Summer Solstice Beekeeping

I am seeking some input here from beekeeper or just smart/reasonable people. I am not a beekeeper. I don’t know much about bees. As a homesteader, bees are my least section of expertise and I am TERRIFIED of them. However, I also know how important they are and I LOVE honey. So today I went to my mothers church, the Unitarian Universalists, for a seminar on beekeeping (and some less practical bee-y stuff) for the Summer Solstice.

Let me get this out of the way now. If you don’t wanna read about my faith/spiritual issues, please skip ahead.
I’m not Christian or even strongly religious in any way. I am more spiritual, and I keep my beliefs rather private. I don’t like telling people about them. I haven’t even clearly defined them in words, per say, but suffice to say they focus on giving back to that which we take from to aid a cycle and balance of growth and destruction… Be it with people, animals or the earth itself. Also a lot of energy stuff and a goddess is in there somewhere. Yeah, it’s vague. I realized why I never talk about it when I went there and was listening to these (mostly older ladies) people babbling about energy and healing and spiritualism and the Circle and all that…

They sounded NUTS. Completely batty!
When I talk about these things I sound nuts too. And I know it.

Let’s be frank here. You can’t say something like “I love the way the energy flows in the late winter, the way it seeps up through the Mother Earth into my soul! It’s like the spirits of the earth letting us know ‘spring is on it’s way!'” or “My Goddess came to me in a dream one night, when I discovered my true path.” without sounding a little bit off your rocker. Even if you believe it with your whole heart. And when you get this bunch of ladies together babbling something about how bee products have such great healing potential, because the bees collect their resources from the most powerful energy gathering points in the plant; the sexual organs… Well… I felt like the whole room should be in padded cells.

I suppose I should note I feel much the same way when I walk into any organized religious meeting. Especially Christian churches. There are more contradictions in the bible than, well, anything? No, really, google “more contradictions” or “more contradictions than”. I just did so to try to find something that had more contradictions than the bible since I couldn’t think of one, and the whole page both times was about bible contradictions. Religions are crazy! At least I know it unquestionably with mine, I suppose. It keeps me honest.

Back to bees now, all the cray cray aside, the beekeepers in question talked about bees, the uses of the products, where each product comes from in the hive and it’s uses, bee allergies, using bee stings as a medicinal treatment and a dozen other things. It was really interesting, although I feel like some of it was that crazy shining through. I only believe something has medicinal properties if it’s proven to me with facts and scientific testing.

For quite some time I have been pondering the best way to keep bees and researched hives high and low! You know that “bee hive shape”? The one that’s woven cones upside down that people associate with the hive? That’s called a skep and was the first ever bee hive. The skep is possibly the worst way to keep bees. You can’t examine the hive for pests and extraction generally destroys the whole hive. Bad for the bees, especially since honey bees are now endangered. Skeps could also be built with a sort of detachable top, that allowed the bees to keep living when they removed the top. Bees build their comb downward, and they lay eggs in the “newest” comb. This was the first innovation in beekeeping; not killing the whole hive. Every unit in the brood is essential to keep it working. Yes, drones and workers can be replaced but a certain amount of the comb must be left for the queen and her brood or the whole hive is kaput. So keeping that in tact is important. The other problem with the skep was the amount of honey you get as opposed to the amount of wax is pretty low. Skeps have been banned in most of the US.

So somewhere down the line they invented the modern beehive, the Langstroth. This is basically a bunch of boxes, with frames that you can remove individually, that usually have PRE-FORMED wax comb. The boxes lower down are the brood boxes, and the higher up boxes have honey. Somewhere in the middle there is often a “queen excluder” which is just a wire mesh big enough for workers to go through but not the queen. This keeps baby larvae bees out of your honey cells. When you go to harvest the honey there’s no risk of loosing any bees (baby or not) and then you use some expensive equipment to cut just the caps off of the honey comb, letting the honey drip out. The bees will quickly refill the used comb with more honey, instead of having to build whole new comb. There’s a lot of honey and little risk to this, but it is expensive and the big boxes (2’X2’X18″) FILLED with honey are heavy and hard to deal with.

There’s another type of hive called a Top Bar beehive, and typically these are just one layer. They are horizontal rather than vertical and have no frames at all. Instead they just have a little bar that goes across the top, and the bees simply build all their own comb off of these bars. Now, because they build all their own comb they are more resistant to pests that live in the brood comb. In preformed comb there’s enough room for whole families of pests to move in, and in the comb they make for themselves there’s only the room for the brood. The downside is when you go to harvest the honey you have to harvest the comb with it. You just chop it out with a kitchen knife. Then the bees have to build a whole new comb before they can make more honey. Also, because the queen has access to the whole box, she may lay her brood everywhere willy-nilly and you may end up pulling a skep and destroying a lot of the hive when you harvest.

