As we enter our third Summer of beekeeping we reflect on how much we have learned over the course of a couple of years, and also how much we really don’t even know yet. That’s the beauty of beekeeping, just when you start to think you have things figured out, Mother Nature reminds you you are merely human being and will never understand the fullness of her wild. The bees keep us learning, they keep us wondering and they keep us connected to how the world around us works in harmony.
We had been talking about getting bees for several years here on the farm, when friends of ours gifted us a hive as a wedding present. It felt like there was no time like the present to dive into this new hobby, and so it all began! We signed up for a local bee course, a one day teaching held on the outskirts of the city of Edmonton. We learnt so much information, hearing from local beekeepers, college teachers and local farmers like ourselves. We walked away that day with our beekeeping certificate feeling like maybe we could do this. Oh how much we thought we knew then, and so little it actually was.
Perhaps the best advice I can give to those wanting to start a bee journey of their own, find yourself a mentor! I was lucky to have met a local beekeeper while working at the Farm Store in Drayton. He and his family have been keeping bees for over 25 years in the surrounding area. I connected with Wayne over the phone, had him place our order for our bees when he placed his in January. When the bees arrived that Spring, Dan went to pick up our tube package from Wayne and ended up spending the majority of the day at his place. He helped to unload the tubes into the hives and brought home with him some invaluable information. To this day, Wayne is still just a phone call away for any and all of our beekeeping questions. Anyone who keeps bees always seems very eager to share their knowledge and help out those who show an interest in these little pollinators.
Fast forward to this Summer, we are now at a total of four hives here on our property. We started this journey with two Flow Hives, performed one split last Spring that survived the Winter and then had one more split we moved this Spring. Each of our splits are in conventional hive setups and we look forward to being able to compare these with the Flow Hives as the years go on. Which brings me to my second piece of advice for new beekeepers, always start with two hives minimum! Having two hives allows you to compare colonies and activity between the bees, giving you more insight should you ever run into issues. It also provides the opportunity for intervention if needed (ie. If one hive is thriving and the other appears weak, you can take brood frames from one hive and give them to the other to help boost populations). I am sure that having two hives saved us many times as we started out, and allowed us to observe and learn double as each hive performed differently as an individual.
Our first inspections of this season were done in late April as there was still lots of snow left to melt around the hive stands. As a precaution, we supplied each hive with a pollen patty and home made “bee candy” to ensure that they made it through the long melt of Spring and didn’t run out of storages. Bee Candy is basically a fondant, made by boiling down water and sugar to a high temperature and cooling off to form a hard sugar board. This provides a source of food for the bees who aren’t able to get out foraging yet, but may be running low on supplies in the hive.
As soon as the snow was melted and the sun shone warm, we were eager to get into the hives to asses after a long Winter. We are happy to say everyone survived! Our yellow hive (the FlowHive) is our strongest hive and was already in need of a split. So as soon as the weather permitted, we got out our Nuc box and got to work. The Nuc box is a small six frame box about half the size of a regular hive box. Taking a couple frames of capped brood, along with a frame of uncapped eggs, you place these into the Nuc with a frame of honey/pollen. You want to ensure you are also taking with you several frames full of bees but NOT the queen herself. These frames are sealed into the Nuc and moved away from the original hive. This is called a “Walk Away” split, and the hope is that the bees in the Nuc will rear a queen cell from the uncapped eggs. It takes 15 to 16 days for the queen to hatch, then she takes off on her maiden voyage as a virgin queen to mate and return to the hive to start laying eggs. When we inspected the Nuc box and moved them into a regular hive box, there was evidence of queen cells hatching but no eggs yet. We are keeping our fingers crossed she is just out gallivanting. If there should not be a queen in the next several weeks we may have to purchase a queen to introduce into the hive.
Admittedly, this is the first year of beekeeping that we’ve actually opened up each established hive and seen our Queen Bee hard at work. We usually see the tell tale signs that she is there and well: capped brood, open larvae and eggs in the cells. But to actually pick her out of the crowd and lay eyes on her is something else completely! The Queen can be differentiated from the nurse bees surrounding her because she is longer in the body, has shorter wings and her back will be bald. Sometimes, she will also be surrounded by a circle of bees. Just for fun, see if you can pick out the Queen in the next couple pictures, I’ll post the answer at the end!
When Spring finally arrived, the sunshine and warmth woke up the pussywillows and the bees were sure to get to work foraging. Since then, those blooms have come and gone and the bees are now making quick work of all the dandelions. We have pollen pants coming in hot to the hives! POLLEN. These multi-coloured cells are the powerhouse of the hive. Packed full of protein they are a key food source to the honeybee. Referred to as “bee bread”, pollen when mixed with the bee’s saliva enzymes is packed into cells. It is the main food source for nurse bees in the hive who are rearing the young. This is most important in early Spring when the hive is reestablishing their populations after a long Winter.
DID YOU KNOW — Pollen isn’t used for honey production. Nectar collected is where our sweet sticky treat comes from!
When we complete our hive inspections now they are quick and to the point. We want to make sure the queen is laying and still with the hive. We want to make sure the bees are collecting the storages they will need for the next Winter and we want to make sure the populations are within reason and we aren’t seeing swarm cells or any other signs the bees may not be happy in the hive. Below is what I like to call a “Perfect Rainbow Frame” and is exactly what we want to be seeing on the frames in the hive. There is an outer layer of capped honey (the light white colour), followed by a ring of pollen and nectar, nestled on top of the capped brood (solid yellow). The cells you can see at the very bottom of the frame that almost pop out are the drone bee cells. By layering the frames in this way it allows for food storages to be readily available to the nurse bees and brood while also acting as a barrier, providing shields to the elements outside of the hive and insulating the frame to regulate temperature. How amazing are bees when you see the care an detail that goes into their hives?!
Heading into the Summer months now the bees have access to lots of different pollen and nectar sources. The yellow hive still being the busiest has already donned it’s honey super for the season and we can see busy little bees inside, hopefully filling it full of honey. Each year I plant a circle garden around the hive stands, filling it full of wildflowers, borage and sunflowers. There are little sprouts already popping their heads through the soil and I can’t wait to see it bloom in all it’s splendor for the bees!
Me, five years ago, would have been absolutely terrified if a bee got this close to me. I’d have been flailing my arms, screeching and making a run for it. Three years into our beekeeping journey and you can now find me sharing my lemonade with our own honey bees! When I slowed down long enough to learn more about them, I gained a whole new respect for these little pollinators who keep the world going round.
Cheers folks, save the bees!