floral resources, market prices, etc.
Bees used for honey production typically are not under the same threat from pesticides that are bees used for crop pollination purposes. This is because most, though not all, named honeys are produced from wild plants that are not treated (usually) and not from crops that typically are treated.
There is a unique set of equipment and space requirements for honey producers. Producers typically have honey extraction and bottling facilities and all the miscellaneous equipment that accompanies those practices.
States have specific laws regarding safe handling and bottling of honey that must be noted and followed. Food safety is of upmost importance so these laws must be followed closely.
States also typically have rules about selling honey. It must be of certain quality, have no adulterations, be sold under a business license, etc. It is important to check your state and local laws about establishing a business and selling goods.
Beekeepers must decide if they plan to sell honey wholesale or directly to consumers. There is a big difference in the equipment and expertise needed to do one over the other.
Interestingly, some beekeepers become so good at selling honey that they convert to being honey packers, a business where they purchase, bottle, and sell other beekeepers’ honey under their own label.
2) Providers of pollination services – This is likely the primary way most commercial beekeepers generate income with their bees. Beekeepers who use their bees to provide pollination services essentially rent their colonies to growers who need the bees to pollinate their fruit, vegetable, nut, or cattle fodder crops. This rent can vary based on the crop and the availability of colonies. For example, blueberry growers in my area pay about $45/colony, while almond growers in California may pay $150/colony or more (Fig 2). Both bloom at the same time; so, where...
Informational Resources for Beekeepers
by Jamie Ellis
There appears to be a growing interest in beekeeping in the U.S. Many people are getting into beekeeping as a hobby and livelihood. To give an example close to home, there were about 900 – 1,100 beekeepers in Florida when I began working at the University of Florida in 2006. Now, there are over 3,500 beekeepers. Of course, this does not account for the number of people who keep bees “off the grid” in Florida, but it does illustrate the point that more people are diving into this fascinating endeavor, perhaps more people than ever have.
Beekeeping is addictive. Bee fever is contagious. I have known so many budding beekeepers who jump into this hobby with little planning or consideration because of the craft’s ability to capture its practitioners. There is a lot more to beekeeping than simply having a hive of bees from which you can harvest honey any time you want. One must have skill, knowledge, persistence, and a little luck to succeed at this craft.
Beekeeping is not easy. New beekeepers have to learn an entire new vocabulary, work with new tools, and become expert woodworkers, veterinarians, horticulturists, enterprising CEOs, marketers, biologists, and food safety workers. On top of that, beekeepers work with insects that most of the rest of the general public fear so much that they will drive off the road trying to get a trapped bee out of their car. I share all of this to ask a simple question: why would anyone get into this hobby/profession without being prepared or having a robust support network from which one can get help/advice? Yet, people do all the time. It is not uncommon for me to see people purchasing 50 colonies, without ever even working one before.
Do not hear me wrong; I want people to get into beekeeping. I love keeping bees. My involvement with bees has brought me considerable personal and professional satisfaction. However, I feel that it is important for all beekeepers, new-bees and experienced beekeepers alike, to be aware of the resources available to them so that they can maximize their beekeeping experience. It is with this goal in mind that I pen the following information.
The purpose of this article is to provide a single source that can serve as a reference of resources for beekeepers. I list many of the types of resources available to beekeepers. I give some specific examples of each type of resource I discuss. My list of examples is not exhaustive. I apologize sincerely if I fail to mention a resource about which you are aware and use regularly. In fact, please let me know via email if my list is incomplete. I welcome the opportunity to expand the list.
A final precautionary note: please consider all information you read and hear about bees critically. I know of too many people who are taught erroneous information, never to let the information go. Hold your beekeeping conclusions lightly. Doing so may keep you from looking foolish.☺
People and Organizational Resources:
(1) Mentors: It should be no wonder why I list mentors first. I consider mentors (other beekeepers) to be the best resource available to any beekeeper. Even lifelong, commercial beekeepers contact one another for ideas, the latest news on bees, to borrow equipment, to request help, etc. I think all beekeepers should have a mentor. Many, likely most, beekeepers get into beekeeping in the first place because they have (had) a mentor. My mentor’s name was Joseph Miller and he spent time with me, teaching me how to work a colony, answering my questions, and just being available for help. He loaned me bee books, provided queen cells when my colonies were queenless, and had spare equipment on hand when I needed some. I found him to be an indispensable resource for me as I stumbled through my early years as a beekeeper. Like bees, and despite our individual personalities and nature, humans are made to be social. You will enjoy the beekeeping experience a lot more if you find someone who is willing to lead you and learn with you.
