Sunday, April 12, 2015

What's all the Buzz?

Not that I don't have enough hobbies like fishing, hunting, trapping, gardening, and raising chickens, but I've been really interested in honey this past year, so I decided to get into keeping my own bees.

I just can't say enough good things about honey. We actually evolved as a species eating honey, but now we miss out on the full spectrum of a close relationship with the bees. Not only is the honey healthful, but also the wax comb, the pollen, and the propolis (a waxy substance bees make to seal holes). And getting stung by bees also has its share of health benefits as bee venom is shown to lower blood glucose and be of use in arthritis, bursitis, and tendinitis.

This post isn't meant to be a dissertation on honey, but a starter guide to beekeeping.

 There are hundreds and hundreds of beekeeping books, and it seems every beekeeper has his own set of "hard and fast" rules for handling bees.  Me, I like simple.  Most bee books have you endlessly messing around with your bees, but they also tell you that every time you open your hive, you stress your bees.  So my goal is simple and stress-free bees.

Over Winter, I bought a starter beekeeping kit for around $200 on Amazon. I also bought Beekeeping for Dummies, a really awesome book on the low-down for keeping bees.  After reading the book, I realized I'd need more hive pieces, so I ordered a "honey super" ($69) and another "hive body" ($79) to go with the starter kit.

If you go the Amazon route, the starter kit, hive body, and honey super I linked above are all one needs to get a batch of honey.  Collecting the honey will require more expenses, but since that won't happen until later in the summer, I figured I wait and watch Craigslist for honey extraction tools and equipment.

I'm also finding now that "Beekeeping Supplies" is big business!  There's no end of websites willing to sell you all you need to be the "hippest" beekeeper on the block.  But, as a tightwad, I don't buy everything I see and find that most of these nifty devices can be made for next to nothing.

The Hive Setup

Here is the "starter kit." I read it was a good idea to put everything together and place it outdoors to breathe a little and get rid of any weird smells.

A typical "Langstroth" hive

This hive consists of two "hive bodies." The hive bodies are where the bees will live and raise baby bees. Inside the hive body are 10 "frames" where preformed honeycomb "foundation" hangs and gives the bees somewhere to start building their combs on. These are called Langstroth hives, to be precise.

The starter kit only comes with one hive body, but everything I have read says you'll want two.  This gives the bees a great big place to call home and a better ability to rear many healthy worker bees for pollen and nectar collection.

Once the bees fill the two hive bodies with nest combs, you can install one or more "honey supers." The honey super is just a hive body, but they come in smaller sizes so they are easier to handle. You could use a third hive body as a honey super, but it could weigh nearly 80 pounds when full!  A shallow honey super will hold about 40 pounds of honey. 

You'll want the hive off the ground to keep mice and water out. Place in an out-of-the-way spot that gets good morning sun. Mine is situated near a treeline and surrounded by wild roses. The only real concern I have is that a bear might try to get some honey, but there's not much I can do to keep a bear out if he wants in.

Bee Installation

You'll need to order your bees well in advance and be prepared to get started in March or April in most parts of the country.  There's still time if anyone wants to try this year!

I received my package of bees today.  I ordered them from a local beekeeper who gets a big shipment every year and drives around the state in a beat-up old Ford van (with BKEEPR plates!) delivering them when they come in.

Van full of bees

 My order was for "one package" of bees. I think down in America proper, these packages sell for $50, but to get them to Fairbanks, Alaska costs around $150.  Here's my package, sitting in the passenger seat of my truck.

3 pound bee package (approx 9000 bees)
Inside this really cool cage is a can full of sugar syrup with a feeding hole and a smaller cage containing a pregnant queen bee. The bees all cluster around the queen as she emits crazy pheromones that signal "protect me" as they travel in this stressful situation.  The bees were exremely docile and emitted a very peaceful vibration as they tended to their queen.

To transfer the bees to the hive body, the default method is to remove the syrup and the queen (easy to do) and then slam the box hard against the ground so that all of the bees are unlodged and fall in a heap.  Then the cage is inverted and the bees shaken and dumped into the hive.

