New Beekeeping Grant Lessons Learned
New beekeepers have lots of lessons to learn and experienced beekeepers have even more lessons to learn: beekeeping is all about learning. In the spring of 2010 through the spring of 2011 the Vermont Beekeepers Association worked with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets to procure funds from the USDA Specialty Crop Development Block Grant to fund new beekeeper's start up costs for 17 Vermonters.
One of the requirements of this grant was for the new beekeepers to share the top five things that they learned. These are compiled below in no particular order. I think you'll agree that these beekeepers have a sense of humor and learned quite a bit in their first year.
The Top Five Things I Learned About Beekeeping This Year
Even with the help of a mentor, I should have gone to more bee club meetings to prepare to understand the complexity of hive management
The cycle of bee-egg-larvae-worker-drone-queen-queen cells and cups
My queens are not marked, so I do find them but it's very hard with many bees in the hive.
How to make fondant for my spring hungry bees and have it turn out right.
How to help prevent swarming (to some extent) by going in [to the hive] every ten days and destroying queen cups all over.
I learned that no matter how many books you read or videos you watch about package bee installation, nothing goes according to plan! (My queens escaped into the hives but in both cases survived their ordeal).
I learned that when adding honey supers, leave off the excluder for a few days. Let the bees start working the super before adding the use of the excluder.
I learned that ventilation inside the hives is very important. I will be sure to remove the honey supers much earlier this time around. In fact, I just did that on April 10th!
I learned NOT to destroy swarm cells when found in later stages...and that I need to check for these more regularly throughout the summer!
I've learned the importance of putting in horizontal wires on honey frames so they don't fall to pieces in the extractor. I MAY have learned to slow down the spinning while extracting...but I doubt I'll remember that next fall! I also learned to put the extracted frames back on the hive to let the bees clean them up.
Just because bees can sting doesn't mean they will. A fully-suited beekeeper is invulnerable and can go about his or her work calmly even though surrounded by Clouds of Flying Death. Total stings since acquiring two nucs at the end of May: one, and this while weed whacking nearby (and not suited up), not while tending to the hives.
Beekeepers are generally pretty decent folks, at least the ones in Vermont, willing to take questions, share advice, guide the new guy, etc. (although maybe it's because the ones I know are Vermonters, not necessarily because they are beekeepers).
Queen bees are not easy to spot. Of the two in my nucs, I have had exactly one queen sighting, and that was the first time I opened the hives a week after transferring the nucs into my equipment. I have never seen the queen in the other hive. Part of the reason for this is attributable to my beginner's reluctance to rip the hives apart and look at every frame on every visit (see Flying Clouds of Death, above). I was (and am) content to see eggs and brood.
There are lots of good beekeeping books, but like most other endeavors, there is no substitute for hands-on experience. No book can convey the smell of a honey super on a warm Summer day, mixed with the smell of the smoker, and no book can describe the sound of a calm, contented hive.
How the colony manages itself, in spit of the un-asked-for "help" of the beekeeper, is one of Nature's most extraordinary miracles. As one example cited by William Longgood in The Queen Must Die and Other Affairs of Bees and Men, every worker is born of two parents, neither of whom have ever done or will ever do what the workers will do for the rest of their lives. They are born knowing how to care for brood, draw comb, store pollen and nectar, do and understand the dance steps, make foraging flights and find their way back to their own hive. And when winter comes, they forma a cluster even though not one of the bees in the hive at that time has ever been in a cluster before. I could go on.
To slow down when working the colonies.
Not to fear a queen cell but help make a new hive.
I believe that bees are here to pollinate and honey is second.
That Vermont makes some of the best honey out there.
Even though colony two didn't make it through the winter, the split made from colony two did make the winter I still have two hives for this year.
Beekeeping on a small scale doesn't require much time (10-15 minutes every 3-4 weeks).
Beekeeping suits/gloves make working with the bees harder, better to just wear light clothes and a veil. No gloves!
When the bees are in the process of swarming stay indoors.
When you have your own honey (and it's free) you use a lot more than you would think.
Bees are amazing!
I enjoy working with bees and find it very satisfying.
My bees are amazingly tolerant of my inexperience. I have yet to be stung. (Must be Mike Palmer's good breeding!).
Bees respond very quickly to temperature changes and will boil out of the hive when the mid-afternoon sun comes out on a cloudy day. You can hear them coming.
Bees will ignore some flowers that are very abundance and tick with the much-less abundant favorites. I have planted clover all of the yard and gardens since they clearly love this.
Bees truly are checking everything out as a possibly pollen source come spring, including my golden-lab cross (who did not appreciate it at all). I understand now why it's good to talk to your neighbors if you keep bees in the city. They might not appreciate that kind of attention either.
That it is not as intimidating as I thought it would be! Before I got my bees last spring, I took a couple of workshops with Ross Conrad at Middlebury College (natural beekeeping and apitherapy, attended a bunch of workshops with Bill Mares at the Intervale, and took a beginners beekeeping class at CVU with Bill and Russ Aceto, in addition to reading as much as I could. Initially it seemed a little overwhelming, and I was hoping to assist a beekeeping in taking care of their hives for a season before getting my own in order to get comfortable working with them. However, I was unable to find someone who needed any help and instead decided to just go ahead and get my bees. It was so much easier to learn by doing, and while I'm sure I have made mistakes, all of the ways I educated myself ahead of time really prepared me well for having them. The Intervale classes are awesome and the class I took with Bill was so helpful too in learning what I needed to get the hives set up and going.
