Thursday, April 26, 2012

Getting down to beesiness Part 2:

After observing our teaching install 2 packages of bees we were feeling pretty well-informed and confident enough to give it a try ourselves. We have one hive at my Aunt's house in Glen Ellyn and our other hive is in Lemont/Downers Grove area on a long-time beekeepers property who is not physically capable of doing beekeeping anymore but would still like hives on his property. I would love to have my hive in my own  backyard but besides being concerned about the safety of my own children, our backyard backs up to a park, nature area and public swimming pool. It's my hope that our bees never swarm, and we'll do our best to prevent it from happening, but we're new at this and there's a lot to learn, mistakes are bound to happen (some already have!) and I certainly don't want to be liable for any bees stings or swarms at the park.
Our plan was to install one package of bees at my Aunt's house that day and install the other package the next day.
This is our first installation and I think it went pretty smoothly:

Here we are preparing the hive for the bees. The beekeepers are my Aunt Patty (yellow boots), Don (good family friend who has made a one year commitment to beekeeping, he won't make any promises after that) and myself. I dress very meticulously before working with the bees, I've already mentioned my goal of 5 stings or less so proper wardrobe management is essential!!

You'll notice our package of bees has an opening at the top plugged with an aluminum can. The can is filled with sugar syrup which nourished the bees on their long truck ride from California to Illinois.  I am spraying the bees with a sugar syrup mixture which wets them down a bit so they are less likely to fly out of the hive as we're dumping them in. The Queen is also in the package but in her own separate little cage, it is very important you take the Queen out of the package before dumping the bees in, remember that, we don't want to give the Queen a concussion. I sprayed these bees pretty good, and I'm confident they approved of my sugar syrup recipe, one of my culinary successes!

As you can see in this shot, the hive is ready for the bees, and I'm still dousing them with sugar syrup (probably a little overkill at this point, you notice Patty and Don impatiently waiting for me to finish). Don removed four of the ten frames to make room for us to dump the package of bees in. The Queen cage is set aside until all the bees are in the hive, the next picture will provide more details on that. Once the bees are in, you need to smooth them out with your hand to make room for the frames, the goal is to squish as few bees as possible! And yes, you read that right, you stick your whole darn hand in the hive and gently smooth the bees out. They are usually too disoriented at this point to sting, no real sense of colony has been established yet so their defense mechanism hasn't really kicked in anyhow. I don't have a picture of that step because our photographers (my Mom and Dad) were too wimpy to get that close.

Here's the Queen in her cage. The picture is sideways and my  two attempts to fix that were unsuccessful so just tilt your head as far to the right as you possibly can... there, is that better? So there she is, our amazing Queen who will increase this hive population from a mere 9,000 bees to approximately 60,000 in just a few short months. Man, will she be busy! She has already gone on her one and only nuptial flight and mated with a bunch of drones (that's what male bees are called and incidentally all they are good for is mating with the Queen, seriously. I'm not making that up) so she has all the "supplies" she needs stored up in that little bee body of hers to produce at least a few years worth of colonies. Some beekeepers re-Queen each year and some also mark their Queens so they know how old they are. There is a universal marking system with a different color you use each year to keep track. We left our Queen un-marked and I think we'll keep her around as long as she's productive. No sense in de-throning the Queen when she's getting the job done! But the minute she starts laying erratic brood patterns, she's gettin' the boot (or finger squash, rather). You can see Patty in the background, dumping the bees.

 Here you can see our package is almost empty. The bees are content in the hive, and yet I continue to spray them with sugar syrup, excessively. Totally not necessary. But come on, I'm a newbie, or how about "newbee"?? Ha ha! Get it?? Not funny?? Okay.  Well now it's time to put the Queen in. There is a small piece of cork at the top of the Queen cage that was removed and I jammed a little piece of marshmallow in the hole to keep her in the cage for a bit longer. This is the "lets get acquainted" period for everyone- the Queen cage is hooked on to one of the frames and put into the hive along with all the worker bees (who are sufficiently drenched at this point, possibly near drowning even) and the worker bees will now take the next few hours/days eating their way through the marshmallow to release the Queen. As the worker bees work at releasing their Queen, they become familiar with the pheromones she gives off, accept her as Queen Bee and begin to distinguish their own true dasein (Bob, that was for you, honey love. Was that the correct use of the term?? ) this is the beginning of the colony - social order in it's most natural and articulate form will soon be observed over the next few days/months, and it's friggin awesome. I just got chills.