(2) Bee clubs (local, state, regional, national, international): Like the bees they study, beekeepers are remarkably well organized into a network of groups, clubs, etc. Bee clubs are groups of beekeepers who gather to discuss the latest issues, help one another with their beekeeping efforts, and generally promote the craft.
A – Local bee clubs – These are usually distributed within a state and can be found by looking up ones state organization online and visiting the “local clubs” information pages. Most beekeepers in the U.S. are likely within 1-3 hours of a local bee club. Most local bee clubs meet monthly or every other month. They often offer short courses and other training events. Another strength of local clubs is that the members can band together to purchase equipment that otherwise is difficult for a single beekeeper to purchase. For example, a local club may purchase an extractor and make it available for use to all of the members. Local clubs are a tremendous resource to all beekeepers. I highly recommend joining a local bee club if one is available in your area.
B – State bee clubs – Almost all states in the U.S. have a state-level beekeeping organization. Some even have two. State clubs perform many of the same functions as a local club, just at the state level. They often meet 1 – 2 times per year, with their meetings featuring notable beekeepers, bee scientists, and other speakers from around the state, country, and globe. State clubs can influence bee policy adopted at the state level. For example, they can lobby the state government to pass laws that benefit beekeepers and beekeeping. They can offer research grants, provide training, etc. I also think beekeepers should be members of their state beekeeping organizations.
C – Regional bee clubs – There are three “regional” beekeeping organizations in the U.S. They are (1) the Eastern Apicultural Society (http://www.easternapiculture.org/), (2) the Heartland Apicultural Society (http://www.heartlandbees.org/), and (3) the Western Apicultural Society (http://ucanr.edu/sites/was2/). These groups represent their respective regions in the U.S., often offering similar beekeeping opportunities offered by state clubs, though on a much larger scale.
D – National bee clubs – Many of the world’s countries have national beekeeping organizations. There are two major national groups in the U.S. that beekeepers should know and use as a resource. These are (1) the American Beekeeping Federation (http://www.abfnet.org/) and (2) American Honey Producers Association (http://www.ahpanet.com/). Both groups produce a tremendous amount of resources for beekeepers and represent beekeeper interests at the national level. They meet yearly and offer stellar programs and services. I will note that other countries often have their own bee clubs, so it is worth investigating other countries’ national organizations by doing some targeted internet searches for the clubs.
E – International bee clubs – As you might expect, there are international clubs of note. The most relevant for beekeepers is likely Apimondia (http://www.apimondia.org/) which bills itself as the “international federation of beekeepers’ organizations and other organizations working within the apiculture sector.” It is similar in function/purpose to other large beekeeper groups. Apimonida sponsors a major international meeting every other year, with countries from around the world vying to host the event. I have enjoyed attending Apimondia meetings. It is a great group with which to be affiliated, especially if international beekeeping is of interest to you, or if you like to travel to cool and interesting places.
(3) University Researchers: In the late 1800s, the federal government deeded land to each state that, in turn, used the land to create and endow land grant institutions or universities. Many, though not all, of these institutions became the large, public colleges in each state. For example, they include the University of Florida (where I work), University of Georgia, The Pennsylvania State University, The Ohio State University, University of California, Purdue University, etc. These universities were charged with the responsibility to teach, among other things, practical agriculture, science, etc. This teaching would not only ....
Miscellaneous Beekeeping Equipment
by Jamie Ellis
I have written 3 articles about the various pieces of equipment that are used commonly while beekeeping. In the articles, I discussed the Langstroth hive (February 2014), personal protective equipment (March 2014), the hive tool, and smoker (April 2014). I am concluding this four-part series on beekeeping equipment by discussing miscellaneous items that I find quite useful to own as a beekeeper and have with me every time I visit an apiary.I hope I convinced you in my earlier articles that beekeeping really is an art, one that is practiced by thousands of individuals but mastered by none. Because of this, I find that bee management is 10% truth and about 90% opinion, the latter being held by the artist (beekeeper) who has his or her own way of doing things. This is relevant to a discussion of “miscellaneous beekeeping equipment” because I will discuss items that I find indispensable, but that other beekeepers might find trivial. I am not foolish enough to demand that you do things my way. After all, the beauty of art is that the outcome is “right” to the creator, regardless of the opinion of others. Likewise, time will teach you what equipment is useful to you and this will vary based on (1) who your mentor(s) is (are)(i.e. how you learned to do things), (2) what style of beekeeping you employ, and (3) your particular goals as a beekeeper. That said, I have developed a list of tools I find useful and I believe you should at least consider owning, if not having with you every time you work bees.
