Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)
Bees, Hives & Honey
KEEPING BEES SEEMS SO ESSENTIAL to the macroorganism of the farm that it’s hard to imagine growing without them. Beyond their remarkable, ambrosial honey, they are our primary pollinators, responsible for 30 percent of the food we humans eat. There’s also something wild and magical about them: how they distill honey from the inflorescent pollen and nectar of flowers, how tirelessly they wander and work for the good of the hive, how they structure and organize their lives. There’s a lesson in selfless cooperation in there for all of us.
What they draw from the floral landscape, the raw honey we harvest, is one of nature’s miracles. Honey is the only food that never spoils (archaeologists have found edible honey in the tombs of the pharaohs) and, in its raw form, is an excellent antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal. (It can even be used topically to treat infection.) It’s rich in antioxidants and a boost to your immune system. Local, raw honey (not the pasteurized yellow stuff at the supermarket) even helps with allergies: A tablespoon a day of raw honey from within a 100-mile radius of your home acts as an allergy immune booster, since the bees are processing the same pollen that’s making you seasonably miserable.
Keeping bees is also an act of environmental preservation. Since bee populations have declined precipitously in the last decade in part due to the overuse of systemic pesticides, caring for a few of your own hives not only keeps you in delicious raw honey, but also makes a small contribution to the survival of this remarkable species.
Nothing on the farm seems to work as hard—or with as much purposeful industry—as the honeybee. Sometimes, I’ll just sit back on my elbows near my hives and watch the daily wandering bustle of their lives: their black-banded bodies freighted with nectar from thousands of obliging blossoms, their legs dusted in motes of pollen; so determined and ambitious, so organized. It’s hard not to feel like a slacker around them.
The world would be bleak without bees, of course, so deciding to keep them is an act of conservation and environmental stewardship (and oh yeah, there’s the reward of all that honey, too). The hive is an amazing macrocosm of activity, with bees all having a specific function and purpose; like parts of a sticky, buzzing brain, bees interact like neurons to create a healthy, productive ecosystem for themselves. But I learned the hard way that becoming an apiarist isn’t just about setting up a few hives and letting the bees work their magic untended. Like anything on the farm, there’s a fair amount of care involved.
So before you get going, consider how much time you have to manage a hive or two and whether you’re comfortable around bees and willing to work with them. Also, before you think about keeping bees, check the local ordinances in your area to see what restrictions and rules there are (if any). Some communities limit the number of hives you’re allowed to keep, while other ask you to register your hives and pay a small annual fee. Let your immediate neighbors know you’re thinking about setting up a hive or two, and make sure that they don’t have any serious allergies. The promise of local, raw honey will do wonders to placate concerns.
You may also want to see if there are other beekeepers nearby. It’s one thing to study up on beekeeping, quite another to go through all the steps empirically with someone who’s been there.
Building the Hives
Once you’ve gotten the all clear to keep bees, the first step is to order the hives. It used to be that honey, before we began to keep and culture bees, was gathered by plundering wild hives and destroying them in the process. When we learned how to collaborate with bees, specifically Western European (Apis mellifera) and Eastern (A. cerana) bees, we developed designs for hives, of which there are several. Langstroth hives are the stacked boxes you’re likely to be familiar with and are the universal standard. Other designs include top-bar hives and Warré hives, both of which have their specific advantages, but it’s the Langstroth we’ll focus on. Ordering your hardware is easiest done through the Internet, as finding a local small apiary supplier can be a challenge. Hives are broken down into wooden components, and for each hive you’ll need the following, from bottom to top: a stand, a bottom board, an entrance reducer, two large brood boxes, two supers, 20 deep frames with foundation, 20 shallow frames with foundation, an inner cover, and a top cover. A raised platform for the hive, about 1 foot off the ground, is also a good idea.