To learn from the bees-they have been doing this for thousands of years and have innate knowledge that we do not. Also, that they are wild animals and should be respected as such. I did not go into this with the illusions of being one of those people that never get stung (I hadn't ever been stung until I attended on of Bill's workshops), but a little part of me forgot for a little while that these ultimately are wild animals. And, I got stung, but I didn't take it personally . I would like to learn to achieve a balance of managing the hives in order to care for the bees well without interfering too much.
That everyone has a completely different way of doing things. I know that Bill and Russ mentioned this in their class that I took, but the more I tried to learn the "right" way to things, the more I realized how true this is. Some people medicate, others don't. Some people winterize the hives, others don't. Some people like plastic foundation and drone comb, others prefer natural small cell comb and would never use drone comb. There are endless details in beekeeping and everyone seems to have their own way of beekeeping. I am really enjoying learning all the options and seeing what works for me. So far, I have learned that it's important to be to be able to have them in my backyard to observe them daily; to not medicate with toxic chemicals but to use a screened bottom board, varroa tray, and powdered sugar; to respect them as living beings and be as careful in my inspections as I can so that I kill as few as possible; and to take my time during inspections to really see what is happening in the hives.
To keep good notes. After every hive inspection and even sometimes after jus sitting and watching the bees for a while, I would be sure to make notes in my log. I sometimes would record things that would make more sense later, once I later noticed other things they were doing and how they were progressing through the season. It has been really helpful to be able to go back through my notes and see the progression over the year, and it will help immensely going into my second year of beekeeping to remember how the previous year progressed.
Ultimately I was not very surprised to learn that I really don't care about getting any honey at all – that I really love the bees and would do this just for the experience of keeping them, not for the end result of honey. They have also reminded me of the value of patience, the ability to take one day at a time, and also to really notice the daily weather patterns more and what's in bloom around us.
Each of our two hives have totally different behaviors, yet they come from the same stock of bees. The one hive is much more aggressive than the other.
The bees are so very dependent on the beekeeper to survive. Because of disease and hard Vermont winters our assistance is absolutely necessary for their survival.
They are so organized as a society of their own. Each bee has a job to do and it all works well to keep the hive from dying.
The ability for the bees to keep the hive at a temperature in the winter necessary for their survival, and cool enough in the hot summer months.
The queen is the center of the universe for the colony. She has an amazing ability to lay so many eggs and such a long survival rate compared to the worker bees.
Always have spares. Several times I had to juggle things since I didn't have a few extra items. Case in point was when I ordered only enough frames and foundation to start my hives and ending up being short since I decided not to use the drone frame right off.
Organization saves time. I can easily spend more time running around getting my stuff together than actually with the hive.
Patience. It's easy to convince myself that I have a new emergency at each inspection. Most of the time the bees work it out on their own with little or no manipulation.
Don't over commit. I have many things I would like to try with my bees, top bar hives for instance, but not enough time to do them all. I have had to put off some projects to the future so that I can focus on the things that must happen this year (keep the first hive healthy so we can get surplus honey in the fall and to replace the 2nd hive) and a few manageable extras (start a third hive, try my hand at overwintering a double queen nuc, and possibly keep a few bees at a second site to make a neighboring farmer happy).
Have fun. It's a hobby. If I get too stressed by it it's no longer fun and there are many other ways to not make money that don't involve tens of thousands of stinging insects.
Honeybees can be pretty friendly.
Worker bees without a queen will lay eggs!
These eggs will grow into drones!
Perhaps for our northern climate I should buy a nuc of local bees.
If at first you don't succeed, try again.
Treating for mites is essential.
Feeding is critical when colony is weak.
It is a bad idea to open deeps after it gets cold, even if insulating the hives.
Ask for help if in a jam.
Keep bees in direct sun.
Keeping bees is sticky work.
Things I Still Need to Know or Want to Learn
How to find old queens and get ready for new queening this June.
How to reverse bodies and take off honey super now that it probably has brood in it.
How to use my choice in varroa mite control
To be able to identify egg/larvae/bee ration to figure out a healthy productive colony.
Learn how to split my hive that successfully overwintered.
Something about queen raising (even though I won't attempt that just yet).
Tag along with a beekeeper on a swarm removal to see how it's done.
Maybe get a little honey this summer to share with others.
...Working with my daughters elementary school to get a hive set up there.....would be so great to recruit future beekeepers.
Other (funny and helpful)
Went to the annual [VBA] meeting. It was very helpful. I love going.
"...hive seems strong for this time of year (not that I know better). I am just happy it survived this long!"
6/5/10 8 am. Rainy. Got stung one time – in nightgown.
Did a varroa mite check with jar and screen. Two mites fell out. Hives smell funny like cheese.
Note to remember: 10/28 too late to put mice guards on, lots of mice in hive.
"Bahhh, why are they doing this???"
Re: entrance reducer, "I don't know if it's [9/19] kind of early to do it, but it made me feel better".
"The nuc process felt more stressful than the package process...maybe because I am a little tired after getting up at 4 am and spending 5 hours in a car with a 6 year old and box full of buzzing cranky bees."
"Did not see the elusive Queen Etheline Tenenbaum!!!"
They didn't hive like the video on the internet, but it went okay, I guess.
- This article by Kim Greenwood first appeared in a recent issue of Bee Culture magazine.