Introduction to beekeeping

It’s been two months since I started beekeeping, and they’ve kept me busy. Not because they need a great deal of maintenance; they don’t. But like any new beekeeper, I can’t stop myself from peeking into the hive and seeing what they’re up to.

Beekeeping Basics

How does one get started in beekeeping? First, you have to order bees. They can be shipped in the mail but it’s better to pick up a package or nuc (pronounced “nuke,” short for nucleus colony) yourself.

Order the bees in the winter, because they’ll all be spoken for by the time spring comes. I ordered mine from two sources: the first package came from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, in Moravian Falls, NC, about two hours east of where I live. The second package is more local to me, from Bailey Bee Supply.  I ordered from two different suppliers on the theory that the bees would be sourced from different places (Brushy Mountain gets their bees from Georgia, Bailey’s perhaps being more local), thus increasing the genetic diversity in my apiary. The theory is just a theory; the bees may actually be from the same place, but I didn’t know that at the time.

A package of bees looks like this:

bee package.JPG

It’s a screened box with three pounds of bees trapped inside, plus a mated queen in a cage. I’ll explain more about installing packages in a future post.

Equipment

I started in April with two hives, comprised of a stand, a screened bottom board (to keep critters out and ventilation moving), two 8-frame medium hive bodies, an inner cover, and a heavy top. The hive bodies are simple boxes, with a ledge on the inside to hold the hanging frames. The frames are lightweight pine, with a black plastic sheet popped inside, just like a picture in a picture frame. The plastic is printed with the pattern of honeycomb. The bees “draw out” comb on top of the foundation.

hive body and frames.jpg

One hive body viewed from above, with eight frames and a healthy population of bees.

Here’s a closeup of one of the new frames. The worker bees make wax from their wax glands, and once the cells are drawn the queen lays one egg in each cell. The eggs show up nicely against the black foundation–each one looks like a little grain of rice.

drawn cells and laid eggs 2.jpeg

Worker bees tending the eggs. In the lower left, the cells haven’t been drawn out yet. In the lower right, pollen is stored in one cell.

The other tools I use are a veil, a smoker, a hive tool, a brush, and gloves. I didn’t start out with gloves.

Here’s the answer to the first question everyone asks me: No, I can’t expect to get a honey harvest this first year. The timing of the bees’ delivery is such that they arrive just before the peak of the nectar flow. The workers must use all the carbohydrates in the available nectar to build comb; after all, the queen can’t lay eggs and the workers can’t store pollen or nectar unless there’s comb in which to place those things. The nectar flow drops off in June and is more or less absent throughout the summer. It picks up again with a second flow in the fall as the asters bloom. So this year the bees will work on establishing their hive, I’ll nurse them through the nectar dearth and through the winter, and starting next spring, I hope we’ll start to see some honey.

Next post: Installling a package.

 

Ice storm survival 101: Fill your birdfeeder

Two weeks ago, we received an inch of ice at the MHM garden. Because it’s the South, and we have no snow-and-ice infrastructure, life shut down until we thawed. I think the only thing that kept me sane (a housebound beagle and two kids out of school were decidedly unhelpful in that mission) was the birdfeeder in the back yard.

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis ) and House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis ) and House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

I’m dependent on Merlin Bird ID to tell me who my visitors are. This app, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers a brilliant beginners’ guide to identifying local birds.

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), showing his winter coat. His spring-and-summer one is much livelier.

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), showing his winter coat. His spring-and-summer one is much livelier.

I keep my feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds, which is what they want to seem to eat. These seeds pack protein and fat into a very small, easy-to-shell package. When the temperature plummets, birds need these extra calories to maintain energy and stay warm. And when berries and fallen seed may be encapsulated in ice, a full feeder can make a big difference in birds’ ability to survive.

As the weather warms and more plants come into bloom, I will taper back on the feed to encourage them to scavenge insects from the garden. I hope that they’ll be enough in the habit of visiting my garden that they’ll stick around and enjoy the buffet.

American Goldfinch, showing his distinctive wing markings.

American Goldfinch, showing his distinctive wing markings.

Garden log, 1.23.15

Yesterday I planted seeds of Papaver somniferum (Hungarian blue breadseed) and Papaver ‘Lauren’s Grape,’ as well as larkspur (Delphinium ajacis) ‘Apple Blossom’ and ‘Pink Queen.’ The breadseed poppy is perennial, but the others are annuals.

Larkspur ‘Apple Blossom’ (Delphinium ajacis ‘Apple Blossom’). Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Papaver ‘Lauren’s Grape.’ Photo by Annie’s Annuals.

I plan to include more self-seeding annuals in my garden this year, though I’m afraid it’s late to be planting poppies in Zone 7b. Perhaps they’ll get a decent zap of cold in February and take hold by early summer. I’ve never had much luck with poppies, but last fall a friend shared her planting technique with me and so far, things seem to be working:

How to Plant Ornamental Poppies

  • Spread a layer of compost 1-2 inches deep over the area where you wish to plant. Smooth the compost with the back of a rake.
  • Scatter the seeds over the compost.
  • Use the head of the rake to tamp the seeds gently but firmly into the compost.
  • Leave them alone. Don’t water; don’t cover.

The seeds are tiny and need light to germinate. In the past, I didn’t plant them in compost, or sometimes I’d forget where I planted them and would mulch them over with shredded leaves. The ones I planted in November have germinated and their cotyledons hover just above the compost. They’re quite tough, having survived heavy rain and some wild temperature fluctuations so far.

I also, against good advice, transplanted some crocuses just before they burst into bloom. Crocuses are tough; they’ll get over it. Some tasks you just have to tackle when you have the time.

(c) 2013 AWH/MissingHenryMitchell

The garden could easily be mistaken for a mud-wrestling pit these days, thanks to  frequent rains and plagues of squirrels that dig up my unfrozen ground to hide their found treasures. I wonder why the squirrels haven’t dug up the poppy seedlings (yet?).