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Personal Experiences Story by Jalboh

February 17, 2011 in ,

Leaving my ‘Beginner’s’ series for a little longer, (or maybe for good??) this month I’ve submitted another of my ‘Personal Experiences’ stories.

Once, when I was young and just starting to become interested in bees, or rather, started thinking about all the money I could make if I WAS interested in bees, my dad was asked to take some bees out of someone’s roof. A task he had done many times before and had got to the point where he could (generally) do it quite quickly and with little fuss. This, however, depended on the weather and time of day etc.

At the time he was the postmaster in quite an elite neighbourhood. He was always very chatty and had a good old chin-wag with most of the people who came into the post office. He targeted the ‘snobs’ and often took wagers with colleagues that he’d get them chatting and laughing within a week, month, or whatever. Anyway, eventually he became known as ‘The Bee Man’ by those who didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t remember his name.

He often had people, who had heard of his interest in bees, come around to pick his brains on the subject. One of these was our local postman, a young (at the time) man 10-15 years older than myself. On this occasion, when my dad was asked to remove the bees from the roof , the young lad came along for the experience. He had quite long hair (a style that was just beginning to become popular at the time). My dad used to call him ‘Bushpig’ because he had a rather rough, clumsy air about him.

A woman had come into the post office and told my dad that they were going to have a very formal dinner on Saturday evening and were expecting some important business associates of her husband to be there and, as the bees were attracted by the light, they would be a nuisance, so could my dad please come and get rid of them. As I was quite young, my dad was glad of Bushpig’s help.

Saturday came and we all set out on our rescue mission. We were led, through the dining room, to the trapdoor in the passage. Remembering that, in South Africa, terrace houses are found in the older, poorer areas and most houses, even very posh ones, are single storey (‘bungalows’ over here). The table in the lounge was quite long and had about a dozen places set with the best silver and cut-glass wine glasses, flowers and silver serviette rings and more other things than I’d ever seen before.

To be on the safe side we went in and out through the kitchen so as not to mess up the dining room. The whole job went very smoothly and quickly and without incident – until Bushpig’s foot slipped. He missed the rafter and went through the ceiling landing right in the middle of the dining room table!

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Some Practices in Beekeeping

November 22, 2010 in

Not all the things beekeepers do are always done the same way. Some beekeepers may tackle a task in one way while another beekeeper does it a different way. Sometimes a new beekeeper will not listen to a more experienced beekeeper and he pays the price for it. (This will be the topic of a future article). Other times there are different ways, one just as good as the other, of achieving the same result.

I have kept less than 50 hives as a hobby. I have also worked on a commercial bee farm, running over 2,000 hives. The methods used by the hobbyist just could not work on a commercial scale, and methods used by a commercial beekeeper would be considered ‘poor practice’ by the hobbyist. There are times, however, when, due to time constraints, using some of the ‘tricks’ of commercial beekeepers, could help solve a problem that the hobbyist may have.

I have been putting up posts aimed at beginners so far. However, I’d like to add some, from time to time, which are not necessarily instructive, but may just be informative or (some may find) ‘interesting’. This is one of the latter. Hopefully some of you will find it interesting.

An example of what a hobbyist would consider, not ‘poor practice’ but ‘shocking practice’ is the way the commercial beekeeper robs his hives. Let us look at how the hobbyist should do it. First of all he should take the ‘softly-softly’ approach.

Quietly open the hive, giving it a single puff of smoke before removing a frame. Inspect it to see if it is ready to be removed. If so, gently shake, knock or brush the bees off the frame and place it into the super he has brought along. Replace the frame with an empty one and go on to the next frame. Give the hive another puff of smoke, just to keep the bees subdued and carry on till you’ve taken off all the honey you can. Close the hive and go on to the next one.

The commercial beekeeper might have half a dozen assistants. He will go ahead giving the bees so much smoke they will think there is a forest fire raging round them. He will remove the lid, have a look at a couple of frames and then crack loose the supers. The first assistant will then come along behind him and bang all the bees out of the supers, dump the supers on the ground next to the hive and move on to the next one. Two more assistants will carry the full supers to the truck and come back with empty supers, dumping them onto the hive. There will be two on the truck, one stacking the full supers at one end of the truck and another handing down empty supers from the other end of the truck. The sixth assistant comes along at the end of the line, squaring off the empty supers which have been placed onto the hive and replacing the lid. Job done. This method means you have 6 – 8 hives open at the same time. There is total chaos, banging and shouting in the camp and, needless to say, this would be suicidal to try this in the daytime (with the African bee, anyway). We would rob at night using miner’s helmets with lamps (torches) attached. That way you are contending with only the hive you are working on.

