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! 

State of the Apiary Address

nucleus colonies

Beekeeping in today’s modern environment is probably one of the hardest forms of agriculture that exists. If you can think of a worse one, by all means leave a comment below to share with us lol. Meanwhile, the 2017-2018 winter was another rough winter for beekeepers here in Maine; many beekeepers lost a lot of hives─myself included. At first, with so much riding on the apiary I was afraid to tell anyone, but the fallout from those losses has not been as bad as I had feared and so I bring to you now a sort of “State of the Apiary Address”.

runamuk apiary_may 2018
The Runamuk Apiary, May 2018.

Another Rough Winter

Over the course of the winter this year I went from 21 hives to 1. After working so diligently to build my apiary last summer it was a huge disappointment that led me once again to question myself, my abilities, and my path as a farmer. What’s more, with my impending mortgage largely dependent on the success of my apiary, I was terrified that the losses would put an end to my farm-purchase. Both Runamuk and my family desperately need a home to call their own; my days as a landless-farmer have run their course and it is now taking a toll on us all. What would happen if the FSA knew I’d lost 20 hives?

I wasn’t the only one who experienced significant hive-losses, however. The brutal cold Maine experienced in late-December and early-January tested even the strongest hives and beekeepers across the state suffered losses.

Note: For more about the impact of the 2017-2018 winter on Maine bees, check out “It’s been a rough winter for bees” from the Bangor Daily News, written by Peter Cowin─Maine’s own “Bee-Whisperer”.

Telling the FSA

Word of the impacts of the winter on the beekeeping industry eventually reached the USDA and FSA offices and I got an email from Nathan Persinger, the FSA agent who has been handling my loan, asking how I’d made out.

Honestly, there was a moment of utter panic. I was so terrified that if I told him the truth I would lose my chance to buy a farm and secure a home for my family. But I’ve made honesty and transparency a policy in my life, and not telling Nathan the truth was not something I wanted on my conscience─though I admit it totally crossed my mind.

If I’m going to have a relationship with the people at the FSA for the foreseeable future, I want that relationship to be a good one. So far the people I’ve worked with at the government office have only ever tried to help me. They have these resources available to help farmers and they want to do just that─help farmers; even if they are required to abide by the regulations and stipulations mandated by our bureaucratic government.

Besides that─if other beekeepers were sharing stories of loss and I came out with none, how would that look?

When I initially submitted my application and business plan to the FSA back in September, I had included for them a brief report on the nature of beekeeping. It is not common for a farmer to specialize in bees, and I wanted to help educate the FSA staff so that they would understand how a beekeeper can grow their apiary fairly rapidly just by making splits and nucs, and by raising their own Queens, which I am learning to do. I wanted the USDA representatives handling my case to realize that-yes, annual mortality of hives may be high─between 30% and 37% depending on the statistic─but the nature of beekeeping allows savvy beekeepers to rebound from annual losses and still continue to have hives and grow a business.

Once the shock regarding the severity of Runamuk’s winter losses wore off I had devised a plan to recover the apiary. I ordered a combination of packages for honey production, nucleaus colonies for kick-starting my breeding operation, and a dozen Saskatraz queens (Bred in Saskatchewan!!! Should be hardy in Maine, right?). And I still intended to produce at least 20 viable Queens to overwinter as nucleus colonies.

Even with this strategy under my cap, and knowing that I had good people on my side at the FSA, and even knowing that those people had accepted the education I’d offered and had even taken it upon themselves to learn more so as to be best able to help me─I had to have supplemental encouragement from some good friends before I could respond to Nathan’s email about my winter-losses.

I admitted that I was down to 1 hive, and presented my plan for recovery. My heart was in my throat when I hit the send button on that email, and I awaited Nathan’s response in a state of hyper-anxiety─fearing the worst.

Lol, I needn’t have worried. Nathan accepted the facts and was confident that with my strategy the Runamuk apiary would recover and go on to meet the goals I’d projected in my business financials. He merely suggested that I apply for the ELAP program for reimbursement of those hive-losses.

The ELAP Program

usda_somerset county
USDA Service Center for Somerset County, located in Skowhegan, Maine.

The ELAP program─or “Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish”─provides emergency assistance to eligible producers for losses due to disease, weather, and wildfire. It turns out that the severe and prolonged cold spell Maine experienced in December and January qualified beekeepers for reimbursement of hives lost as a result.

