Geez, Sam!

maine nucleus colonies_2018

It’s mid-October, the temperatures outside are dropping and the beekeeping season is winding down. Runamuk’s 2018 farm-season has certainly been one for the books, mainly because this was the year we finally made farm-ownership possible─but for honey production it wasn’t the greatest of years. Even still, I’m happy with the way the season went and with the hives that I have going into the winter.

hyl-tun apiary
The Runamuk apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine. Early August 2018.

Season Review

After losing twenty out of twenty-one hives over the course of the 2017-2018 winter the state of the Runamuk apiary was just a little precarious this spring. I’ve experienced hive losses before and have come to accept it as just another part of beekeeping, but it certainly makes it difficult to gain ground in this industry. With the purchase of a farm on the line, it was especially stressful.

I imported 10 packages of replacement bees from Georgia, bought 5 overwintered nucs, and managed to raise about 30 Queens of my own. Those Queens either replaced Queens in the southern packages, replaced bad Queens, or were added to nucleus colonies that are going to be overwintered in hopes of supplying my own replacement hives for this winter’s inevitable losses.

agriope at luke's apiary
Luke’s apiary in Madison, Maine.

For the last 2 seasons I’ve been managing the apiary of my friend, Luke Vigneault, in addition to my own. Our beekeeping journeys have run parallel over the years; we’ve shared orders on Queens, tended bees together, and learned from each other. I’ve been so impressed by Luke’s honeybee stock that I grafted from his hives to produce two-thirds of the Queens I raised this year.

Between the 2 of us, I’m managing 27 colonies at the moment─Runamuk’s 15, and Luke’s 12 hives. Hopefully this winter is kinder to us than last winter was.

Poor Honey Season

uncapped honey
Nectar of the Gods!

As for for honey production, this beekeeping season wasn’t really the greatest. Runamuk was not able to supply customers with the local, raw honey they’ve been clamoring for and I can’t help feeling like it’s a failing on my part (“Geez, Sam! What gives!?”). At the same time, I know what a set-back the harsh winter and loss of colonies was for my operation─because I had to wait for replacement bees and only had one weak hive in May (when the nectar-flow really gets underway here), I wasn’t able to capitalize on Maine’s spring honey-season.

In addition, the earlier part of the summer was exceedingly dry and flowers really weren’t producing much nectar, so I was feeding the bees a lot of sugar-syrup. Because the majority of my hives this year were new colonies, or were new Queens I was trying to establish, I wanted to give them every possible resource so they would have the best chance for survival. That means I fed all but the hives that were making honey, and whatever honey that was produced got redistributed among the nucs to ensure every hive has the stores it needs to make it through the winter.

Keeping Colonies Small & Tight

runamuk's hive set up
Runamuk’s single deep and medium hive set-up.

It’s my goal to keep my honeybee colonies “small and tight” going into winter. After 8 seasons working with bees, learning from other beekeepers, and learning from my own experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that bees overwinter more successfully when they’re not trying to occupy so much space. With this in mind I’ve adopted a single deep and medium box set-up for my brood nest. The frames of larvae to occupy the deep-box, positioned on the bottom, with a medium filled with honey settled on top.

During the season I’ll add more mediums as necessary─either to increase the colony’s capacity for brood, or for honey production, but I always want all that extra equipment to come off before the winter sets in.

Prioritizing Mite Treatments

I’m feeling really confident in the condition of the 27 colonies under my care. I’ve learned to prioritize mite-treatments and perform them as a rule the first week of August and mid-to-late September. If the infestation were severe, I would do another late October treatment as a final clean-up before the long winter. Mite-treatments are the pits, but having seen hives go down as a result of varroa─I know that it’s not pretty and it’s not a good feeling knowing that, as the beekeeper, you’re the one responsible for it.

I’ve learned too, that I can significantly reduce mite-levels in my hives and grow my apiary at the same time just by breaking up large colonies to make more nucs. That’s a win-win in my book. By breaking up hives and sticking to my schedule for mite-treatments, I’ve been able to keep some very healthy-looking bees these last few years, and I know that these methods─in tandem with my newfound Queen-raising skills─set Runamuk up for some big growth in the next few years.

I’m not treating the hives for nosema because this disease has not historically been an issue in my apiaries. If I had hives that were coming through the winter and had an excess of brown staining on the front of the hives, I would know that the fungus had infected the colonies and I would use the Fumagillian, administered in the sugar-syrup fed to the bees in the fall. There are lots of resources about nosema and how to prevent and treat that problem; the main thing is to be aware of it and to ensure your colonies are healthy and strong going into winter, and to take steps to ensure your hives are appropriately set up.