I read another method where the entire cage is simply set into the hive body with a few frames removed so that the bees will simply exit on their own.  I took that route.

The queen's little cage is easily removed from the top of the cage, the queen is held captive in this cage with a small cork. You simply remove the cork and put the queen cage inside the hive where she will wander out when she's ready.

Here's what it all looks like:

Bee package inside hive body, syrup can on top of frames, queen cage hanging between frames
 You see how relaxed the bees are. It was fairly chilly, about 45 degrees. The queen is hanging in her cage between two of the frames.  After 8 hours, the scene looked like this:

Bees exiting cage nice and peacefully
 I checked the queen cage and she was no longer there, I assume she is somewhere in the mass of bees being kept warm by her 9000 servants.

The baggies are filled with sugar water for the bees to eat until there are flowers around. Normally they'd be eating the honey they stored the year before, but as this is a brand-new hive, they will have to settle for sugar...this is a standard beekeeping method.  The baggies are a cheap alternative to feeders that you can buy from beekeeping supply stores.  Simply fill the bag with sugar, add some water and cut a slit in the side.  The bees found it right away, but here is the cool thing...they didn't go crazy and swarm all over the bags of sugar.  Instead the bees all lined up along the top of a frame and a handful of bees started going back and forth from the sugar feeding the rest of the bees!  I was not expecting that.  Can you see?

The "feeding line"
If you look closely, you can see that the bees up top are longer and pointed. The bees down below waiting to be fed are short and round. I believe this is "drone" bees (all male) feeding "worker" bees (all sterile females) in a very symbiotic fashion. Some of these bees will become "nurse" bees whose only job in to tend to and feed baby bees, others guards, and others will clean the hive.  

Well, that's it for today.  Tomorrow I need to get the shipping cage out of the hive body and put all the frames in place. Once the bees get a belly full of sugar they will start building wax comb.  I'm told that as soon as the first cell in the comb is complete, the queen will be there to lay an egg.  Soon she can lay up to 1000 eggs per day! 

This first year, the bees will be busy building up wax for their nest and honey storage, but next year the hive will be well-established and the bees can just get to work making honey and raising babies.

I'd rate this hobby an "8" out of 10 for the initial complication and a "5" out of 10 for what I had to do today.  Timing is probably the biggest factor in getting things right. Most places have beekeeping clubs and co-ops where you can learn all about keeping bees where you live, or just stop by a beekeepers house, they are some of the friendliest people I have ever met!

Fun Fact of the Day

All these bees you see will be dead in about 5 weeks, replaced by newly hatched bees. The eggs take exactly 21 days to hatch, the same exact time it takes for a chicken egg to hatch. 

Any other beekeepers out there, or wanna-bee beekeepers?


  1. Tim, do you have to protect them just now against cold snaps? And didn't you tell me bees in Alaska are seen as "annual crops"? Have you decided to try to overwinter them? What sorts of plants do you expect them to forage on?

    1. The problem is this is so time consuming! Just yesterday, I must have spent 3 hours sitting and watching them come and go, exploring their new home, reading books and blogs about bees, and thinking about all the little things that are going on in the hive.

      Today, I need to name them all. Then do it again in 3 weeks as the babies hatch.

      Just kidding, this is a way cool hobby!

      I guess there is no end of pollen and nectar here from May-Oct. Wildflowers of every type and also the trees produce prodigious amounts of pollen.

      Most here seem to raise them as 'annuals' killing them each fall to prevent the inevitable starvation and slow death they may undergo. However, I've heard other beekeepers say that with some good insulation and supplemental feed, that bees can survive our long, harsh Winter. My plan is to try to over-winter them and see how it goes.

    2. Oh, and for the time being they can handle our temperatures easily. Even down to well below freezing at night. They kind of go dormant, but are well-adapted to surviving cold-snaps thanks to their hive/swarm instincts. Apparently they can control their temperature very well.

    3. Tim, shouldn't you name the bee queen, at least?

    4. Hmm. Well in light of the 'bee barf' comment, "GabKad" is crossed off the list.

  2. Here in Canada, I started my package 3 weeks ago. It was too soon, they all died. Now I'm building an observation hive based on the Jackson Horizontal Hive design; the JHH worked well for me when I had one 7 years ago. The bees loved it. The JHH design's claim to fame is that it tamed the killer African bees. Works well for other types of honeybee too.

