I never imagined myself as a Beekeeping Apprentice. What if I get stung? Having grown up in the city and spending my youth studying literature and the emotional impact of a well-placed semicolon, Beekeeping never even crossed my mind. I didn’t know anything about insects or particularly want to be close to anything that can be described as buzzing, swarming, or that lives in a larval state.
Until, of course, I did. After college, I worked for an environmental communications nonprofit as an intermediary between scientists and the public. And the more I read about the way that humans do and can interact with the rest of our living world, the more I realized the vitality of work aimed at making a positive impact. Urban Beekeeping seemed like an incredibly straightforward way to support the pollination of my local ecosystem, which has always supported me. Plus I figure, better keep bees now than manually pollinate flowers later!
The standard wisdom is that late-summer is the end of beekeeping season, but Queen City Bee Co. Beemaster Carlier Smyth made the point that it may be more helpful to view this as the beginning. Bees need a clean, dry environment, always above the freezing point. Preparing for winter means ensuring that your bees are ready to make it through to the springtime. While many apiaries simply squeeze as much as they can out of their bees, Queen City Bee Co. never takes honey in a hive’s first fall. Instead, Queen City Bee Co. invests in the hive’s growth and strength, and they are rewarded handsomely.
So, open and ready for a new challenge, I joined Beemaster Carlier with Queen City Bee Co. for my first day. After some very strong coffee, we donned our costumes (his word, but apt) and went out to meet the bees. And there were a ton of them! Each hive can have up to 60,000 bees, all of whom together can make a huge mess. Queen City Bee Co. cleans their boxes twice a year, which is what we did my first day. We started by scraping the excess wax, propolis, and excrement, then scrubbing with an apple cider vinegar solution, followed by a hydrogen peroxide scrub. After the final rinse with water, we let the boxes dry in the sun.
Cleaning the boxes was also a great opportunity to condense the hive down for winter. Now, I am told that not everyone does this - but I think Queen City Bee Co.’s hugely successful survival rate through the winter (90-100% for the last several years, as opposed to the 40-50% national average) speaks for itself. But if it doesn’t, here is some logic: Taking out extra comb, or reorganizing it so that old comb can be recycled by the hive, ensures that the bees’ winter Huddle takes less energy. I mean, if I had less house to heat over the winter, it would cost me less money.
Rooting through their homes, we found one hive that had a pretty low population, no eggs, and no visible queen. If you are interested in keeping bees, then you know that this meant a rare and exciting late-summer queen introduction! We tucked a mated queen (with attendants) in a queen cage gently between frames. The workers were immediately all over her cage. They lifted their wings and their little rears, fanning her pheromones for their world (see: the hive) to take in. Her scent will tip the rest of the workers off to the fact that she is in the house (see: the hive), and that danger is over. If they went too long without a queen, the rest of the workers could begin to laying unfertilized eggs, leading to an drone-only population and eventual death of the colony. (Drones only exist to eat and mate with available queens. And without any queens to mate with, or any workers to keep the place up, drones would quite literally eat the rest of the hive out of house and home.)
Just to make sure their population really was strong, we added some brood (generally, a queen’s eggs and larvae) from an auxiliary hive. I was a little skeptical. Wouldn’t they know that they were from a slightly different line? Wouldn’t they revolt or get kicked out? Beemaster Carlier assured me that as soon as we were done rooting through their belongings and everyone was settled, the new brood and queen would get along just fine, and they would all take care of one another.
In order to clean their boxes, we had to take their homes apart. It was a great opportunity to see their general preferences and some opportunities Queen City Bee Co. already learned from. For example, bees definitely and absolutely prefer wax foundation to plastic, and wire support to fishing line.
The bees don’t love the roof being taken off of their house (I don’t think I would like it either.) So as long as their boxes were open and we went through sorting screens and checking population and looking for the queens, we crowned their boxes with temporary tops. Bee psychology is an inexact science, but an important one. Keeping them comfortable and happy ensures that they are easy to work with, and keeps them from attacking. Which, I did get stung, by the way. Three times. Is that good luck?
Check back for more, as I learn it. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on overwintering, any resources you’d like to share, topics you’d like to see, or any remedies for bee stings.