Winter Preparations

wintering bees
Two of Runamuk’s hives back in December of 2012.

That brings me to winter preparations. Things are almost over at the apiary for the 2018 beekeeping season. I’ll be taking mite-treatments OFF the hives this weekend. After that I won’t go back into the hives for anything more than to administer sugar-candy or pollen patties (should hives make it to March), until April.

At this point in the season I’m not manipulating frames. Since August I’ve been managing the hives with an eye toward winter; that means I’ve been moving brood “downstairs” to the bottom box, and positioning honey stores so that the colony can move up through the hive in what I hope is optimal fashion.

Sometime between now and Thanksgiving all of the inner covers will be switched out for wintering inner covers, which are deeper on one side and allow space for sugar-candy to sit under the telecoping cover. Many beekeepers fill that space with candy, but I prefer to lay my candy directly across the top bars─as close to the bees as I can get it.

I’ll put the candy on at the same time, then top it with some kind of moisture-absorbing material. This is crucial, and I think my attention to this detail is the reason I haven’t had much issue with nosema in my hives.

Nosema is a fungal disease which─like all fungi─thrives in wet conditions. I’ve tried homasote board and newspaper in the past, but nothing seems to work so well as a box of wood shavings above the inner cover. I tack a piece of burlap to the bottom of a medium box, and add several inches of wood shavings─you can even use the same type of pine bedding you might use for livestock (but not shavings that have actually been used by livestock! yuck!).

I also like to ensure my hives have both lower and upper entrances, in case the snow should cover the lower one. I make it a habit to check the apiaries periodically throughout the winter, and I’ll shovel out the front of hives just so the girls can take cleansing flights, or to ensure air-flow, but I prefer to allow the snow to pile up around the back and sides to protect the bees from the wind and cold to some degree.

“Geez, Sam…”

It’s certainly disappointing to not have honey available for my loyal customers at the farmers’ market. Not everyone understands why I chose not to take honey from the bees this year. Some folks look at me and say: Geez, that Sam─she’s been doing this for years now and she still can’t give me honey when I want it!

And I can’t deny the truth in that.

Beekeeping is probably the hardest form of agriculture. It is not easy to keep a colonies of bees alive in today’s modern era where poisonous pesticides have infected the landscape and the changing climate is altering our world on a very basic level. Even if you do everything “right”: you feed them, manage them in a timely fashion, perform mite treatments and leave honey for the winter─you’re still at the mercy of the natural world around you. You might face drought conditions, floods, bear-attacks, or extreme temperatures; the list of what could go wrong─all of which is out of your control─is fairly extensive.

As the beekeeper and a caring, nurturing farmer, I have to be the one to say to those folks, “I’m sorry, but I need to give my bees every chance for survival that I can give them. The bees need to be super-healthy in order to cope with the pesticides and mite-infestations, and they’re healthiest when they’re eating honey and plenty of it.”

maine nucleus colonies_2018
The nucleus colonies at Runamuk Acres, New Portland, Maine.

What’s more, it takes honey to build colonies, and I built a lot of new colonies this year with an eye toward the future. 15 of the 27 hives going into winter are nucleus colonies housing my Maine-raised Queens; I’m really proud of the state of the apiary, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t able to sell honey. Afterall, no one gets into farming to get rich; and certainly no one gets into beekeeping if they’re not bat-shit crazy about bees (it’s called: “passionate” thanks!). No, I’ve evolved enough that there’s really only one reason I do anything anymore: I’m doing it for love. Love of the land, love for nature─and love for bees.

Thanks for following along with my farming journey!!! You can support bee-friendly farming simply by buying our products; check out our online farm-store to get yourself something nice today! Subscribe by email or follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for behind-the-scenes peeks into the day-to-day happenings on this Maine farm! 

What are the Essential Tools Needed to Get Started in Beekeeping?

beekeeping smoker

Potential new beekeepers often ask me what are the essential tools needed to get started in beekeeping? What do I really need? Beekeeping is a big expense up front, and it can be 2 years sometimes before you see a return on that investment. People usually want to know which tools they absolutely have to have, and which ones they could perhaps do without.

choosing apiary location
The Runamuk Apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, where miles of pasutre offers superior forage for bees!

#1 Protective Gear

Bees are very sensitive to their beekeeper; they’ll know when you’re nervous or agitated and they’ll respond in kind. New beekeepers are understandably a little fearful of their bees at first─having that protective layer allows you to feel safe while working with the hive. When you feel safe you’ll relax and the bees will too, resulting in fewer stings.

