This book is not intended as a general, or comprehensive book on how to keep bees. There are plenty of those available already, and much better written than I could ever do. Instead this book is intended to be a handbook to fill a gap for those wanting to practice true organic and treatment free beekeeping. Over the years I have been disappointed to find every book I could find on organic or natural beekeeping, advocated putting chemicals in the hive, even if natural and/or feeding syrup and/or pollen substitute. The methods this book focus on are those espoused by Dee Lusby, a renowned beekeeper who has kept bees for over 50 years in all parts of the world. She and her late husband Ed are pioneers in the field of treatment free bees. Their group on Yahoo has almost 6000 members, and is the one place where accurate and highly useful information can be found. She definitely bucks the trend, fighting tooth and nail to bring methods of keeping bees naturally to light. We owe her, and her late husband a big thank you.
Beekeeping has changed dramatically in the last few decades. When I first started keeping bees in the early 60’s, you could drop bees in a hive, come back 5 years later, and they would still be there, using for the most part the comb they originally built.
But due to an onslaught of various diseases and parasites, many chemicals were introduced over the years, until bees now have a more difficult time surviving treatments, than the original parasites they are used to control.
The first significant threat was the tracheal mite which was first detected in the US in the mid 80’s. These small mites would fill the tracheal tube until the bee suffocated. When it first appeared it presented a heavy toll on bees worldwide, and many hives were lost because of it.
Shortly after that the varroa mite arrived. This mite not only attacked the adult bees, but the brood as well. On top of that it was a major vector for various bee viruses, such as deformed wing virus. The mite had been a co-existing parasite of Apis cerana (Asian honey bees), which are significantly larger than honey bees. Although the mite has existed alongside honey bees for millions of years, it had never made the jump to honey bees. Yet within the last 100 years it did so. What changed? We will find out just what it was that changed, and by knowing that, we have a major element that, if restored, alleviates the threats they present.
Although when the first mites appeared, drugs and chemicals were necessary for the commercial beekeepers to survive, that fortunately is no longer the case. We now understand just what has to be done to reduce these parasites to a non-issue, and have the resistant stock and equipment to do it.
Varroa mites are also vectors for a number of bee viruses. The most common is deformed wing virus. Once bees are regressed using local feral mite resistant stock, these should become rare. In fact I have never seen one in any of my hives. Be aware though that harsh treatment of sealed brood can also cause deformed wings. So if you accidentally drop a comb of sealed brood you might see a number of these bees even with no varroa present.
The most recent threat is the small hive beetle. It is native to sub-Saharan Africa and first appeared in the US in Florida in 1998. Since then it has spread throughout the Americas. The adult beetle is not a threat to the bees, but the eggs they lay will hatch out into grubs which can devastate a hive by eating all the comb, brood, and causing the honey to ferment and drain out of the comb. Fortunately a strong hive which is bred and set up to not be bothered by mites also tends to not be susceptible to the beetles either.
This book will address how to keep bees without the use of any chemicals or drugs, and as a result produce honey surpluses that many beekeepers no longer consider possible. The methods for the most part are those that are espoused by Dee Lusby, and Michael Bush. There are some slight philosophical differences between these two pioneers, as well as those espoused in this book, but they should all be minor
Table of Contents
- Natural Cell Sizing
- Unlimited Brood Nest
- Drone Comb
- No Chemicals or Drugs
- Bottom Boards
- Feeding with pure honey and pollen
- Acquiring feral bees
- Preventing Drifting
- Water Sources
- Apiary Placement
- Hive Placement
- Skunks and Possums
- Mean Bees
- Moving Hives
When the varroa mite first appeared, it was thought that it would be impossible for honey bees to develop any resistance to them at all. USDA’s Danka was quoted as saying “Trying to breed bees resistant to varroa mites is like trying to breed sheep resistant to wolves.” But over the next couple of decades, after most colonies including wild or feral colonies, had died, the feral population begun a slow but steady recovery. Now in many if not most parts of the country the feral population is back to or near the density they were before the mites appeared. This is of course what the survival of the fittest does over time when normal evolutionary factors are not messed up by man.
Several traits have been found to be associated with varroa resistance. The first, and likely the most obvious is grooming. Just like monkeys that remove parasites from each other, bees can develop this trait. In some cases a bee can sense the mite, and do a special wiggle to tell the other bees that she needs grooming. These bees are easy to detect by using a sticky board, and looking for chewed mites, and mites missing legs.
A second trait is the ability to sense when a capped brood cell has a mite in with the pupae by the odor. These bees will uncap the cell and pull out the pupae. Although the mite will escape, it will not reproduce. This trait is referred to as being hygienic.
While bee researchers were working feverishly on developing bees with these or other mite resistant traits, such as the Minnesota hygienic lines, mother nature was doing the same throughout the world without any assistance.
So the first step is to acquire a local stock with varroa resistance.