    1. Really? What did them in? Were you feeding them? What were the temps like?

  3. Is Manuka honey really worth it? I just bought some and it's good but real pricey.

    1. Just looked, you are right! Spendy.

      Is it good? How does it taste? I think it is possibly overrated, but if I lived where it was made I would eat all I could. Manuka honey supposedly has some medicinal qualities, as from Wikipedia:

      "A 2008 Cochrane Review found that honey may help improve superficial burns compared to some types of standard dressing, but there was insufficient evidence from studies, very few of which were on mānuka honey, to be conclusive, and the use of honey for leg ulcers provided no benefit. The review found that there was insufficient evidence for any benefit in other types of chronic wounds, as all of the data came from a single centre of research, and that "data from trials of higher quality found honey had no significant effect on healing rates or had significantly slower rates of healing".[8] Methylglyoxal is the major antibacterial component of mānuka honey.[9] In vitro studies indicate methylglyoxal is an effective antimicrobial agent against forms of MRSA,[10][11] although studies have not been done in humans.[8][12]

      Mānuka honey, alongside other antibacterial products, does not reduce the risk of infection following treatment for ingrown toenails.[13]"

      But, as I said, possibly overrated and also possibly counterfeit. Personally, I think the best honey is one that is local and raw. Find a local beekeeper and ask questions. Look for honey that is as unprocessed as possible and try to get some honeycomb wax and pollen. The wax is edible and has healthy properties as well.

    2. We use our local honey for all kinds of injuries and it never fails us. Heating with wood and working outdoors means we get a lot of splinters and scrapes. It not only it seems to help draw out splinters, it has healed some pretty nasty looking infections from splinters that went un-noticed. I once had a really bad burn on my hand that healed without scarring thanks to honey as well.

      So yeah, local honey, like Tim says. Good for first aid, tasty too - would you lick polysporin off your fingers after dressing a wound? Blech.

      Support your local beekeeper!

    3. Thanks for the reply, Tim.

      It's good but is very unique. It almost has an earthy flavor to it. Not as sweet and more creamy than regular raw honey. Don't think I'm going to buy it again and I'll stick with my regular raw honey. I do recommend the splurge to try it though.

    4. If it's just taste your after, you might want to give Beechwood honey a try. It is cheaper than Manuka and shares some similarities.

      That being said, I totally agree with Tim and Wild Cucumber about preferring local honey and have found some varieties that taste even better. Trying different kinds of honey is part of the fun!


    5. I'm interested in what way you find it divine? Taste or properties. I wanted to try that variety along with Basswood this year. The fragrance of the Linden blossoms are amazing and they perfume my neighborhood when in bloom. I spent weeks trying to find the flower that was producing the fragrance. Didn't find it until I decided to look up into the trees and not at the flowers on the ground. The bees seem to really like it,


    6. I've only ever had one spoonful from a jar that was jealously guarded by a friend :-) So I'm saying taste. Linden tea is worth getting to know as well. Once I even had a tiny bottle of the perfume ... ahh .. but I digress.

  4. I had bees for five years now. You're right about spending so much time just watching them. Reminds me of my fish tank when I was a kid. One thing you will learn is that there are no real hard rules. One website will recommend feeding in spring and late fall, others will recommend no feeding at all. You pretty much have to figure out what to look for in your hive and what is best for your region. What works in Georgia, might not work in Pennsylvania or Alaska. I learn something new all the time. I've also found that one of the best buys I've made is an old copy of Langstroth's "On The Hive & Honey Bee". The book is 150 years old, but the information within it is timeless.

    I also have an electric fence around my bee yard. It helps keep unwanted critters out of your hives. Good luck with your bees!


  5. Tim, Since trehalose is known to improve the chances for bees and other critters to survive cold/heat/dryness/oxidative stress/inflammation and other stressors, and even help some critters like tardigrades achieve biological immortality (, maybe it (and maybe also glycerol or sorbitol) might help the bees survive the winter? While likely not economical, it would be an interesting scientific experiment.