1) The frame holder (or frame rest – Figure 1) – The frame holder is a metal device that attaches to the outside wall of a hive body and has two metal bars that project perpendicular to the hive body. The bars run parallel to one another and are spaced at such a distance to accommodate a frame. The purpose of the frame holder is…(you guessed it)…to hold frames while working a colony. As you know, it is easier to work a colony when one of the frames is removed from the box in which one is working. Most beekeepers, myself included, usually just rest one end (side) of the frame on the ground and the other end against the hive or hive stand. This is ok but it requires you to bend down when manipulating that frame. Work bees long enough and you will realize that you have to be as nice as possible to your back; therefore, you will try to find ways to keep from bending over! Furthermore, grass, leaves, dirt, etc. stick to the part of the frame contacting the ground. This is a nuisance to remove when you are ready to return the frame to the hive. Finally, bees often crawl off a frame resting on the ground and go under the hive, crawl into the stacked supers, etc. The queen can do this as well if she is on the frame. Consequently, I prefer to put any frame I remove from the colony on the frame holder. My frame holder can accommodate 5 frames.
2) 9-frame spacer (Figure 2) – Standard Langstroth supers and hive bodies are made to accommodate 10-frames. Bees can store more honey in a 10-frame super that contains only 9 frames. This is because the bees will “pull out” the wax (make longer cells) on 9 frames spaced to fill a 10-frame hive. Of course, it is easy to violate bee space in a super that contains only 9 frames. So, I like to have a 9-frame spacer which I use to help me space the frames correctly once I have finished working a super. The 9-frame spacer is pushed down on the frames from above, thus distancing the frames correctly from one another. Incidentally, I like the 9-frame spacer that is held and used manually rather than the one that is attached permanently inside the hive body or super on the ledge that holds the frames. While the latter certainly works, I find that they can get in the way while I work the colony. I will note that I even use 9 frames in my hive bodies (brood supers). I like the extra management space that having 9 frames creates. Of course, a 9-frame spacer is not necessary if you use 10 frames in all hive boxes. Some people even use 8 frames in a 10-frame super; consequently, 8-frame spacers are available for purchase.
3) Ratchet straps (Figure 3) – I find ratchet straps to be indispensable in beekeeping. While many beekeepers never plan to move their hives, I find that all hives become migratory at some point in their existence. Perhaps you live in a subdivision and have no intention of moving your bees to an alternative nectar flow or to pollinate a crop. However, you never know when you may have to move your bees and having ratchet straps handy makes moving bees easier. Moving bees is true work (I will write an article on this topic in the future). Hives are heavy and cumbersome. A hive is composed of multiple boxes, a bottom board, a lid, etc. These have a tendency to slip past one another while a hive is in transit. Shifting supers is not good because it opens gaps in the hive through which bees can escape. Supers, hive bodies, bottom boards, lids, etc. will NOT shift if a ratchet strap is secured around the colony height-wise. Ratchet straps also can be used to secure hives while the colonies are in transit, hold equipment together, etc. They are cheap and available at nearly every hardware store. They are worth owning.
4) Boardman entrance feeder (Figure 4) – There are a million ways to feed bees. This will be the subject of a future article in my column. There are a lot of feeder styles as well. Though I prefer to provide the food to bees from above their cluster, I find a Boardman entrance feeder to be quite helpful, first as a quick way to feed bees and second as a good way to give the bees water in an area where streams, rivers, lakes etc. are not abundant. As noted, I feel that putting feeders above the bee cluster is the best way to deliver food to a colony. However this either requires one to purchase bulky hive top feeders or use migratory lids that accommodate feeder jars. I use telescoping covers (see my column in February 2014) and I do not want to cut holes in them to accommodate feeder jars. So, I find Boardman entrance feeders to be a cheap, easy alternative to feeding colonies. They are composed of 3 parts, the stand that slides into the entrance of the colony, the jar lid that contains perforations and which fits into the circular hole in the top of the feeder, and the jar. The jar can be any type of “small mouth” glass jar. I would not use a jar any smaller than a quart in size, though I much prefer the half gallon jars that you can purchase from your local beekeeping equipment distributor. I especially like Boardman entrance feeders because I have to provide water to my colonies year-round because there are no local water sources my bees can access. I give my bees water using the entrance feeder to keep them out of my neighbor’s horses’ water troughs.