But just as importantly, the bees must be acclimated to your area. This is the fly in the ointment so to speak when trying to acquire bees such as the Minnesota hygienic line, for places far from Minnesota. Bees acclimated to your area are imperative. They will be able to predict the flows, building up just before the major flow, and dropping their population during lulls in nectar flow. They will either raise brood throughout the winter to keep their numbers up in the southern parts of the US, or shrink to very small balls of bees in the winter, to explode in population just before the honey flow starts in the spring in the north. For the most part those which do well in the warmer regions can be differentiated from those that do well in the colder regions by observing their color. A dark bee is genetically optimized for cooler areas. The dark color absorbs sunlight warming the bee up early in the morning, and during cool weather, so she can work during those times. These bees generally come from mountainous areas of Europe, such as the Caucasians, Carniolan and Russians.
The lighter bees, mostly Italian, and in South America with African genetics, reflect more sunlight, so they don’t overheat in the heat of the day when they work. They are of course acclimated to the warmer areas. So in the Northern Hemisphere those bees acclimated to an area will go from yellow to brown and black as you move north, with intermediate shades in between.
So, the question is where do you get this naturally resistant stock, which is genetically acclimated to the area? Ordering bees and queens for the most part is a losing proposition, as they will not be varroa resistant nor acclimated, and the mites will be bred for high reproduction rates. And introducing them to your area can do more harm than good. Now there are some places which sell treatment free bees. You will find a list of these sources at the end of this booklet.
If you live near them, or in a climate which is very similar, then they might be fine for purchasing from. But if you are far north, southern bees simply will not be acclimated. You can check in your area for treatment free bees and queens, and that can be a good source if found. Where I live there are a number of apiaries which supply treatment free bees and queens.
But even though I have local treatment free sources, I do not use them. Instead I acquire what is termed feral bees. Not only are they mite resistant, gentle, and fully acclimated to the area, but they are also free. Feral bees are usually easy to obtain in the spring, from May through July.
See the chapter on “Acquiring Feral Bees” for more information at this.
If your only source for bees is to order from far away, and they are unacclimated to your area, then after they have built up sufficiently during the summer, you will need to remove the queen and let them raise another one. An unacclimated queen from the south taken to the far north is highly unlikely to make it through the winter. But if you remove her, and let them raise a new queen, she will mate with 10 to 20 local, and hopefully acclimated drones, and produce a population that will be likely be sufficiently acclimated for the area to make it through the winter. Once you have hives that are acclimated to your area and good producers, then use splits of these superior hives to increase the number of hives.
Natural Cell Sizing
What we refer to here as natural cell sizing is referred to as small cell by many people. This implies that the standard size cells are the normal, and the small are a deviation from that. Nothing could be further from the truth. Well over 100 years ago upsizing begun. The idea was that a larger bee could carry a larger load, and with the bigger is better mentality, foundation for comb grew from a normal natural size of from 4.8 to 4.9 mm to 5.4 and sometimes as large as 5.6 mm.
This is the change we referred to earlier, that allowed the varroa mite to jump to the honeybee after millions of years of living together. Since the mite was a parasite of the Asian bee which is significantly larger, the naturally sized bees were simply too small for them to proliferate. But with the upsizing of the bees, where workers became as large as naturally sized drones, they suddenly became compatible.
Besides having the larger cell of the enlarged comb to reproduce, the larger bees had looser fitting exoskeletons, so the adult mite can easily suck the adults blood, whereas the smaller naturally sized bees have tight fitting tergits or exoskeletons, making it impossible or more difficult to suck any blood.
Lastly, a varroa mite appears much larger to a bee which is not artificially enlarged, making sensing and grooming more efficient.
Also, although tracheal mites are generally no longer much of a problem, the smaller air passages in a naturally sized bee are a good defense against this parasite as well.
Letting unnaturally large bees, as you will often get if you purchase bees, regress to their natural size can easily take decades if simply allowed to build their own foundationless comb. Bees will only build comb .2 to .3 mm smaller than they are, so on the first iteration approximately 5.1 to 5.2 comb will be built by 5.4 mm bees. But regression to near natural size of 4.9 mm can be done in a couple of months to a year at most.
The simplest method is when bees are acquired, put them either on drawn small cell comb, or foundation. For most swarms this works exceedingly well. And in a couple of months you will have naturally sized bees.
But some large cell bees will simply refuse to draw naturally sized (Small cell, 4.9mm) foundation without completely messing it up. For these there is plastic comb, most notably Mann Lake PF100 and PF120. Although bees will often try to not use it, spraying with honey will usually get them to accept it. No wax combs should be present when introducing plastic comb, or the plastic comb will be totally ignored.
The other method, the one I use, is to provide the swarm with foundationless frames. After they have built comb, which will typically be around 5.1 mm if they are 5.4 to start with, and a brood cycles has emerged, move the frames to the side, and place the 4.9 foundation in the center. Since the bees that will be building new comb will be the newly emerged bees, they will happily draw the 4.9 mm foundation perfectly. The larger 5.1 or so natural comb will then be used for pollen and honey storage, which is fine.