 Package 1 installation- SUCCESS!
Stings- 0

Monday, April 23, 2012

Getting down to beesiness Part 1:

So two Thursdays ago we got the call that our bee packages had arrived in the mail and were ready to be picked up! This is probably the most exciting phone call beekeepers ever get, well I guess beekeepers probably don't get very many "beekeeping" related phone calls to begin with, unless it's your neighbor calling to tell you your bees have swarmed in their yard or maybe an attorney calling to tell you you're being sued by your neighbor, and in either instance, those calls are not very exciting. But this call WAS exciting! Plans were made to meet our teacher at his house to pick up our packages and then make the 3 mile drive to his bee yard to watch him install a few of his own packages just to refresh all our memories on what the heck we are supposed to do with a 3lb box of bees and a caged Queen.
Here's a picture of me taking pictures at the bee yard demonstration, our teacher is holding a frame full of bees:
And here are our bees, all 18,000 or them:

Our teacher is planning on make a Powerpoint demonstration of package installation for the next Cook-Dupage Beekeepers Association meeting (yes, I am a card carrying member. Stop it.) and he asked if someone would take pictures throughout the installation process to later be used in his Powerpoint slides. I volunteered to be the "photog" thinking if I had to concentrate on taking pictures at all the notable steps it might help me retain the information better and ensure a smooth package installation for our two hives... What's that saying?? - "the best-laid plans of mice and men..." well yeah, you get it. But more details to come...

Sunday, April 22, 2012


The question I've heard over and over again since announcing my foray into beekeeping is - "WHY???"

A few months ago I heard story on NPR about beekeeping and the important role bees and beekeepers play in agriculture and crop pollination. It was one of those NPR stories that you end up sitting in the driveway for 30 minutes because you don't want to miss any of it (meanwhile your husband and kids are staring at you through the front door with grumpy faces) I'm sure I'm not the only one who has done this before, right?? So anyways, the story was actually an interview by an urban beekeeper and her visit with an Entomologist from University of Minnesota who is also a beekeeper. After listening to the story, I couldn't get bees off my mind. I did a Google search that evening to try to find information on local beekeepers who I could talk to and discovered that the Wheaton Park District offered an 8-week "Beekeeping for Beginners" class at Wheaton North High School (practically in my backyard!)I signed up for the class that night. I tried to get my Mom to go along with me, Here's the email exchange:

From: Corie Rectenwald
Subject: Beekeeping
To: "Mom"
Date: Wednesday, January 4, 2012, 8:50 AM
Can I start an apiary in your backyard?? Want to take a beekeeping class with me on Wednesday nights at wheaton north?

On Jan 4, 2012 9:00 AM, "T Stolt" wrote:

Really? Dad is deathly afraid of bees....could be fun to have them in our backyard! 

Despite my best persuasion efforts, my mom declined my invitation to take up beekeeping,so I emailed my Aunt who is really in to gardening to see if she was interested. She jumped all over it and said her Mom/my Grandma used to talk about wanting to learn beekeeping back in the day. Having 9 kids didn't offer her much time to start a hobby but at least now it all makes sense, beekeeping must run in our blood! But here are a few other reasons "why":

1. Bees are just so amazing! They are hard working, industrious, loyal, intuitive, efficient, take good care of their brood, etc and they produce really great products like honey and beeswax. As a beekeeper, I will have the opportunity to observe and learn more about these amazing creatures through all phases of their existence, and that's really exciting to me.

2. Bees are great pollinators. Not only can bees make your garden beautiful, 1/3 of agricultural crop production depends on the bees pollination skills. Bees travel through fields of flowers and/or crops carrying pollen in their "pollen basket" (see image below) from one flower to the next. Pollination is necessary for flowers and plants to bear fruit. No bees = no fruit (or vegetables,almonds,coffee,cocoa,cotton etc)So I'm just doing my part to help keep fruit in your fruit basket,coffee in your cup,and salad on your plate. You're welcome.

3.Bees are dying. As already mentioned, bees account of 1/3 of our crop production worldwide. Farmers contract with commercial beekeepers to help pollinate their fields, but there has been a gradual decline in the number of successful hives maintained by commercial beekeepers over the past several years. There is a lot of finger pointing at pesticides as being the culprit, and I'm inclined to think that's probably the case, however there is not enough evidence to confirm one cause conclusively. But I'm not as concerned with the cause as I am with the solution, and it seems reasonable to suggest that an influx of new backyard beekeepers can help compensate for the decline in the number of hives commercial beekeepers are able to successfully manage.

So those are a few reasons and this blog is my attempt to document my experience as a novice beekeeper. So far things are going well. We made a few (rather comical)errors in our package installations, and that's my next post. I'll be keeping a tally of stings throughout the season, hoping I can keep it under 5!! : )
Stings= 0