What happened to Spring? Too cold for me and much too cold for the bees. It should be at least 12 degrees Celsius before you open a beehive. And seeing as the thermometer in my car on the way to my bee class read 6 degrees, we weren't going to get a peak in the hive. Instead, about 15 of us huddled in the beekeeping clubhouse to learn about the different breeds of bees, frame sizes and where to best place a beehive.
We discussed three of the most popular races of honey bees, not very many considering that there are over 600 different types of honey bees, not including wild bees.
Buckfast Bee: This bee is a hybrid created by Brother Adam, a Benedictine monk in charge of beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey in the United Kingdom. This breed of bee is excellent at brood rearing.
Carnica Bee: These bees have dark grey bands. They have a tendency to swarm but keep a small colony during the winter which requires only a minimal amount of food.
Lingustica Bee: These Italian bees are great honey comb builders and grow their colony quickly. They maintain a large colony during the winter, requiring more food.
So after I decide what type of bees I would like, I need to figure out where to put my hive. I dreamt of having my very own bees in my very own yard but this may not be as easy as I thought. At least in Germany (and this does make sense, especially if you like your neighbors), you must have a distance of 6 meters to the neighboring border. The hive entrance should face SouthEast (or East) so that the bees can profit from the morning sun. But be careful with that sunshine, especially in the summer. Too much heat on the hive will cause the wax to melt. The hive requires shade during mid-day. This should probably go without saying, but don't set up a hive near an expressway. Or all those busy worker bees are likely to end up stuck to a car grille on their way home. The bees need about 1.5 meters of free space directly in front of the hive. But then it is advisable to have a hedge or some tall plantings as this will force the bees to fly up, thus being less of a nuisance to any neighbors. Once you've decided on your ideal spot and you later decide it's not quite so ideal, don't just pick up the hive and move it a few meters. Those bees know exactly where their home is and if it's no longer there, they won't be able to find it, even if they can see it. So it must be moved at least 2 km away (and then can be again moved to a new location if desired). Bees need a source of water nearby. To avoid potential hassle with the neighbor, this source shouldn't be a swimming pool, rain barrel or a dripping garden hose. Be sure to write your name and telephone number on your beehive. Beekeeping is something to be proud of, no need to be anonymous.
So now I know what type of bees I want and where to place my bees, but what about the hive itself? One of the greatest inventions in modern beekeeping is the invention of the wax foundation. This is a plate made of wax with the indentations of honeycomb. It provides the bees with an easy foundation to build their honeycomb, much quicker than building a natural honeycomb.
This wax foundation is inserted into a wired frame by soldering the wire with an electric current. This heats the wire and the wax foundation melts and attaches itself within the frame to the wire. But be careful not to heat the wire too much or it will cut right through the wax. The wires should be so taut that you could almost play guitar on them. When working with so many frames, it's important to stick with one system: horizontal wires and contact nails on the side of all frames. Our instructor recommended using only Hoffman frames. These frames are self-spacing. The side-bars are tapered from top to bottom. Another important factor to consider when choosing your frames is that they are made out of hardwood, such as ash. Otherwise, the wire will cut through softer woods.
Now we have our frames, but where to put them. The frames where the bees live, where the queen lays her eggs and where the brood is raised come on the bottom of the hive. On top of those come the queen excluder (you don't want to find the queen in the honey when you take those frames out). Then come the frames where the bees store their honey. A good rule of thumb (at least in my neck of the woods) is to add the honey box as soon as the cherry trees begin to bloom. And so as not to disturb the bees too much, the honey box and the drone frames should be added at the same time.
The drone frames are a bit different than the brood and honey frames. They don't need a wax foundation. This empty frame is placed on the edge of the brood nest frames. A simple strip of wax along the top of the frame is helpful in building the drone honeycomb. After two (no later than three) weeks, the drone frame can be removed and cut out. Why in the world would you want to cut out all those potential drones?! Well, turns out it's a natural way of fighting the varroa mite. This world-wide pest infests the drone brood much more than the female worker brood. So by cutting out the drone brood before they hatch, you can reduce the hive infection, not completely, but significantly. After the initial removal of the drone brood, this process should be repeated every 7 to 10 days with removal of the oldest drone frame.
Caution! Mice, snails and ants....all want to get into the cozy warm beehive. The first way to prevent predators from entering the hive is to keep the hive 20 to 30 cm off of the ground. Just before the first frost, it's advisable to add a mouse guard, a piece of wire mesh or metal that goes across the hive entrance and helps the bees protect the opening.
I'd love to hear from any beekeepers about their experiences with the above topics that we covered. Until next time...