One last problem that can be encountered when regressing oversized bees to 4.9 is that sometimes the queen is simply too fat to be able to lay in naturally sized cells. If this happens let them build some comb in foundationless frames. They will typically build 5.1 or so mm comb, and the queen will lay in it. Once there are eggs and young brood in the comb, then the queen can be removed and they will raise a new queen on the 5.1 comb that will not be too fat to lay in the 4.9.
Unlimited Brood Nest
This is essential to a strong productive hive. Many beekeepers give the bees one deep super for their brood. But if you want a strong hive, which can produce a bumper crop of honey, they need 3 deeps, or the equivalent of 6 mediums, for the brood nest. This is the bees’ part of the hive, and only those supers put above the 3rd deep will contain surplus honey for the beekeeper, unless the brood nest becomes honey bound.
Studies have shown that doubling the number of bees will generally give at least 4 times as much surplus honey. That is one hive of 60,000 bees will produce twice as much honey as 2 with 30,000. And for a hive of 120,000 bees, it will quadruple again, producing around 16 times as much honey as one with 30,000 bees. So giving the queen unlimited space to lay is essential to producing large surpluses.
With an unlimited brood nest, you will generally have two frames of honey and pollen on each side of each super. This will provide them with good insulation, and be a buffer to temperature variations. So a hive with 3 deeps, and 4 frames of honey and pollen in each will have around 100 pounds of honey for the bees. This will be sufficient to take them through any lulls in the summer, as well as provide food for winter and spring build up in all but the harshish climates.
Often the bees will fill these lower supers with honey during a flow, especially the top one. This will crowd the brood nest, a situation called being honey bound. In this case the beekeeper will need to either take those frames in the center, and extract them, or give them to another hive which is short of stores, or add another super, and move them up to the outside of that super, replacing them with empty comb, or foundation.
An unlimited brood nest will not only allow the hive to become extra strong, but will also reduce the tendency to swarm. In fact an unlimited brood nest is the one best thing a beekeeper can do to prevent swarming. So preventing it from becoming honey bound is a top priority, especially in the spring when they are more inclined to swarm.
Traditional beekeepers usually want no drone comb. To them a drone is a wasted resource. But in natural beekeeping you want about 10% of the brood comb to be drone. It should be toward the outside of the brood nest. Drones act as a magnet for parasites. The comb is located so that if a skunk or something gets to the brood, the drones will be the first to get eaten. And as we learned earlier, the varroa will reproduce in drone brood instead of worker brood if any is available. If any do end up reproducing, then it is the drones which end up with a short life, or viral diseases, not the workers, without any repercussions to the hive. Also workers go through many jobs inside the hive, from feeding the brood and queen, to housekeeping, guarding, producing wax and building comb. A worker will spend weeks inside the hive before becoming a forager so a mite that was on the worker when it emerged will have plenty of time to move to other bees and infect more brood. But a drone leaves the hive almost as soon as it emerges, and mites tend to fall off of flying bees, so many will be removed from the hive soon after emerging and before reproducing.
If your bees are regressed so they will build natural sized comb of 4.9 or smaller, then simply letting them build comb using foundationless frames will result in them putting the proper amount of drone comb in the corners. Otherwise, when using foundation, you can cut the corners of the foundation out, leaving room for the drone comb to be built.
No Chemicals or Drugs
This sounds simple enough. When the methods in this book are applied to your bees, no chemicals or drugs are needed.
Mites are a non-issue. You learn to not even think about them because they simply are not present, or in such low numbers they do not impact the hive. You will find that even dusting with sugar, as many beekeepers do, shortens the worker’s lives much more than the few mites that may be killed.
There are other chemicals often used in hives as well. When removing surplus honey, a fume board may be considered. But the natural way is to have an empty super next to the hive, and you simply remove each frame, brush the bees off, and place in the empty super. Covering it when not placing another frame in it will keep the robber bees away. Once you have transferred all the frames, then remove the empty super from the hive, and use it to place more frames the bees have been brushed from the next hive.
It is imperative that if you are starting beekeeping to start chemical free, and with 4.9 foundation. Once you have drawn comb oversized or contaminated comb, then it will have to be disposed of if chemicals are EVER used, and of course large cell comb is of limited use, only for honey storage. Although this can be done, it makes things much more difficult for swapping frames between supers and hives, so it is best to work all large cell comb out of the hives as quickly as possible.
It is a big plus to label your honey as drug and chemical free. But to do so requires no chemicals at all, not even a fume board.