A few top-bar designs also have “boxes” for the comb to grow down into, to segregate the queen and her brood… But most don’t. And that brings up heavy cumbersome boxes again.

I don’t want to be harvesting lots and lots of comb. Sometimes it might be nice if I want to make some candles, but I am more interested in the honey. At the same time I am only looking for a few jars each year. I go through less than a half-pint of honey every year. If I had better access to natural honey I might use more, but I can’t see it going TOO crazy. Still less than a pint a year, and maybe a few half-pints to share at Christmas or store away, and if possible and leftovers to sell… Something not too crazy. I know people who eat WAY more than that in a year.

I find myself frustrated because (online at least) beekeepers seem to be in two ballparks; For the Bees and For the Money. Why on EARTH can’t there be something in between? I would like to extract enough honey each year to meet my needs, with ease of use. But I would also like no risk to the brood in my hive and a more natural solution if possible.

Is there a way, in a horizontal top bar beehive, to exclude the queen to one area? How to TBH owners avoid the brood during extraction? What IS the difference between a Langstroth harvest and a Top Bar harvest in lbs of honey? If I use a top bar, how much does it REALLY stress the bees to be making new wax all the time?

If any beekeepers, especially in colder climates, could chime in, I’d appreciate it… Because I just seem to be at a loss for information.

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9 thoughts on “Summer Solstice Beekeeping

  1. I am a novice beekeeper so take what I say for what it is worth, which isn’t much. I have one beehive, if I could have gotten another package of bees this year I would have started another. That being said, I am in bees for honey for me and my family, gifts for friends, and if it happens, maybe sell a little. You could do a langstroth hive no problem. From what you are describing for your uses, instead of using deep or even medium frames you could use shallows. These would be much easier to lift and carry. Any honey that you aren’t going to use, leave for the bees to have for the winter or as start up fuel for the spring. Honey processing equipment is expensive, the farm we buy our stuff from will rent you the equipment or process your frames for you, so you should look into finding someone like that around you. There are also beekeepers that are looking for places to put hives and will “rent” the space from you. You provide the space, they “pay” you in an agreed amount of honey. Good luck!

    • My hive will be on top of my garage. It’s the best spot for it, but it’s really hard to haul things around up there. REALLY hard. There’s no door up there, I will have to use a ladder. And with a top-bar hive you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment (Buckets that I can lower from the roof with ropes, knives and cheesecloth), but you get a lot of wax by-product. I really want to use a top-bar hive for this reason, but I don’t know how much stress the removal of the wax ACTUALLY puts on the bees, and if I do a top bar will I have the honey amounts I want. I also have no idea how one would exclude the queen (naturally or not).

      Do you know how many lbs of honey your one Langstroth hives gives in a year?

      • From what I understand it really depends on the year. Last year was a terrible year for bees and my colony didn’t make it. This year so far seems great. Two years ago, the guy I bought my stuff from said he was getting at least 40lbs of honey from every hive, far more from some. Last year, like me, none from some. Just depends.

        Could you build an exterior staircase to get whatever you want to the roof of your garage? Although that adds another expense.

        • Last year was a terrible year for everything. 40lbs of honey is WAY more than I need from a hive, so if that were cut down due to a top bar I would be fine with it.
          I could not. I’m in a suburb and we have rules against things like that. (But not against bees!) I could add a door from one wall of my house onto the roof, but that requires cutting into the wall of my house. I’m not spending $3000+ on a renovation that big for some bees. I’ll buy the expensive local honey instead.

  2. I attended bee association meetings some years ago. I personally disagree with the use of langstroth hives. These hives are more for commercial purposes and with that, like so many other things in this world come problems, bee aliments, etc. Although my first hive was a langstroth it was not what I wanted and so I lost my bees to the wax moth due to my refusal of using smoke and getting stung. At the asso. meeting one beekeeper brought in a top bar hive. After the talk I decided that was the hive I wanted. I now have a top bar I built myself. Not to dimensions suggested and so I can not remove bars for inspection, may or may not be due to the dimensions. The bees choose to build comb at a 45 degree angle across bars. I ordered a package of bees this year and they are very active. The top bar is nearly full of comb, brood and or honey, and lots of drone. I put in an observation window so I could see inside. Although the silicone I used did not hold and the plexiglass fell inside. I fastened it outside and the bees have changed adding on to the space and attaching to the plexiglass. Another problem is the screen floor. They somehow have found a spot to get down below screen and bottom trap door. They got pissed at me the other day trying to gently sweep them out, one stung my hand. Even with these problems I do not regret my choice as many langstroth beekeepers probably don’t regret their choice either. For me it is a personal choice I made. I would love a little honey for myself at some point but it is not my top priority. You might try watching u-tube about top bar hives and read The Barefoot Beekeeper. If you have a specific question I can help with don’t hesitate to email me at billiescauldron@gmail.com. Its all a personal choice and learning experience.