Frames are what the bees will use to build up the comb for their brood and honey stores. I prefer frames with a foundation board embossed with a plastic hex pattern rather than wire frames, as the former are easier for the bees to build up. (You want them making honey as soon as possible, not spending all of their energy on construction.) Spray the foundation with sugar water to encourage bees to draw it out. The two larger brood boxes and frames (imagine a wooden filing cabinet with 1-inch-thick hanging folders) are where the bees store their honey and lay their eggs. They are stacked, one atop the other, at the bottom of the hive. These are accessed from below by the bees through a narrow entrance above the bottom board. On top of the two brood boxes are shallower boxes called supers, which also hold hanging frames (usually 10). This is where the bees will store their extra honey and where you’ll collect your harvest. On top of these are inner and outer covers that will protect the bees and boxes from the elements.
You can order hives fully assembled or find them used (although not knowing what pathogens may be lurking in an old hive is a worry). By ordering them disassembled, you’ll save money on both the purchase and the shipping, which can be significant. The other things you’ll need to order include a bee suit and veil, gloves, a smoker, a hive tool, and a bee brush. The bee suit, veil, and gloves will protect you when you’re working the hive. The bee suit comes as a full-length body suit or as just a jacket. Both will accommodate a zip-on veil, which is usually ordered separately. The smoker will calm the bees when you’re working the hive. (They think the hive’s on fire and thus start gorging themselves on honey, assuming they’ll need to evacuate; your meddling with their home thus becomes the least of their worries.) The hive tool is a small, flat chisel used to pry open the components of the hive, which the bees seal quite efficiently with a tough, sticky, resinous glue called propolis that they make from tree buds and sap flows. The brush allows you to gently brush the bees off of the frames when you inspect the hives.
Once you find a good Internet or mail-order source for hives and supplies, the time to order all of your components is whenever you have time—usually in winter, long before your bees arrive in spring. It’s a pleasure to put together these wooden palaces for future queens and their thousands of fussy royal attendants when all the animation of the growing season is on hold. Besides ordering seeds in the bleak chill of January, this is a winter chore that pays itself forward, allowing thoughts of future honey to dance sweetly in your psyche.
After assembling the hives, you’ll want to paint them for protection from the elements. Choose several light colors (to reflect heat) that harmonize with the palette of your garden and property, then prime and paint the boxes in alternate colors so that when they’re assembled, each hive has a different pattern. Bees, besides communicating chemically, are hypervisual. (That’s why flowers put on such a chromatic show—so they’ll attract pollinators. You didn’t think it was all for us, did you?) Bees will easily distinguish the color pattern of their own hives.
Bees can be fussy about their location on the property, preferring a site that’s open and accessible when they return from foraging but one that’s not too exposed to the elements. The hive entrance should receive plenty of eastern sunlight so that it warms early and gets the bees out foraging for the day, but dappled light is ideal during the heat of the afternoon. If the shade is from deciduous trees, so much the better, because winter light after leaf fall will be welcome. Bees, it turns out, are very good at regulating the temperature and humidity inside the hive, regardless of exterior conditions. The right level of humidity inside the hive will give honey its protective quality, and it must be kept at certain levels. Temperatures inside the hive must also be kept constant at around 94°F (34°C). In summer, bees lower the temperature with their wings by fanning, sometimes even wetting their wings first. In winter, they raise the temperature by vibrating their flight muscles and forming large clusters around the queen to keep her warm. Those same clusters, or beards, can appear hanging outside the brood boxes on the hottest days of summer. HVAC specialists have nothing on bees!
Try to avoid spots that are too wet or windy, but a source of nearby water is essential for bees in the hot summer months. They’ll need access to good forage (any flowering plants and trees). Bees will gather pollen and nectar in a 2- to 3-mile radius from the hive, which can be both a good and bad thing. If you live in an area with plenty of domestic bloom, your bees will thank you, but if you live within a few miles of any agriculture using systemic pesticides that contain neonicontinoids (a neuroactive insecticide that’s been linked to colony collapse disorder, or CCD), you may struggle with keeping your hives healthy or alive at all.