    Trehalose extends longevity in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans
    "Trehalose is a disaccharide of glucose found in diverse organisms and is suggested to act as a stress protectant against heat, cold, desiccation, anoxia, and oxidation."
    "When tardigrades (water bears) dry out, the glucose in their bodies changes to trehalose when they enter a state called cryptobiosis — a state wherein they appear dead. However, when they receive water, they revive and return to their metabolic state. It is also thought that the reason the larvae of sleeping chironomid (Polypedilum vanderplanki) and artemia (sea monkeys, brine shrimp) are able to withstand dehydration is because they store trehalose within their cells."

    Trehalose treatment suppresses inflammation, oxidative stress, and vasospasm induced by experimental subarachnoid hemorrhage

    "Physiologically, many insects prepare for winter weather by producing "antifreeze" compounds (such as glycerol, sorbitol, or trehalose) in their hemolymph and body tissues. High concentrations of these compounds can increase cold-tolerance by lowering the freezing point of body fluids and preventing the formation of ice crystals that would cause internal injury."

    Considerations in Selecting Sugars for Feeding to Honey Bees

    - PaleoPhil

    1. I'm seeing the problem already with trehalose...too expensive! The absolute best thing to feed bees when they need supplemental food would be raw honey, but I think trehalose holds promise over white sugar.

      My bees have already gone through 3 pounds of white sugar in two days, so if I need to feed them for 3 weeks, that's a lot of money for trehalose at $10 a pound.

      I do intend to get a pound of trehalose and offer it side-by-side with white sugar and see if the show a marked preference. If so, I'll look into a bulk buy somewhere.

    2. There is some trehalose in yeasts...

  6. Doing a Google search on trehalose I found this on the Gargill Foods site:

    Specialty sweetener trehalose
    Trehalose is an ideal ingredient for generating exciting market possibilities for your latest product concepts and also for adding new life to existing food and beverage brands. Trehalose, a diglucose sugar found in nature, confers to certain plant and animal cells the ability to survive dehydration for decades and to restore activity soon after rehydration. This observation has led to the use of trehalose as excipient during freeze drying of a variety of products in the pharmaceutical industry and as an ingredient for dried, baked and processed food, as well as a non-toxic cryoprotectant of vaccines and organs for surgical transplants.
    It is especially well suited for sweetening nutritional drinks and other energy products used by consumers as part of their daily eating habits. As a multi-functional sugar with nearly half the sweetness of sucrose, trehalose will strongly improve the taste, texture and appeal of your foods and beverages. Trehalose can bring out the best in your products and your processes, enhancing functionality and improving stability in several key ways.

    The picture is of some Magnums !!

    So food manufacturers have cottoned onto trehalose.

    Jo tB

  7. honey is the only food that makes me vomit; even raw manuka honey!

    1. Maybe you are 'allergic' to bee barf. ;)

    2. Please explain.

      Does it take a while or does the taste of honey make you gag? How about the smell? Is this a learned response? I once ate some spoiled pickled herring when I was about 10, to this day the smell makes me gag. I tried eating a piece a couple years ago and nearly puked.

  8. Awesome post, Tim. My wife and I have been interested in this for a while, so it's hugely beneficial to follow along with someone we 'know.' Thanks for all of the resources and tips—looking forward to more!

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. "Tim SteeleApril 14, 2015 at 2:28 PM
    I'm seeing the problem already with trehalose...too expensive!"

    Yup, that's why I say it would be a scientific experiment, rather than an economical one. :)

  11. I've always loved and have been fascinated by bees especially bumblebees. I don't have the time or the money for honeybees but I'm going to build a 'bee hotel' by my garden for solidary bees.


    1. Nicole, excellent. Solitary bees are where it's at. >going to get massacred here< LOL! They mind their own business and don't bother anyone.

