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I've been keeping this blog for all of my beekeeping years and I am beginning my 19th year of beekeeping in April 2024. Now there are more than 1300 posts on this blog. Please use the search bar below to search the blog for other posts on a subject in which you are interested. You can also click on the "label" at the end of a post and all posts with that label will show up. At the very bottom of this page is a list of all the labels I've used.

Even if you find one post on the subject, I've posted a lot on basic beekeeping skills like installing bees, harvesting honey, inspecting the hive, etc. so be sure to search for more once you've found a topic of interest to you. And watch the useful videos and slide shows on the sidebar. All of them have captions. Please share posts of interest via Facebook, Pinterest, etc.

I began this blog to chronicle my beekeeping experiences. I have read lots of beekeeping books, but nothing takes the place of either hands-on experience with an experienced beekeeper or good pictures of the process. I want people to have a clearer picture of what to expect in their beekeeping so I post pictures and write about my beekeeping saga here.Master Beekeeper Enjoy with me as I learn and grow as a beekeeper.

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Friday, May 10, 2019

How to Be Treatment Free in Today's Beekeeping World

I've never treated my bees and this is my fourteenth year as a beekeeper. When I got my first bees in 2006, I bought them from someone who treated. They lived about four years. But then neither the varroa mite nor the treatments were as virulent.

For first half of my beekeeping years, I caught swarms, bought nucs, bought packages and over the years, I have lost many, many bees. I will never buy bees from a commercial dealer again.

Now all of my bees are treatment free and all have made it through the winters. Over the years I have caught swarms and some of those appeared to be from feral/treatment free sources. Every spring I make splits. When I can, I'm generous with my friends who are treatment free or with other beekeepers who want to try.

I had a discussion over dinner with Jennifer Berry this week and she thinks that one must be an experienced beekeeper in order to succeed at treatment free beekeeping. It does help to know what you are doing, but the real key element in treatment free beekeeping is the source of your bees.

If you buy nucs or packages from a commercial source, they all treat their bees heavily and you will have bees in your yard that must have treatment to survive. They have not survived the varroa mite and meanwhile the varroa mite who survives the treatment gets stronger and stronger. Tom Seeley says our bees need to be resistant to the varroa mite. Your bees from those commercial sources are not resistant to the varroa mite. They might last through one season, but they are highly likely to die the second year.

It's easy to say that it requires experience to be a treatment-free beekeeper, but what does that mean? Does that require you to start with bees from a commercial source who require treatment and then, when you decide to go treatment free, to kill all of your hives? That idea feels awful to me.

So how does one start out as a treatment free beekeeper? I have several thoughts:

1. Spend at least your first year as a beekeeper with no bees.

  •  Get a jacket, a veil, and a hive tool.
  •  Find someone in your area who is keeping treatment free bees and ask if they will be your mentor.
  •  Accompany them as they inspect their hives. Help them with their work as a beekeeper.
  •  Make a friend of that person and learn as much as you can about beekeeping from them.

2. The next year of your beekeeping experience (or longer if you need it), learn to set swarm traps.

  •  Then get on your bee club's swarm call list so that you can get a swarm or two.
  •  Chances are higher with a swarm that the bees from a tree or from the walls of a house. They may also be from a treating beekeeper's hive which means they are less likely to survive.
  •  You can hive them, practice on them, not treat them, and if they live through the winter, split them in the spring.
  •  Better yet, get two swarms! It's always better to start with two hives.

3. If you have a swarm hive that looks weak in midsummer, go to your treatment free mentor and ask him/her if you could have a frame of brood and eggs from one of his/her survivor hives.

  •  Kill the queen in your swarm hive.
  •  Wait five days (to make sure there are no available eggs from the old queen).
  •  Then get the brood frame from your mentor and allow your bees to make a queen from a survivor frame and you are in business.

Midsummer splits can be made successfully, so your new queen should get mated. And the new bees from the survivor queen should have inherited her survivor traits.

4. If you don't get a swarm, see if you can convince your treatment free beekeeper who you have helped over the last year or two to make you a nuc from her/his survivor hives.

5. Once you have a survivor hive going, give up your dreams of a bountiful honey crop for that year, and split, split, split in the spring to make sure you now have several hives of survivor bees.

6. Also if you get a swarm and don't know where it came from, then plan to requeen any swarm with a frame of brood and eggs from a survivor hive. The only swarm I got this year issued from the attic of the house across the street from where the swarm landed. So I had faith that they would be survivors. I do always ask if the person asking for the swarm to be collected knows where the swarm originated.

7. When it is time for honey harvest, err on the conservative side.

  • Leave the honey for the bees. How can they survive if you take all of their stores?
  • And don't tell me that you feed them to make up for it. Feeding sugar syrup doesn't come close to the nutrients provided in their own honey.
  • Leave plenty of honey for your hives' survival.

That is my philosophy for all of my hives: never take so much honey that the bees can't make it through the winter using their own supplies. Feeding the bees in spring is confusing and makes them build up before the nectar source is available to support them. If you leave them honey, they know what to do and when to build up their population.