So I went to see Scott Speck at the Somerset County USDA office, who is the County Executive Director. At this point I’d met everyone in the office but Scott, so now I am fully acquainted with my local USDA/FSA staff─yaaay! Scott gave me the details on the program, we filled out the application and he sent me off with some homework.

Note: For more information on the ELAP program, check out the USDA’s ELAP Fact Sheet.

To qualify for the ELAP assistance I needed to be able to show some record of the existence of said hives─which was easy to do since Nathan had documented and photographed those same hives last fall for the purpose of my farm-loan. But I also needed to have my hives inspected by the Maine State Apiarist: Jennifer Lund, to ensure that “Best Management Practices” had been followed and that the cause of death was actually due to the severe weather conditions.

State Apiarist Visits the Runamuk Apiary

In my nearly 10 years keeping bees I had never once had the state apiarist come to my apiary. Thanks to my volunteer work as the president of the Somerset Beekeepers (formerly), I was involved enough to know what sort of issues were facing the majority of  Maine’s beekeeping community. Any additional problems I encountered I’ve been able to turn to a variety of more experienced beekeepers with whom I am acquainted, so having the state apiarist come solve my problems was never really necessary.

Again I was filled with anxiety─I knew I’d been following the “Best Management Practices” as laid out by the Maine Department of Agriculture, but what if I’d missed something? What if my timing had been off in applying the oxalic acid? Maybe I should have treated just one more time? I didn’t think I’d taken too much honey from the hives, but what if I was wrong? And what if Nathan had suggested the ELAP program as a justifiable means of having my operation assessed before the FSA committed the funds to my farm purchase???

I needn’t have worried; everything turned out fine.

Jennifer Lund met me at the Runamuk apiary located at Hyl-Tun Farm on route 43 in Starks on a dreary grey day and we proceeded to go through the dead-outs on-site there. Jennifer is probably about my age; she studied at the University of Maine alongside Frank Drummond─one of the leading scientists performing research on native bee populations for the USDA. When Maine’s veteran State Apiarist, Tony Jadczak retired a couple years back, Jennifer applied for the job and got it.

Since she’d been awarded the position I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out why her name rang a bell in my head. We chatted as we surveyed my deceased colonies, and it turned out I had invited Jennifer to come to speak to the Somerset Beekeepers years ago! Mystery solved!

Jennifer checked my dead-outs to see the size of the cluster and their position within the hive, the amount of honey and pollen stores in the hives, along with signs of disease and mite levels among the population of bees. An alcohol-wash sampling revealed that mite levels were within reasonable range, and Jennifer concluded that in a normal winter even the weaker of my colonies likely would have survived. Cause of death was attributed to the weather conditions we’d experienced this year, and I was validated as a beekeeper.

With so many losses each winter it’s natural to wonder if you’re doing it right, and whether it’s worth the hassle and heartache. Jennifer put my mind at ease, and my ELAP application is moving forward at the FSA. I should receive a check towards the end of the season, which I intend to use to reimburse myself for some of the replacement bees I purchased this spring.

It’s Bee Season!

back of a beekeeper's car
Some of my favorite days are when the back of my car looks like this!

The season is well underway now. Runamuk’s replacement bees came in several waves: I picked up the first 5 packages on May 12th from Peter Cowin in Hampden, then went back on the 29th for another 5 packages. These will be my honey-producing hives, since the southern bred Italian packages tend to rev up fairly quickly they will ensure that I have honey available to sell and enable me to meet my financial targets.

On June 8th I fetched 3 nucleus colonies from Bob Egan’s Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan, Maine. I’d had 5 on order with Bob, but as a result of the harsh winter Bob was low on numbers. Having suffered significant losses myself I couldn’t hold that against the veteran beekeeper─we’re all in this together really. Bob raises a gentle strain of Carnolian bees that I’ve always had good luck with, and whose genetics I want as part of my breeding stock.

The 12 Saskatraz Queens are coming again from Hampden and Peter Cowin. They’ll be mated and ready to start laying when I bring them home the first week of July; the plan is to pair each Queen with 1 frame of brood taken from the existing hives and place them in a nucleus box with 1 frame of empty comb, and at least 1 frame of honey/pollen stores.

I’ll have to manage them fairly fastidiously so that I can overwinter them as nucs, so I’ve delayed pick-up of the new Queens til I can set them up at the new farm where I’ll be able to check on them more frequently. Ultimately, I’d like to have all the nucs and Queen-production happening at the Hive-House, while honey production will continue to happen at Hyl-Tun Farm where the Runamuk hives have miles of prime bee-forage in every direction.

