Learn Beekeeping. Want to be as busy as a bee?

It’s beekeeping time. Yep, even with snow on the ground - now is the time to get started.

Winter beekeeping is relaxed, it’s about learning, dreaming and planning. It’s the time for researching and experimenting.

It's the perfect time to build hive bodies, supers, and frames. Painting them is fun too. Spring doesn't seem so far away when you're busy.

I was reading about an experiment published in the Fifth Annual Report of the State Bee Inspector for the year 1916.  It was reported that hives painted darker colors
outperformed hives painted white. Our hives have always been white. Boring. Not this year, though. The new hives are bright colors. Vibrant and happy colors. It will be interesting to see if these hives are more productive than the white ones.

Another experiment this spring will be splitting hives using strong brood frames and swarm cells containing new queens.

When the hives were closed up for the winter there was plenty of honey and pollen for feed. This is a critical time of year. Bees can easily starve late in the winter or early in the spring. In the next few weeks the queen will start egg laying again, she'll build up brood.

It was warm enough to open up the hives the other day, just for a quick minute to add pollen patties. The bees were clustered, they looked healthy.

This is a great time of year to learn beekeeping.

Sign up for beekeeping classes, they’re starting soon. There’s plenty of time to learn by taking classes and reading books.

Here are a couple of good books on beekeeping:

Natural Beekeeping by Ross Conrad
The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture Forty First Edition published by The A.I. Root Company
Bee Keeping for Dummies by Howland Blackiston and Null
Here’s a list of classes in Iowa and Illinois:

The Iowa Honey Producers Association
The Illinois State Beekeepers Association

Here's a list by state:

The American Honey Producers State Organizations

Learn Beekeeping




Beekeepers are wonderful, but they lie

I've met a few beekeepers over the past few years, wonderful folks, but they're liars. The beekeeping class instructor said that eventually you won't notice getting stung. He said it's not a big deal. Every beekeeper I've met since has said the same thing, "I don't even notice when I get stung."

To this I say, "Liar!"

One of the first questions people ask is, "How often do you get stung?" Followed by the second question, "Does it hurt?"

Here's the truth; you won't get stung often but when you do it hurts. I know the procedure; when you get stung use the hive tool to scrape the stinger away, otherwise the sack keeps pumping venom. The same goes with trying to squeeze out the stinger. It won't work, you have to scrape it away.

It will continue to hurt for a couple of days, your joints around the area will ache. As the swelling goes down your skin will start to itch. As for me, patience isn't a virtue. I've been stung plenty of times and the only home remedy that's worked is time.

I love bees enough to endure the occasional sting. The reward is greater than the pain.

Bee in apple blossom
Bee in apple blossom


DSCN2837And now, another lesson from a very bad beekeeper...

Sugaring bees for mite control is a great alternative to chemical treatments if the mite count is manageable. In the battle of bees vs Varroa Mites my weapon of choice; powdered sugar. I calculate the mite load by capturing a couple hundred bees and placing them inside a jar with a few tablespoons of powdered sugar. The jar is fitted with a screen placed over the mouth. The bees are shaken vigorously to loosen the mites clinging to them. The mites fall through the screen lid, onto a sheet of white paper (they're easy to see against the white background) for counting. A quick calculation gives the mite load for the hive. This calculation  determines if I need to treat the bees aggressively (for a large infestation) or if the sugar will take care of the problem. I'm reluctant to use chemicals for treating Varroa Mites because it could cause resistance or weaken the bees.


DSCN2827Using an old window screen, placed over the hive body, I dump a pound of powdered sugar on top. It's important to have the smoker ready to force the bees away from the screen. Using a bee brush to gently spread the sugar across the screen so it falls between the frames, I continue to apply smoke. You don't want the bees clinging to the screen because the brush will damage the bee's legs, sometimes amputating them.

The sugar dust clings to the bees causing the mites to fall off or get groomed off by other bees. I use a screened bottom board which the mites fall through. I repeat the sugaring process two to three times in the fall.

Once the hive's been dusted and sealed back up again the jarred bees are let loose to fly back inside the hive. They're angry and unhappy after being shaken. Never free the bees from the jar before all the frames are sugared or they'll work the rest of the hive into a fervor. You don't want to work with agitated bees, I've learned this the hard way. Bee venom supposedly cures arthritis, I don't have arthritis but I think I'd prefer it to being stung seven times in the hand. Learning new things is important, I just wish I'd learn before it becomes a painful reality.