This had it’s problems. Sometimes queens would be killed and you’d come back to a vastly depleted hive at the next visit. Other times you’d bring queens back to the honey house. Next day you’d find clusters of bees hanging from the eaves of the honey house. The bees that were brought back attaching themselves to the queens that had been brought back. We would then hive them and start them off as new swarms.

These were just part of the hazards of commercial beekeeping. But when you are robbing 5 – 6 camps a night, each with 20 – 30 hives and you are bringing back 200 – 250 supers of honey, the hobbyist’s method just could not do the job.

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The Hive – A Closer Look

October 6, 2010 in

Last time we started looking at what you need. Lets now take a closer look at the first and most basic thing that you will need to keep bees – and that is the hive.

When talking about hives I’ll be referring to 10 frame Langstroth hives, as this is what I have always used. This does not mean, however, that these are necessarily the best, but I would suggest that, whatever hives you use, make sure they’re all the same. It makes interchanging hive parts so much easier.

First of all we have the floor or ‘bottom board’. This is a flat board the same width as, but slightly longer than, the normal hive sections. It is bordered on three sides (two long sides and a short side) by a rim which will raise the first chamber about half-an-inch above the floor. The side without a border then forms the entrance to the hive. The extended length creates a ‘landing board’ for the bees to alight onto at the entrance. Then we have a ‘brood chamber’ or deep chamber. There may be one or more of these before we have a ‘super’ or shallow chamber. Some beekeepers use brood chambers as supers but, when full of honey these are a lot heavier than the normal supers and, if you are lucky enough to have a lot of these full of honey, they play havoc on your back. The number, of each of these, that you will need will be discussed later.

Next you will need an ‘inner cover’ to put onto your top super. The reason for this is that the inner cover covers the same area as the chamber on which it lies and is, therefore, flush with the top chamber. Very often the bees will build wax on top of the frame between the frame and the lid. This has the effect of ‘gluing’ the lid down (although that is not actually their intention). If this happens it is easier to get your hive tool between the cover and the top super and prise them apart.

Finally you have a telescopic lid or ‘outer cover’. This has a slightly larger area than the super and has deeper sides (an inch or two) which fit over the hive. This helps to keep the top weatherproof. The inner cover should have a smallish hole in the centre and a rim round the edge (of the cover – not the hole) so that there is a gap (half-inch or so) between the inner and outer covers. This is to allow ‘breathing’ which helps with regulating the internal temperature of the hive. It also helps to eliminate condensation within the hive.

There is also a piece that can fit between hive parts called a queen excluder. This is a frame, the size of the top of a super, holding a thin sheet of metal with slots punched into it. These slots are big enough to allow bees to pass through but too small to allow the queen to pass through. Another type is made of stout wires spaced far enough apart to allow the passage of bees but not the queen. Some beekeepers swear by them though I, personally, do not believe in them. We’ll discuss, later, why some beekeepers use them and why others do not.

Finally there are the frames. These should be wired and waxed. In other words there should be wires going from side to side or, I have seen, from top to bottom in a ‘V’ pattern. This wire must be taught and should be embedded into the wax sheet or ‘foundation’. This is to reinforce the combs otherwise, when you spin them in the extractor, they will disintegrate into chunks in your honey. We try to keep the combs intact so we can put them back into the hive to be refilled. It takes seven units of honey to make one unit of wax so, if we can help the bees to save time making wax, we’ll be rewarded with more honey.

We must have foundation in the frames to guide the bees when building the combs otherwise they will build them wherever they please, which would, more often than not, be across the frames, or diagonally from one frame to the next frame, and we’d end up with a solid mass of combs which would be impossible to manage. If you want to save some money you can put strip foundation into the frames. Wire the frames in the normal way and place the foundation, which has been cut into strips (about half the width of a normal ‘super’ sized sheet) into the frame.

The foundation needs to have the reinforcing wire embedded into it. This can be done with an ‘embedding wheel’. This is a ‘spiked’ wheel that looks a lot like a cowboy’s spur. The wheel is a few millimetres thick and, in some cases, the ‘spikes’ have a groove in the centre to guide you when you run it along the wire. Weave the foundation between the wires then run over the exposed wire with the embedding wheel. Keep the wheel hot by dipping it into hot water every little while.

Another way of embedding the foundation is electrically. You need to be very careful with this as I shall explain in a moment. For this you will need a car battery and a length of lamp cord (electrical cord that you would use for your bedside light). To one end attach two bulldog clips that can clamp onto the terminals of your car battery. On the other end have two little crocodile clips.