Long-Term Apiary Goals

grafts 2018
My first grafted Queen-cells!

The end-goal I have for the Runamuk Apiary is to make the operation sustainable for the long-term viability of my farm. Though I have supporting ventures diversifying Runamuk, bees are the main focus of my farm-business and to truly be successful over the upcoming years I need to reduce inputs and expenses while continuing to expand the apiary.

To do that I need to be able to raise my own Queens and overwinter them as nucleus colonies that can replace the inevitable annual losses. Once I can ensure the continued survival of my own apiary, I can start selling nucs and mated-Queens raised from hardy Maine stock to local beekeepers.

Grateful for This Life

beekeeper profile
Accidental matching uniform at the apiary!

When I look back on the journey of my life I can’t help but marvel at the path that’s led me to this place in time. I did not set out to be the person I am today: female farmer, lady beekeeper, blogger, local food activist… I did see myself as becoming some sort of environmental activist however, and really everything I am stems from my love for the Earth and nature.

That love, along with a more recent commitment to be true to who I am and owning my story, has brought me here─doing work I love to do and paying my bills that way, on the precipice of purchasing my very own #foreverfarm and looking forward to bringing my vision for a pollinator conservation farm to life.

Yes, beekeeping is hard, and I’ll never be well-off as a farmer, but when I open a hive and the fragrance of warm beeswax and honey washes over me─or when I’m on my knees in the garden surrounded by plants and insects under the bright sun─I am filled with gratitude that I am able to live a life I love─one which brings meaning and purpose to my existence. Now that I’ve tasted this kind of wholehearted living, I could never give it up.

Thanks for reading and following along with my story! Feel free to share any thoughts, questions or comments below!

April apiary update

March is always a dirty month. As the snow melts all of winters dirty secrets are revealed. The snow banks along the roadside created by the municipal plows are coated with dirt while frost heaves and pot-holes in secondary roads can make for treacherous driving. Trash that had been buried under a blanket of snow now litters the landscape, and everywhere you go the ground is wet and muddy. This is mud-season in Maine─laughingly referred to as the fifth season of the year. The winter was rough for me, but I’m still here and determined to make the most of it.

Thankfully it’s April now, and while the snow has lingered a little later this year, Spring is in the air─literally. I can smell it when step out to tend the critters early in the morning. Spring has a very distinctive fragrance: like wet earth pungent in the atmosphere. For farmers, gardeners and outdoorsy-folk it’s an intoxicating smell and like a cheap beer─so easy to get drunk on.

Together Paul and I put 15 hives to bed going into the winter. His 3 hives succumbed to the season, and only 2 of mine survived to see spring. 2 out of 12. Damn. I admit I let that get me down for a couple of days. I’ve taken so many hits along my farming journey, I can’t help but wonder sometimes when l’m going to start seeing some successes. I was so low I even considered giving up beekeeping.

Note: I wasn’t the only one who lost hives this winter; beekeeping is hard! Check out this recent article by Peter Cowin, The Bee Whisperer, who writes for the Bangor Daily News. 

One bottle of wine and one night later─as a new day dawned I realized how ludicrous that idea was lol. I live and breathe for the bees; I truly believe my calling in life is to serve as caretaker and advocate. This dream that is Runamuk─with my grand schemes for a pollinator sanctuary to teach conservation of bees and wildlife through agriculture─that is what drives me. Every day I am working toward that vision that I have for Runamuk. Runamuk and I are one and the same and to deny Runamuk is to deny myself, and I refuse to do that. I’m going to live my life and tell my story even if it isn’t always easy. Even if it’s never easy.

apiary-update-at-runamuk
The hive in the middle didn’t make it, but the hives on either side look fabulous!

So I picked myself up and reveled in my remaining 2 hives. Both are strong-looking colonies with lots of bees. I had already decided that I was going to begin raising my own Queens this season in order to produce my own nucs and eliminate the need to buy replacement bees when my apiary experiences the inevitable winter losses. With these last 2 hives I can still do that. The goal is to produce 30 Queens from my survivor stock and overwinter them as nucleus colonies, setting the Runamuk apiary up for a big expansion next year.