DSCN2521It's quiet when I work with the bees, I work alone. Every move is choreographed ahead of time. The bee suit is too hot, the veil makes my head sweat, and I will NEVER wear gloves again.  So, I wear shorts, a t-shirt, and worn out tennis shoes. I'm not brave, actually I'm afraid of getting stung, but with everything you enjoy there are consequences. Getting stung is one of them.


The best weapon is a calm attitude and a heavy plume from the smoker. One of my hives isn't as strong as the others. I had to re-queen it. Earlier in the spring I was installing a second package of bees and I made a mistake. I lost the queen. Well, she wasn't really lost, she flew away. Worried about getting stung, I wore a full bee suit complete with thick gloves. After shaking the bees into the hive body I got the queen cage ready. I carefully removed the plug end and stuffed a mini marshmallow into the opening. I placed my gloved finger over the opening and moved two frames apart, hung the cage, and removed my finger. Looking down I noticed the marshmallow stuck to the glove, "Damn!" I tried to push it back into the cage, but before I could get it back into the opening the queen moved to the end and lifted herself into the air, "Damn, damn, damn!"  I watched, dumbfounded, as she flew higher and higher until she disappeared from sight. I let out a desperate cry, "Oh no. Stupid marshmallow!"  I thought, there goes my queen, $90.00 just flew away because I was afraid of getting stung. Fear, a glove, and a mini-marshmallow brought my hive's production to a halt.

We covered this in beekeeping class. The instruction was very clear; "If your queen escapes stay very still. She won't recognize her new surroundings. She won't know the bee yard, or hive. She doesn't know the workers, who've surrounded her cage on her trip north, they only met a day ago. Sometimes, if you're lucky, she'll fly in a circle taking a mental picture of the area. The queen will view you, the beekeeper, as a fixture of that area. In her mental picture you belong where she belongs. It's very important to remain still and leave everything as it was when she flew off."

I waited.  No queen in sight. Two minutes - no queen. Three minutes, still no queen. Five minutes, no queen, just sweat running into my eyes and trickling down my back. Bee suits are incredibly hot. Keith was headed to town. He saw me standing still in this ridiculous outfit and called from the truck, "Hey, was there a nuclear accident at the plant?" he laughed and drove off.  I'd have given him the finger, the gloved one with the marshmallow stuck to it, but I was standing perfectly still waiting for the queen's return. Lucky for him I couldn't move for a few more minutes.  After ten minutes I gave up. I remembered one last piece of advice from class, "Never, EVER, let your queen escape."  If she does its goodbye, queen!




DSCN2065On Sunday night we had snow. Monday's overnight temperature was 20 degrees. It was cold this morning, but I got the call that our bees were ready to be picked up. It seems too cold for bees. I put them in the back of the truck and they were very quiet. A few stragglers were clinging to the outside screen. As the car warmed up, so did the bees. Their buzzing got louder and stronger. I turned up the radio so that I wouldn't hear them. Driving with six-thousand bees in your car is a little nerve wracking. I put them in the garage and watched to see if the temperature would get above 40. It did, so I got ready to hive the bees.


The sun was shining, it was in the mid 40's. It turned into a fine day for installing packaged bees. I carefully removed the cans of sugar water, took out the queen cages, shook  the bees out into the hive body and  set the queen cages between the frames. The queen cage's have plugs in them to keep her separate from the other bees. I replaced the plugs with a mini-marshmallows. In a few days the workers in each hive will eat through the marshmallow to free her. By that time they'll recognize her pheromones and accept her as their queen.

Buckets of sugar water were set inside the top hive body and pollen patties were set on top of the frames. The maple and poplar trees have pollen for the bees to collect so they won't need additional supplements. We'll continue feeding sugar water until there's a good nectar flow from flowers.

I consider today's installation a great success because I didn't get stung, the bees were active, and I felt more confident than last year. The bee keeping classes prepared me for success.

6C8644044-130815-bees.blocks_desktop_mediumFriends of the Earth has releases a new study by The Pesticide Research Institute. In the study they found that many “bee friendly” plants sold at Home Depot, Lowes, and other large garden centers contained neurotoxic pesticides known as neonicotinoids which could harm or kill bees and other pollinators. 7 of 13 sample garden plants purchased at top retailers contained these toxic compounds.

The EPA is taking action to protect bees by developing new pesticide labels that indicate ingredients that may harm bees. The new labels will have an advisory box and icon with information on routes of exposure and spray drift precautions. The labels will contain warnings for products containing the neonicotinoids imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

Here's a great TED Talk by Marla Spivak - Why Bees Are Disappearing