Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bees and beekeeping, farming calendar

Today was cool and sunny; and the bees were out of the hive flying around. From the looks of their legs on the return trip something is producing pollen nearby. Pollen is a high-protein food for bees, and is used to feed both the bees and their larvae.

If you've considered beekeeping, now is the time of year to make your decision. The easiest way to start is to find a local apiary supply place nearby. I'm sure they'll be happy to help you. I've been patronizing the beez neez in snohomish, but there are many suppliers around. Packages of bees are only available once a year -- so you need to locate and order them NOW to have bees this year. More about packages further on in this post.

On a sunny day like today is when I open the hives for the spring check. I'm looking to see which colonies have survived the winter and which haven't, and what their relative strengths are. I'll open the hive, heft the super to see how much honey remains, look at a couple of frames, and then switch the top box of the two to the bottom. Over the winter the bees will have gravitated up into the honey, and by reversing the two boxes it allows them to gravitate up again as they grow during the spring.

Modern bee hives consist of standardized boxes referred to by their size. a "super" is about 6" tall, a "deep super" is about 10", and each holds a number of frames that the bees will build their comb on. The comb is used to store honey, pollen and to raise and brood young.

In my climate, the basic hive consists of two deep supers on a bottom board, with a roof. Later in the year I'll add additional supers that the bees will fill with honey, and anything above the first two deep supers is what I'll harvest. Between the harvested honey and the original deep super I'll put a queen excluder, which will prevent the queen from laying larvae in the top supers to keep the honey pure. A deep super that's full of honey weighs around 100lbs. A super weighs about 60lbs. A hive will produce 120lbs of honey on a good year here; in some areas with longer nectar flows and warmer weather you can get 200lbs of honey in a season.

At this time of year the hives are at low ebb; they've been living on stored honey all winter, and the bees are as old as bees ever get. The bees that are born in the fall end up living through the spring, usually around 6 months.

My winter losses this year was 15%. Not bad, not great. Average. The hives that survived have lots of bees, still have some honey, but not much. So I'll feed them a little sugar syrup, 50% water and 50% sugar by volume, for a month or so.

I'll also be ordering packages of bees from beez neez. A package is 3 or 4 lbs of bees with a queen. They're only available early in the year, which is why I'm suggesting that you make your decision now about whether you want bees. When the package bee season passes you're out of luck. A 3lb package should cost you around $75, give or take $10, a 4lb a little more. If this is your first beekeeping exercise, buy the 4lb package. More bees means that they have a better chance of producing some honey for you this year even if you make some mistakes.

In this area there are several different varieties of bees I can order. My opinions:

Italian bees: Sweet, good natured bees. You can work them without protective gear or smoke, even. I do it every year. But susceptible to mites and have a low survival for me. I keep trying them, but they're just not working for me.

Russian bees: Angry little bastards, but they produce honey, lots of it, and are surviving well for me. I cannot work these guys without protective gear, and in fact, there are times when I cannot walk within 10 feet of their hive without getting stung. That said, most of my hives are now russian because they've survived well.

New world carnolian: Somewhere between russians and italians. Survive better than italians, not as angry as the russians. I don't get stung by these guys randomly.

Minnesota Hygenic: I've had mixed luck on these guys. They seem to do well against mites, but their winter survival for me isn't as good as russian or new world carnolian. Production is roughly the same as carnolian.


MMP said...

Thanks for the bee notes. I'd like to do bees, but I have a no new species edict from my wife. And we are already bending the edict with turkeys. But I have high hopes for bees next spring.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the bee info! Seems like the economics of bees are pretty good. You could hive and supply costs over some years as you could the bee cost, but on a starting out per hive basis:

Starter package: $75
Hive costs: $150
Other supplies: $100
Labor: ?
Return: 120 lbs * $4.50/lb = $540 (optimistic?)

Seems like keeping bees could be quite worthwhile. Am I missing anything?

Bruce King said...

Your first winter there's at least a 50/50 chance your hive will die, so you've got to figure that into the costs; the $100 you mention would cover the sugar and a hive tool, but you'll need protective gear to work your hives. A smoker and a head net at a minimum. Beekeeping equipment lasts a long time if properly cared for, so you can put a 5 or 7 year life on it. Uncapping and extracting the honey requires some special (reasonably expensive) equipment, which you can either buy, or hire someone to extract the honey for you, and then there's bottling costs.
The upside is that your local honey, fresh from the hive, will taste better than the bottled chinese honey you'll find in virtually every supermarket. And then there's the fact that bees are intrinsically interesting. I've even gotten to the point where I enjoy catching swarms. Around here, mid-june to july 1 is the swarming season.

Bees fit into my farming because you really touch them three times a year, and other than that they pretty much manage themselves.

Anonymous said...

Huh, I'm at present, trying to find bees for this season. It looks like I might have to drive to Vancouver (12 hours one way) to pick them up. I've never kept them before either but have wanted to for years. Given my recent experience with Birch-Maple syrup making, I think bees would be a MUCH greater investment with a greater yield of sweet liquid! Not that the maple-birch syrup making isn't fascinating...

But yes, advice, guidance, minimum equipment needs etc, welcome!