In the meanwhile I ordered nucs from Bob Egan at Abnaki Apiaries for the last time: 6 for me and 4 for Paul’s budding apiary. I’ve avoided buying packages thus far in my beekeeping career because most packages are shipped into Maine from the south and studies indicate southern bees are ill-adapted to Maine winters. However, Erin McGregor-Forbes (former MSBA president) did a SARE study that revealed packages that are re-Queened with Maine-raised Queens actually do quite well. With that in mind I ordered packages for the first time ever from Peter Cowin over in Hampden. This year I really want to generate a honey-crop so that I don’t have to look at that big fat zero in the “Honey” column of my business’ financial records. Not to mention I have customers who have been waiting 2 years for Runamuk’s local raw honey. The intention is to put those packages in 3 of the dead-outs which are already full of comb and honey and pollen, set them up at the Hyl-Tun apiary in Starks where fields and forage spread out for miles, and use them for honey production this summer. Then come August I’ll requeen them with one of my own Queens and overwinter them as nucs.

I see raising my own Queens as a big step for Runamuk. I’m really excited to learn this new skill and as you can imagine, I’ve been doing my homework so that I can be prepared later this spring and summer. Yes it was a long and difficult winter, but spring is in the air and I’m ready to make the most of the opportunities life has presented me with. Thanks for following along!

The growing season is almost upon us! Stay tuned folks!

How To Set Up Your First Beehive

how to set up your first beehive

Imagine you’re sitting at a four-way intersection, a red stop light hanging above you, while the hum of buzzing comes from a pair of rectangular wooden boxes strapped into the passenger’s seat next to you. The Nuc boxes–or nucleus colonies–contain more than 10,000 bees each.  Bees cling to, and crawl across the wire mesh stapled over the openings that prevents the insects from flying in and out of the boxes.  You can tell by the sound of their buzzing that they are agitated, frustrated that they are contained, unable to come and go as they please.

pkg pick up of new bees
Here I am with my packaged bees─in the car!

You can’t help but wonder what the drivers of the cars and trucks surrounding you would think if they knew that 20,000 bees or more sat so close at hand.  You imagine what the scene might look like if the unthinkable happened and there was an accident.  These thoughts are immediately followed by wondering if the wire mesh covering the entrances on the Nuc boxes is secure.  The light changes to green, and you gently edge the car out into traffic.

Driving down the road with thousands of stinging insects is one of life’s greatest thrills, I can’t even begin to imagine why everyone wouldn’t want to try it!  But before you can bring your bees home, there are a number of things you need to do to prepare for their arrival.

Select Your Apiary Location

choosing apiary location
Site your apiary in a location that will keep hives dry, buffered from the wind, and with good sun exposure.

When you’re trying to decide where to locate your apiary, consider the following carefully:

Nectar and pollen sources:  While honeybees will travel up to 3 miles or more in search of food, they prefer to have it easily accessible, within 300-500 yards of the hive.  There should be forage available to them in one form or another throughout the entire season–from early spring, through the fall.

Bees need water:  Just like every other living creature on the planet, bees need water to survive.  Not only do they drink water, but they also use it to reconstitute crystallized honey, and to make bee-bread–the mixture of honey and pollen which they feed their developing larvae.  If you don’t have a natural source of water nearby, such as a pond, or stream, consider placing a bird bath, or a 2-gallon dog waterer near the hives.

Exposure to sunlight:  Ideally your hives should be facing south, with a fair amount of southern exposure.  Yet at the same time, partial shade, or dappled sunlight can be a benefit to the hive during the height of the summer sun and heat.

Protection from wind:  Nestle hives up against shrubs, or at the edge of a forest; place them alongside a shed, garage, or other outbuilding so that colonies are protected from strong prevailing winds–this is especially important if you live in a climate where winter can send frigid gusting winds barreling down on your hives.

Keep hives dry:  Bees are susceptible to a number of fungal diseases which are promoted in wet conditions, so choose a spot for your apiary that is dry and offers good drainage during the spring thaw and prolonged periods of rain.  Also consider tilting the hives forward slightly so that condensation that builds up inside the hives runs out of the hive, rather than dripping down on the bees and brood nest.

Protect colonies from harmful pesticides:  Industrial farmers use insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides that all affect the health of honeybees in one way or another.  Even golf courses can pose a problem for your colonies.  If you live near such a threat, consider seeking an alternative location for your apiary, there are many landowners, homesteaders, or small farmers that would be more than happy to have you set up your apiary on their property.

Ease of access:  This is more for your benefit than that of your bees.  When you have your gear, tools, and equipment in tow, and you’re going to take honey off your hives in the heat of summer, you’ll appreciate being able to drive your truck to the apiary location.

Prepare your hives

assembling equipment for beehives
Assembling equipment yourself can help save money when making that initial investment into beekeeping.