It’s best to keep your hives easily accessible to your home so that they can be regularly checked and monitored. That said, bees will form flight paths—or beelines—to the hive as they forage back and forth, and you don’t want to set up the hive so that you’re regularly in their path. They have work to do and won’t appreciate the cross traffic. I keep my hives in the far corner of my orchard, where they can forage on all the fruit blossoms and go about their day without too much interruption.
This is the scary part. Putting together pretty hive boxes and setting them up on your property is one thing, but coming face-to-face with thousands of frenzied insects is a whole other story. Bees can be ordered through the Internet or through a local apiary or bee club, and they should be scheduled to arrive in early spring, when the weather has warmed. When you order a colony online, or pick one up locally, it will consist of 3 pounds of female workers (about 10,000 bees) in a wood and wire box, called a package, and one queen in her own small, wired chamber. There are different strains of bees available, from Russian and Carniolan to Italian and Buckfast (English), all with various traits. Some are bred to be more gentle, some for honey production, some for their ability to overwinter well, others for their resistance to tracheal mites. Ask your ordering source what the best strain would be for your climate and needs. When they arrive (usually at the post office), you’ll get a call from a frazzled postal employee telling you your bees have arrived and to please pick them up!
Installing the Colony
At this point, your hives and supplies should be set up on your property and ready for the new colony to move in. After you put on your protective clothing, you’ll want to have only the two larger brood boxes ready with frames installed for now. Have the top box off so only the lower box is open. This bottom box is where you’ll put the bees. Push the frames to the sides and leave a space between two frames in the middle of the box to make room for the queen.
Your box will be buzzing with thousands of travel-stressed bees, but the calmer you stay, the calmer the bees will be. (They seem to pick up on stress pheromones.) A spray of sugar water will distract them. After prying loose the box’s small stapled lid with your hive tool, remove the feeder can in the center and replace the lid. You’ll see a small plastic or metal tab stapled to the box top that holds the queen cage. Remove the staple with your hive tool and gently slide the queen in her small cage out of the box and, once again, temporarily replace the lid. On one end of the queen cage, you’ll see a small cork covering a white candy plug. Remove the cork and pierce the plug with a small nail. Then insert the queen cage in the middle of the hive box, hanging at the top between the center frames. Her pheromones will become active and the workers will soon be eating away at the candy plug and freeing her from confinement. Now comes the fun part: Take the box-o-bees, remove the wooden lid, turn the box upside down, and shake out the thousands of bees on top of the queen and the frames. Firmly tap out as many as you can, then put the box to the side, leaving it open for any stragglers. At this point, you’ll have a humming mound of bees, all trying to make sense of their new digs, on top of the open frames.
Using your hive brush, clear the edges of the hive of bees and gently brush them into the frames, then put on the second brood box and frames. On top of the second box, put on your inner cover. The bees will be hungry after their journey, and you’ll want to feed them. I use small white feeder buckets that I’ve ordered online that have a mesh-covered hole in the lid. These get filled with a 1:1 solution of sugar and water and inverted over the central opening in the inner cover. I then place two frameless super boxes around the sugar water bucket to protect it and add a top cover with a brick on it. For 7 to 10 days after you’ve installed the bees in their new home, it’s best not to disturb the hives. You can check on the sugar water supply, but there should be enough for the first week as the bees get acclimated.
Until the bees have gotten used to their new surroundings and have mapped out their forage paths, check their sugar water to make sure they’re feeding (particularly if you’ve installed your bee package in very early spring before bloom and nectar flow). After about 2 weeks, check the hive boxes to see if any comb has been drawn out or any brood has been laid. It’s only after the bees have completely drawn out the foundation in the lower two boxes and stored honey and brood that you should add the upper supers.