    2. I have some issues with honey bees ... I've watched them bully the native bumbles away from flowering plants. Some honey bees *may* also carry disease and mites that are endangering the native bees - yet interestingly, if honey bees go feral, they become better able to resist these things, as they can forage freely. So Tim's bees might just be healthier than those bees that are trucked all over the country, stuck with nothing but mono-crops and given meds to help them survive their diet. Is that the honey bee version of SAD?

    3. I wonder what kinds of differences there are between true wild honey versus cultivated/commercial/farmed honey. Not sure I would be brave enough to collect wild honey and the truth is I rarely even see those hives. Most of the hives I see are from beekeepers.

      I imagine those bees that are trucked around are really just labor for pollinating crops. Any honey collected may just be extra cash to the beekeeper. That is a different kind of "sad". I think it's great how many people are really taking an interest in beekeeping and that will hopefully benefit wild bees in the long run.

    4. We see just one or two honeybees around our gardens in the summer, mostly bumblebees and this little, tiny bees, not sure what they are...they fly real fast, but seem to like flowers.

      Commercial type honey is probably processed from those giant bee operations that follow the crops. I'm sure they are treated with all kinds of pesticides to reduce mites and whatnot. No telling. And the monocrop deal, yes, I think that is bad news for the bees as well. They need a variety of pollens and nectars to thrive. But, they provide a valuable service of pollinating crops, so I can't say I think it is all evil.

      The mites you hear about, called Verroa mites, have only been a problem for 5-10 years. Apparently they came from Africa or Asia and infected other bees worldwide, now they are a considerable nuisance to beekeepers. If there are too many mites in a colony of bees, the bees will all die.

      I am reading about all kinds of natural treatments, but none are as effective as chemicals. Supposedly, beekeepers treat their hives after honey is collected so they can go into winter with no mites, it's in winter when the colonies collapse, not summer.

      I really am not sure what to make of all this which is why I wanted to try my hand at keeping my own bees.

    5. Tim ever been over to There's a great forum there, really helpful folks. Here's the one for beekeepers:

      Paul Wheaton's the guy who runs the place, he's a good man.

    6. Lookie lookie: solitary bee hotels: How neat is that?

  12. Dear Tim,

    I have been following your resistant starch explorations with great interest and have begun that journey! Thank you for all your research and sharing of your knowledge.

    I wanted to comment on your new beekeeping adventure. My husband has been an organic beekeeper for more that 10 years (hobby level, not commercial). The one piece of advice I can share is to (please) hook up with the organic bee keepers. They know what they are doing, they use centuries-old beekeeping techniques and do not mine their hives like the commercial, for-profit operations. Dee Lusby is a nationally-known organic beekeeper in Arizona; my husband went to the 1st organic beekeepers' conference at her ranch in 2007, I think it was. She is an incredible resource.

    I can get you more info, if you are interested; organic practices protect the health and well-being of the hive, as a "best practice." (Colony Collapse Disorder is, likely, a function of chemical beekeeping practices (with round-up in the environment playing a role); I do know the organic beekeepers have not experienced the high levels of die off seen with beekeepers who utilize chemicals and poor management practices (like trucking the hives on semi tractor about stress, how would you like to orient on home, come home ...only to find home was gone?)

    Organic practices seek to preserve the health of the hive first, and, for example, only harvest honey when the bees want the honey out of their way (in the spring when they made it through winter and now need room for brood and can get out and begin harvesting spring food sources.)

    I am sure my husband would be willing to answer any questions you have as you tend to your bees. Since he was stationed in Alaska in the Coast Guard, years ago, it would probably be a pleasure for him to connect to the north again!

    Happy bees!

    1. Thanks, Laura. My goal is to use no chemicals and raise happy bees. Luckily we have no real agriculture here, so no worry about the bees getting into a sprayed field or orchard. Just flowers and trees. My goal for this first year is to let the bees build lots of wax comb, then next year, I want to start harvesting some comb honey and pollen along with propolis and whatever else I can sneak out of the hive.

      If you don't mind, shoot me an email so I have your address in case I need some expert advice. Thanks for the offer!

      I still am always amazed at how friendly and helpful beekeepers are.

  13. Just in case you were wondering if you should go ahead an add a little heroin to your bee's food intake, here is a study explaining the results if you do: