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The Blog

Will Work for Bees

Tara Chapman

You’ve got your equipment, and decided on your hive type, and now you just need bees!  Believe it or not, many beekeepers breed bees just to help supply hobbyists with the opportunity to become beekeepers!  Today I will lay out your options, and the pros and cons of each. 

A Package of Bees

A package of bees is a screened box that includes approximately 10,000 worker bees (give or take a few).   Think of a package as a sort of swarm in a box.  Beekeepers go out to their strongest hives and literally shake bees from those hives into these boxes.  They are sold in 3 pound increments, and each is given a newly mated queen.  The queen will come in a separate tiny screened box called a queen cage.  Because these bees come from many different hives with existing queens, they need some time to accept the newly-provided queen. This queen cage allows them access to her pheromones but provide her protection from these bees that would otherwise be inclined to kill her.  Once you buy a package, they need to be installed into your hives as soon as possible, and no more than a day or two after you pick them up.  You install a package by shaking the bees into your own hive woodenware and hanging your queen between two frames. 

Look at Jackie and how excited she is about her two new package of bees!

Look at Jackie and how excited she is about her two new package of bees!

A Nuc Hive

A nucleus hive, or “nuc”, is a tiny version of a regular hive.  You generally receive 5 frames of various stages of brood (developing bees), worker bees, a laying queen, and honey in a cardboard or plastic box.   The beekeeper has made a split, or increase, off of their existing hives by pulling 4 frames of brood and one frame of honey and given this mini hive a new queen, using the same queen cage method described above.  You install this into your own woodenware by simply lifting the frames out of the nuc box and placing them into your own hive bodies. Presuming your nuc box is ventilated and has an entrance, you don’t need to install the nuc into your hive right away.  Place the nuc in the same spot as your hive and open the entrance, allowing the bees to start to orient themselves to their new home and begin foraging for food.  Particularly if the bees are on a nectar flow, they may run out of space in the nuc very quickly, so be sure to install within a week of pickup. 

So, which should I buy?

Theoretically, a nuc hive puts you a bit ahead of the game.  The nuc already has 5 drawn out frames of brood and stored honey, whereas the bees in the package are starting from scratch. That being said, I generally encourage brand new beekeepers to start hives off of packages at least once.  Watching a box of bees make a home of out nothing is quite a sight.  Also, nucs tend to be much more expensive.  Finally, keep in mind if you buy a nuc that you have to ensure you have the right size hive body to fit the nuc frames.  Almost all beekeepers sell deep size nucs, though a few sell medium size nucs.  Here at Two Hives we run all medium brood boxes in our hives because I like the interchangeability of only running one hive body size, so all of our nucs are mediums.   

“Free Bees”

There is a third option, and the one that sounds the most appealing.  “Free bees” entails catching a swarm or doing a live hive removal of a wild hive.  However, I don’t recommend these options for beginners for a few reasons.  First, you aren’t guaranteed to come across either, and if you have your heart set on keeping bees you are better served ordering bees to guarantee you can start a hive.  Second, while swarm catching is pretty simple, it does require basic understanding of how a colony functions and you will be much better at swarm catching after a year of tending bees under your belt.  A lot can go wrong very quickly with hive removals, so I’d leave this one to the professionals for now.  

A Few Final Tips

Finally, unless you live in Europe, Asia, or Africa, honey bees are not native to your area.  Therefore, I always recommend folks try to find a queen bee breeder in your region to ensure the bees are adapted to your climate.  Second, I also generally recommend you research your options carefully to learn a bit more about what practices they employ, such as what treatments or antibiotics they use, and ensure they select for hygienic behavior and gentle temperament.  I also get a lot of questions about what sub-species to look for, such as Italian or Russian honey bees.  Rather than looking for these particular-sub species, Id focus on the breeder’s practices and ability to select for ideal traits.

Happy bee-tending!!


Would you like to get 5 years of beekeeping experience in just 6 Saturdays? If so, check out our Beek Apprenticeship.  Our inaugural class was afforded the opportunity to do two live cut-outs of established hives! 

 

 

Ergo ergonomics.

Tara Chapman

Beekeepers are a sturdy bunch. Not surprisingly, it seems dealing with tens of thousands of stinging insects attracts a hardy bunch of folks! Even still, we all have our limitations.  Whether we are battling a physical constraint or just working on improving our physical ability and stamina, a few tips and tricks can go a long way.  In this month's column, I will provide you some of my best practices for lessening the load we beekeepers have to carry.

Buck tradition.

I am constantly baffled as to why beekeepers choose to use two different size boxes in their apiary.  The ‘standard’ is generally 1-2 deeps for your brood, and then moving to medium boxes for honey supers.  I’ve always found this to be silly, particularly for a hobbyist, but I suppose one could present a few arguments on why one should start with a deep:

1.  Using 1-2 deeps cuts down on the number of total boxes required.  This is true, but given that a medium frame of honey weighs 4 pounds and a deep frame weighs 6-7 pounds,I’lll go through the effort of moving an extra box.  Of course, there may be a slight additional cost involved, but I’ll take a healthy back over saving a few bucks. 

2. You will never have to move the brood box, and it will never be full of honey.  As much as we like to argue what will and will not happen in a hive, the bees will decide to do what they will do.  Plus, if you flip brood boxes when you come out of winter or ever plan to clean or replace your bottom board, you will need to move that bottom box.

Now a few, more compelling arguments (in my opinion), in favor of moving to medium boxes:

1.         The most weight you will be required to move at one time is 35-40 pounds.  A deep full of honey will weigh up to 70 pounds.

2.         Shoulder strain is real. Don’t underestimate the strain on your shoulders by simply holding those heavier deep frames.  I use all mediums, and when I inspect my clients’ deep frames, the weight is significantly more taxing on my upper body.

3.         Imagine a world of complete interchangeability between all your hives! No more realizing you brought deep frames when you actually needed mediums, and vice versa.

Plus, if you elect to do 8 frame boxes, then you are again decreasing the maximum weight of each box. Of course, another obvious solution is to just use a top bar, and then you eliminate all stooping and bending in general. However, although I started on top bars, I much prefer my foundation-less langstroth frames and I don’t like telling someone their only option is a top bar!   

Take a seat. 