Clamp the bulldog clips onto your battery and clip one of the crocodile clips onto the beginning of your reinforcing wire. With the other crocodile clip just briefly touch the other end of the wire. This will heat the wire enough to melt the wax which will then solidify round the wire. Now this is where care must be taken. Just touch the wire with the second crocodile clip for no more than a second otherwise you’ll end up cutting the foundation into strips. I’ve done that often enough when I started using this method. It makes embedding a lot quicker and easier, but it does take a little practice to get used to it.

As mentioned before, one should also have a stand on which to place the hive. Although this is not considered a ‘hive part’, it is important to keep the hive off the ground and, as far as possible, away from moisture. An old motor car tyre can make a very durable and cheap hive stand. Beware: Too many car tyres, one on top of the other, will have too much give and may cause the hive to either stand skew or to fall over. Two should be the max.

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Equipment – What do you really need.

September 13, 2010 in

Having looked, briefly, at the ‘Why’ of beekeeping; and in more depth at ‘Where’, we now look at ‘What’.

What will you need to start beekeeping? There is not a lot you’ll need just to get started. As you progress you may find that beekeeping is quite lucrative and decide to grow. As your apiary increases you’ll need more equipment, but at the very beginning you’ll need, obviously, a hive with bees. Next (assuming you’ve already established ‘Where’ you’ll be keeping them), you’ll need a veil, gloves, a smoker and a hive tool. And that is pretty much it.

As to details about the equipment, all I’ll say here is that there are a lot of beekeeping equipment suppliers on the net, each with pretty substantial catalogues that you can browse through.

Briefly, the veil can fit over the head or it may be of the type that fits over the whole torso and having long sleeves. If you really need to cover up get a pair of overalls. Theses MUST be white or a light colour. Bees DO NOT like dark colours.
The gloves will need gauntlets with elastic tops.
The hive tool is needed to prise the frames out of the hive. It also needs one end to be sharp – not too sharp but sharp enough to scrape wax off the top of the top bar of the frame, to prise off the inner cover or to scrape off propolis used to ‘stick’ the frames in place.

As mentioned in the last article, you will need a stand to place the hives on in order to keep them off the ground. These may be made of wood or they may be metal. However, a very cheap – and durable alternative – is an old motorcar tyre. It serves the purpose admirably, it will probably cost you nothing AND it will not rot or rust.

You might find that you need an extractor. These vary in capacity and price and, even ‘cheaper’ ones are expensive. If you join your local beekeeper’s society you may find that one of the older (more established) members has an extractor that you may use. Otherwise getting the honey out of the combs will be very difficult, messy and time consuming. Remember that, just as you need a place to keep your bees, you also need a place to work with the honey. You do, after all, need to keep in your mum’s/wife’s good books and not mess up her kitchen too much. You could sell your honey in the comb or, if you have some friends who are also interested in keeping bees, join forces and club in to buy an extractor.

If you do get to the point where you need to afford an extractor, you’ll also need an ‘uncapping knife’. These can be either electric or steam heated. You can get away with a sharp carving knife and a jug of hot water. Although this is feasible, it is not ideal.

Keeping bees involves more than having a box of bees somewhere and collecting honey every now-and-again. There is a certain amount of management required – and we’ll have a look at that next time.

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Choosing The Site For an Apiary

August 6, 2010 in ,

You need to know what to look for when choosing a site:

1. Books may tell you that the hives should be in full sun all day, and in this country that may well be a good rule of thumb to stick to. However, having kept bees in South Africa for many years, I found that that was not a good idea for two reasons.
The first was that wax melts at 110 deg. F. If we start getting very warm summers, being in full sun may cause a problem. The bees will be spending a lot of time collecting water to cool the hive instead of collecting nectar to make honey. The bees collect water then evaporate it by flapping their wings at the entrance of the hive. This cools the hive using the same principles that your fridge uses at home.
The second is comfort. Mainly your own comfort. Remember that you will have to spend time working on your hive, not only when you rob the hive, but also when to spend time ‘managing’ it, and we’ll come to that at a later stage. You must also consider the bees’ comfort. Bees do not like to be disturbed if it is too hot, too cold, too windy or too wet – and they will let you know that too (adding to your discomfort!).

2. Next we should consider security. I shouldn’t imagine there would be the same problems with human thieving in this country as there is in South Africa. It was heartbreaking to come to an apiary to find £500 damage to the hives and a couple of small swarms left, out of 30+, all for about £10-£20 worth of honey. That was done by the indigenous people, but the same sort of damage could be wrought by badgers. If you have badgers in your area try to make the apiary badger-proof. Failing that you could get some strong luggage straps and strap the hive together.