Lastly many beekeepers treat for nosema and foulbrood with drugs, such as fumidil. This drug will get into the wax and honey, and cause harm to the bees over time. Once again, when comb has been exposed to this drug, it will need to be removed and disposed of. One problem with any antibiotic, including fumidil is that it kills the beneficial bacteria in the bee’s gut. When bacteria are removed the bee can have problems with digestion, conversion of nectar to honey, and degrading various poisons she is exposed to. Many beekeepers confuse diarrhea with nosema. When bees are cooped up for long periods of time during the winter, with no way to expel their waste, then the first nice day may cause them to leave and evacuate their intestines. The long period since they last did this can cause diarrhea like symptoms, but it is totally normal and nothing to be concerned about. Nosema can be caused by water condensation, and poor ventilation. Improving ventilation, such as by adding an upper entrance is normally all that is needed to prevent or cure this problem.
Foulbrood is virtually non-existent in mite resistant bees. Mites, it seems, have caused a genetic shift in those resistant to be great housekeepers, that is hygienic. The life cycle of American Foulbrood requires it to go through a vegetative and spore state. Spores are transferred via the mouth parts of an adult bee to the brood when it feeds it. But spores are only formed after capping of an infected larvae, and it dies in the capped cell. So hygienic bees will remove and take infected larvae far from hive before capping, and dying. This breaks the foulbrood cycle, making it impossible for it to reproduce.
So as unlikely as it may sound, mites have actually caused bees to become virtually immune to foulbrood, by killing those strains which are not hygienic, as long as drugs and chemicals are not introduced into the hive.
Many beekeepers use screened bottom boards. For some beekeepers this is to allow any mites which fall off, to drop down through the screen, and be unable to make their way back up into the hive. But as our bees are going to have few if any mites, this need for a screened bottom board is completely eliminated. Others use it for increased ventilation, and for this use there pros and cons.
Screened bottom boards can cause problems. They are an open door for hive beetles, which after eliminating mites, are probably the biggest worry for beekeepers. They also make it so the bees are unable to effectively control air flows, and in some areas may lead to chilled brood. All the hive debris falls to the ground, attracting ants, skunks, possums and other things which can create havoc for the hive. And if sufficient amounts accumulate, hive beetles can reproduce in it as well. Although rate, there are also reports of queens returning from their mating flight ending up on the bottom side of the screen, unable to figure out how to get back to the hive. This unfortunate set of circumstances can lead to the hive’s death since the queen must get inside, or they must raise a new one. However they will not raise a new one as long as she is caught under the hive, and they are exposed to her pheromones, then once she dies, there will be no brood to raise a new one.
That being said, there are some areas of the country where screened bottom boards appear to be beneficial. They do allow better ventilation, and help eliminate moisture build-up. In regions of high latitude, hive beetles are virtually non-existant, and thus do not pose a problem. Generally speaking, Alaska (and of course Northern Canada) and coastal areas can often benefit from screened bottom boards. Each beekeeper will need to evaluate their specific area to determine if screened bottom boards are warranted, and appropriate for their area. A screened bottom board usually has a slide which can be used to close it off, and the prudent use of this mechanism can help avoid some of the pitfalls, and adjust for different seasons.
Normally when using this system feeding is not necessary. Since you will have 3 deeps with 4 combs full of honey and pollen in each, a full sized hive should have around 100 pounds of honey for the bees use. Extreme weather, or a new hive, might cause a hive become short of stores though, especially during the summer lull, or before winter. The best way to deal with this if possible is to simply move full combs of honey from a hive with a surplus to the needy hive, a process referred to as “Robin Hooding” by Dee.
If however there is insufficient stores in any hive to allow Robin Hooding, then extracted honey can be put back into honey comb. Pouring honey over open comb will however not fill it, but will make a big mess. However if you put the honey into a squeeze container, like a honey bear or condiment squeeze bottle, and heat it slightly to make it thinner, then it can be easily squeezed into a thin stream which will go into the cells easily. Once comb is filled this way it can be placed into the needy hive. There are other methods of feeding that can be used as well. Feeding should be done internally, do not use a boardman or entrance feeder as this will often set off robbing.
Feeding should ONLY be done with pure honey that has not been heated excessively. For pollen, use real pollen to make patties. They are the only natural foods that will not cause the bees to die young.
Acquiring Feral Bees
There are 3 ways to acquire feral bees.
In April, or just before the bees start swarming in your area set out bait hives. These generally are a deep hive body with at least one comb in it. It is best if the comb has had brood raised in it. Don’t set the hive out too early, or wax moths can get started in the comb. Then place a couple of frames of foundation on each side of the brood comb(s). Then fill the rest of the space with foundationless frames.
The foundation will allow the bees to start building comb as soon as they move in. It is surprising just how much comb a swarm can build in a couple of days. This is why you want to also put in foundationless frames. They will be wide open, so the bees will sense that the cavity is large enough for them to use, and if they draw all the foundation before you can do anything with them, they will build new comb in the proper place. I had a swarm trap last year where the bees built 4 combs from the inner cover in just 3 days, when I did not provide the foundationless frames.
In the entrance of the hive place a reducer so that there is only about 3 or 4 inches open. A reducer can be easily made by cutting a strip of 3/4 pine board the height of the opening wide, and a few inches shorter than the width of the entrance.