Once the lower boxes are active and full, add one super at a time over a period of weeks or even months, after comb has been drawn out in each super. Bees tend to move upward through the hive, filling frames with honey as they go. It may take a whole season for a new colony to fully draw out comb in the lower boxes, so you’ll need to be patient. Occasionally, a queen will move up as well and begin to lay brood in the upper supers where you don’t want her to. You can add what’s known as a queen extruder between the lower boxes and the supers to control the queen. This thin, narrowly slotted cover will keep the queen from laying brood in the upper supers by restricting her access so that only workers making honey can get through.
Once summer is in full swing, and the hives are busy building themselves up, you can let the bees just do their thing. A weekly inspection of the hive is a good idea. It’s best to check the hive in the middle of the day, preferably when it’s warm and sunny, when most of the bees are out foraging. After you’ve put on your protective clothing, start your smoker with some crumpled newspaper and a bit of tree bark or pine needles. Puff some smoke into the lower hive entrance to let the bees know you’re coming. Remove the outer and top covers of the hive with the hive tool, breaking the propolis seal around the edges, and puff more smoke across the top of the hive frames to calm the bees and drive them down into the hive. Never work too fast or abruptly with bees; a slow, steady rhythm will keep them from getting too agitated. Pull out a frame on the outer edge and check to see if comb has been drawn out and that the queen is laying eggs, then set the frame down, leaving a one-frame gap in the box, and check each frame in sequence. The frames will often be a mix of pollen stores, capped honey, and laid eggs. The heavier the frames, the busier the bees have been, which is a good indication of the overall health of the hive. The center frames will be the first to be drawn out, and most of the brood will be there, while the outer frames will contain more honey stores. You can see how much brood the queen has laid by holding a frame up toward the sun and backlighting the cell: The larvae will appear as tiny, ricelike grains in each cell.
Opening your hive supers and pulling out frames brimming and heavy with capped honey will give you a fantastic sense of fulfillment. It means that you did everything right—gave your bees a safe and comfortable home, cared for them as best you could—and can now harvest one of nature’s most exquisite gifts: your own local, raw honey.
Your first year of beekeeping is mainly about establishing the hive and making sure the bees have enough honey stores to last them through winter. You may be able to harvest a few frames of honey in fall, after the last nectar flow, but to ensure a new colony has enough food to last the winter, I usually wait until the following spring to harvest more honey. You can have any capped honey that has overwintered, as the bees will be out looking for fresh pollen and nectar to feed their young. Harvestable honey will be in capped cells, while uncured nectar will appear as a clear liquid in open cells.
Try to harvest at midday, when most of the bees will be busily out and about. With your smoker going, puff at the lower entrance and the top frames of the opened hive. You’ll be harvesting from the shallower upper supers, so take an empty shallow super box, if you have one, and remove the full—and heavy—capped honey frames and put them in the empty box. Use your bee brush to brush the capped frames free of lingering bees.
Once you’re inside with your box of honey-heavy frames, take one frame at a time and uncap the sealed comb using an electric uncapping knife or metal-tined hive comb. Alternately, you can use a large, serrated bread knife or even a fork. The idea is to remove just the covering wax cap of the honey cells. If you can leave the drawn-out comb intact, it will mean less work for the bees in rebuilding the foundation.
When your frames are uncapped, you’ll need to extract the honey. There are three methods I’ve used, which all work. If you have access to an extractor (a kind of spinning centrifuge for hive frames), this will be your best option. They’re expensive, but bee clubs will often use one collectively. Frames are placed into the extractor and spun on a central spindle, either manually or via an electric motor, emptying the honey from the cells. The frames are then turned in order to extract honey from the other side.
I’ve also uncapped my frames and placed them upright on a hard wire cover over a 10-gallon metal bucket in front of the woodstove; it’s a slow-drip method, but over a day or two, most of your honey will have succumbed to gravity. If you’re not using foundation on your hive frames, or you don’t mind scraping off all the comb, you can cut off all the honey cells into a large bucket and mash them up using a spade. Then take that mash of wax and honey and empty it into a 5-gallon paint bucket that has holes drilled in the bottom and a paint-straining mesh bag on the inside. Place that bucket over another 5-gallon container with a spigot on the bottom. The honey will strain and drain over the course of a day or two.
