The ABC's of beekeeping

By Daymond Steer

Daymond-and-Shipping-containerConway Daily Sun reporter Daymond Steer and a friend ordered 9,000 bees through the mail. (COURTESY PHOTO)TAMWORTH — Let me tell you about my 9,000 little six-legged adopted children.

Earlier this year, I and my friend Thad Berrier of Tamworth ordered bees through the mail. Now they are making a happy home in Thad's barn. They came from H & R Apiaries and Roberts Bee Co. in Jeesup, Ga.

The 7,000-9,000 bees — about 3 pounds, plus one queen — arrived in a screened, wood-framed box. The shipment cost about $140 including $35 for shipping.

April to May is the best time to set up bee boxes because the flowers are blooming.

We set up the bees in the third story of Thad's barn, which has window-size openings so the bees can frolic around the yard and pollinate the fruit trees. The Berrier family's orchard has apple, plum, pear, peach and cherry trees, to name a few. Thad has been keeping bees since the mid-1970s when his older brother, Phil, who now lives in Oregon, introduced him to the hobby.

"My main interest is the pollination of our fruit trees," said Thad. "I've always liked having bees around when I can have them. The honey is a bonus, but I don't always take the honey."

The bees could generate about 75 pounds of honey by late this year, but we need to leave an appropriate amount for them to consume over the winter.

Beekeeping isn't super expensive. Thad estimates someone could get started for about $300, including the cost of the bees. The basic equipment consists of a couple of boxes with frames and lids, a veil and a smoker.

On May 11, our mission was to get the bees from the shipping container into their new home.

Thad-and-Queen-BoxThad Berrier of Tamworth holds the box the queen bee came in. (DAYMOND STEER PHOTO)We have two white bee boxes filled with wood frames. The frames have a honeycomb pattern between the wooden edges, called foundation. Some frames' foundation are made of beeswax, while others are made of plastic. Bees use foundation to store their young and as well as store honey. Typically, the brood is kept in the frames in the lower box, and the honey would be kept in the upper box. Bees use wax to cap their honey and their brood.

The foundation that the bees use for the brood turns rich brown.

Inside the bee shipping container was a can with sugar syrup in it for the bees to eat. Thad had to gently extract the can through the bottom of the container they were shipped in. 

Also inside the shipping container was a tiny box containing the queen and a few "minion" bees. The tiny queen box had a hole at one end that was sealed with a cork and a wall of sugar.

Thad used a screw to put a hole in the cork. The bees can chew through the sugar to help get the queen out the rest of the way out. He didn't open the hole all the way because  queen had not been introduced to her hive mates. If the queen and the rest of the bees meet too soon, the queen might be killed. There was another capped hole at the other end of the box. That was the side the queen bee entered her box from.

I helped hold the shipping container, which has little wooden handles, while Thad slowly removed the can. One bee decided to take a walk on my hand. It was inoffensive and didn't sting.

"You try to do this carefully to not get any of them mad or injured," said Thad.

A band of metal was attached to the queen box. He crimped the band into a pair of vice grips and placed the grips over two frames in a bee box. Once the queen box was in position, Thad encouraged the other bees to follow her by tipping the container over the box and giving the container a few shakes. The bees swarmed around the vice grips.

"They want to be with her," said Thad. "You want to be with your queen, right?" he asked me.

Some of the more astute bees who knew where the queen was began flapping their wings in her direction so the other bees could more easily smell her. Their buzzing became much louder.

The boxes are stacked two high, making the set up about a couple feet tall. The boxes are capped with inner and outer covers. The boxes are slightly offset so the bees could come and go as they please but small enough so mice couldn't get in.

The entire process took about 20 minutes.

"If you have a big, powerful hive you can have the brood in the bottom three boxes, and you can have two or three more," said Thad. "You can have these things as tall as we are."

Thad and I are both around 6'4."

We checked the bees again on May 23. The queen was doing a good job laying eggs and the rest of our bee crew seemed to be doing well.

When I went into the orchard, I saw bees working on the fruit tree flowers. Many had blobs of pollen on their legs.

The bees seemed to be in a good mood on May 11 and May 23. Both were sunny days. Honey bees hang around the boxes when it rains. It's best to visit them on days when many of them are busy outside.

We didn't need to use a smoker to keep them under control. Thad said he didn't need to use a smoker last year either.

"I don't mind a mild-mannered bee," said Thad.

The smoker, which looks like a can with a pointy top, mimics a forest fire. It uses burlap for fuel. When the bees sense a blaze coming, they load up on honey to fuel their wax-making abilities. They produce wax from their abdomens. They would use the newly created wax to build a new hive in the event they had to relocate.

Thad said they probably wouldn't "abandon ship" unless it got "extremely hot."

"You're fooling them into thinking there is a fire in the neighborhood," said Thad, adding that after the bees sense smoke they begin eating honey and make wax. "Grabbing the valuables is what they are doing."

During our hive setup, a bee ended up in the collar of Thad's shirt. It turned out to be a male (a drone), and Thad was able to pick him up and casually let him fly out of his hand because drones don't have stingers.

We wore white half bee suits with the face screen as we worked.

However, some people don't even do that.

"My brother wears shorts, a T-shirt, or no shirt, no gloves and flip-flops," said Thad.

I checked on the bees on Thursday and they seemed to be getting along nicely. Thad tells me the bees are staying busy out there.

Fellow beekeeper Olivia Saunders recently explained that bees better stay active to prepare for winter.

"We are officially out of the drought, thankfully but the bees still have a lot of work to do before they'll be ready for winter," said Saunders who works for UNH Cooperative Extension. "A healthy abundance of fall flowers will be important for winter survival."