Humans have been harvesting honey and other products from bees for over 9,000 years! Following in the footsteps of many ancient peoples, including the Egyptians, modern beekeepers (known as Apiarists) have a lot more tricks and tools at their disposal. In our previous blog post we discussed that the honeybee population is at extreme risk and why they are so important to our lifestyles and ecosystem. In this post, we will explore how YOU can become an expert apiarist and help keep the bee population from disappearing. Plus, harvest lots of delicious honey for yourself!
Develop A Good Knowledge Base
We mentioned this in the last post, but it bears repeating. Join a beekeeping association! For example, the Langley Bee Club.
Most associations, comprised of large and small, new and experienced beekeepers, meet regularly to share information and insights. Most have beekeeping books, magazines and videos for loan and they often bring in expert speakers. Grab a coffee and a lemon square, strike up a conversation with an experienced beekeeper and ask for a visit to his/her beeyard. Or better yet, offer to help out to get some hands-on experience.
Attend A Workshop
The British Columbia Provincial Government has two courses on Apiculture. A beginner/introductory course and a master/advanced course. These courses are designed to put you a few steps ahead so that you can buzz your way to a successful hive! Check out the courses on the BC Government website here.
Start Small (Just Not TOO Small)
Even if you plan to scale up or if you have had little or no experience, it’s a good idea to start with two or three hives. This will give you an idea of what it takes, how your location works out, and whether you like it or not. It’s not recommended to have only one, as it’s helpful to have two or more for comparison and for equalizing winter stores and population for successful over-wintering.
Make A Plan
There are a lot of things to think through when you start beekeeping: your budget, where you are going to get bees, what kind of bees, what kind of equipment, how you are going to manage your hives, what kind of records you will keep, etc. And then there is the honey production side as well. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but you’ll feel a lot more confident if you aren’t flying by the seat of your pants at all times. (There are enough surprises in beekeeping as it is!)
Consider Your Equipment
There are a lot more options in equipment than you might think, especially in hive components. Don’t stint on your smoker or hive tools, you want them to last.
Hive: You’ll want to consider your physical capacity and the pros and cons of various options as it is a significant financial investment and you’ll be living with your decisions for a long time. Most common hive bodies used are “standard” sized Langstroth equipment, but increasingly, beekeepers are working with medium-sized honey boxes, and some are even using 8-frame components, although they are harder to find in Canada. There is a growing interest in topbar hives as well. Check out local suppliers, like Milner Feeds, for 10-frame, and Brushy Mountain and Dadant in the U.S. for 8-frame equipment.
Hive Tool: Your hive tool is one of your most critical pieces of equipment. Bees glue everything in the hive together with their resin-like propolis. This requires the beekeeper to pry the seal open with a hive tool. A hive tool allows you to detach comb from hive sides, cut and scrape propolis, and pry frames. Definitely don't cheap out on this one!
Smoker: A smoker is an invaluable tool for all beekeepers as it makes aggressive bees more docile. Primarily, smoke makes honeybees believe there may be a wildfire nearby. This prompts them to eat as much honey as they can in preparation for a potential move. Honeybees are more docile with a full stomach due to physical difficulty in tipping their abdomens up to sting. Smoke also masks the alarm pheromone given off by guard bees, minimizing the defensive reactions of the colony. Honeybee alarm pheromone smells like banana candy, so if you smell bananas in your hive, it’s time for another puff of smoke. Similarly, beekeepers should not eat bananas directly before getting into a hive, since it may be perceived by your bees as alarm pheromone.
Jacket with Hat Veil: Bees tend to attack the face of mammalian intruders, thus, a jacket with a veil is an essential tool for beekeepers. Bees have CO2 receptors on their antennae, which allow them to detect our exhalations, and respond aggressively. This ability developed to protect the hive against the threat of bears. Common folklore states that bees sense fear, but really they are sensing fear behavior. If one is nervous around bees, they may breathe more heavily, which can lead to stings. Many experienced beekeepers do not wear any gear, and have become so comfortable around their bees, they can behave calmly and not get stung.
Gloves: Another fear-sensing behavior bees pick up on is shaky or fumbling hands. Confident, experienced beekeepers often do not wear them to maximize their maneuverability, but we suggest all beginners start with gloves as a safeguard. Beekeeping gloves are made of soft leather or other tough but flexible materials to protect against stings without jeopardizing comfort.
Bee Brush: More useful than you would imagine, the bee brush can be used to gently move the bees off of comb or other places you don't want them to be. This is an essential tool for honey harvest, repairing broken comb, and sometimes for swarm removal. Keep in mind that the bees HATE the brush and you will find them stinging it mercilessly as you use it, so use it sparingly.
Review Local and Provincial By-laws
You must register your hives in British Columbia. Here are links to other important beekeeping regulations. Beekeeping is not the time to explore your inner outlaw. Registering your hives not only gives the Province important statistical data but they will send you updates on recommended practices and you can request notification if there is any significant pesticide spraying in your area. It also connects you to the Provincial inspectors who are a fantastically supportive source of expert information and advice. Click here for a “Have you hugged your bee inspector today?” bumper sticker. (No, not really.)
Protect Yourself (And Others)
First make sure you, your family members or close neighbours are not allergic to bee stings. Have an Epi-pen on site anyway (you can get them at your local drugstore).
Second, start thinking about your sting protection. Most experienced beekeepers don’t use gloves, but you may want to start with them until you are comfortable with the bees. Make sure they fit you snugly; you don’t want to drop a frame of bees on your foot. In terms of suiting, personal preference, climate (it gets hot in there) and comfort with stings will determine your choices. It’s helpful to have a couple of options on hand, perhaps a veil for light beekeeping (external inspections, feeding, etc.) and a suit or at least a jacket, for full inspections. If you can afford it, look for the thick mesh suits, you won’t get stung, and they are cooler than the cotton ones. But they can be pricey. Rubber boots are good as well, especially if you have poison ivy in your beeyard.
Third, consider liability insurance. Even if you are just giving away your honey, your home insurance isn’t likely to cover you. Check with your insurer to protect your personal assets.
Keep notes on what you are seeing and doing. Some beekeepers keep a journal to track what’s in bloom, weather, actions taken, learning, mistakes, questions. Some use a calendar to ensure timely interventions. But there are also some excellent software programs for your smartphone which you can take into the beeyard that provide a framework for what to look for during inspections. You might think you will remember when you installed that queen, or when you put that honey super on or fed them, but you won’t. Jot it down.
Finally, give yourself a break. You will make mistakes. You will do some really dumb things - you may not believe how many dumb things one person can do - but that’s the way it is. Beekeeping is one of the most enjoyable and interesting endeavours you will ever encounter, but even seasoned beekeepers will tell you that it’s forever a work-in-progress. Do your best, keep learning, keep going, and have fun.
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