Friday, February 08, 2008
to Bee or not to Bee
I thought I'd better get busy and post what I've learned about beekeeping from the class I took last weekend at the Genesee County Conservation District.
First, beekeeping looks like fun. A gentle activity with a sweet reward. The bee people look like great folks to get to know - the local bee association even makes sure that if a newbie needs a mentor, you'll get a mentor. That's nice! and the Michigan Beekeepers Association president, Dave, who taught the class said he has an extra bee protection suit at home, and if we needed the experience we could go over to his place and work with him on his boxes.
Two other local beekeepers were there with Dave who answered questions and gave tips and tricks. We got to see all the equipment, the various components of the boxes, and so on. We collected a pile of catalogues and printed information and a website to read:
The first question was about the space needed to keep bees and if there are zoning laws.
15 percent of bees in America are raised right in urban areas! Dave gave an example of a beekeeper with 14 boxes right next to his garage in a residential part of one of the small towns nearby who has been beekeeping for decades with no problem. Out of sight out of mind is the beekeepers philosophy - bees are gentle creatures who don't sting unless they are pretty well forced to. One sting might hurt you but it kills the bee. If the neighbors don't know what that box behind the fence or shrub is, why should they mind? Honey Bees, although not native, are a beneficial part of the natural world and not at all agressive like some other bees and wasps.
Dave talked about how and when to order your bees. The different breeds, how to put them in the bottom "brood chamber" box, and what to feed them until enough flowers bloom for their food.
There are three things you should consider before you invest in bee boxes:
1. Are you raising bees for pollination or honey?
2. Do you plan to harvest comb or liquid honey?
3. Know about stings - even the most careful beekeepers do get stung. Are you allergic?
We discussed the mystery of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). Dave said the government is researching the problem very seriously with help from concerned beekeepers. It is a worldwide problem with great consequence when you figure that a third of our food comes from bee-pollinated plants.
80 percent of our bees are raised for the purpose of pollination, only 20 percent for product. Beekeepers who rent their boxes to orchards can suffer huge losses overnight when CCD happens. Each box earns $150-200 dollars, and a truckload of boxes can easily run into many thousands of dollars. An interesting factoid was that for each almond on a tree, the blossom needs to be visited 10 to 20 times!
Dave's take on the issue of CCD is that three conditions must be present, and together, to be deadly to bee colonies: food, the stress of migration, and the varroa mite. Michigan beekeepers are working to breed a stronger bee to thrive in our part of the world.
For Michigan beekeeping beginners, Dave recommended we order Italian bees from California by going in with the local club and ordering together. Your order of bees with one queen arrive at a pre-arranged time in a truck, uncooked and much happier that way.
Order in February or March for delivery in April. If you order bees too late and you get them in May you might miss getting the quantity of honey you would have gotten had you started them before the blossoms are out. Just feed your bees a sugar-water mixture until Mother Nature takes over. When the dandelions are blooming that first time in the spring, you can quit feeding the bees.
Bees are sold by the pound, and a beginner should start with a three pound order for a 10 frame box. You should mark your queen with white-out or nail polish to keep her easily identifiable. She might live 7 years, but usually the egg production declines so that beekeepers will kill and replace their queens every two years. (Worker bees only live 2-3 weeks, so the hive depends on her egg laying to replace workers.)
I won't discuss the boxes other than to say Dave recommended staying with interchangeable sizes and standard equipment. That means the 10-frame box. You can vary the depth of the extra honey boxes (on top of the two base boxes) depending on how much you think you will be happy lifting.
Bee boxes come in kits to put together, but remember "bee space" is very important so be precise. Apparently bees fill "glue" into any crevice, and if the spacing of the frames is wrong (a bee space violation!) they'll build outwards between frames and havok will ensue! Apparently in the bee's mind, an 1/8 of an inch violation is asking for trouble! These guys were all laughing about buying a couple of hive tools (it looks like a crowbar/scraper), and how important it was to have one handy. You will need it.
Set your boxes with the entrance facing east or south for warmth. In Michigan, the morning sun is especially beneficial, and there is no need to shade the hives. You can (latex) paint the hive white to make it reflective, but bees are quite capable of warming and cooling the hive. Dave wraps his boxes on two sides with black tarpaper in the winter. A tree and/or shrub windbreak on the west side of the hive is helpful. Remember wherever you put the hive, you need 15-20 feet behind the boxes for your own access.