I personally don’t find the lifting involved in beekeeping particularly taxing outside of the harvest season, which is a very short period of the year. However, I do find stooping over hives and a day full of bending at the waist to look inside langstroth hives really does a number on my back the next day. If you find this equally as stressful on your lumbar spine, consider bringing a small stool.  Although I don’t usually advocate for more sitting (generally we do far too much of that in our society!), this will allow you to inspect your bottom-most boxes more easily while acting as a back saver. 

Anna Gieselman, of Bee Amour Jewelry in Austin, uses a cinder block as a stool to aid in keeping her back in good shape during inspections!

Anna Gieselman, of Bee Amour Jewelry in Austin, uses a cinder block as a stool to aid in keeping her back in good shape during inspections!

Raise ‘em up.

I would also recommend you elevate your hives at least 6 inches off the ground. Not only does this help with ventilation and deter certain predators such as possums and skunks, it puts your hive a little bit closer to your center of gravity. However, refrain from elevating your hives too high.  Depending on how tall you are, you want to keep in mind that you will be adding supers during a nectar flow and you don’t want to get in a position where you are having to lift 40 pound supers over your head.  I’d set up your hive with as many boxes as you would expect to have during a strong flow, and play around with the height a bit to make sure it is manageable.   

Get some wheels. 

I invested in a sturdy utility cart this year, and I am really excited at what it will do for me come harvesting time.  Most of my hives are urban, so I don’t have the benefit of driving the truck right up to the hive and my boxes have to be carried 20-50 yards.  Look for one with large heavy duty wheels if you expect to have to pull it over rough terrain. Also look for one whose sides can drop down to act as a flat bed cart if the need arises. 

Props are your friend.

Use an entrance reducer as a sort of wedge to help as you remove upper hive bodies.

Use an entrance reducer as a sort of wedge to help as you remove upper hive bodies.

Some of my beekeepers have a hard time removing the top super or brood box in a langstroth hive, not just because of weight, but because once you use your tool to break the propolis seal on one side of the box, it can take some hand trickery to keep that side of the box elevated while you switch your hand grip to lift.  If you find this challenging, use a wedge of some sort (an entrance reducer works perfectly!) in between the two boxes.  This will keep the seal broken and the side of the box elevated while you readjust your grip.  If you like to break the seal on both sides of the box before you lift, then simply use the same technique on the opposite side with another entrance reducer.

Also, I find that the last 12 inches of setting those supers on the ground is the most opportune time for an injury.  Rather than setting them on the ground, set it on the hive next door if you have one. Keep in mind you want to make sure the cover is on the hive first. You’d never want to set a hive body on another open hive.  If you don’t have a hive nearby that makes this practical, install something that can act as a sort of small stand or table next to the hive that allows you to set the hive bodies between knee and waist height. 

Work smarter, not harder.

Using 8 frame mediums and still having an issue lifting? Bring an empty hive body into the apiary, and remove a few of the frames into the empty box before lifting the hive body. Just moving 2 frames will take up to 8 pounds off the total weight.  Also, remember not every inspection requires you inspect every frame.  In fact, I very rarely look at every frame in a hive, unless I am requeening and she’s playing hard to get. If you have 6 hives and pull only 4 frames from each hive instead of 10 or more per hive, you are saving your shoulders a lot of extra work. 

Remember what your momma told you.

The basics of course apply here.  Lift with your legs, not your back.  What this means, in case you never paid attention in gym glass, is you don’t want to bend at the waist but rather you want to push your knees out and squat down before lifting.  This takes the strain out of your back and puts in on your glutes and legs, where it belongs.  Also be sure to engage your abdominal muscles when you lift.  Staying active outside of the bee yard and lifting weights will go a long way to preserving your ability to keep bees well into your golden years.  Olympic lifting is a favorite past time of mine, and it makes my daily work easier and helps ensure an injury-free work zone.

Tool around. 

If you have small hands and you have a hard time managing your hive tool, try out a few of the ‘fancy’ tools out on the market.  Look for a tool that is more narrow and longer than the traditional tool for easier handling and more leverage.  A J-hook hive tool has a hook that helps to pry frames out of a hive.   Personally, I prefer the traditional old-school hive tool and perhaps with a few tips it may work just fine for you as well:  I find that I really only need the first three fingers on each hand to move frames and even lift boxes, which means my ring finger and pinky are free to hold the tool in the palm of my hand.  This means I don’t have to keep setting my tool down to work, and am not spending a lot of time trying to figure out where I put it!  Using your first three fingers only also helps you remember to pinch the outer edge of your frames, rather than death gripping underneath the end of the frame.  If you are used to the latter, then you know how hard it is to get your hands out of the way when you are trying to insert that last frame in the hive. If you use the pinch technique, then you will have an easier time squeezing in that last frame. 

Keep your hive tool tucked under your last two digits to free your first three fingers for bee work. 

Keep your hive tool tucked under your last two digits to free your first three fingers for bee work. 

Hope these tips keep your back healthy and you keeping bees well into your golden years!


 

This blog originally appeared in the monthly Kelley Bees Newsletter in my bi-monthly column "The Townie Bees".  Subscribe at https://www.kelleybees.com. 

 

 

This or that? Choosing your hive type.

Tara Chapman

One of the challenging aspects of starting a hobby as a beekeeper is you are required to make a number of important decisions when you know very little and have almost no, if any, beekeeping experience!  One of those decisions is what time of hive you will keep. While there are several types of hives, the two most common in North America are the top bar hive and the langstroth.  I started on top bars, but moved to langstroth in my second year of beekeeping.  Langstroth hives are used by commercial beekeepers and most hobbyists, though top bars are becoming more popular.  Beekeepers, both hobbyist and professional, tend to be very opinionated and strong willed about the ‘right’ way to keep bees, and like most things, I find that most folks tend to keep whatever type of hive they are first introduced to. Speaking (very) generally and probably unfairly stereotypically, folks that keep top bars think that the langstroth beekeepers clearly all treat with toxic chemicals and are single handedly responsibly for the decline of the honey bee population, while folks that keep langstroths think top bar beekeepers are hippies that don’t shave their legs and are overly idealistic. 

All of that is nonsense, and either type of hive has proven to work just fine, but it’s important you find one that works best for you!  I’ve broken down some of the considerations below,  and I hope it will help you make this decision. Some of the terms I use below may be new to you, but don’t fret.  For now, just understanding how these considerations apply to your situation and determining your priorities in a hive is most important!