Honey harvesting is hot, sticky, messy work, so plan accordingly: Work in a well-ventilated space, protect surfaces, and use a warm sponge to wipe down tools and equipment when you’re done. Make sure that you’re harvesting in an enclosed space; bees have a sixth sense of where their honey has been taken and will come after it (and maybe you!) if left in the open. After a successful harvest, all the work and worry of raising healthy bees will be diminished by dozens of jars filled with your own rich and deeply satisfying honey.
Health and Diseases
Though honeybees have evolved to take remarkably good care of themselves and have developed complex and effective systems for survival, they now face considerable environmental pressures that threaten their future as the planet’s primary pollinators. Besides the devastating threat of colony collapse disorder, other issues that may disrupt a hive are bacterial and fungal infections that affect developing larvae (such as foulbrood and chalkbrood), nosema infection and dysentery, hive beetles, and—most destructive—the dreaded varroa mites, which are a serious threat to the hive. These small, parasitic mites attach themselves to the bees’ backs and feed on them, shortening their life span and deforming the emerging brood. Untreated mite infestations can kill off an entire colony.
There are chemical treatments for varroa mite problems, but the organic method we prefer is one using powdered (confectioners’) sugar. If you see mites on your bees (they’ll appear as small, dark red specks attached to the bee’s body), dust the infected bees with the powdered sugar. The dusting of sugar will encourage the bees to groom themselves, cleaning off the mites as they go. It also coats the mites themselves, making it harder for them to hold on to the bees. New hives rarely have a mite infestation, but older hives will be vulnerable, and regular checkups are imperative. When you’re done with your hive inspection, try to return the frames in the order in which they were removed, and close up the hive.
Trachea mites are another tiny but harmful pest of honeybees. Because they infest bees’ insides, trachea mites are difficult to diagnose and hard to get rid of. Bees can survive trachea mite infestation, but the stress of these parasites shortens a bee’s life span, reduces reproduction and honey production, and increases mortality during the winter months. Infested bees fly poorly and lack vigor, and an untreated trachea mite infestation can cause a hive to decline gradually and die out.
Patties made by mixing 1 part vegetable shortening and 3 to 4 parts powdered sugar may be used to treat trachea mites. Bees feed on the patties, which are placed on the top bars of the hive, and the shortening disrupts the mites’ movement from infested bees to new hosts, gradually stopping their spread.
Brood diseases that affect only the larvae are trouble for beekeepers. While a healthy colony may be able to clean out dead larvae and recover from some infections, serious and hard-to-control diseases such as American foulbrood can quickly spread through a colony, wiping out the population as adult bees naturally die off and are not replaced. While workers clean out infected cells and dead larvae, they spread the spores throughout the hive. Antibiotic treatment can prevent foulbrood infection and stop the spread of the disease, but it must be continued to maintain protection. The disease spores are long lasting and very difficult to completely eradicate from the hive. In many cases, a colony that is widely infected must be killed; frames, combs, and dead bees burned; and all other hive parts and equipment sterilized.
Nosema disease is an infection of bees’ digestive tracts. It becomes a threat to the colony when bees are unable to leave the hive for cleansing flights to void their wastes. When an extended stretch of cold weather keeps bees in the hive, they may develop dysentery, which can be fatal. Where bees are likely to be confined by cold temperatures, problems with nosema and dysentery may be avoided by removing most of the honey from the hive in fall and feeding bees with more readily digestible sugar water.
Small, dark hive beetles are sap beetles that lay eggs in the cracks of hives. Their larvae feed on honey and pollen, causing damage to combs over a period of about 2 weeks, before they leave the hive to pupate in the soil below. Hive beetle activity spoils honey and can drive bees from the hive. Where hive beetles are known to be present, beneficial nematodes may be applied to the soil beneath the beehives to control the pests. Traps that use nontoxic oil to suffocate the beetles are also available. A healthy hive that contains few empty combs is less likely to be affected by hive beetles than one that is under other stresses.
