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I’m A Beekeeper!

Checking out the newly installed package of bees.

Checking out the newly installed package of bees.

I’ve wanted bees for a very long time. I almost got some last year but I didn’t feel like I knew enough then to take on the responsibility so I spent the last year reading books, taking classes, and helping friends with their hives in order to get there.

Getting Ready

The first book I read, The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum, was recommended to me by a friend. It was a pretty conventional read, all about Langstroth hives and chemically managing pests. It wasn’t my favorite but since it was my first beekeeping book I did learn a lot about bee biology, behaviors, and the basics of being a beekeeper.

Then I got the video Top Bar Beekeeping by Les Crowder and that was great! It really helped to see him manipulating his hives. I followed that up by reading the book of the same name, which was even better. The best part of the book is the section of images on comb management for different scenarios.

I read The Thinking Beekeeper by Christy Hemenway and that was also a very good book, in-line with how I philosophically wanted to manage my bees.

I also took a number of classes — the Austin Area Beekeeping Meetup group’s huge, half-day “Beekeeping 101″ lecture, Dennis Brown’s “Raising Chemical Free Bees and Keeping Them Healthy” and “Spring Management” classes, and most recently a hands-on top bar class with Tanya Phillips at Bee Friendly Austin.

Preparing the hive to install the package.

Preparing the hive to install the package.

The Hive

Why Top Bar? I personally chose to go with a top bar hive for a few reasons, but there are pros and cons to everything so really it just came down to priorities. My priorities were: 1.) to protect my back by minimizing lifting, 2.) to manage the bees chemically-free, in a way that lets them fully engage their natural tendencies and behaviors, and 3.) to get wax as a by-product. To be clear, my priority is not maximum honey production.

It was very important to me that the bees be able to build their all of their comb (as opposed to building off of framed foundation, like in Langstroth hives). When they build their own comb, they can adjust the cell size as needed by the hive (worker cells, drone cells, and honey storage cells are all different sizes), which leads to a stronger, healthier hive. Plus, I get more wax for lotions, candles, etc.

Pest management in the hive is a huge concern for most beekeepers; however, it’s almost a non-issue for top bar beekeepers. Since there’s nothing inside the hive other than wax and bees, there are no nooks and crannies for small hive beetles or wax moths to hide, leaving their numbers manageable enough for the girls to handle on their own. Varroa mites will require some management but I will use the powdered sugar technique rather than treat with miticide strips. (On a related note, it is worth mentioning that the top bar hive alone does not guarantee minimal pest issues, the bees matter too. Specially bred for varroa mite management, “hygienic” bees can sense the mite in the capped brood cells and remove the pupae before the mite can complete its reproduction cycle. I got my bees from BeeWeaver.)

Other things to consider in regards to top bar hives:

  • Establishing straight comb is somewhat challenging and requires frequent management.
  • Because the size of the hive is limited, the honey must be harvested in small batches: however, harvesting honey from a top bar hive is much simpler and can done in the moment, one bar at a time, without any complicated equipment. That also means the seasonal honey flavors can be harvested and bottled separately.
  • Since the bees spend more of their resources building comb rather than storing them as honey, there tends to be overall lower honey production.
  • Top bar beekeepers are in the minority so there’s less information available and a much smaller community of beekeepers for support.

Some details about my hive specifically:

  • I purchased it from Chuck and Tanya at Bee Friendly Austin.
  • I’m using wedged bars without wax and so far the comb is staying attached very well.
  • I used cinder blocks to help bring the hive up to a comfortable working height, and to protect the legs from direct soil contact. The increased height also makes it harder for predators to access the entrance of the hive.
  • I sited my hive more than 25 feet from the property line per the City of Austin Code of Ordinances with the entrance facing south-south east so that the sun shines on it as early as possible. I could have positioned the hive closer than 25 feet to the property line but that would have required a 25′ long fly-away barrier in order to be in compliance with the ordinance and I chose not to be constrained by that since I didn’t need to be.
  • Rather I chose to place the hive in a previously leveled place in the yard, where my above-ground pool used to be. The bees build comb plumb to the ground so the hive must be level in order for the comb to be straight.
  • I ordered my hive with an observation window and it has been invaluable for inspecting without having to open the hive.

Installing the Package

The most common way to install a package of bees is to use a method where you ‘bonk’ the bees into a ball by tapping the package on the ground and then you shake the ball out of the package box and into the hive. This leads to lots of homeless and disoriented bees in the air, who may or may not figure out to go into the hive. I didn’t do that. In Dennis Brown’s Spring Management class, I learned a much simpler way that was significantly easier on us all.

Instead of the “bonk and shake”, I simply opened the package, removed the syrup can and the queen cage, and then, after positioning the queen cage, I put the open package into the empty hive and let them come out at their leisure. Everyone was in the hive and there was minimal chaos outside. It was pretty great.