Langstroth Medium Hive Kit

Langstroth Medium Hive Kit

Top Bar Hive

Top Bar Hive

Do you even lift, bro?

This is where the top bar really shines, due to the lack of lifting and stooping required to work your bees.  Because the bees build from the front of the hive to the back, and you don’t have any way to add additional space, top bars require no heavy lifting. Further, the hive is at waist level, so you can work comfortably standing straight up.  You should be able to life 40 pounds if you decide to go the way of the langstroth. Keep in mind you won’t be lifting boxes that heavy year round, just during honey season! However, if lifting that amount even a few times a year will be challenging for you, consider choosing a top bar hive.

BOTTOM LINE: If lifting and bending is an issue, choose a top bar.

 

Got my mind on my honey and my honey on my mind.

Your bees can theoretically produce more honey in a langstroth hive over a top bar, because you can add additional space for their honey stores.  In a top bar hive, when the bees hit the back wall and still need more space, they will be looking to swarm (or you can decide to split.) But in a langstroth, you can add additional boxes ahead of the honey flow, or decrease as necessary.  Of course we have already established that you aren’t keeping bees with honey as primary motivation, so this a moot point, right!?  ;)

BOTTOM LINE: Langstroths can arguably produce more honey, but there are so many other factors involved in honey production (many out of your control), that you should mark this off your considerations list.

 

Meets the Standard

Although it is now fairly simple to find a top bar hive manufacturer, not too many years ago if you wanted a top bar you had to build it yourself.  However, because manufacturers are just now coming around to mass producing top bar hives, no industry standards exist for these hives.  Whereas if you buy an 8 frame hive body from us, an 8 frame inner cover from another company, and an 8 frame bottom board from yet another producer, they will all fit together just fine!  Once you select a top bar hive manufacturer, you maybe ‘stuck’ with buying any additional top bars from that same company.  Of course, if you decide to build your own top bar and are ok continuing to fabricate additional hives and parts, this point doesn’t matter.  Almost all accessories are also meant to be paired with a langstroth hive, though we don’t think most of these accessories are critical anyway. 

TIP:  If you go the route of the langstroth, I strongly encourage you to use all medium hive bodies, rather than the ‘industry standard’ of starting with one or two deeps for your brood boxes and mediums for your honey supers.  You’ll thank me when you reach for a frame and realize you don’t have to check twice to ensure you have the right size frame, because all of your frames take the same size! 

BOTTOM LINE: If standardization of equipment is critical, go with a langstroth, and choose medium hive bodies. 

 

You Better Work.

Top bars do require a bit more maintenance, particularly early on.  Personally, I can inspect a langstroth hive much more quickly than I can a top bar, because I can manipulate and handle the frames quicker and I don’t have to be as concerned about breaking comb.  On the other hand, the beauty of a top bar is if you just need to pull a few combs, you expose and ‘disturb’ a much smaller portion of the nest with each frame you pull.  If you are planning to run a large number of hives, then perhaps the time needed to inspect shoud be considered, but if you are just running a few hives this probably isn’t a concern.

BOTTOM LINE: Langstroth require less work and time, but unless you are looking to become a sideliner professional beekeeper, this metric is negligible.   Enjoy the time you get with your bees, and don’t look at is as a job.

 

If you’ve got the money, honey

This category is a sort of toss up.  Top bar hives, when purchased from a third party, tend to be relatively more expensive.  You can get a decent langstroth hive for under few hundred bucks, whereas top bars can run you over $400. (Word to the wise: there are a number of cheap langstroth hives on the market, but remember you get what you pay for.  Look for hives made from materials that are longer lasting and that don’t require treatment or painting.) On the other hand, if you or someone you know is handy with a saw and nails, you can build your own top bar from reclaimed materials for pennies!  Make sure you look for plans online, as proper spacing and size of your top bars is critical.

BOTTOM LINE: If affordability is your priority, choose a langstroth made from long-lasting materials or build your own top bar from plans. 

A table summary of the two main types of hives. 

A table summary of the two main types of hives. 


 

Questions? Don't hesitate to contact us!  We are continuing our winter series of blogs to help you get started as a beekeeper next spring.  Next month, look for a blog on choosing foundation type for your langstroth hive.  

All The Stuff.

Tara Chapman

A guide to the essential gear and tools for the beginner beekeeper

You’ve ordered your bees, and you know it’s time to get all your tools, gear, and equipment! This is the fun part right? Who doesn’t love gadgets!  You grab a beekeeping catalog, or perhaps peruse a few online beekeeping sites, and you suddenly have paralysis of the brain.  How are there SO MANY tools, gadgets, bells, whistles?!  Literally the marketplace has thousands of items you can buy pertaining to beekeeping.  I remember selecting gear for my first hive, and it was enough to send me screaming for the hills.  How are you ever supposed to wade through it all?

I am a minimalist beekeeper.  I have a few trusty tools, and a few fun things, but for the most part, you will never see me with more than 2 or 3 items in a bee yard.  To help you navigate through the mess of stuff, I took a few moments this week to lay out the absolute must-haves, along with a few items you may want to consider.  I’ve also provided a few tips when selecting among the many available options.  As long as you have the following basics in your bee bucket, you will be prepared.  We also carry all of the high quality gear we use in our own apiaries in our Austin storefront. Come pay us a visit!  And Happy beeking! (beek= bee +geek.)

(A quick caveat: the below does NOT discuss the different hive types and what to look for when shopping for your hive woodenware, or the home to house your bees.  That is a discussion that needs a whole blog all to it’s self, and I will have that for you in the coming weeks!)   

The Must Haves.

Entrance Reducer

Entrance Reducer

Entrance reducer: One of the benefits our tended hives have, as opposed to those in the wild, is that we can increase and decrease both the size of the hive and the entrance.  Entrance size is important because we can give a strong hive a larger entrance to prevent traffic jams in the busy foraging months, and we can decrease the entrance size when the hive is weaker and doesn’t have as many resources to defend the entrance.  Also, reducers are recommended until a new hive becomes established and used again in the winter to decrease the cold winds into the hive.  If you keep top bars, you can use cork plugs to decrease your number of entrances to the same affect.  You will need one entrance reducer per hive.

Tip: in a pinch most anything can be used as a reducer. At times I’ve realized I needed a reducer and have utilized a large stick, broken to the right size. Keep in mind anything you place at the entrance that the bees cannot remove will be propolized to the bottom board. 