  3. I just wanted to note, lest you think you are alone in this, that your beliefs seem very similar to mine, also similarly undefined, and similarly untalked about.
    And also I agree, religions are crazy, the inherent contradiction of organized religions are comical, and having to hear about christian religions makes me want to laugh uncontrollably 😀

  4. Just a few thoughts … I wanted to try a top bar hive to start out, but my Grandfather is my mentor. He knows Langstroth, therefore I use Langstroth. Yes, they are very heavy when full of honey, but the suggestion of using short supers is a good one and should help.

    Also, we tried a queen excluder and frankly it was a waste of money and time. Now I just use the screens to dry herbs. The queens so far have stayed inside the bottom 2 brood boxes with no problems. We do use a bee escape when its time to harvest honey so we don’t have to worry about chasing them out of there.

    As far as the smoke goes, I’m not sure why folks are so against it. We use cotton or just leaves and pine needles. We use it sparingly and it distracts the bees enough to allow us to get into the hive without getting them all riled up.

    Also, we’re up north and cold can definitely be a problem around here. One lesson we learned is to have good air flow through the hive in the winter and not to stack too many boxes on – less area for them to keep warm.

    Finally, please don’t be terrified of honey bees – yellow jackets, wasps, hornets, be afraid very afraid, but honey bees only sting once, then they die. It’s not in their best interests, and they are very deliberate little creatures. They sting if they or their hive is threatened. If you are scared, you may move too quickly or be sending out crazy pheromones, and they’ll feel threatened – so fear can actually be a problem in itself. Humans and honey bees have been working together for thousands of years. European honey bees are far more docile than a lot of people realize.

    I hope you decide to try beekeeping, whichever method you choose. You’ll know you’re not just keeping bees for the honey when you’re standing below a blossoming apple tree that’s is buzzing so loud you’d think it was about to fly away. Bees make fantastic neighbors! Good luck.

  5. Hi there. I’m in Colorado (which DEFINITELY gets cold in Winter) and have had bees in a TBH for a few years, on and off. Currently off, as I’ve become allergic to bee stings, but I’m about to undergo venom immunotherapy, as I miss beekeeping horribly. Incidentally, I wasn’t even working with my bees when I got stung. Maybe the bee that stung me thought my black shirt made me look like a bear. I don’t know why she felt threatened. So I understand your fear. But if you’re not allergic, there’s nothing to worry about. Stings really don’t hurt that much at all.

    With a properly sized beehive (regardless of design), you won’t need to exclude the queen to one area. The bees will naturally maintain the brood nest in one area, and put the surplus honey in another. Our TBH is on the smaller side, and the broodnest of a healthy colony could fill it front to back. But we have always supered our hive, so we manage our bees in a way that works for us. The integrity of the broodnest goes relatively undisturbed, and the bees put honey in a super that is harvestable. We use a Warré-sized box to super, and one of these yields about 25lbs of honey, which is slightly less than a shallow Langstroth super.

    I understand your rooftop situation isn’t conducive to supering, though. Let’s say you have a TBH with room for 24 top-bars. The first 20 are brood and only 4 are pure honey. (That’s not a good ratio, BTW.) You would have to single-comb harvest repeatedly in order to give the colony a place to store more honey without backfilling the broodnest. (Lack of room in the broodnest is a key factor in swarming.) As the season winds down, the broodnest does shrink and there will be some backfilling, but during the active honey-gathering season, you will need to harvest weekly-ish. I tend to store whole combs on their top-bars in the freezer. Sometimes the bees need the honey back (say there’s a drought or dearth or some other reason they’re short on food).

    As far as making bees make new wax all the time, it’s not ALL the time. Brood combs get reused for several years, so it’s only the honeycombs you harvest that they need to replace. When there is a strong nectar flow, it stimulates their wax-producing glands. It’s the natural order of things. I have read that sometimes Langstroth-style beekeepers will find an excess of wax flakes on the floor of the hive. When the bees are given ready-drawn comb, they still produce wax. It just gets wasted.

    I hope I’ve been helpful. I’m looking forward to exploring your blog some more, and then reading in the near future that you’ve become a beekeeper. Best of luck!

    • Ah, my fear of bees is terribly irrational and deep seeded from one of those Freudian childhood issues that betrays ones trust for life as it were. It’s very stereotypical, but as a result bees terrify me the way some people are scared of snakes or spiders and flip out and scream and jump around waving their arms about like a little girl. That’s me, only with bees (and way more so with hornets and wasps, mind). It’s irrational. I’m working on it.

      Thanks so much for the advice! I really do appreciate the info you’ve given me!

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