I also did something different with how I positioned the queen cage. Most books, etc. tell you to hang the queen cage, which can introduce a number of complications. But again, Dennis taught us a much simpler and reliable way to do it: just place the cage on the floor of the hive, wire-side up so the attendants can still feed the queen, candy-end into the hive. The workers eat through the candy and the queen walks out after a couple of days, easy peasy.

I did a few other things to try and ensure that the girls accepted the hive:

  • When I picked up my hive, Tanya at Bee Friendly Austin was nice enough to give me a couple of pieces of old comb since these were my first bees and I didn’t have any comb of my own. She was pretty adamant that having comb in the hive was the key to acceptance. The old comb also encouraged straight comb-building from the start. I tied the pieces onto bars 2 & 4 with fishing line.
  • My hive has a screened bottom, which most Texas beekeepers recommend having; however, at first, I wanted to mimic a hollow tree trunk as much as possible, so I taped a piece of cardboard over most, but not all, of the screen for the first week. That’s how long it took until I saw them bringing in pollen. Collecting pollen indicates brood and once they have brood you know they’re staying.
  • I also used a follower board to reduce the space they felt they had to defend. As they built comb, I moved the follower board further back in the hive.
  • I kept all of the entrances closed for the first 24 hours. I left the bottom entrances corked but I put a rotating, disk entrance-reducer on the top entrance, set on the ventilation screen so that they still had good air-flow but they couldn’t leave the hive. After 24 hours, I rotated the entrance reducer to the queen excluder screen so that the queen could not leave once she was released from her cage but the workers could start foraging.

Dean Cook, a Houston-based top bar beekeeper, has instructions that are pretty close to the package installation process I followed posted on his website.

The package installed on its side in the hive, allowing the bees to exit at their leisure.

The package installed on its side in the hive, allowing the bees to exit at their leisure.

The First Month

The first month was pretty bumpy as I expected it might be. Beekeeping has a pretty steep learning curve and I definitely felt it.

The biggest drama had to be when I broke a comb off of the bar while trying to straighten it. It happens to everyone but it still sucked. A lot. I read that all you have to do to straighten comb is push the wax onto the bar where you want it, which is what I tried to do. The detail I hadn’t read, or had missed somehow, was that you have to cut it from the bar first and then push it back into place. So, since I didn’t cut it first and just started pushing on it clumsily, it eventually broke off the bar and crashed into the hive. The worst part was that comb was full of eggs and larvae at a time when my package bees were aging and I couldn’t afford to lose any new bees. Plus, it was possible that my queen had been on that comb. I had looked for her before messing with it, but my queen-spotting skills weren’t great. Needless to say, I was pretty distressed by the whole thing.

A week or so later, right at the three week mark, that distress turned into full-on panic as a number of patterns that I didn’t fully understand, came together to convince me that I had indeed killed my queen and now my hive was queenless. The bees had stopped taking the sugar syrup, they were less active, they stopped building comb, I couldn’t find larvae, I couldn’t find my queen, and I saw a couple of drone cells which I thought might be laying workers. I called Tanya at Bee Friendly Austin and she came right over to help. Together we found my queen and she explained that the the bees had stopped building comb because the package had aged and older bees wax glands atrophy. And since they weren’t building comb, they didn’t need as much sugar syrup. They were less active because the weather had been kind of bad, with intermittent rain showers. The drone cells were just drone cells. And sometimes the queen takes a break laying eggs during times of bad weather or if the brood combs are full, which mine were. All-in-all, it was a great learning experience, but it was not fun.

Some other things about the first month:

  • I didn’t anticipate the weight of the bees on the pieces on old comb that I had tied onto the bars. Turns out my knots weren’t good enough and one of the pieces fell off the bar and right on top of my queen cage, leaving the attendants unable to get to the queen. Luckily, I discovered it when I went in to remove the empty package box on Day 2 and no harm was done.
  • I was in the hive almost every day for the first few weeks, mainly to replace their sugar syrup. I did not expect that I’d be getting into the hive that often.
  • They had built out 8 bars with the 9th started right at one month. That is great progress and bodes well for them getting through the winter.
  • I’m leaving the entrance reducer on the drone setting indefinitely. The reducer makes the entrance four small holes instead of one big hole, which makes it easier to defend.
After a month, starting the ninth bar of comb.

After a month, starting the ninth bar of comb.

Discussion (1 Comment)

  1. by Jason Gerhardt

    That is an awesome write up! I can tell you already know a lot more about bees than I do. I particularly like the language you are using to describe things, highlighting the ‘everything is appropriate somewhere’ attitude, as well as pattern recognition.


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