Then you will want to bait the hive. Here you want to provide an attractant that will get a scout bee’s attention when she is scouting for a new place to live. Lemon grass oil is likely the best choice, since it contains the chemicals most prevalent in the nosonov scent that bees use to tell other bees in a swarm where to go. You can also use queen juice, which is made by putting queens you have killed in alcohol, but I have found this unnecessary.
What I do is take a small jelly jar, punch a few holes in the lid with a finishing nail, and place a piece of paper towel inside soaked with lemon grass oil. I then place this on the entrance near the opening for going into the hive. If in an area where rain can reach the jar, then I place upside down on a couple of twigs so the scent can get out, but the rain cannot get in.
I like this way because it allows a strong scent to be let out near the entrance, attracting scouts from far away. Most beekeepers put the lemon grass oil inside a small baggy inside the hive. This can be problematical since a strong scent inside the hive will drive the bees off, and a light scent will produce little outside the hive.
The second way to get feral bees is to be placed on a swarm retrieval list. Depending on the area you are in, you may contact the police, sheriff, fire department, and extension service of the university. There are web sites which maintain lists for beekeepers who want swarms. Also Craig’s list is a good place to post that you are wanting swarms.
Catching swarms is very easy, if the swarm is not too high. There are many Internet articles and Youtube videos on how to do this.
When I go on a swarm fall I take the following equipment:
- A complete hive with at least one brood comb inside, and a frame or two of foundation on each side.
- A sheet to put on the ground under the hive.
- A bottle of lemon grass oil and cotton balls to put it on
- A screened entrance block
- A red flashlight, easily found from Amazon searching for red hunting flashlight, since you will be closing and transporting after dark, and bees cannot see red light
- A ladder
- A limb cutter, with a long pole
- A cardboard box to dump the swarm into
- A bee brush
- A Veil
- A spray bottle full of water
Swarm retrieved by the author. No hives were ready, so a cardboard box was used.
The last way is a cutout, or trapout. Generally this is for experience beekeepers, and involves either exposing the comb, and cutting it out, placing it into a hive, getting as much brood as you can along with the queen, or provisioning a one way bee escape so the bees can leave and not get back in. Generally, unless the bees just moved in, it will take a month or more to do a trapout. Normally you will not get the queen, but she can be coaxed to move into the new hive with Hogan trapout. Trapouts can be researched on the Internet, and are beyond the scope of this book.
After extracting, there will be empty combs. It is best to simply place them back on the hive. The bees will keep the hive beetles and wax moths from attacking the comb.
However there may be times when this is not practical. Especially if there have been dead outs, hives that have died.
To properly store combs, without any chemicals, they first need to be free of any live hive beetle or wax moth eggs. This is most easily accomplished by putting the combs into a freezer for a couple of days. Then they need to be sealed in closed bags where the beetles and moths cannot get to them. Zip lock style, or even normal sufficiently large plastic bags to take the frames can be used if they are properly sealed. It is possible to put the frames back into a super and cover it, but it takes a very small opening anywhere in the stack to allow these pests to lay eggs inside, and the supers may contain eggs.
The above gives all the essentials to keep bees without any drugs or chemicals. There are other issues that need to be addressed for a successful operation though.
Drifting can occur when a number of hives look alike, so the bees get confused when they return and go into the wrong hive. This will result in the hives on the end of a long run of hives gaining population, while those toward the center will lose population. The most serious problem though is if a queen returning from mating goes to the wrong hive, she will be killed, and the hive will die without intervention by the beekeeper. However this can be prevented by giving the bees something they can key onto for proper location.
One method is to turn the hives different directions. I do not like this method because often there is a best direction to turn them. For instance south and east will get morning sun, resulting in earlier flights by the bees. As the old saying goes, the early bird gets the worm, in this case the early bee gets the nectar and pollen.
Another method is to place the hives with different spacing. For instance instead of placing each hive a set distance from the one next to it, place them in groupings. For instance set two, then and empty space, three, then a space, then one, and so forth.
But my preferred method is to use different colors on the hives. Bees see colors, so this works quite well. Since bees will orient using not only the color of their hive, but the one on the left and the one on the right, only every other or 3 hives needs to be colored. The only caveat is that if you have a long line of hives, make sure you do not duplicate the color sequence anywhere. A disadvantage of this is that if you need to swap out a hive body, or move it, it will mess up the colors so the bees can get confused. I get around this by painting all my hives the same color (natural cedar stain for mine), and using Velcro to attach a colored placard to the front of those hives which are colored. Below is an example of using only 2 placards on a 6 hive line.
Although bees do see full color, they do not see the colors that we do. Whereas we see the primary colors of red, green and blue, a bee sees green, blue and ultraviolet. So it is important to realize this for the proper selection of colors for the hives. For instance a bee cannot tell black from red, but can see the difference between typical white paint (which looks blue-green to them) from one that reflects ultraviolet, such as Henry’s roof paint, which will appear actually as white.