Before you bring home your bees, your hives should be completely assembled and set up at the location you have chosen for your apiary.  All the frames should be put together, foundation inserted (if you’re using it), the exterior of your boxes should be painted (or not–depending upon your principles), and you should have settled the hive components in place upon the foundation of your choice.

A note about hive foundations:  Beekeepers use hive foundations to raise hives up off the ground to keep them dry.  You can use just about anything to serve as your foundation–from the commercially prepared types available from suppliers like Brushy Mountain, to cement blocks, logs, wooden pallets, or tires.

Also note that you will begin your hive with only one deep brood box, since bees grow their hives from the bottom up, and you will not add the second box until the bees have drawn and filled at least three-quarters of the frames in that first box.  The same goes for the honey supers–you will not add a super until the second box has been almost completely filled.  This prevents the bees from creating misshapen combs.

Packaged Bees vs. Nucs

starting a beehive_packaged bees vs nucs
Consider the Pros and Cons of each before investing!

Typically packaged bees are imported from the south (unless, of course, you’re in the south-lol), and come in 2, 3, or 5 pound packages.  You can get them with or without a Queen–beekeepers sometimes invest in a Queenless package of bees to strengthen weak hives in the spring.  Basically, these are the bees and that’s it.  Packages are ideal for beekeepers who have lost bees during the winter, and have drawn combs leftover from previous hives.

nucs arriving
Nucs arriving!

Nucleus colonies, or Nucs, are essentially a colony in miniature.  A box–either waxed cardboard or wooden–containing 3, 4, or 5 frames filled with brood (the bee larvae in all stages), worker bees and their egg-laying Queen, along with pollen and honey to sustain the tiny colony.  Often these are colonies that are started late in the previous summer, are overwintered, and are ready for a rapid population increase to build up into a new hive with the start of the spring nectar flow.

Nucs are relatively easy to establish. The downside is that it’s easier to transfer pests and diseases from one apiary to another this way–partly because there’s no way for you to inspect your Nuc when you go to pick it up (and often new beekeepers will not know what to be looking for anyway), but partly because the sale of Nucs is not regulated by officials.  Also, beekeepers who sell Nucs often use them as a way to unload their old combs, which should be swapped out every 5 years.  And finally, Nuc strength can vary from one to the next, and there’s no way for you to know what you’re getting when you take a Nuc home.

Installing Packaged Bees

packages waiting installation
Packaged bees awaiting installation.

When you pick up your packaged bees you should first inspect the package.  While some mortality is normal, half-an-inch of dead bees or more at the bottom of the package is not normal.  Protect the package from direct sunlight, and store them in a cool dry place until you’re ready to install them.  Be sure to feed your bees–a simple solution of sugar-syrup (a 1 to 1 ratio of sugar to water), in a spray bottle works well–mist the sides of the package and allow the bees to clean it off.  Install your packaged bees later in the day to prevent them from flying away from an unfamiliar hive, and do so within 48 hours of bringing them home.

There are 2 methods for installing packaged bees:

Method A

Allow the bees to exit on their own:  Firstly, plug the entrance with grass to prevent bees from flying away, then open the package.  Take out the Queen cage, remove the cork on the cage and pierce the candy blocking her exit using a toothpick.  Affix the Queen cage to the face of your drawn comb if you have it; if you’re beginning your packaged bees on foundation, simply place the Queen cage next to a frame containing the wax foundation.  In either case you should shake a couple of handfuls of bees onto the Queen cage so that she has plenty of attendants to tend her, and free her from the cage, then settle the package inside the hive in the center and close up the hive.

Method B

Install by shaking:  Spray the bees in the package with sugar-syrup to prevent them from being able to fly away, then remove the feeder can to open the package.  Take out the Queen cage, and tend to her in the same manner as described in method A, then gently shake all of the bees into the hive.

In either case, you should feed your bees sugar-syrup–especially so if you are installing your bees on foundation.  Bees need a strong nectar flow underway, along with lots of new, young bees (since it is at this stage of their lives that bees are able to produce wax), to build their combs.  And because drawn comb is necessary both for the Queen to lay eggs in, and for the foragers to store nectar and pollen in, your new colony cannot sufficiently increase in numbers until they have combs to work with.

