A Year of Backyard Beekeeping

Regular readers of this blog know that I once kept hundreds of hives in Florida and Saskatchewan. That was a long time ago. Now that I’m all grown up, I’ve got just two colonies in my Calgary backyard. Much more fun.

I teach a lot of beekeeping workshops. Some are advanced courses, but the most challenging are our beginning beekeeping programs. That’s because beginners begin at the beginning, but as we age and gain experience (I’ve done both) we become removed from the spirit and green freshness of the enthusiastic newbie’s blank slate. To be a better – and ‘more connected’ – instructor, I figured that I should try to practice what I teach. I decided to start as a beginner beekeeper would start – with a couple of backyard hives.

During the past year, my 16-year-old and I started hobby beekeeping with two packages in new equipment. We had some of the same problems that beginners have, nevertheless, we made some honey – just as most beginners do. Today, I am posting a photo essay of our year of backyard beekeeping.

I instruct new beekeepers to start with two colonies. S0, we also started with two. That was a wise choice, as we would discover a few weeks into our project.  More on that in a moment. I also instruct new beekeepers about the perfect apiary location – an aspiration seldom achieved. More about that later, too.

Since this was a fresh start, I decided to try something different with our backyard hives. We live in a short-season, cold-climate, high-elevation locality, so we wrap hives with insulation each fall. I’ve thrown winter-long-johns on hives each autumn for many years, but never enjoyed the chore. I’d grown tired of handling sheets of asbestos, or whatever it was I used, to protect bees from arctic winds. I heard about thick-walled polystyrene hives. So, I bought four new brood chambers made of the stuff from the local Apihex store. The boxes came in the traditional beehive colour. We masked the white with a durable exterior latex camouflage colour.  Since the bees would be in our backyard, surrounded by a million Calgarians, it seemed prudent to hide the hives so that our neighbours wouldn’t sneak over at night and steal honey from the hives. The earth-tone paint blends into the backyard (except in winter) and keeps pesky neighbours away.

Before receiving the packages, I figured my son should have a bee suit. When Daniel was young, we let him traipse amongst the bees without bee gear. Now that he has grown to be an intelligent, hard-working young man, we can see he has some economic value. So why risk a bad bee sting?  We took him to a bee suit tailor who properly attired him. You can see the transformation from ten years ago to today.

OK. Hives painted, boy properly suited. Time to get some packages.  Here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a lot of beekeepers start with packages from New Zealand. So, we did, too. Usually the bees arrive through  commercial beekeepers (in our case, Reece and Echo Chandler of Scandia Honey). They have the skill it takes to haul bees from afar. Our Calgary and District Beekeepers’ Association worked with the Chandlers, who imported bees from New Zealand.  Here are  packages of bees arriving in the city, being distributed by the bee club.

Two package cages became ours. At home, we pulled apart the cages, which were aggressively stapled together back in New Zealand, where the bees were reared.

In the picture above, you can see a hive in the background. Before installing the bees, we prepared their new homes with combs, new foundation, and a feeder. You can start a package on totally new combs of foundation, but it helps enormously if you can get a few clean drawn combs from a reliable, inspected source. Our choice was again the Chandlers at Scandia Honey. We knew that they sold safe, disease-free equipment.

Below, you can see one of the boxes, ready for installing bees. From the top left are the division-board feeder (filled with sugar water), two drawn frames, a gap, one drawn frame, and two black-coloured new frames of foundation. Bees from the package will be released into the gap. Once the bees are in, we add three more drawn combs in the gap.

If this is all new to you, here’s a look at one of the frames of foundation. We could have bought white frames but I wanted black so we could spot the eggs and young larvae more easily. Other than the colour, there’s no difference.

All of this took place this year, April 27, 2018, at 9 in the evening. The sun was setting, it was becoming dark. Time to release the bees.