Water is critical for cooling the summer hive. A bee will carry water to the hive and drop it between the frames to be fanned by the workers' wings to keep the hive a pleasantly humid, constant 96.3 degrees. In the winter the bees take turns on the inside of the swarm and the outside, constantly fanning their wings to keep the center of the hive a pleasant 96.3 degrees.
The water you provide shouldn't be running water, and the bees aren't picky as to whether it is crystal clear or stagnant. A birdbath, a bucket or a pool are fine. Add a handful of hay in the bucket helps the bees land. Bees do find water in dew and they can travel 3-6 miles (a 6-12 mile "bee range") but most commonly travel 1/4 to 1/2 mile.
Bees sweat wax while they're making honey. A single bee makes about 1/2 teaspoon of honey in its life. You can expect 3 pounds of honey for each pound of wax.
Honey harvest is weather dependent. A typical Michigan beekeeper can expect 70 to 100 pounds of honey a year. A gallon of honey is very dense, it weighs about 12 pounds, so you can figure out how many gallons a box will give you (and why you should order the shallow boxes for the top of the stack.)
Bees sting in clusters because the first bee's stinger will leave a scent that other bees will identify as a threat and they will attack what they think is a danger to their community. Bees are cold blooded creatures - they sense heat, not CO2 as some people think. That is why they go for your face - its warmth attracts them.
An interesting thing I'd never heard was if another insect or small animal gets in the hive, the worker bees will 'ball' around the intruder and raise the temperature with their wing flapping until the victim cooks to death!
Bees do get agressive if varmints have been disturbing the hives, so watch the corners of the boxes for signs of chewing or scratching. Set the boxes up on cement blocks in an accessible area. And if you set out carpet tack strips points up, it will discourage robber racoons and skunks who know enough to lay on their tummies to protect their tender stomach areas from the bees' stingers. Small opening chicken wire or a metal door reducer is used to protect the entrance from field mice in the fall.
When working on your boxes you should wear a sweatsuit under your heavy clothes (so the stingers can't get through the thickness), and makes sure all cuffs and collars are securely closed. Bees don't notice light colors, which is why bee suits are white. A netted hat and leather gauntlet gloves are essential. One beekeeper told us an unused fabric softener sheet in your hat will repel bees.
When you get stung, don't pull the bee off, that leaves the stinger. Scrape it sideways with a credit card to remove the stinger.
Have Benedryl on hand for swelling, and home remedies include tea bags, baking soda, the herbs plantain and comfrey.
Carry 2 epi-pens if you are allergic and don't leave them in your car (cooking destroys their effectiveness.)Shoot yourself in the rear - if you jab it into the hip you can hit your bone. Ow!
We heard a bit about the extraction of honey, and some interesting facets of marketing. For instance, you can extract the honey yourself using leased equipment from the beekeepers club, or take it to another beekeeper who will extract it for you. Your honey house (the room where you do your extraction) should be up to state dairy farm standards - washable walls, etc. Honey has high acidity so just about nothing bad will grow in it, but it must be packaged with care. Inspectors generally won't write citations for extraction but are firm about packaging: the cooker should be stainless and able to heat. You don't need a license to sell from your own property, but if you want to sell in a market or store, you'll need to follow certain labelling rules and get that $70 license. Oh yes, and it is commonly said that the state doesn't work on Saturday, whatever that means.
Dave also highly recommended ANR (Agriculture and Natural Resources) Week at Michigan State University, which you can probably Google easily. The Beekeeping Program at ANR Week is two full days from 8-5:30 (March 7 and 8). It looks very worthwhile.
Can you believe we learned all that in a couple of hours! There was more. too. But you probably want to know if I'm thinking of beekeeping.
Well right now, between having to learn so much more because I think there is more to learn, and the initial cost (I am jobless, after all)... I'll have to say, No, with regret. Maybe next year at this time, I'll have become better organized and less overextended in time and budget, and we'll make the investment. But now I can say I know where to get educated about the subject, I know where to get a deal on local honey and local bee products, and I appreciate the beauty and work of beekeeping.