Smoker:  Your smoker is the pop to your tart.  The peanut butter to your jelly.  Never, and I mean never, inspect a hive without a lit smoker in your hand.  If you’ve taken a class with me you know I don’t like to preach a certain philosophy of beekeeping, but this is one area where I stand firm.  Cool smoke (look for another blog soon on how to light a smoker!) interferes with the defender bees’ communications systems, and it also provides a great tool to move bees away from an area so you can move without squishing bees.  Inspecting a hive without a smoker is asking for trouble, and a smoker allows you to stay one step ahead of any forseen aggression.  A good quality smoker will last for decades, but with frequent use you may need to change the bellows every few years.  Some smokers have a cone shaped upper and some have a domed shaped upper. There's no real difference in functionality, just like a handbag, choose the one that goes best with your shoes. 

Smoker

Smoker

Hive Tool

Hive Tool

Hive tool:  Consider this tool your third hand. Bees gather propolis, a microbial and extremely sticky substance from the sap of trees.  They use this “bee glue” to seal up all crevices and holes in the hive, and they will glue all your woodenware parts together.  Your hive tool is used like a crow bar to help pry open all the hive components.  Never jerk a box or frame out of the box without loosening it with your tool first.  Best case scenario, you are apt to break a wooden component (yes, this stuff is that strong!).  Worst case, you may yank up a box and instead pull up the entire hive, which may break mid air, dropping a whole hive to the ground.  A certain beekeeper I know that owns an awesome little honey company in Austin has done this a time or two when she was in a big rush and couldn’t find her hive tool…. 

Feeder: To feed or not to feed, that is the controversial question.  While I like to show restraint and sound judgment in taking care to not supplemental feed bees when it’s not necessary, except to produce an intended result just for the benefit of us humans, a point in time will come when you have to feed your bees.  Feeding a brand new hive is critical to help them build enough comb to become established, and often times the weather just doesn’t cooperate and feeding sugar water is necessary.  You have lots of feeder options, and it’s important to find the one that best suits yours and your bees’ needs. We prefer to feed over an inner cover with an inverted jar or pail, or at the entrance with a boardman/entrance feeder from time to time.  The beauty of purchasing a boardman/entrance feeder is that this one feeder gives you two configuration options. You can use the bottom feeding piece to feed at the entrance, or pitch it and just use the perforated lid to feed over an inner cover.  A double jar feeder gives you twice the capacity of a regular entrance feeder. If you have multiple hives, you may want to buy or make a few different feeder options to decide what works best for you.  You will need one feeding component per hive.

Ventilated Jacket and Veil

Ventilated Jacket and Veil

Protective gear: The level of protective gear you select is a very personal decision, and needs to match your comfort level working bees.  I always recommend at least one fuller coverage piece, which means either a full suit or a jacket and veil combination.  While I rarely wear more than a veil, a time will come when you will need and want a piece with more coverage.  Start with a more protective piece, and as your comfort level grows you can move to less gear. A tip for those of you in hotter climates: (Texans, are you listening?) I strongly recommend you consider ventilated gear. While it is heavier than typical cotton protective gear, it is significantly cooler and is actually more sting resistant.  You will thank me come summer hive inspections.  Finally, don’t go cheap on your gloves.  You will want a sturdy thick glove, because bees can’t sting through some of the thinner materials.    A final note: you will become the most popular kid on the block once you have bees.  It’s a great idea to have one or two veils and sets of gloves for guests so you can do your very own hive tours!

The Optionals to Consider

Langstroth Comb Stand

Langstroth Comb Stand

Comb stand: I have recently added these handy frame stands to my beekeeping arsenal.  They hang on the side of your hive and allow you a place to hang a frame or two to give you some space to work in the hive, as opposed to leaning a frame up against the hive.  I did the latter during inspections for a long time, but the practice does increase the chance that you may kick a frame, squish a queen, and if you have foundationless frames, new tender comb can fall out of the hive on a hot day if not kept perpendicular to the ground. (Wanna feel like a really horrendous beekeeper?  Handle your frames carelessly and let tender comb fall and watch helplessly as the hard work of thousands of bees drop to the ground, wasting honey or perhaps even killing brood.  The first time it happens is enough to make you wanna cry. Know that it will happen to you, as it has happened to almost all of us.  Vow to be more careful, and carry on! If it was a frame of honey, move the comb at least 15 feet from the hive to prevent robbing and the bees will find the discarded comb and carry the honey back into the hive.  

Bee Brush

Bee Brush

Beebrush: I carry a bee brush in my truck and though I rarely use it, it becomes critical for those few times that I do need it.  A brush is used to brush bees off a frame, your veil, or wherever else bees are hanging out that you’d rather they not.  I recommend using the brush sparingly, as they do not enjoy a good brushing and will get agitated very quickly.  If you have a frame covered in bees and you need them to move, a quick downward jerking motion of the frame will knock most of the bees off, and then you can use the brush to remove the few remaining bees.  

Hive stand: If you have read our blog on how to prepare your backyard apiary, then you know we recommend raising your hives off the ground at least 6 inches. You can use something as simple as 2 cinder blocks, build your own, or purchase a hive stand.  If you have a top bar, a stand is not necessary as your hive will already be elevated on legs to waist height. Keep in mind you need one stand option for each hive, and remember that if you are building your own, the stand must be able to withstand several hundred pounds in weight, at least.


I hope this helps guide you through those overwhelming catalogs. Stay tuned for more blogs soon to help you prepare for your spring bees!  

Getting Started: The Townie Bees

Tara Chapman

Here at Two Hives, we specialize in helping urban beekeepers get started.  While the basics of beekeeping are the same whether you are in the city or on a 20 acre farm, urban beekeeping does have some special considerations. Over the coming months we will be writing a series of blogs geared towards brand new beekeepers!  In this, our first in the series, I an answering the most common questions I get that pertain specifically to wannabe (wannabee!?) urban beekeepers looking to place bees on rooftops and small garden plots. 