Daniel holds the package cage (above) and releases the bees. I reach in and retrieve the caged queen. As soon as most of the bees are freed, I lower my hand just above the mass of bees in the gap, open the queen cage, and release the queen among the workers. Since it is evening, most of the bees don’t fly but instead settle into the box with the queen.

We give the bees a few minutes to get comfortable in their new home, then gently place three drawn combs to fill the gap. At this point, we have 6,500 workers and one mated queen in a big empty box. I installed my first packages over 40 years ago, have done this procedure thousands of times, yet every single time I suffer doubt that a small cluster of bees can become a honey-making hive. It’s April 27th. Do I really expect to harvest honey in about two or three months? That seems highly improbable. But the bees usually surprise me. Nevertheless, take a look at the next picture. You may be able to see Daniel’s expression. This will make honey? Are you kidding?

So, we have installed two packages. The queen would likely begin to lay eggs the next day. It takes three weeks from egg-laying to fully-developed adult worker bees. So, from Friday, April 27 until perhaps Saturday, May 19, the new hives will lose population everyday as the New Zealand workers age and die. The colonies will become weaker and look even less promising until new bees emerge. For now, though, we let the bees get used to their new home. The feeder holds about a gallon (4 litres) of sugar syrup. The food is so the bees won’t starve if it turns cold and wet. For the next few days, we don’t touch the hives. Unexpected disturbances at this critical adaptation time might stir the bees into attacking and killing their new queen. So, we stifle our curiosity and allow nature to run her course for a bit. The next morning, as if to welcome the bees, nature wandered into our yard. You can spot the yearling.

We left the package cages near the hives for the next morning so that stray bees would find their way into their new homes. Later, we cleaned up the yard, careful not to touch the hives, lest we disturb them and make the bees anxious. This location is not bad for bees, but there are things going on here which we usually advise against. The hives are heavily shaded most of the day. The entrances are tight against juniper bushes. But our yard slopes southward and has good air drainage. The bees are close to the house, so that’s easy access for me. Since they are close to the house, I’ve faced the entrances into the brush so bees don’t buzz our ankles when we mow the grass or walk nearby. Hive placement is always a trade-off. Not every location is perfect. But our goal with these bees was to learn and have fun, without being a nuisance to neighbours and family. We don’t need a ton of honey. Although the spot isn’t perfect, we were thrilled to see pollen arriving the day after installing the bees.

A week after giving the bees their new home, we couldn’t contain our curiosity any longer. We opened the hives – quickly, gently, with little disturbance – and checked for brood. Or, as Richard Taylor put it, beekeeping success demands “a certain demeanor. It is not so much slow motion that is wanted, but a controlled approach.”  With Tayloresque finesse, we opened the hives and viewed plump larvae on Saturday, May 5th!

… and on May 8th, just eleven days after the bees arrived, the first sealed brood:

We were not intentionally looking for the queens – it’s enough to see eggs and larvae. But, here is one of the queens, surrounded by her courtly entourage. Notice how the workers’ antennae are stretched toward her:

Things were going along rather well. There was lots of pollen in the newly established hives by May 11:

Unfortunately, our first disaster struck. Near the middle of the pollen frame, above, you can see a queen cell plug. Most colonies have these, but it’s sometimes a sign of trouble. The bees may be considering supercedure. Or the queen may be dead. There were still eggs in this hive, but we checked again three days later and found only pearl brood. The queen had died.

These days, this happens too often with packages. During the 1970s, when I reared my own queens in Florida and drove truckloads of packages to western Canada, I would have nearly one-hundred percent of my queens leading good colonies all summer. In 2010, with 500 hives in Alberta, I was buying packages from New Zealand and finding one-third had lost their queens within a month. Other beekeepers have reported the same problem. I don’t know if it’s due to the way those queens were reared in New Zealand or some local environmental issue, but losing a queen these days isn’t unexpected. It’s disappointing, but not surprising.