I recommend some kind of veil and gloves at least, to get started in beekeeping. You can get a full suit, or a jacket/veil combos like the one (affiliate link) I recently purchased through Amazon. But you could also make do with a mosquito head-net, a pair of latex gloves, and a long sleeved shirt, which is what I did my first few years as a beekeeper.

Once you become more comfortable with the bees you may not need to use the gear for every trip to the apiary, but you’ll find there will be instances when you will want the added protection of the veil and gloves. Sometimes the bees can be “cranky”─during a nectar dearth for example, or when they suddenly find themselves Queenless, or if a skunk has been pestering them at night. Get some good protective gear and always have it with you when you go to the apiary.

#2 Hive Tool

The hive tool is probably one of my most-used tools─so much so that it fairly lives in my back-pocket during the beekeeping season. I don’t go to the apiary without it, and it’s nearly impossible to work the hives without this tool. Seriously! The bees will put wax and propolis everywhere and you will need some kind of tool to break the seal so that you can manipulate the covers and the frames and the boxes.

I prefer the hive tools with the little hook on one end so that I can get under the lip of the frames to lift them out of the box. The other end has a beveled edge, making it a great scraping tools for clearing away burr-comb or cleaning up boxes after winter losses.

In a pinch you could use a mini pry-bar or a screw driver, but the little hook-thing is such an advantage that I feel it’s worth the $7 investment in this tool. This particular hive tool (affiliate link) is offered by MannLake, and you can get it at an affordable price through Amazon.

#3 Smoker, Smoker-Fuel, and Lighter

Smoke interrupts the chemical pheromone signals that the bees use to communicate with one another. It also distracts the bees, causing an instinctual fear of fire to wash over them and so the bees will go down into the hive to gorge themselves on honey in the event that they should have to abandon the hive to fire. This interruption and distraction is what allows the beekeeper to get into the hive for maintenance.

I prefer the smokers with leather bellows because: a) I’m working to reduce the amount of plastic in my life, and b) the plastic ones have a tendency to crack with use over the span of a few years, and once they can’t hold air the smoker does not function.

The size of the smoker you will need depends upon the number of hives you’re working with. For most backyard beekeepers with 2-4 hives, the smaller smokers are fine. This smoker (affiliate link) is just $12.99 on Amazon and should get you started in your beekeeping adventures.

#4 Frame Grippers

I find I primarily use my frame grippers when I’m first getting into a hive. That first frame can be really difficult to pull up out of the box─fused together with wax and honey and bees, and wedged down between the other frames so that it doesn’t want to give. When used in tandem with the hive tool, the frame grippers make extracting that first frame so much easier on both the beekeeper, and the bees.

There are many different styles of frame grippers available; personally I prefer the straight forward metal ones because they’re durable and easy to clean─these aluminum frame grippers (affiliate link) are available for just under $10 at Amazon.

#5 Bee Brush

You won’t need this tool as frequently as you will the smoker or the hive tool, but when it’s time to harvest honey, or if you want to take a sample to check the mite-pressure in the colony, you’ll want a bee brush.

I have a bee brush like this (affiliate link), which is available on Amazon for $8.60, but my beekeeping mentor liked to use a large turkey feather. Whatever you choose, it should be soft─so that you don’t hurt the bees when you go to brush them off the frame.

#6 Books!

There’s a lot to learn about bees and beekeeping and I strongly advise anyone interested in getting started with bees to first do their homework. You’ll find many, many great books on the subject.

I really like Richard E. Bonney’s books: Beekeeping, A Practical Guide and Hive Management, A Seasonal Guide for Beekeepers.

You can’t beat Storey Publishing for good reference manuals, and their Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees is typically the book I include when I offer bee-schools. The Backyard Beekeeper, is another good reference book, with the added bonus of a chapter at the end about using beeswax; it includes some really nice recipes for salves and skin creams.

Once you’ve become acquainted with beekeeping, you’ll naturally start looking for next-level books and Brother Adam’s Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey is one of the most illuminating manuscripts out there. Brother Adam was in charge of all beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey in England between 1919 and 1992. This is not a how-to book; it’s more of a general account of the beekeeping as it was carried out at Buckfast and passed down through the ages. The book offers insight on techniques for rearing and breeding Queens, bee care, seasonal hive management, honey production and even mead-making.

#7 Woodenware

assembling equipment for beehives
Buying unassembled pieces and assembling them yourself can help save money when making that initial investment into beekeeping.