Will my bees have plenty to eat?  You may be surprised to hear that my urban bees here in Austin do just as well, or even better, than my hives on more rural plots outside the city!  The reason? Landscaping. (I’d also be remiss if I failed to mention that Austin is a city full of folks that value herb and vegetable gardens over “useless” manicured lawns.)  Keep in mind bees will forage up to 3 miles for food (or 5, depending on who you ask).  But if they don’t have to travel that far, they will be more productive and conserve more energy overall.  Take a look around your neighborhood.  Is yours one full of rose bushes and well tended grass, or is it more common to find gardens, vines, and native blooms? If it’s the latter, your bees may be well taken care of. I preach that your bees are ultimately YOUR responsibility to feed, and I’m not talking about sugar water.  Unsure about what to plant?  Check out this blog to learn a bit more about how to select bee friendly plants for your yard.  I wasn’t born with a green thumb (a yellow one perhaps?) but I focus on hardy herbs such as rosemary and sage and plants native to my region to help ensure my success. Think of plants that bloom outside of your region’s main growing season to help extend your bees’ forage calendar. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s website has an extensive database of plants that are of special value to honey bees.  Filter by those native to your state, plant type, bloom period, light requirement and more. For my Texan beekeepers, if even that is too much trouble, check out these Texas native seed mixes. 

I have chickens/dogs/kids.  Surely they can’t coexist harmoniously!? Let’s take these one by one. 

Chickens: I have seen no reason to have concerns about chickens, and several of my hives are a mere few feet from chicken coops.  Chickens have been known to eat dead bees, and if you choose to employ the practice of drone culling to control for varroa mite, chickens love to eat larvae!

Dogs: Generally speaking, dogs likely pose more of a concern to individual honey bees than the other way around.  For some reason most dogs love to try to bite honey bees out of the air!  Of course, if a dog chooses to stick his nose in the front of a hive, the bees will quickly educate him that he is invading their space.  Most dogs are quite intelligent and will learn to not stick their nose where it doesn’t belong twice.  If you are the owner of one of those precious “all brawn and no brain” animals, you may want to build a sort of barrier to keep him from sniffing around the entrance. 

Kids:  Tending bees is a phenomenal hands-on learning experience for kids, and I highly recommend you involve your kids in the process from the very beginning. We provide hive tours and special kids classes here in Austin, and hopefully you can find something similar in your area.  Plus, few things are more adorable than a kiddo in a bee suit! I bet you all have a stove in your homes, and you assuredly have taught your kids that the stove is off-limits and not to be touched.  Employ the same thought process to bee hives and teach your kids the hives are not to be disturbed without adult supervision. Generally speaking, a kid can get a few feet away from a hive with few repercussions, but ensure they know they should never stand directly in front of an entrance or open the lid.

These two score off the cuteness charts! 

These two score off the cuteness charts! 

Is my yard even appropriate for bees? First things first—you need to learn if keeping bees in your city is legal.  While urban beekeeping has become quite vogue in cities such as Brooklyn and L.A., plenty of cities still don’t allow beekeeping in the city limits.  Find out the regulations in your city, and follow them to a T.  Most will prescribe a certain hive density to your plot size, and may require you be a certain number of feet from your neighbor’s property line. Even if regulations are lean, I recommend you place your hives, at a minimum, fifteen feet from your neighbor’s property line.  If you are any closer, consider installing a sort of barrier, such as a small fence or a line of foliage (vines, bamboo, etc.) If you or your close neighbors have a swimming pool, make sure you place a water source for the bees within 5-10 feet of the hive. Honey bees love swimming pools, and once they establish a preferred water source it can be almost impossible to break them of that habit.  Some swear by adding a few drops of lemongrass essential oil to your water to draw the bees to that particular source. Keep in mind bees drown very easily, so stones, corks, or a type of float is important to include.  Want to learn more about the specifics of preparing your yard for bees?  This blog will help you get your site prepped for bees. A quick note on rooftops:  rooftop hives are great for so many reasons.  First, we know bees prefer to be higher and away from the commotion.  Second, you generally don’t have to fuss with trimming grass or ground cover, and down here in the south, that can meet no small hive beetles, which pupate in the soil.  However, one word of caution: think about your roof access.  Climbing a ladder isn’t too bad until you have to carry a 45 pound super of honey along for the descent! 

My yard is pretty small. Don't you need a lot of land to keep bees? There are two parts to this question.  First: how much space do the actual wooden hives take up? Presuming you are doing langstroth hives, the footprint is pretty small.  The boxes are only about 14"x20".  A top bar hive takes up a bit more space and can vary from one manufacturer to another. Our top bars are about 48"x18".  Multiply those numbers times the number of hive you plan on keeping  Of course, you need a few feet on at least one side of the hive to stand to work, and I prefer to have a few feet on the back side to maneuver as well.  The second part to this question involves how much space do you need to allot around the hives as an 'off-limits' zone where you would refrain from working or playing.  This is a very personal question and pertains to your comfort level.  However, I feel completely comfortable letting my nieces and nephews play within about 6 feet of the hives. I would provide additional space in front of the entrance to the hive, as you never want to block the forager bees' flight path.  

But what will my neighbors say? If you have ensured you are within your legal rights (see previous question!) then your neighbors can complain, but probably to no avail.  I get asked often if you should warn your neighbors before you start hives.  No, you should not warn your neighbors.  However, unless you are concerned the conversation will head south quickly, I strongly encourage you to share the wonderful news that you are embarking on such a fun adventure.  If your neighbors are gardeners, they likely already know the benefit of bees, but it doesn’t help to remind them.  (A quick anecdote: my first urban site partner saw four times the yield in his garden the first year we installed the hives.) Do your research and educate yourself, and then find ways to share the experience that will resonate with your neighbors, even if its just with a bit of honey from your first harvest. If they are particularly nervous, I’d strongly recommend you ‘mask’ the hives in some way. My experience is that the old adage is true: out of site, out of mind. Building a small trellis with some beautiful vines in between the hives and the neighbor is one idea, and clumping bamboo also provides a nice privacy screen.  Of course, if a close neighbor shares that her daughter is deathly allergic to honey bee venom, I’d strongly suggest you find somewhere else in town to place your hives.  While you likely can’t be liable and no one could prove it was your honey bees if she were to get popped, I doubt that guilt or hassle is one you want to be burdened with. 

Still have questions? Let us hear them!


A version of this blog first appeared in the October 2016 Kelley Beekeeping newsletter. Tara writes a bi-monthly column on urban beekeeping entitled "The Townies." 

