The Bee’s Knees

One of the 13 new skills we want to learn about this year is keeping and caring for bees to benefit the garden as well as produce a little honey for us to enjoy.

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My husband and I recently took a course for beginning beekeepers. We signed up for the seminar, dropped the kiddos with a friend and went on our “date”.

Even though we don’t plan to start keeping bees for a year or two, we were both looking forward to this course. We sat in the front row and I had my notebook and pen ready. The first speaker started with “A lot of work goes into keeping bees…you’re looking at about 20 hours a year.”

I glanced at Ray thinking, that’s all? That’s nothing!

Eight hours and 15 pages of notes later, Ray and I felt overwhelmed with all of the information. As we walked to the car I said “That sounds like a heck of a lot more than 20 hours a year!”

We had no idea that so much went in to keeping bees, and we couldn’t have imagined all of the pests that could damage or even destroy the hive. We were both suffering from information overload.

Before the seminar, we thought that there wouldn’t be much to do beyond building a couple of hives, buying some bees, occasionally feeding them and protecting them in the winter. Now we know better.

This experience has not scared us away from keeping bees. It has actually made us even more excited about it. Every speaker talked about how fascinating bees are…and after listening for 8 hours…I believe it.

So I am going to write a series of posts sharing what I learned at the seminar. Mainly, I am doing this for myself to get a better understanding of the material, and to stay excited about eventually taking this on.

Did I mention I took 15 pages of notes?

Bee Biology
The opening slide of the first presentation challenged all I had learned watching Bee Movie, the animated adventure of Barry B. Benson voiced by Jerry Seinfeld. Prepare yourself for a shock.

We learned that there are three types of bees: worker bees, drones and the Queen. Before this seminar, I thought drones and workers were the same.

The worker bees are the ones who fly out and collect pollen and nectar. They make up about 85% of the hive. Bee Movie got one thing right, once the worker bees sting, they die. But they got one big thing wrong: there are no male worker bees. They are all female.

I could go on and write a whole post on how upsetting it is that a kid’s movie about bees completely misrepresented the bee community portraying most, if not all, of the worker bees male. I don’t think they could have missed that important distinction when researching bee behavior…but I digress.

The drones make up about 15% of the hive, are all male and their only purpose is the feed, groom and take care of the Queen.

They do not have any ability to gather pollen and if there is no Queen present, they will eat the entire hive without rebuilding or returning anything.

And now the Queen. She is the only female with complete reproductive organs. Beekeepers usually mark her with a distinct color so that it is easy to find her at a glance. If the paint or mark gets on the head or abdomen, the drones will not recognize her as their Queen and they will kill her. Yikes!

Preparing to Keep Bees
If you are going to keep bees, the first thing you should do is check your state and local regulations. I have to say, I am a little surprised that there are regulations. I’m sure the bees in the wild don’t know about these regulations, and if they do…I’m positive they don’t follow them.

Regulations should be posted in your state’s ag website. At least in IL, you are required to register your hives.

Once you do that, you can start researching and constructing or purchasing your hive. A few things to keep in mind:

-Location should be accessible throughout the year.
-Location should have full sun in the morning and partial shade in the afternoon with a SE facing opening and wind breaks at the rear.
-There needs to be water access near the hive. It’s important to have a source on your property so that the bees don’t head for the neighbor’s pool or decide to swarm and live with someone else. A 5 gallon bucket with hardware cloth, a water garden with plants or a chicken waterer with pea gravel would all work great.
-The hive should not be directly on the ground and should be slightly tilted to allow rainwater drainage.
-There should be a wind block and winter protection. Pallets, hay bales or bushes all would work well.

In addition to just talking to people who already keep bees and joining online forums, the speaker also recommended doing additional research and these sources were provided.

Beekeeping for Dummies
Kelley Beekeeping
Bee Source

That is a summary of what we went over in the first presentation. Stay tuned for more posts on what we learned at the seminar!

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