The following are bee colors that can be used effectively:
red and black – appears as black to a bee
yellow, green – appears as green to a bee
white, bluegreen – appears bluegreen
blue – appears blue
If you want more colors you can add a UV reflectance material to the paint. Hytech at hytechsales.com offers a ceramic powder that can be added to make a paint reflect in the UV range. The below assumes that a bee sees UV as we see red. This is of course highly unlikely, but we really have no way of knowing how different colors are seen by a bee, so this makes it easy for us to visualize.
Colors a bee sees when a UV reflective paint is used, or substance is added to the paint:
red – appears red
yellow, green – appears orange or yellow (more UV gives orange, less yellow)
white, bluegreen – appears white
blue – appears purple
Between the two, this gives 8 colors a bee can differentiate. However if UV paint is used, they need to be marked since they cannot be easily differentiated from those which do not reflect UV without the use of a UV camera.
Hives with colored placards
Bees need water in the summer. They use it for a form of air conditioning, similar to a swamp cooler. They also need it to mix with honey to feed the brood. Generally bees will go to a source close to the hive if available.
Often a beekeeper is disappointed when they provide a nice clean source of water next to the hives, but the bees insist on going to a neighbor’s swimming pool, or a pig wallow for their water. Realize that bees key to water by smell, and since pure water has no smell, they tend to overlook it. Pool water will smell like chlorine, and a pig wallow will smell, period. Also they may be looking for minerals that your pure water does not contain. I have often had my bees keying to my bird bath when it is full of algae, but as soon as I clean it and fill with pure clean water, they seem confused, and end up going elsewhere for the water until it gains an odor again.
Apiary placement is very important. The following should be considered for proper placement.
Normally it is best to face the hives east, southeast, or south in the northern hemisphere. This will get the morning sun, so they will get to work earlier. Consideration needs to also be given to the prevailing winds, so the entrance is facing away from them. Since most areas of the US have prevailing winds from the West, East is good as well. However consideration should also be done for the structures around the hive. For instance if placed behind a building, they should be facing away from the building generally, even if that means they will face North or West. If place near a road, or walkway, they should either be facing the other direction, or a barrier, such as a wall or hedge should be used to get their flight path up at least 6 or 7 feet high.
Hives should be placed on high ground, not in valleys. When placed in low areas fog and high moisture cause problems with mold, honey curing, noxema and hive beetles. Obviously they should be placed above any flood plains. They should be placed for morning sun if possible. They may be placed for afternoon shade for hotter areas, or full sun for cooler areas. Full sun, at least for part of the day seems to improve their chances again the small hive beetle.
In residential areas they should be placed to prevent them from flying into or near pedestrians. Also placing where the hives cannot be seen from the road can prevent problems from people who have an unnatural fear of bees. Placing on rooftops (flat roofs), or balconies often works very well.
Hives placed in the non-residential areas need also to be hidden, to prevent harassment and theft though. If bears are in the area, then the apiary should be surrounded by an electric fence. A hungry bear can completely wipe out a fair sized apiary in short order. The fence needs a solar powered charger with at least one joule of energy. Weeds can be a real problem because they can short the fence out. Use tar paper under the fence to prevent this from happening.
Do NOT place hives in a field with horses without putting a fence around them. Horses as well as cattle will often rub up against the hives to use as a scratching post, and push the hives over with disastrous results. Horses when stung tend to not run away, but stay in the same spot bucking, and kicking over the other hives.
Skunks and possums
Skunks and possums can be a problem for hives in both residential as well as non-residential areas. They will knock the bees off the entrance at night, roll them around in the dirt until the stinger is removed, then eat them. This can be prevented by putting paver stones in front of the hive which they don’t like to stand on due to the roughness, and which will not allow them to easily roll around to remove the stinger. I personally use shingles to do the same thing, as can be seen in the earlier picture.
Occasionally you will find a hive that is not as gentle as you would like. If they are in the country and good producers, that might not be a problem. If you are in a residential neighborhood though the problem will need to be addressed.
First make sure they are not stressed. Stressed bees, even normally gentle ones, can become aggressive. They can be stressed if they are raised on large cell comb, or exposed to chemicals. But since we are not doing that, look and see if any animals are bothering them. Ants, hive beetles, skunks can all stress them to the point of aggressiveness. If they are in an area with huge numbers of hive beetles you might consider using a beetle trap, such as the Freeman design. These work quite well, but require changing the oil, or adding soapy water every now and then, so there is a maintenance issue. Stress can also be caused by the queen having mated with drones of significantly different genetic makeup, so the subfamilies she is producing don’t get along.