5) Entrance reducer (Figure 5) – One of the things that I like about beekeeping is that, for the most part, we name items appropriately descriptive. The item I am describing next exemplifies this. The entrance reducer is a tool, usually made of wood, which is used to reduce the entrance of a colony. Colony entrances occasionally need to be reduced. In my experience, the entrance to a colony is usually much larger than feral bees would choose for themselves if looking for a home in a tree, a wall, the ground, etc. Big entrances can be hard for the bees to protect from other bees and pests and the entrances can be drafty. A lot of beekeepers will reduce the colony entrance during winter, thus, supposedly, helping the bees to keep the nest warm. Of course, you can use anything to reduce the nest entrance. I have used grass clippings, old clothes (t-shirts, socks, and underwear are my old clothes of choice), blocks of wood, etc. But why not use something made especially for the job? Most entrance reducers supplied by manufacturers have two sizes of notches cut in the reducer, thereby accommodating two sizes of reduced entrances.
Personal Protective Equipment for the Body
by Jamie Ellis
Flip through any beekeeping equipment catalogue and you will be overwhelmed by the huge diversity of equipment available to beekeepers. There are gadgets, gizmos, must-haves, useful tools, and equipment about which one is left to scratch their head and wonder what the purpose actually is. I enjoy getting the various companies’ equipment catalogues yearly just to see what new gadgets beekeepers have invented and coerced the equipment companies to sell. Beekeepers are ingenious and their creativity spawns some really good ideas.
Though you may not know it, I am three articles deep into a four-part series on beekeeping equipment. In March, I reviewed the basic parts of the Langstroth hive. I wrote about personal protective equipment in April. I am going to continue the four-part series on beekeeping equipment by discussing what I believe to be the two most important tools in the beekeeper’s arsenal. These gadgets are simple, as most of the best inventions are. They are also indispensable, veritable “must haves” for every beekeeper. They are, of course, the hive tool and smoker.
One of the things I like about beekeeping is that we are, for the most part, so literal with our equipment nomenclature. Consistent with this tradition, the “hive tool” literally is a tool that we use in/on the hive. In its most basic form, the hive tool is a flat piece of metal that is curved at a 90º angle on one end (the “scraper” end) and widened/flattened on the opposite end (Figure 1). There may be a hole in the tool close to the scraper end that can be used to pry nails out of wood. The genius of this tool is its simplicity in design but usefulness in function.
Hive tools are used by beekeepers principally to pry supers apart, leverage frames out of the supers, and scrape wax/propolis/whatever from various hive components. Most of the hive tool’s function is derived from the fact that bees use propolis, the beekeeper term for the plant exudates, resins, and saps that bees collect and use inside the hive. Bees glue supers together, frames inside hives, etc. using propolis. The product is so sticky that a hive simply could not be taken apart and frames removed without the prying abilities of hive tools. Make no mistake: this is a job for the hive tool. Accept no substitutes. Over the years, I have used butter knives, screwdrivers, etc. to work colonies. All pale in comparison to the hive tool in durability and functionality. Hive tools are the biggest steal among all beekeeping equipment. They are economical and essential. How often can we say that about something?
Of course, people are always trying to improve upon the basic hive tool design. I have seen long hive tools, skinny hive tools, fat hive tools, strangely-shaped hive tools, and more. Personally, I am old fashioned when it comes to using hive tools. However, I have discovered that beekeepers usually most like what they originally used. So, feel free to use the more modern tools.
Other points to consider when using hive tools:
- Hive tools are EASY to lose, or so I am told. Personally, I use the same hive tool I have had since I was 12. However, most people I know go through hive tools at the same rate that they go through toilet paper (a lot, people). Buy more than one. Keep one in your truck, one with your suit, one with your toolbox, one under your pillow, etc. You will thank me if you do.
- Put your hive tool into your pants pocket, bee suit pocket, or something similar while working bees. My philosophy is that my hive tool ALWAYS goes into my back right pocket while working bees. I never put it on the ground, on the hive, in the truck, etc. Most of today’s bee suits have special pockets for hive tools. I have even seen work belts that have magnetic strips onto which one can magnetically attach their hive tool.
- If you elect to keep your hive tool in your back pocket, put it curved side down, sharp end up and out of the pocket. Putting it curved side down keeps it in the pocket; otherwise, the curved side pointing out of your pocket makes it top heavy and likely to fall out of your pocket. Pointing the sharp end away from the body when the hive tool is in your pocket is insurance against ham punctures.☺ Do not forget to remove the hive tool from your pocket once the work is done and before you sit down. I know a lot of beekeepers who slice up their truck seats because they forgot to remove the hive tool from their pocket.
- Hive tools are easy to sterilize (put them into a lit smoker) and clean (use another hive tool to scrape off the wax/propolis). You should do both often.
- Some people sharpen both ends of their hive tools yearly. I do not find this to be a necessary task.
- In case you have forgotten – BUY MORE THAN ONE!