3. If you have any sort of traffic nearby, people walking past, etc. make sure you have a solid fence. A board fence, wall, or hedge 6ft or higher. Make sure that the bees cannon fly straight out and hit somebody walking past Having a solid fence will force the bees to fly up and over the heads of passers by.

4. Make sure that the hives are out of the wind. Wind will either cause the bees to abscond (leave) to find a better place, or it will cause them to block the entrance with propolis, or ‘bee gum/glue’ as it is sometimes referred to. The bees collect resin from trees and mix it with, amongst other things, wax and pollen, to make propolis. This is not good for two reasons. First, they leave small holes in the propolis for access. This restricts the movement of the bees and ‘slows down’ the work.
Second, it takes seven times as much foraging to make 1 unit of propolis as it does to make 1 unit of honey – waste of the bees’ time.

5. This should have been No. 1 as it is the most important: Proximity to a nectar supply. Bees will forage up to 3km from the hive, but if there isn’t a good enough source of nectar nearby, they have been known to fly up to 12km in search of food. Once they find it they will leave the hive and move closer to the source. This is not good for the beekeeper who will come back and find an empty hive.
Bees need a lot of flowers. When I was running a bee farm in South Africa we would ‘chase’ the crops, moving from one crop to another so we could have honey all year round. We would work on about one acre of eucalyptus, or 5 acres of beans, or 2 acres of citrus trees per hive to provide a good yield of honey. As a hobbyist you could keep a fair number more hives in an area than a commercial beekeeper might.

A few more considerations, not dealing on the position of the apiary, but important none-the-less are:

a. Make sure people, especially children and animals, cannot enter the apiary by accident. If you are keeping the bees at home you need to just warn guests of the presence of bees. If your bees are on somebody else’s property, a farmer for example, make sure the site is secure.

b. The hives should be placed on stands as:
i. It raises the hive and places less strain on your back when you’re working on it.
ii. It keeps the hive off the ground. This is to prevent rain from splashing into the entrance and also keeps it above the damp of the soil and surrounding vegetation. This helps to prevent rotting of the floor and sides of the brood chamber.
iii. It (should) raise the hive above the weeds which would impede the flow of bees going to and from the hive. Proper maintenance of the site should include periodic weeding in front of the hives. This should be done in the evening after a few good puffs of smoke into the entrance of the hive as bees do not like the smell of cut grass or disturbed vegetation too close to the hive.
iv. This may not apply in the UK, but if there is an ant problem in your area, there are ways of making the stand ant-proof. Ants are tolerated by bees but a large enough colony of ants nearby can have a serious effect on the amount of honey there is left for you to take.

I’ve said quite a lot about the apiary here, all of which is important, but have not left any time to go on to the ‘paraphernalia’ as I had promised. We’ll have to do that next time.

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So You Want To Keep Bees

August 4, 2010 in ,

First of all “Why keep bees?”

Beekeeping is something you will either love or hate. You will either become extremely passionate about it or you will give up in a very short time. There are two things which may cause you to give up: Stings and impatience on you part.

Can you stand the stings? They say “No pain, no gain”. When I was a boy my dad used to say “It is a good thing that bees sting. If they didn’t, then everybody would keep bees and there would be nobody to sell honey to”. That may not be entirely true but he did have a point.

The second is also true. My dad gave me my first hive when I was about twelve. I was so chuffed that I looked in it almost every day. Needless to say there was (visibly) no more honey in the hive than there had been the day before. It wasn’t long before I lost interest and my dad incorporated ‘my hive’ in with his own. Every couple of weeks he’d give me a few bob for ‘my share’ of the honey.

He also made quite a bit by selling hives, with bees, plus a whole lot of the paraphernalia that goes with it, then, a few months later, buying it all back again at half the price.

Some very important considerations will be:
1. It will cost a lot of money to get started. This can be recouped within two to three years if you sell your honey, though it could also take longer, depending on the source of the nectar.
2. There will be w-o-r-k involved.
3. You will also have to learn about bees. It is not enough to get a bunch of bees, put them in a box then sit back and wait. You could have a hive with 100 000 bees in it one day and the next there may be only 10 000. Or worse still, it could be empty.
Bees require proper management to prevent, or reduce the likelihood of them absconding.
4. You will need a safe site. They must be safe from robbery, either by people or animals such as badgers. They must also be in a position where they will not be a nuisance to other people or animals (especially horses). Bees and horses really don’t get along and it’s usually the horses that fare the worse. And that will lead you into a lot of hot water.

In my next article I will deal with choosing a site and some of the ‘paraphernalia’ you will require.

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