If you have several hives and only one seems aggressive, and you can find no reason for their stress, then the hive needs to be requeened. This is easy. First verify that there are some eggs or young brood of less than 3 days old in the hive. Then find and remove the queen. She can be put into alcohol to make a swarm lure. In about a month you will have a new queen, and odds are she will produce gentle bees. If you want to maintain the bee population of the hive, you can remove a comb with eggs/young brood and nurse bees, but no queen, and place in a nuc with a couple of combs of pollen and honey. In about a month the nuc should have laying queen. Verify that she is laying a good solid pattern. Then remove the queen from the mean hive, and combine the nuc with the hive. This can be easily done by removing the cover and inner cover from the mean hive, placing a screen wire over the hive, and placing nuc frames moved to a normal hive body above the screen. Leave for a day so the odors will completely mix, then remove the screen.
Normally foundation for brood or extraction will have wires in it. This may seem sufficient, but as it turns out, the foundation will often bow out, messing up the final comb. Also it will still be easy to blow the comb out when extracting. Cross wiring with wires is essential to prevent both. When cross wiring, the wires will pull into the wood unless something is done to prevent it. I like to use the eyelets in the holes in the end bars, but some simply put a staple across to remove the stress of the wire. Once wired, be sure to use a crimping tool to tighten the wire, and an embedder to embed it. There are a number of videos on the net that demonstrate how to do this. I find that a wire strung between the middle two holes of a deep frame are sufficient, although many use all 4 holes, or more. Be sure to also wire any foundationless frames, the bees will build the comb right over the wires, strengthening them.
Normally when opening a hive you will want the smoker lit and ready. Lighting a smoker is almost an art form. First start with some kindling. This can be some newspaper, leaves, burlap, or similar material. Light it and drop it into the bottom of the smoker. Then puff the bellows until it is fully ignited. Then stuff the material you want to smolder down on top of it, and puff the bellows again until you are getting clouds of cool white smoke.
The fuel can be a number of possible things. Burlap makes a good fuel, but you must make sure that is is not chemically treated with fireproofing, insecticide, or dyed. Dry leaves also make a good smoker fuel (be careful which leaves you use though, tobacco and poison ivy are two you definitely want to avoid), as do pine needles. My preference though is wood shavings. Bags of this can be purchased at pet stores or the pet department of places like Walmart. I find that pine and aspen make very good fuel. Avoid cedar though as it contains a natural insecticide. When using pine needles, or wood shavings, there is a tendency for them to fall out the mouth of the smoker when you turn it down to smoke, so I stuff a small piece of burlap into the inside of the smoker to keep them inside.
The rule of thumb when moving hives is no more than a couple of feet, or less than a couple of miles. If you move a hive between these two many of the bees will leave to forage, then return to the old location. If you must move a distance that is not far enough, then put some grass clippings or something on the entrance or a branch in front of the hive so they will take notice when they leave that something has changed and re-orient.
To move a hive wait until dark. Use a red light to see with. Bees cannot see red. Strap the hive together using a ratchet strap so it won’t come apart. Once dark, use a spray bottle with water in it to spray any bees on the entrance so they will go inside. Then seal the entrance with a ventilated entrance block. You can use some small hardware cloth, screen wire, or make one out of a piece of wood with the center routed out, and covered with cloth or burlap. Tack the entrance block down, then put the hive on the back of a pickup truck, and take to the new location. Once placed in the final position, remove the entrance block. In the morning they will reorient, and usually be bringing in pollen and nectar within an hour.
Two homemade ventilated entrance blocks. The aluminum one has a sliding door on it.
Removing and Extracting Surplus
First year hives will spend most of their resources on making bees, and drawing out comb. Since we will be letting the bees keep the first 12 deep frames of honey and pollen, two on each side of each of the first 3 deeps, they will have to bring that much in and store it, it is unlikely they will produce any, or much surplus honey.
A rule of thumb is that having to draw combs for honey will reduce the amount stored by about 50%. Thus when drawing comb, much of what would otherwise be surplus is used to make the wax for the combs.1
When it is time to remove any surplus do so using the method outlined earlier, with NO chemicals. A rule of thumb is to make sure that the honey is at least 90% capped if extracting, and it should be 100% capped if cutting out for comb honey. If too much is uncapped, the resulting extracted honey will exceed 19% moisture, and the result is that it will ferment over time. Fermented honey can be fed back to the bees if only slightly fermented. Otherwise about the only use for it is to make mead.
I highly recommend purchasing a honey refractometer. They are readily available from ebay and Amazon for around the price of 5 pounds of honey. When extracting frames of honey that have a significant amount of uncapped nectar, you can monitor the moisture content, making sure it stays between 16 and 18.5 percent. If the content is running too high it is better to return some frames of uncured honey to the hive for further curing, than to have the entire batch of honey ferment.
If you do not have an extractor then either the comb should be cut out, and packaged and sold as comb honey, or cut out, squeezed and strained for liquid honey. Although I recommend using vertically wired foundation for extracting, it should not be used for comb, or squeezed honey. Realize that if you are losing the comb when you remove the honey, you will likely get less than half as much honey as if you extracted and returned the comb.