People have been using smoke to calm bees for thousands of years. There are early cave/cliff paintings of honey robbers holding smoldering plants, pots, and other such items. It is not fully known when smoke was first used to work with bees or even how its usefulness was discovered. However, it is undeniable that smoke has been an important part of honey hunting and beekeeping for a long time.
How does the smoker work? Great question. I have heard many answers to this question. Many people feel that smoke causes bees to gorge on honey, perhaps because they “fear” a fire is coming and are preparing to leave the nest. However, I have smoked the mess out of colonies before and could not get them to leave their nests. If it is fire preparation, they are either lousy at knowing when to go or have a super high threshold for smoke. I grew up being told (1) it was preparation for fleeing a fire and (2) that full bees could not fly well, hence they could not sting you. I believed this for a long time until I thought through the logic of both statements (i.e. why would they gorge to leave a fire if gorged bees are too heavy to fly?). I have heard other variations of the gorging scenario as well (for example, engorged bees are not inclined to sting – which may be true – seems like a good project). Do not misunderstand me: bees do appear to gorge on food stores when smoked. I just do not believe we fully know why.
A more likely explanation concerns a masking of bee communication abilities by the volume of smoke pumped into the nest (though, I have seen no research to support this idea either). Bees communicate principally through pheromones, or chemical smells, that they must perceive with their antennae. A colony gearing up for a defensive response produces alarm pheromone. Smoke may mask the alarm pheromone or occupy the bees’ sensory receptors, thus minimizing the defensive response. Smoke may “cover up” the alarm pheromone, much the same way cologne or bathroom spray works for us.
Like the hive tool, the smoker is a beautifully simple device. It is composed of 4 main parts (Figures 2 and 3): the bellow, the body (or firepot), the funnel-shaped lid, and the internal grate. When the bellow is squeezed, air is forced out a small hole in the bottom of the bellow through a small hole in the back of the smoker body (Figure 2). The air is forced up through the smoker body and out the nozzle in the smoker lid. Air is pulled into a hole at the top of the bellow when the bellow is relaxed. I have outlined in Figure 4 the steps of successfully lighting a smoker. A well-lit smoker is only an asset, though, if it is used correctly.
The correct use of a smoker, i.e. how much to smoke a colony, is a ...
Personal Protective Equipment for the Body
by Jamie Ellis
Honey bees sting. Tell anyone that you work with bees and they immediately ask, “Have you ever been stung” (well, they ask that right after they ask, “Are cell phones killing bees?”). It is the bee’s sting that causes most people not to want to associate with honey bees/beekeeping. After all, who would willingly work with an insect that can inflict physical pain? However, stings are a reality for beekeepers, a reality that must be addressed prior to one’s engagement in the profession. Fortunately, beekeepers have numerous options when it comes to protecting themselves from stings.
Humans interacting with honey bees have been wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) since their relationship with bees started. The allure of honey and other hive products was simply too great for man to ignore; so, man had to develop ways of working with bees to minimize stings. The evolution of beekeeper PPE was slow, often comical, and even remains stalled in many parts of the world. I was in a developing country years ago and the beekeepers there simply did not have the resources to purchase or even make PPE. One beekeeper poked two eye holes in the bottom of a shoe box and then rubber-banded the box to his head to protect his face while working his hives. This shows you the great lengths that one will go in order to interact with bees.
All beekeepers, aspiring and old-timers alike, have to confront the reality of bee stings and devise a game plan for working with bees. Some beekeepers take the “full space suit approach”, being suited up from head-to-toe to protect against the flying darts. Other beekeepers take the minimalist approach and would work their bees naked if public decency laws allowed. The good news about PPE is that there is no right way to work bees, though there are good recommendations that should be considered.
Of course, personal safety is paramount and should always be considered when one is contemplating what to wear while working with bees. Honey bees are not domesticated in the sense that we have tamed them and bred out their wild tendencies. All colonies are capable of mounting a massive flying assault, assaults which can be unpredictable and even deadly if not handled property. The vast majority of European honey bee races are considered docile if managed and handled appropriately. This fact, though, can lull people into believing that they need not use or even own PPE, that they are “bee whisperers” who can tame any colony. This is not a safe belief as it completely ignores hive “personality” which can change on a whim. Beekeepers of all levels of experience should recognize the sting potential associated with every colony and plan their use of PPE accordingly.
The amount of PPE to be worn/used depends on the individual. I know many beekeepers who only ever wear veils (me included). They find the suits and gloves too cumbersome, awkward, and at times, dangerously hot. That does not mean that suits/gloves have no place in bee husbandry. There are certainly times when one should be fully suited, especially when working abnormally defensive colonies (i.e. African honey bees). New beekeepers often are expected to wear full bee suits, but I know many professional beekeepers who do as well. PPE is a matter of safety and taste. I recommend that people wear what they are comfortable wearing, but that they own the complete set of standard PPE for times that it must be used.
