I am amazed every time I watch my bees. They are simply fascinating. In true HRH fashion, I’ve named my queens – after the queens of Bohemia, of course. Queen Beatrice reigns over my first hive; the others are Queen Adelaide, Queen Caroline and Queen Eleanor. In this post, I’m going to discuss some tips, tricks and lessons I’ve learned for maintaining your hives and bee yard.
Predators: regardless of where you live, you’re going to have predators in your yard. Most of these predators are after the larvae for the protein. The honey is just a bonus. I’ve listed some of the most common below:
- Wasps: Wasps are everywhere and can kill a hive. A colony can usually fight off one or two, but if many more attack, your colony is in trouble. Here are some tips that are pretty simple to help keep wasps out of the hives as well as how to fight them if they get in. I’ve actually witnessed Queen Beatrice’s colony attack and defeat a wasp that was on their hive – it was pretty impressive.
- Skunks: I’ve always liked skunks…from a distance. But skunks love bees. According to my Bee Mentor, skunks will sit in front of a hive and eat bees like popcorn. They can put a significant dent in your colony’s population. Putting your hives on a stand – about 18” tall – will put the entrance out of reach for your average skunk.
- Bears: We have black bears in our area and they are more common around the country than one would think. Like wasps, bears are after the larvae. The state of Vermont has a very good suggestion to keep bears out of your yard. You need an electric fence and a couple pounds of bacon. Set up your electric fence around your hives, wrap strips of bacon around the fence wires at various intervals, power up your fence. A bear’s neck, body and paws aren’t going to be affected by the charge in the average electric fence, but when it tries to steal a strip of bacon, the zap to the mouth will chase it off.
- Toads and Reptiles: Toads and small lizards will park themselves near hive entrances on warm evenings for a little bee snack. As with skunks, if you raise your hives off the ground, most toads and many reptiles cannot reach the entrance.
Pests: Along with predators, there are some animals that will invade your hives but not necessarily kill any bees. Some just get into the honey, but some, such as mice, will cause your bees to abandon the hive.
- Ants: Ants may not actually kill any bees, but who wants ants in their honey? This site has some great natural tips that may help keep ants out of your hives.
- Mice: Like ants, mice don’t usually eat bees but they will eat the honey. The most damage they do is when they establish a nest in the hive. Their feces and urine will cause a colony to abandon the hive. Mice are more often an issue in the winter because beehives are warm. Using a mouse guard in cold weather addresses this problem.
Mites: Every colony is going to have at least some mites. I’ve been lucky and haven’t had a serious mite problem. Some beekeepers recommend treating your hive for mites annually regardless of how many mites you have. Personally, I prefer to only expose my bees to chemicals if absolutely necessary. Since I’ve never treated my hives for mites, please contact a local beekeeper or you Bee Mentor for advice on this.
Tending your hives: Even established colonies need to be tended. Early on, you’ll need to check the foundations and make sure that the bees are building comb evenly across all of them. Rearrange by putting filled or nearly filled frames at the end and put an empty one near the center. Be very careful that the queen doesn’t accidentally get knocked out of the hive.
When you visit your bee yard, be sure to wear light colored clothes. Most predators have dark colors so that will often trigger the bees to defend the hive. If you don’t have a bee suit, long sleeves and long pants in white or light colors is the best option. Bring your tool tote every time you visit your hive; or at minimum, bring your hive tool. You aren’t going to know what you’ll need until you get there so be as prepared as possible. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible so that I don’t upset the bees any more than absolutely necessary.
Bee Stings: If you keep bees, you’re going to get stung eventually. Even if you’ve never had a reaction to a bee sting, you could develop an allergy. Because of that, it’s a good idea to have an Epi-pen in your tool tote along with Benadryl in your medicine cabinet. If you get stung, remove the stinger by sliding your finger nail from the side to flick the stinger out. If you pinch the stinger to take it out, you could end up injecting more venom into your system. Stinging a human will kill a honey bee. This is the main reason I avoid being stung. I hate to lose any of my bees.
Harvesting your honey: Honey is probably the #1 reason people keep bees. Honey is liquid gold. It may take a year or so before you have honey to harvest, but it’s worth the effort. I have actually not harvested honey yet, but there are dozens of YouTube videos demonstrating how it’s done. Here’s yet another area in which your mentor can help.
What I do know firsthand is that extracting equipment is expensive. Because of this, many beekeepers don’t buy their own equipment, but borrow or rent it from other keepers or apiary associations. For several reasons, we decided to buy our own equipment. Below is a list of equipment for harvesting honey:
- Extractor: This is the machine used to actually get the honey out of the comb. Extractors use centrifugal force to spin the honey out of comb. They consist of a large round kettle-type container with an internal frame that holds the foundations and spins them to fling the honey to the sides of the kettle. There are 2 ways to do this: radially and tangentially. Radial extractors fling the honey out of both sides of the foundation at the same time. Tangential extractors only do one side at a time so you have to flip the foundations to get all of the honey. There are manual and powered extractors. Manual use a handle that you crank to spin the foundations and cost significantly less than the powered ones. Many manual extractors can be converted to power with attachable motor kits. Powered extractors have a motor attached that will spin your foundations. Many powered extractors have variable speeds, as well. The best reviewed extractors are by Dadant and Maxant. With 4 hives of 10 frames each, we decided that it was worth the cost to get a powered Maxant 9-frame extractor.
- Uncapping Tank: This is 2 nested bins with some special features. The top bin has a cross piece or something at the top the rest the foundations against while you uncap the comb and the bottom of it is perforated so the honey from the caps can drain into the bottom tub. The bottom tub has a spigot to bottle the honey drained from the caps. We decided to purchase one to ensure it’s made of durable, food-grade plastic. Again, Amazon to the rescue.
- Uncapping knife: This can be as simple as large knife with a serrated blade. But it’s easier to use a heated knife which will melt the wax caps. These special uncapping knives are not terribly expensive and we felt it was worth the investment.
- Bottling bucket: This may seem like a superfluous item, but after bottling and canning other things, this sort of item makes bottling easier and less messy.
- Strainer – Your harvested honey will have bits of wax and other debris. A strainer will filter this out for you.
- Uncapping tool: This is to get all of those pesky little caps that your knife missed.
- Bottles: These can be anything. Use clean plastic or glass containers you have on hand. You can also buy honey containers from various online vendors. Amazon has empty honey bear bottles as well as countless other options.
Organic honey: One note on this…there is no such thing as organic honey. Because of the distance bees travel to forage, unless you can ensure that only organic plants are available within that radius you can’t guarantee organic honey.
Financial impact: Regardless of how self-sufficient we’re trying to be, at some point we’re going to have buy or sell things to ensure our homestead is functioning properly. The cost of honey varies significantly due to source, year, volume and vendor. I’ve seen it for as little as $5/lb to as much as $15/lb, averaging $8/lb in our area. If each of my hives produces 50 lbs of honey each year, we’ll get 200 lbs at $8/lb or $1600/year from selling honey. Granted we may not sell all or any of it, but we won’t have to buy any honey and it’s excellent to use for barter.
Establishing your bees can be pricey depending on the equipment you need. Our bee yard with 4 hives, the fence and the extracting equipment totaled about $3000 spread out over a couple of years. One of the best things about bees is that after the initial set up, there is very little cost for maintenance, probably less than $50/year for my 4 hives. Using this model, my bees cover their cost within 2 years.
Bees can be one of the most valuable investments you can make for your homestead.