Even if you do not have an extractor, you might find a local beekeeper, or local bee club will have one you can use. Otherwise one can be purchased for under $200 on ebay or Amazon.
When extracting the cappings must be removed first. This can be done with an uncapping knife, or capping scratcher. Normally the knife is used on the majority of the comb, but any indents or hard to reach areas are scratched with a scratcher. Uncapping knives can be electrically heated, or heated by dipping in hot water. Make certain if dipping in hot water that it is wiped off before uncapping, or the additional water will get into the honey, and may result in it exceeding 18.5%.
If using a hand crank extractor, place the frames with uncapped honey into the basket, one on each side. Point one to the left, and the other to the right. Then slowly spin in the direction with the bottom bar of the frame leading. Spin for a minute, or more if the honey is thick. Then turn the frames around, and spin the other direction. After about a minute, increase the speed from moderate, to as fast as you can crank it for another 30 seconds or a minute. Finally reverse the frames again, and spin as fast as possible in the original direction.
The cappings need to be drained, then squeezed out. Strain all liquid honey before bottling. Do NOT filter as this will remove pollen and other nutrients. Do not heat in excess of 120F, or enzymes will be disabled.
Replace supers back on the hives for the bees to clean up and to keep the moths and beetles from destroying the comb, and so they can refill them. If unable to place back on hives, freeze them for 48 hours, then seal in plastic bags until needed again.
If possible use a dehumidifier in the honey house, and monitor the humidity level. It is best if the humidity can be kept below 55%, in which the honey will not absorb sufficient water to cause fermentation. If the humidity is higher then it is imperative that the honey be protected from absorbing moisture. Capping should not be left to drain in open air, and honey should not be stored in a barrel without a tight fitting lid. It should be bottled as soon as possible. Once again a refractometer is very useful for monitoring the level of moisture at all times. Make sure to bottle honey stored in a barrel before it has a chance to crystallize. Dealing with crystallized honey in a barrel will be quite difficult.
The organic beekeeping list on Yahoo ( https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Organicbeekeepers ) is an excellent source for information. This group is moderated by Dee Lusby, and often visited by Michael Bush, as well as myself. Questions are normally quickly answered by some of the six thousand natural beekeepers who frequent the group. Be forewarned however that any mention of treating the bees with any chemicals, or feeding with anything but honey and pollen will be quickly squelched. Dee’s write-ups are available at http://www.beesource.com/point-of-view/ed-dee-lusby/
Treatment Free and Small Cell (4.9 mm) suppliers:
Anarchy Apiaries Florida http://anarchyapiaries.org TFSC
April Lance Bees San Francisco Bay Area, Ca http://aprillancebees.com/ TF
Arnold Honeybee Services Knoxville, TN http://arnoldhoneybeeservices.com TF
Beeweaver Apiaries Lynn Grove, TX http://www.beeweaver.com/ TF
Dixie Bee Supply Lula, GA www.dixiebeesupply.com SC
Gold Star Honeybees Gardiner, Maine http://www.goldstarhoneybees.com TFSC
Bjorn Apiaries, Lewisberry, Pa. http://www.bjornapiaries.com TF
Happy Hollow Honey New River Valley region of southwest Virginia http://www.happyhollowhoney.com/ TF
Kirk Webster kirkwebster.com Middlebury, Vt. TF
Michael Bush Nehawka Nebraska bushfarms.com/bees.htm TFSC
Myron Kropf TFSC
Parker Farms Denver Colorado http://parkerfarms.biz/index.html TFSC
Pleased Bees http://www.pleasedbees.com Seattle Area, Wa TFSC
Yard Birds, Boston Ma. http://www.yardbirdsfarm.com/Beekeeping/ TFSC
Wehrloom Honey western North Carolina http://www.wehrloom.com TFSC
Wolf Creek Centerville TN wolfcreekbees.com SC
1. From Beeswax Production, Harvesting, Processing and Products, Coggshall and Morse pg 41
“A pound (0.4536 kg.) of beeswax, when made into comb, will hold 22 pounds (10 kg.) of honey. In an unsupported comb the stress on the topmost cells is the greatest; a comb one foot (30 cm.) deep supports 1320 times its own weight in honey.”
According to Whitcomb’s 1946 experiment, 6.66 to 8.80 pounds of honey yields 1 pound of wax. (Beeswax Production, Harvesting, Processing and Products, Coggshll and Morse. Wicwas Press. 1984-06-01. p. 35. ISBN 1878075063.)
Using that data it takes about 7.5 pounds of honey to produce comb which will store 22 pounds of honey. That is approximately a pound of honey to produce the wax to store 3 pounds of honey. The bees building the comb and making the wax will not be foraging for nectar, and thus less nectar will be brought into the hive and stored. I believe the impact of that is about 25%. With that consideration, I would expect, and experience seems to confirm, that when the bees have to replace comb instead of simply filling comb, the impact on surplus honey is on the order of about a 50% reduction.