 

 

Got Bees? How to Select and Prep Your Hive Site

Tara Chapman

You've taken the classes, read the books, bookmarked all the blogs, and ordered your packages or nucs.  Before you pick up those bees, check out these tips on how to ensure your site is prepped and ready for your bees!  I've made some poor decisions in site selection over the years-don't repeat my mistakes!

1.     Choose a site with good sun:

This is likely counter to what you’d assume, particularly here in hot Texas.  However, the small hive beetle—a nasty little pest that loves to wreak havoc on hives—pupates in the soil.  Giving your bees mostly full to full sun will ensure those babies just bake and is good integrated pest management.   

2.     Keep yard maintenance in mind: 

You aren’t going to want to weed-whack near your hives (trust me.)  If you can select a spot where tall grass and weeds won’t grow, that is easiest, but if not you may want to consider adding mulch or stones around your hive to ensure you don’t have to battle tall grasses to access the hive.  I have one site where this just isn’t an option, and every month I get my workout with my sythe in hand. 

3.     Level your space:

Though you don’t need to get out the level for this exercise, as close to level as possible is ideal, particularly if you have a top bar or aren’t using foundation in your langstroth.  You may want to have the ground tilted slightly (emphasis on slightly) towards the entrance to allow any water that may collect to run out easily.

4.     Determine your stand situation:

If your hive is a top bar, your hive will likely come equipped with legs or you have already figured out what to set it on.  If you have a langstroth, I recommend you raise your hive at least 6 inches off the ground.  In the spring of 2015 we had biblical rains here in Central Texas, and those few extra inches saved a lot of colonies from drowning.  Additionally, it can deter some other pesky pests as well.  Cinderblocks work perfect for this—one under the front of the hive and one under the back and you are ready to go! 

5.     Solid Ground:

Speaking of cinder blocks, make sure your ground is fairly solid and won’t shift too drastically.  A semi-soft earth, very heavy cinder blocks, and those same 2015 rains caused many of my hives to shift and sink a bit into the ground.  Not too difficult to fix, but can be avoided. 

6.     Identify and provide a water source:

Bees need water for more than just their own consumption, it also is used to help cool the hives (think evaporative cooling) and to dilute crystallized honey.  Bees will collect from lots of places, including puddles, condensation on plants, and damp rocks.  However, they will also collect from places you may not want them, such as your kiddie pool, your chicken feeder, or your neighbor’s new swimming pool!  To avoid your bees collecting in places you’d rather they not congregate, give them an appropriate water source within 10 feet of the hive.  You want to do this before they establish a preference elsewhere!  Keep in mind that bees drown very easily, so make sure to place floats, such as corks or sticks, or stones in the water.    

 

Interested in learning to keep bees?  Check out our group classes and private lessons or contact us to create a custom package that fits your unique needs!

 

5 Reasons I Keep Honey in My Medicine Cabinet

Tara Chapman

Honey. We all love honey. The word alone conjures up warm, fuzzy feelings. There’s a reason it’s a top pick for a sweet pet name used by lovers around the world. But did you know it actually has real medicinal properties? I use honey like the father character from My Big Fat Greek Wedding used Windex. Got a burn? Honey to the rescue! Little cough? Honey it! Someone got you upset? Where did you put my f*@ing honey!?

The internet makes a lot of claims about a lot of things, but today I’ve put on my science hat and have researched what studies actually say on the use of honey as a healer, and have summarized what you need to know. Interested in checking my work or learning more? Links are included to the original studies. Keep in mind that you should choose your honey carefully, and only select those that you know are raw, unheated, and go through minimal filtering. It turns out some of the brands on the shelf at your grocery store may not actually be pure honey and may be cut with other sweeteners, and chances are that it has been heated and ultra-filtered, lessening its medicinal properties. Contact a local beekeeper about the best sources for local, raw honey.

A caveat: honey should never be fed to children under 1 year of age. In fact, know that anything you ever read from me should never be applied to children, even if (especially if) it’s a blog on raising/disciplining/having children.

1. Salve for Wounds and Burns

As I write this, we are in the middle of our 16th day over 100 degrees here in Austin. Ever wonder why Texas has a region known as the panhandle? It’s because Texas is just one giant “so hot it will singe your eyebrows” frying pan in the summer. So we cook with our shirts off. Ok, maybe just me. Anyway, last week, while cooking with my shirt off, I managed to accrue a giant three inch second degree burn right across my belly button. What did I do? Slather honey on it of course. Honey is antimicrobial and produces an enzyme similar to hydrogen peroxide, and found to drastically improve wound healing and sterilize wounds in less time and has a better outcome of preventing scarring than topical antibacterial burn cream. I even use honey as a safe alternative to treat wounds and lacerations on my dog! You can mix a bit of honey with lavender essential oils or apple cider vinegar to make your own homemade salve, or try this recipe from my home kitchen:

Ingredients:

1 tbsp honey

2 ounces whiskey

Directions: Place honey on burn. Shoot whiskey. Instant relief!

2. Shorten the Stomach Flu

Next time your stomach is sending out more distress signals that the Titanic, you may want to consider reaching for the sweet stuff. In a study of infants suffering from bacterial gastroenteritis, honey was found to shorten the duration of diarrhea as a result of organisms such as Salmonella or E Coli. One possible reason? Honey has antibacterial properties, so I’d recommend keeping it on hand for those days you decide to try out that questionable take-out place around the corner.

3. Treatment for Sore Throats

Woke up with a sore throat? Funny how such a small thing can bring the most manliest of men to their knees. I think I’d rather spin the wheel of ailments and take my chances rather than be subjected to that feeling of Hades breathing what must be fire down the back of my tonsils. Take a break from swallowing every three seconds (throat? check. still sore? check.) to drink a bit of hot water or tea mixed with a few teaspoons of nature’s very own gold. Although copious searching on my part found no study that has been conducted to show honey’s ability to soothe sore throats, it is known that honey has antibacterial properties and has been found to work as an anti-inflammatory, perfect for inflamed tissue in a sore throat. And let’s be honest, have you ever seen a bee with a sore throat? Yeah, me neither.

4. Cough Suppressant

Having a hack attack, and not of the Shaq variety? Save yourself and the rest of mankind from the Superman germs protruding from your mouth at the speed of light and swallow a few teaspoons of honey. A Penn State study found that honey performed more favorably compared over-the-counter cough medicines in relieving nocturnal cough symptoms. Looking for a reason to cheat on that no-carb diet? I basically just wrote you a prescription to chug honey by the gallon at the first site of any sort of respiratory itch or ailment.