I will note that new beekeepers especially are vulnerable to the opinions of other beekeepers when considering what PPE to wear. Working bees without any PPE is seen as macho or even necessary to prove one’s worth as a beekeeper. However, it can also be very dangerous. I always recommend that new beekeepers overdo their PPE and then back off as they become comfortable working with bees. Some individuals will never divorce themselves from full PPE and that decision should be respected.
On the other hand, I believe that I became a better beekeeper when I quit using gloves. People who wear gloves often handle colonies with less finesse than do people who do not use gloves. This is due to a simple fact – gloveless beekeepers have learned how to work a colony to minimize stings. They learned what behaviors/actions excite bees and they have eliminated those behaviors/actions from their own repertoire. Watching a person who does not wear gloves work bees reminds me of watching a conductor lead an orchestra. There is a melody and rhythm to their work. Regardless, I will reemphasize that beekeepers should consider their safety and the safety of others when deciding how to approach their use of PPE.
The first piece of PPE, and arguably the most essential, is the bee veil (Figure 1). Its purpose is simple: protect the head and neck area from bee stings. Though I have worked bees many times in the past without wearing a veil, I feel that veil-less beekeepers are taking a risk. Bee stings to the throat, mouth, nose, and eyes can result in significant injury and even death in some cases.
Veils come in all shapes and sizes, but most share a basic structure. This includes a (1) helmet/hat/scalp-cover that goes on top of the head, (2) black screen mesh that surrounds the face and head, (3) a looser screen netting that goes around the throat and (4) some sort of fastener to fix the veil to the body (Figure 1). The more traditional veils have hard plastic, pith, or other types of helmets that are worn on top of the head. These protect the scalp from bee stings and they also provide the infrastructure from which the screen mesh is hung around the face. The helmets are often vented and some contain hooks or other catches that keep the screen material from “riding” to the top of the helmet. Many new veils omit the need for helmets and instead, use a wired-cloth material to serve in place of the helmet. These, typically, are one-piece veils.
Regardless of the head covering, all veils contain screen mesh material that protects the face. The mesh is usually black, to reduce glare, and often made of metal, though mesh fabric is becoming increasingly popular. The black mesh usually goes around the front, sides, and back of the head. Some veil styles only include see-through black mesh in the face area.
Veils are always anchored to the body to prevent bees from crawling into the veil through the bottom (Figure 2). To that end, veils can be tied (more conventional) or zipped (becoming increasingly popular) to the PPE worn around the torso area. The value of tied veils is that they can be used on any outfit or even no outfit at all for the friskier beekeepers. The downside is that improperly-tied, and sometimes even properly-tied, veils are navigable by bees, which are able to crawl up from the bottom and into the veil. Zipper-anchored veils can only be attached to the suit/shirt that has the other half of the zipper track. So, they are limited in usability across multiple outfits. What they lose in transportability, they make up for with impenetrability. Zipped veils are nearly impenetrable to bees. I say “nearly” because the zippers on a zipped veil meet and often leave a small hole at the meeting junction. Most manufacturers of suit/veil combos cover this hole with Velcro material. Furthermore, tears in the veil fabric allow bees into the veil, despite how well it is zipped to the body.
I want to reemphasize my statement about the vast diversity of veil styles. Some are made only of screen fabric, making them foldable, collapsible, easily packed away, etc. Others are huge, bulky, etc. Some tie in the front, others in the back. Some keep the screen mesh away from the face, while others put it very close to the face. This diversity in styles allows beekeepers to choose the type of veil that best meets their needs.
The Langstroth Hive
by Jamie Ellis
Managed honey bees have lived in a number of different types of hives designed by beekeepers over the last couple of centuries. The early hives were simply cavities of any type into which beekeepers would install a swarm of bees. Though honey bees will readily nest in many types of cavities provided to them, one cannot manage a colony easily if it is allowed to make comb in any direction it wishes. Given the choice, bees will attach comb to the ceiling of their home and layer it vertically in sheets as the hive grows. Beekeepers wanting to work these colonies and harvest the honey they contained had to disturb the bees significantly. Entire combs often were cut out of a target hive, sometimes leading to the colony’s demise. Beekeepers and hive architects developed a number of hive styles in response to the problem of destructively harvesting honey from colonies. Any review of bee hive development over the years will yield interesting information (and photographs) about the history of hive design. Ultimately, the bee hive went through many prototypes before arriving at the type of colony most beekeepers use today.