What you require for you hive will depend on the style and methods you decide to go with. The traditional Langstroth hive is still the most common type of hive used in beekeeping, but many new beekeepers are having good luck with the Top Bar hives, which have the added benefit of being easy to construct from repurposed materials.

If you go with the Langstroth you will need the following for each hive:

  • Telescoping Cover
  • Inner Cover
  • Bottom Board
  • Boxes for Hive Bodies*
  • Boxes for Honey Supers*
  • Entrance Reducer
  • Mouseguard
  • Hive Stand

*The number of boxes you’ll need to invest in will be contingent upon how you choose to set up your hives. Standard set up for a Langstroth hive is 2 deeps, and I usually recommend having 4 honey supers on hand. However, more and more beekeepers are choosing to use medium boxes exclusively on their hives because they’re easier to lift. 3 medium boxes are essentially the equivalent of 2 deeps if you decide to go with mediums, but it might be a good idea to keep at least 1 deep box on hand in case you should ever need to buy replacement nucleus colonies, as those tend to come in a deep nuc box. Generally it costs about $200 on average for the hive pieces.

Humble Abodes in Windsor, Maine.

I’m fortunate to live within driving range of Humble Abodes in Windsor, Maine, which allows me to save on shipping. This is a Maine-based company manufacturing woodenware─the hive boxes, tops and bottoms, and frames. They supply large beekeeping operations as well as hobbyists across New England and the East Coast, using Maine’s own Eastern White Pine, which grows in abundance in our state to produce easy to assemble equipment.

I’d recommend searching locally for quality woodenware first, but if you don’t have a good source within driving range, check out Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.

Be wary of buying used equipment. Used equipment may be carrying diseases that killed it’s previous occupants. Residues that are left behind can live for years and you could be slowly or quickly killing your honeybee investment by putting them in dangerous equipment. Unless you know why the equipment is available and how it was used, I would avoid used hive equipment.

#8 Feeders

feeding beehives syrup in the fall
Mason-jar sugar-syrup feeder.

Bees, like any other livestock, sometimes need supplemental feed in order to survive. You’ll need a way to be able to offer sugar-syrup to the bees. There are many feeders available commercially, but for the small-scale or backyard beekeeper, I recommend the mason-jar.

Simply take a quart-sized mason jar, which most homesteaders and farmers have around the house anyway, perforate the lid and then fill with sugar-syrup. Place the feeder directly on the inner cover, inside another box and under the telescoping cover.

Voila! A bee-feeder!

#9 Sugar

Beekeepers should always have extra sugar on-hand for feeding their bees. New packages and nucleus colonies need to be fed in order to grow strong enough to fill their hives and survive the winter. Even after a colony is fully established there are times when they require supplemental feeding, like when there’s a dearth in the nectar flow, or during a poor season.

Avoid raw sugar, which can cause dysentery in the hive. This is one case where the refined granulated sugar is the better option for the health of the colony.

#10 Bees!

nucs arriving
Nucs arriving!

Naturally you’re going to need bees to put in your beehive, lol. Certainly you can save on the cost of the bees if you can catch a swarm to install in your hive, but swarms are not as common today as they were 30 years ago. And with so many new beekeepers all vying for free bees, you might have a hard time filling your hive that way.

I strongly encourage new beekeepers to seek out a local apiary offering nucleus colonies from hardy stock adapted to your specific region. Check with your state’s beekeepers’ association for a list of suppliers near you, and be prepared to order well in advance of the season. Here in Maine, if you haven’t ordered your nucs by the end of February, you’ll have a hard time finding any at all; pricing can range anywhere between $125 to $180 for 4 or 5 frame overwintered nucleus colonies.

Bee Proactive!

It’s a wise idea to prepare in advance of the beekeeping season so that all of your equipment is assembled, painted and ready to go when you need it. Get a tool box for your beekeeping tools. Stow your veil and gloves beside the smoker along with extra fuel, and keep everything at the ready in case of emergency.

Beekeeping (unless you’re managing larger numbers of hives) doesn’t take a whole lot of time, but it is time sensitive. Typically, when you need something you need it immediately and delaying hive manipulations because you need to put a box together or because you have to run to the store for sugar before you can make more syrup, can cause a chain of events which could result in the eventual demise of the colony. Beekeepers should always bee proactive (had to go there lol, sorry-not sorry!) to ensure the survival of their colonies, such is the nature of beekeeping today.

Do you have a beekeeping tool you just couldn’t do without? Share it with us by leaving a comment below!

Thinking of getting bees? Wondering what are the essential tools needed to get started in beekeeping? Check out Runamuk Acres in Maine for the answer!