5. Treat Seasonal Allergies

You may already be aware that allergies are said to be beneficial in alleviating seasonal allergies. The logic works like this: raw honey contains pollens, and ingesting small amounts of local pollen works as a sort of immunotherapy, making your body less sensitive to those pollens. Unfortunately, a study suggests that we may all be falling victim to a wives’ tale on this one. The counter-logic is that pollens contained in flowers (and generally found in honey) are usually not those that cause seasonal allergies. Rather it’s the pollens from grasses and trees that tend to make our noses run like broken gaskets. So why am I including it here? (Other than the fact that I needed fifth item for my ‘top 5 list’.) Ingesting local honey for seasonal allergies certainly can’t hurt, and in my opinion, enough anecdotal evidence exists to give it a shot. We as humans can’t really control what pollen sources make it into a jar of honey, so it is possible that the pollens that do make you flare up will be in your jar of local honey. But beyond that, who cares if positive results are simply due to the placebo effect? The brain is a powerful thing — if given the opportunity I’d take a life filled with placebo effects. (And please see #4 above regarding a no-carb diet. Carbs don’t count when used as medicine.)

Quick note for you honey connoisseurs: a lot of fuss has been made about the healing properties of Manuka honey. I am not disputing those claims, but none of the studies I reviewed used this specialty honey. Given that Manuka honey sells for 5–6 times the price or more, I choose to save my pennies and forgo Manuka. Your wallet, your choice! However, you do need to make sure the honey you are using is actually honey, raw, and not pasteurized.

To treat everything from respiratory ailments to food poisoning, you should keep the honey in close reach. Do you use honey as medicine? Tell me about why you keep a bit of nature’s gold in your medicine cabinet!

Why We Should Stop Talking About Honey Bees.

Tara Chapman

Save the bees! The bees are dying! If bees become extinct, humans will only live for a few more years! 

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve probably heard one or all of these refrains. Are bees critical? Absolutely. A 2007 study examined agriculture data from 200 countries and found that fruit, vegetable, or seed production from 87 of the leading global food crops is dependent upon animal pollination, while 28 crops do not rely upon animal pollination. When the scientists looked at global food production from these crops, they found that 35% of the world’s food production comes from crops that depend on pollinators. (Although more than three times as many crops worldwide require pollinators, the crops that are wind pollinated are mostly made up of crops that make up a large percentage of our diets worldwide — wheat, corn, sugarcane and rice are all wind pollinated). So that bit about “every third bite we eat is reliant on bees” rings true, in some sense.

So why am I arguing we should stop talking about bees? I’m not, really. (Ah! That sneaky click bait title!) What I am arguing for, however, is that we pay a lot more attention to our native pollinators, and not just honey bees. When we hear the term “bees” our mind flashes right to honey bees. But there are thousands of species of bees that don’t produce honey!

Peek-a-boo mason bee!

Peek-a-boo mason bee!

 Here’s a knowledge bomb for ya: honey bees are not native to the United States. Yup. At one time, no honey bees lived here. The only continents that honey bees can truly call home are Europe, Asia, and Africa. Honey bees were brought to the U.S. by European settlers. However, 4,000 species of solitary (native) bees call the U.S. home. So why don’t we ever hear of these ‘native’ species? Because they don’t produce honey, and I think we can all admit that we are a self-serving society. Solitary bees get no love, because they don’t produce a delectable sweet substance that we can stir into our tea, baked goods, and yogurt. 

But! These solitary bees, such as mason bees and leafcutter bees, are in some ways better pollinators of our native plants than honey bees! For example, tomatoes require native bees for pollination, and others like squash and blueberries are better pollinated by native bees.

Unfortunately, similar to honey bees, we have cause to be worried about our native bee population. Native solitary bees have taken a huge hit because of loss of habitat and lack of dietary diversity.

Thankfully, helping our native pollinators is super easy. Although solitary bees don’t produce honey, they also don’t live in colonies, are incredibly docile (I dare you to try to get a mason bee to sting you), and don’t require any ongoing maintenance. As a result, providing a habitat for these bees is super easy! 

You can build your own habitat, or check out our BeeBuilders kits. Our kits contain a hand-crafted solitary bee home, with detailed instructions on how to best ensure native bees move in! Some kits even contain cocoons of hibernating solitary bees to get you started. Our bamboo has been carefully selected for diameter and cut to the length best suited for nesting native bees. 

A queen will nest and lay eggs in each of those bamboo reeds!

A queen will nest and lay eggs in each of those bamboo reeds!

Whether you decide to provide a habitat for our native bees or ensure your yard is bee-friendly by planting native blooming plants, refraining from the use of pesticides, or providing a water source; I hope you help raise awareness about these important forgotten pollinators. And, go plant those seeds! We've made the shopping easy.

Hold the Sugar, Honey.

Tara Chapman

Got a sweet tooth? Pull up a seat and kick up your feet, cause you’re in good company. Last night, after my groceries were delivered, I laid out a big plate of vegetables in the hopes that I’d choose health over cream popsicles. (Yes. I said “delivered”. Lazy and sweet tooth are two unfortunate conditions that tend to go hand in hand.) I doubt I need to tell you the outcome.

Even so, I cut out most sugar from diet several years ago. (Except for dark chocolate and ice cream. I am still human, for god’s sake.) Which means most processed foods had to go. Most folks don’t realize it, but most store-bought foods, from bacon to spaghetti sauce, contain mounds of sugar. But I still get plenty of sweet, thanks to my honeybees and their delicious honey. I stir it into my greek yogurt and overnight oatmeal, drizzle it atop bananas and peanut butter, and melt it into my hot drinks.

Although honey is still a sweetener, and should be consumed in moderation (eye roll), it does contain antioxidants and healthy enzymes that you won’t find in sugar. Keep in mind that even sugar labeled as “raw sugar” still starts as cane juice that has been stripped from the cane and boiled, along with any vitamins and minerals found in the sugar cane. The difference between raw sugar and more processed forms of the sweet stuff is simply the number of times the juice has been boiled. Raw honey, on the other hand, undergoes no processing at all. I’d argue it’s one of the few ‘whole food’ sweeteners. If you have to have a little sweet in your life, honey is definitely the smarter choice.