8. If a hive dies, so be it. It's sad to lose bees, but I'd rather lose bees that can't live without my putting poison in the hives than keep them alive artificially.

And despite what all the guilt-inducing conference speakers may say, bees are NOT our pets. Hold to your values and avoid the poison.

9. Finally - keep learning and discerning. Don't believe every speaker you hear. Don't do something to your hives without making a studied conscious decision. Be a good beekeeper and the best one you know how to be.

10. For the record, here is my current roster of hives:
  • My hives at the elementary school haven't been treated in seven years. We've made several splits from those two hives this year. 
  • My little swarm hive from last March at the railroad yard is going gangbusters this year and I have made a split from it. The rail yard is thirty acres and I believe they came from a building or a tree. But if they die at the end of this, their second season, so be it.
  • My top bar hive holds a swarm that issued from a girl's hive which hadn't been opened or treated in four years. She saw the swarm leave the hive and land about twenty feet away in her yard. I collected it and it is doing well again this year. It is in my top bar so I didn't split it but will next year in its third year at my house (its seventh year of survival). 
  • And I have a survivor hive from a swarm that I collected in my neighborhood six years ago that is rocking along. I took one box of honey from it last year and may again this year. It never looks like a rock-em, sock-em hive, but every spring it has a healthy awakening.
  • I have several splits that are made from the above hives and hopefully will be in full sized hive boxes before winter.
It's not easy to start out as a treatment-free beekeeper, but once you have survivor hives going, you will feel great about your bees, your honey, and your contribution to a healthier environment for both bees and people.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

A Spunky Little Swarm

On May 2, 2018, I got a swarm call to go to the Inman Rail Yard off of Marietta Street in Atlanta. I had no idea Atlanta had such a large train yard. Atlanta did start as Terminus, rather than Atlanta because of the many rail lines coming into the city. The rail yard is HUGE, covering many acres of land - I believe they said thirty acres.

The men at the rail yard were quite concerned and wanted to save this swarm of bees, so I gathered my swarm kit and drove very carefully into the rail yard. To get to the swarm, I had to cross track after track, each labeled with a large sign that said: DANGER, TRAIN DOES NOT STOP. 

As I waited to enter the monitored area, I watched the huge cargo trains go by my car:

Here's the fierce swarm I was summoned to rescue:

I shook this simple swarm into my box on the white sheet, covered it with a ventilated hive top, and waited a while to allow all the bees to join their sisters and the queen.

And to give you perspective on this Charlie Brown Christmas tree, here's how the tree looked post-swarm removal:

I imagine this swarm is from a feral hive because there are no obvious places for a backyard beekeeper to be within the thirty acres so I had high hopes of their survival. But I captured them on May 2 and in Atlanta, the nectar flow is almost over at that point. In Atlanta, a swarm in May is not worth a load of hay! 

I installed them in a hive at the community garden in my neighborhood. Because they were installed at the end of the nectar flow, they didn't have enough time to build up their hive and gather nectar for the cold months. Going into winter, they felt very light to me so I gave them two feedings of bee tea in a rapid feeder.

We've had a string of very cold days and now we are experiencing several February days that are like summer. Today the high is predicted to be 78.

I walked up to the garden yesterday to see if the bees are flying and indeed, the spunky little Charlie Brown swarm is flying and they have survived the cold.

When I opened the hive, I found the bees exploring the feeder in hopes that it would be tea time. So today I am going to pour just one quart of feed into the feeder to top off their stores, as it were. I don't want to feed them heavily because then the bees think there's a nectar flow on and start building up brood before there really is anything for them to forage.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Mary Oliver, poet and naturalist, has died

Mary Oliver loved nature and wrote about many parts of it. I've mentioned her poems about bees before, but since she died on January 17, 2019, last week, I want to note here about her contribution to the appreciation of bees. I love her poems about the bees because they are so close to how it is to be among the bees. Here's one I don't think I've posted before called "Hum."


What is this dark hum among the roses?
The bees have gone simple, sipping,
that’s all. What did you expect? Sophistication?
They’re small creatures and they are
filling their bodies with sweetness, how could they not
moan in happiness? The little
worker bee lives, I have read, about three weeks.
Is that long? Long enough, I suppose, to understand
that life is a blessing. I have found them-haven’t you?—
stopped in the very cups of the flowers, their wings
a little tattered-so much flying about, to the hive,
then out into the world, then back, and perhaps dancing,
should the task be to be a scout-sweet, dancing bee.
I think there isn’t anything in this world I don’t
admire. If there is, I don’t know what it is. I
haven’t met it yet. Nor expect to. The bee is small,
and since I wear glasses, so I can see the traffic and
read books, I have to
take them off and bend close to study and
understand what is happening. It’s not hard, it’s in fact
as instructive as anything I have ever studied. Plus, too,
it’s love almost too fierce to endure, the bee
nuzzling like that into the blouse
of the rose. And the fragrance, and the honey, and of course
the sun, the purely pure sun, shining, all the while, over
all of us.
I've posted other poems of hers here, here and here.
The natural world has lost a beautiful voice with her death.

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