Colonies that are in good health, that have access to nectar during the growing season and supplemental food when nectar is unavailable, and that have hives in suitably sheltered yet accessible sites are usually able to withstand and ward off pressure from parasites and diseases. Protect the hive from invasion by mice in winter by putting a metal entrance reducer in place early in fall to avoid the mess and harm caused by nesting rodents. As winter weather arrives, add an insulation board with an upper entrance on the top of each hive to help keep the bees snug while ensuring they can get in and out when conditions are favorable through the winter months.
For beekeeping equipment, there are a number of online and mail order suppliers. If you’re starting up in beekeeping, you may want to begin with a single hive and plan to expand later. Online suppliers include Brushy Mountain Bee Farm (brushymountainbeefarm.com), Betterbee (betterbee.com), Dadant & Sons (dadant.com), and Apple Blossom Honey Farm (abhoneyfarm.com). There may be a bee supply store near enough to you to purchase your own supplies directly, which will save on shipping, as the bulk and weight of hive parts and equipment will add up. Sources for packaged bees include Draper’s Super Bee Apiaries (draperbee.com), Kelley Beekeeping (kelleybees.com), Rock Hill Honey Bee Farms (rockhillhoneybeefarms-inc.com), and Georgia Bee Supply (gabeesupply.com). Packaged bees can also be purchased locally from bee clubs and organizations. Place orders early in the year, as suppliers often sell out by spring.
NOTES FROM THE WONDERGROUND
Where the Wild Things Are
If Hinduism has it right, and honey is one of the five elixirs of immortality, then I may be fated to a life everlasting, free of karmic debt; the fall honey flow at Stonegate Farm has been that good.
Unlike the spring harvest, which was translucent and sweet from the nectar of orchard blossoms, the fall forage from goldenrod, calendula, anise, cosmos, and borage has been transformed into a honey that is slow moving and dark; a 10W-30 shade of sweet, raw crude.
When we pulled heavy frames of comb from our hives last week, the long, liquid pour of deep amber that emerged was remarkable. It seemed to contain all of the sun’s complex energy, elaborated by flowers and bees, and ambrosia for us.
The harvest begins with a smoke (a universal sedative, it seems) to distract the bees. They assume there’s a fire and gorge on honey, and not you, as a survival instinct. Then frames heavy with honey are pulled from the upper hive boxes, or supers, and the comb is uncapped with a hot knife and spun in a centrifuge-like extractor until the cells are empty. The raw honey is then filtered of pollen, odd bee parts, and flecks of comb, and it’s decanted into jars. Then you just stare at it for a while with slack-jawed wonder.
It’s important to take only enough, of course. Though bees are terrific doomsday hoarders, they’ve stored all that honey for themselves, not for you. With autumn’s transition into winter, it’s requiem time at the farm, lacrimosa, and the bees know it. Taking their honey is a tacit but tense agreement between you and wildness: You manage the property and pay the bills, and they’ll share the sweet stuff.
They are truly wild and miraculous things, honeybees, and have been cultivated and coveted by humans for thousands of years. With their organizational rigor, their mysterious chemical chatter, and the Euclidian symmetry of their hives, it’s hard not to be impressed. Most amazing is their selflessness, their collaborative understanding of the common good (are you listening, Washington?). Even if the colony is a kind of macro “self” and individual bees are mere neurons, incapable of independent thought outside the hive’s collective consciousness, they seem to have created a utopian survival mechanism worth envying. We should be so lucky.
Our cultured bees (Apis mellifera) not only create honey, of course, but they’re also our primary pollinators, responsible for 30 percent of the food we humans eat. So their survival is linked closely to our own, not only for the fruits and vegetables they fertilize, but also for what they can teach us about working together to save our own hive.
The hives are first smoked to distract the bees, then frames of honey are removed from the supers and uncapped with a hot knife before being extracted and poured into jars.