While it’s easy to substitute honey as a sweeter in your beverages, have you thought about making the move to using honey over sugar in your baked goods? If you need any more reasons to choose honey over sugar, consider the following:

  1. Honey has a higher percentage of fructose, and is therefore significantly sweeter than sugar. Less honey is required to achieve the same desired sweetness.
  2. Honey attracts and retains water (which is why it’s also so good for wound care) and makes baked goods more moist for longer than those baked with sugar.
  3. Baked goods made with honey tend to brown nicely, which can mean a beautiful golden color for your goods.
  4. The flavor profile of honey can vary greatly depending on the flowers the bees visited to make the honey. A honey lighter in color tends to have a milder flavor and not as sweet, while a darker honey tends to have a more robust sweetness and a bolder flavor. Imagine the possibilities when combined with your favorite recipes!

However, because honey is sweeter and in liquid form, a straight 1:1 substitution isn’t advised, unless you are substituting less than a cup of sugar. Following are a few recommended guidelines in how to substitute honey for sugar in recipes. Keep in mind that some experimentation may be required, and you can always start small by simply substituting half of the sugar in your favorite recipe.

  1. Spray your measuring cup or moisten with water to allow honey to slide out easily.
  2. Because honey is both sweeter and heavier than sugar, less honey is needed to obtain the same sweet result. Generally 1/2–3/4 cup of honey should be used in place of each cup of sugar. Start with less, and add more as necessary. (Note that most experts agree that up to 1 cup of sugar can be substituted on a 1:1 ratio.)

 

3. Because honey is a liquid, the liquids in the recipe need to be adjusted accordingly. For every 1 cup of honey used, 1/4 cup of liquid should be subtracted from the recipe. Hate math? Me too. Use the handy chart on the left to help guide you.

4. Honey causes baked goods to brown quicker than those baked with sugar, so reduce you oven temp by 25 degree F and don’t veer too far from watching over the oven!

5. Because honey is a bit acidic, you should add add 1/2 tsp baking soda per each cup of honey to ensure the batter will rise.

Though it takes a bit of thought to substitute honey for sugar in your baked goods, I promise the end result is worth it!

If you enjoyed this post, click the heart to recommend it to others! If you are interested in learning more about honeybees, their plight, and what you can do to help, follow us on Facebook.

 

Is Your Honey Organic?

Tara Chapman

Pop quiz: how many of the following statements apply to you?

You buy organic produce. You seek out free-trade, non-GMO products whenever possible. You don’t mind paying a few extra dollars for free-range beef or cage-free eggs. You make an effort to shop local.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, why do you make these choices? Probably because you care deeply about what goes into your and your family’s bodies. You most likely want to ensure the people responsible for growing, picking, and preparing your food are paid and treated fairly. You almost certainly prioritize the humane treatment of animals before they become your supper.

Is your honey organic? Does it matter?

Is your honey organic? Does it matter?

One more question: is your choice of honey organic? You may be shocked to learn that this is one time that “organic” perhaps shouldn’t be at the top of your checklist.

First, a little honey bomb of knowledge: the USDA does not currently have any officially approved USDA organic honey standards. (A draft of a recommended standard was presented by the National Organic Standards Board in October of 2010, but it has not been adopted by the USDA.) But, you say, “I’ve seen the ‘USDA organic’ green sticker on jars in the store!”

Chances are high that the USDA organic honey you see is not even produced in this country. How does that work? Well, the USDA allows its label to be used on products that meet the organic standards of the country of origin. Next time you see the USDA green sticker, I challenge you to flip that jar around. Chances are high that the honey was either produced in Mexico, Canada, or Brazil. (I recently performed a small unscientific test at my local Whole Foods. All three honeys labeled as USDA organic on the shelf were produced outside of the United States — including the Whole Foods brand.) So much for buying local. Further, even if the honey is produced in this country, the labeling and adulteration of honey is infamously egregious. Adulteration refers to the mixing of honey with another inferior and inexpensive product. Who’s excited about a bit of high fructose corn syrup with their honey?!

Country of origin on label of the same USDA organic honey pictured above.

Country of origin on label of the same USDA organic honey pictured above.

Without a USDA standard and accompanied enforcement, I wouldn’t place much merit on that little green sticker.

Finally, it’s important to note that bees aren’t livestock that can be kept in a pen and whose movements we can control. Any organic standard would have to apply to not only the practices kept by the beekeeper in controlling pests and disease, but also what flowers the bees are visiting for feed. Did you know bees will forage up to 3–5 miles in any direction, as necessary, to find food? That means in order for a honey to be indisputably organic, the bees would have to be raised on a plot of 100 square miles of certified organic land. That is equivalent to approximately 48,400 football fields — including end zones!

Here’s the takeaway: organic honey may not be worth the sticker it’s printed on.

But wait! Just because I’ve encouraged you to look past the organic label doesn’t mean there aren’t other standards and criteria I recommend you seek that are much more important than the ‘organic’ name we’ve all grown to love. So what should you look for?

Here’s the short answer: Know your beekeeper. Research, and ask questions if need be. How does he or she prioritize the health of the honeybees over honey production? What practices does he employ to help fight disease and pests? Keep in mind that anything going into the hive has the potential to not only end up on your plate, but also affects the health of the honeybees as well.

The long answer: “Natural” beekeeping is a term that beeks (that’s beekeepers+geeks) have coined to describe practices ensuring the health and well-being of the bees are first and foremost. Those practices include, but are not limited to:

  1. refraining from using any pesticides or other treatments not naturally derived from entering the hives
  2. ensuring apiaries only contain as many bees as can be supported by the nectar and pollen supply
  3. refraining from using paint and other chemicals inside the hive
  4. only providing the bees with supplemental feed if the well-being of the honeybees is dependent upon it, rather than to boost honey production. And if supplemental feeding is required, high fructose corn syrup should never be used. (Unfortunately this is very common in large-scale commercial beekeeping.)

Thankfully there are lots of smaller-scale commercial operations that utilize these practices, and you can be assured these practices, and more, are how we choose to keep our bees here at Two Hives Honey.

Bottom line: Know your beek! I encourage you to visit farmer’s markets to buy honey from your local beekeepers. That allows you to ask informed questions, and support a local business. Double-win!

Want to learn more about the importance of honeybees, their fascinating behavior, and how you can do more to promote their survival? Follow us on Facebook and Instagram, or sign up for our email list!