The most commonly-used, “modern” bee hive was designed by Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in the mid-to-late 1800’s. Langstroth was a minister, but he also indulged in the art of beekeeping. He is considered by many to be the “Father of Modern Beekeeping” or the “Father of American Beekeeping”. Langstroth’s contribution to hive design rested on a simple observation: worker honey bees do not put wax or propolis in spaces that are 3/8 inch. This distance is now called “bee space”. Due to his observation, Langstroth designed a hive that has internal spacing between all of its components of 3/8 inch, thus making it possible to remove the combs from the colony without them being destroyed. Langstroth developed the first truly successful “movable-frame hive”.
Figure 1 shows the typical Langstroth hive arrangement used by many beekeepers. It is important to remember throughout my discussion of the Langstroth hive that beekeeping is both a profession and an art. As such, opinions vary considerably about the approach to using the various hive components. I simply describe herein the most common parts of a Langstroth hive. Furthermore, the names for each piece of the hive vary somewhat by the region of the U.S. where the piece is used. I try to include as many common names for each piece of equipment as possible, recognizing that I, undoubtedly, will omit some of the names inadvertently.
All hives are covered by lids (or covers) that protect the hive from the elements. Beekeepers use two major styles of lids on their hives. They are shown in Figure 2 and are the telescoping cover (outer cover) or migratory cover (migratory lid). Telescoping covers are usually covered by a thin piece of sheet metal that offers added protection against the elements. They are called “telescoping” covers because they protrude past (or “telescope”) and hang over the edge of the hive. These lids must be used in conjunction with inner covers (Figure 3) because of bees’ copious use of propolis (a sticky mixture of various plant saps and resins). Bees will glue the lid to the frames underneath it using propolis. Because telescoping covers hang over the edges of the uppermost super, one cannot easily pry such a cover from the frames if it is glued to them, hence the need for an inner cover. Inner covers fit flush with the uppermost super so they can be pried from the frames below. Most inner covers also contain a hole that accommodates the Porter bee escape, a device used as a one-way valve for limiting bee return to the area left when traversing the escape. The inner cover also can aid in the upward ventilation of a colony if a notch is cut in its rim. Air can leave the colony first through the hole that accommodates the bee escape and then through the notch in the rim.
The benefits of telescoping covers/inner covers lie with their sturdiness and resistance to the elements. Commercial beekeepers typically do not like to use them because they are bulky and expensive compared to the alternative lid style available. Furthermore, the telescoping nature of the lids does not allow colonies to be stacked close to one another, thus resulting in a loss of space efficiency when loading colonies on a vehicle to move them.
Many beekeepers use migratory lids (Figure 2), so named because they facilitate the migratory nature of some bee hives. The migratory lid lies flush on the uppermost super so colonies can be stacked tightly together on a moving truck. Migratory lids often contain a hole into which an inverted jar can be placed for purposes of feeding bees. The lid of the feed jar (pointing down into the colony) contains small holes from which the bees can drink sugar water or corn syrup.
Langstroth hives are composed of a series of stackable boxes that can be added or removed as the hive grows or shrinks respectively. The boxes are called a number of different names (see Table 1). However, they are typically referred to as “supers” when used for honey production or “brood box” when they house a laying queen and the resulting brood. They may even be called “hive bodies” since they constitute the external, physical structure of the hives. The name “super” likely comes from the idea that more of the boxes can be added to the top of a colony. Beekeepers use “super” as a noun (the physical box) and a verb (to “super” a colony is to add more boxes to it).
There are three heights of boxes used for the Langstroth hive. They are the deep, medium (or Illinois) and shallow boxes. Most typical hive arrangements (such as that shown in Figure 1) have 1-2 deep boxes used as the brood chamber(s) and 1+ honey supers which are usually shallow or medium supers. That convention is changing today as many people find it easier to work colonies composed strictly of shallow or medium boxes. A full deep box can weigh 60+ lbs, depending on the comb contents (brood, honey, etc.). Full shallow and medium boxes weigh significantly less. Some people, such as children and the elderly, find colonies composed exclusively of these two box types to be more conducive to hive management.
The boxes are made to accommodate “frames” and the industry standard box has room for 10 frames. Many beekeepers are beginning to use 8-frame boxes due to the lighter weight of the resulting colony. One final note: I recommend that beekeepers not use shallow AND medium supers in their operations. Shallow frames can fit in medium supers, leading to management inconveniences further down the road. Beekeepers typically choose one or the other box to use, but not both.
The beauty of the Langstroth colony .....