Installation of Nucs

When you get your nucleus colony home, place the Nuc box directly on top of your assembled hive and immediately remove the screens covering the entrances.  The bees will begin to emerge from the box and you will see them alight, circling the air above the hive in what is known as an “orientation flight”, which allows the bees to determine the location of the hive in accordance with the position of the sun.  This enables the bees to find the hive when they are returning from the field with nectar and pollen.

You can leave the Nuc for 24 to 48 hours, or longer if the weather does not cooperate, and they will be perfectly fine coming and going from their miniature colony.  Keep in mind though, that some nucleus colonies are going to be stronger than others, and if you should see the bees “bearding” or hanging off the front of the box, you should take action to move the bees into their new home to give them more space to expand.

To transfer the bees from the Nuc box to the hive you’ve prepared, remove 3-5 frames from the center of the hive, open the Nuc box (wearing appropriate gear, and using your smoker as you would in any beekeeping situation), and carefully transfer the frames from the Nuc to the new hive.

inspect your nucleus colonies
Examine each frame as you install your nucleus colonies.

Take this opportunity to inspect the condition of the Nuc you’ve received–does it contain larvae in all stages of development? (eggs, grubs, and capped pupa)  Do the bees have frames containing both pollen and honey?  If you see anything out of the ordinary, or suspect a problem, you should contact your bee-supplier immediately.

Otherwise, place the frames from the Nuc box into the hive in the same order in which you found them–directly in the center of the hive.  Depending on the number of frames of brood your Nuc contains (ie – 3 or more) you may be able to insert an empty frame–or a frame of foundation–in between the brood, or between a frame of honey/pollen and the brood nest, to encourage your bees to begin building comb there.  However if you have less than 3 frames of brood, it is best not to break them up, to allow the worker bees to maintain the temperatures needed for the baby bees to mature.

When you’ve transferred the frames into the hive, check the inside of the Nuc box to make sure the Queen has not been left behind.  If you do not see her hanging out in the box, go ahead and close up the hive, but leave the Nuc box either on top of the hive, or on the ground in front it for another 24 hours so that any stragglers can join the rest of their colony.

Installation Follow Up

Once you’ve moved your bees into their new home, you can leave them alone for 5-9 days, with the exception of feeding.  At that point go examine them briefly.  Mainly you’re looking to see that the Queen is alive and well, and doing what she’s supposed to be doing–laying lots of new eggs.

If you installed packaged bees, with a Queen in a cage, make sure that she has been released from that cage, and if she has not, go ahead and remove the screen at this time, and let her crawl out of the cage onto a frame so that she can get to work.

In the case of nucleus colonies, simply look for new eggs, and you will know that your Queen is alive and thriving, offer the colony more space and frames as needed to fill up their first and second brood boxes.

Feeding Hives

feeding bees_top view
Feeding bees through the inner cover allows them easy-access even on cool days or in increment weather.

This can be a controversial topic at the meeting of your local beekeepers’ group (I know it is at ours!).  Some beekeepers have sugar available to their colonies throughout the year in one form or another, while other beekeepers refuse to put sugar on their hives at all, even if it means starvation for the colony.

Personally, I try to avoid using sugar if I can, even if it means that I will get less honey.  However, if my bees are at risk of starving to death, I will feed them organic cane sugar to see them through til the nectar begins to flow again.

And at the same time, feeding is especially critical for packaged bees on foundation who cannot begin to even build up their population until combs are established.

If you should decide to feed your bees there are a variety of methods available.  I suggest that beekeepers do their homework, and make the choice that best suits them, their principles, and the needs of their bees.

Go get your bees!

You’ll suddenly be filled with excited anticipation–and probably no small amount of trepidation–when you finally get the call from your bee-supplier that your bees are ready for you to pick up.  Take a deep breath!  Go over all your preparations one last time to ensure that everything is in order, and then go get your bees.

how to set up your first beehive
Fully established bee colony.

I truly believe that the growing numbers of backyard and homesteading beekeepers is vital to the survival of pollinators.  The relationship between plant and pollinator has made our planet what it is today, and that relationship is at risk.  By taking up the art of beekeeping, more and more people are coming to realize that these are more than mere stinging insects.  There is a world of marvel that most of us never notice because they are small and we are big, because society has deemed insects “icky” and many of us shudder at the thought of getting close to a “bug”.  But beekeeping opens our eyes to the beauty of pollination, we begin to see insects in a new light–suddenly we see the magnificent color, shape, and characteristics of the beneficial insects all around us.  We realize that we are part of this intimate relationship that plants have with their pollinators.

Good luck on your beekeeping journey!  The world is a beautiful place!

how to set up your first beehive