Why Keep Bees?
by Jamie Ellis
Humans have had a long-standing association with honey bees. As a species, we have interacted with honey bees for thousands of years. Honey bees have been written about in the Holy Bible, represented in Egyptian hieroglyphics, and discussed by Greek philosophers. Their likeness is found in cave and cliff paintings, their products valued by noblemen and “commoners” alike.
Man has always been fascinated with honey bees. This fascination likely was originally born out of our longing for the sweet honey that bees produce. However, our appreciation of bees for other reasons has grown tremendously since our earliest years climbing cliffs/trees to harvest the “sweet nectar of the gods”. Herein, I will discuss some of the many reasons people keep bees. Though this list is not inclusive, I hope it will give you a greater appreciation for the insect that has long-captivated our own species.
1) Honey – Man’s longest association with bees likely stems from our love of honey (Figure 1). Honey is nature’s sweetener. Bees produce it by gathering nectar (sugar water) from flowers, mixing the nectar with enzymes, and dehydrating it by circulating air through the nest. Honey comes in all aromas, colors and flavors, those being determined by the original floral nectar source. Diversity is honey’s crowing attribute and humans find it irresistible. Consequently, many people keep bees to produce honey, either for themselves or to share with others.
2) Crop pollination – Honey is an important product of bee hives, but bees’ value as crop pollinators is what ultimately makes them indispensable to man (Figure 2). A large number of beekeepers (especially hobbyists) begin to keep bees originally because they grow fruits and vegetables in their yards and they need bees to pollinate their crops. The value of bees in general, and honey bees specifically, to man’s food supply is difficult to calculate. However, experts agree that honey bees are an important component of agriculture. This message is becoming common knowledge, thus driving gardeners managing gardens of all sizes to indulge in the art of beekeeping.
3) Other hive products – Honey bees produce a number of products that mankind finds valuable. These include wax, propolis, pollen, royal jelly, and venom. Beeswax is used in all types of products from candles and lip balm to cosmetics and furniture. Propolis, a product bees derive from plant saps and resins, is used in many cultures for medicinal purposes. Like propolis, royal jelly and bee venom are harvested from hives and used for all sorts of purported health reasons. Mead, honey alcohol, is not a hive product per se because it is not produced in the hive. However, it is derived from honey and may even be the earliest fermented beverage.
4) Business – Commercial, sideline, and some hobbyist beekeepers keep bees as a business. Honey bees are the foundation of all sorts of businesses. Beekeepers use bees to produce honey for sale, to produce the “other hive products” mentioned above, and as pollinators of our nation’s crops. It is fair to say that most of the honey bee colonies kept in the United States are kept by commercial beekeepers who use the bees for purposes of crop pollination. Honey bees support other industries as well. These include the commercial queen and package bee industries and the beekeeping equipment/supply industry.
5) Wood working – Beekeepers work with wood. Colonies and their components are, usually, made of wood. Consequently, those who like to work with wood can find joy as a beekeeper (Figure 3). Granted, the colonies we use are very basic in design (they are rectangular boxes); so they do not present a creative challenge to master craftsmen. However, I have seen woodworkers, cabinet makers, etc. find joy in designing the perfect hives out of the perfect wood.
6) Art – Some people keep bees because of the artistic nature of the creature. Undoubtedly, art is everywhere. You do not have to work with bees to appreciate natural art. However, there is a certain art associated with our craft. This manifests in our management techniques, but it is also expressed by the bees themselves, how their colonies are developed, how their nests are built. You do not have to look hard to know that honey bees are used in art everywhere. They show up in the stained-glass windows of cathedrals and can be found painted on soap dishes or stitched into dish towels. Arguably, life is art and bee colonies are full of life. Beekeeping, consequently, can satisfy even the most artistic among us.
7) Science – Honey bees, their natural histories, their colony structure, etc. are a bountiful well of natural discovery. The honey bee has been the subject of thousands of research projects and the principal research tool used by a similar number of investigators. These include Nobel Prize scientists and middle school science fair students. Honey bees have been used to make advances in genetics, microbiology, behavior, chemical ecology and in other research fields. I know that I speak for many others when I say that honey bees are a subject of intense, scientific fasciation.
8) Nature – Man has always been intimately linked to nature. Today, we derive from it medicines, recreation, fuel, pleasure, lodging, solitude, etc. “Back-to-nature” movements are popular, especially as we try to protect the earth’s natural habitats from destruction. Beekeeping represents that larger movement. Honey bees have not been domesticated (despite the fact that we “keep” them); so, we essentially keep wild animals in white boxes and attempt to manage them in a way that is mutually beneficial. Consequently, they provide a clear link between us and the environment that surrounds us, between us and the natural world of which we are a part.