Anticipating the possibility of queen loss, we started the year with two hives. The second colony had a fine queen and four frames. I moved a frame of young brood from the good hive and put it into the queenless one to see if they would raise a new queen on their own. We could have purchased a new queen, but this beekeeping was pedagogical. My 16-year-old was learning. Weakening a good hive early in the season while hoping that the queenless one would sprout a new egg-layer is risky. Atop that, we were drawing mostly foundation – the second brood chamber and all honey supers would be entirely new wax. Still, I was hoping that we’d make a little honey. I convinced myself that the season was early and bees are resilient. We forged ahead.

Now some good news. Probably one of the most awe-inspiring sights for any beekeeper comes with the arrival of fuzzy new bees emerging from their cells. It’s especially exciting when the new workers are the first bees in a package hive. Until May 19, every bee in the hive was a New Zealand citizen. But the Kiwis were getting old. Many were past their best-before date. But along came the Canadian newborns. Below, you can see fuzzy, whitish workers that are just a few minutes old. And, looking closely, you will also see a couple of cells being opened by youngsters, their eyes and antennae greeting the world:

On May 23rd, we added second brood chambers. The good hive filled the entire first box. It needed a second. Our second brood chambers were entirely foundation so we pulled a couple of drawn combs from the lower box to help the bees occupy the second storey.

The queenless unit now had a few nice queen cells. (I removed the ones that were not so nice.) We stole one more frame with brood from the queenright colony and gave it to the queenless one. I put a second brood chamber atop the queenless hive. This isn’t recommended, but I felt that the hive, though weak, would eventually use the space. The dandelion flow was just starting. The thick-walled styro boxes conserve broodnest heat. And, I would not be looking at the queenless hive for a month, allowing the new queen to develop, emerge, mate, and begin egg-laying without my oversight. So, I gave both hives space.

Second brood chambers are on the hives:

Then, June 10, we did something really fun. Again, not standard procedure. But our good hive was really good. Below is a frame that was just a sheet of foundation a  month earlier. We brought it into the house.

This solid one-piece plastic frame has a wax-coated plastic base to which bees added comb. It’s possible to scrape honey from the frame without wrecking the foundation. That’s what we did.

We ended up with a few pounds of very nice spring honey. This harvest system was tedious and messy but it satisfied the household sweet-tooth until the main crop would be harvested in August.

July 10th, we added honey supers. Our queenless colony, left, produced its own queen but wasn’t very strong. It received one honey super. We gave our good hive two supers.

Things progressed normally through July. The bees gained strength. The bees were drawing out combs and filling them with honey. But now we had another problem. Wasps. Large carnivorous wasps can destroy a colony. The carnivores eat bees. I bought some wasp traps and we hung them near the hives. The wasps quickly disappeared. Here are the sort of wasps we battled. At least, this is what they seemed like to us:

And here are the traps that we used. These traps worked really well. They attracted wasps but not bees or other pollinators.

It became rather dry and hot in early August. In fact, on August 10, the city of Calgary hit a record-high. Partly as a joke, and partly out of sincere bee-welfare concern, Daniel set up a garden hose and drenched the hives with ice-cold glacier water from the nearby Rockies:

By mid-August, it was apparent that the honey season was ending. Beekeepers across Alberta reported a ‘nice’ July for honey production, but August was too hot and too dry. On August 17, one week after the record-breaking heatwave, we removed the surplus honey.

We pulled honey right after lunch. If you have just a few hives, use a bee brush to remove the honey. On a warm day, bees are active and a brush is a harmless way to separate bees from honey. We kept everything covered to prevent robbing. Taking honey from two hives, brushing one comb at time, took less than one hour. Daniel carried all the frames to the garage where we’d set up the extractor in the morning.

If at all possible, remove surplus honey and extract the same day. The honey will be warm from the hive and much more willing to fling from the combs and flow to the buckets.

Daniel carried the honey, one bucket at a time, into the kitchen and carefully poured it into our honey tank. Although extracting is preferably done quickly after harvesting, bottling should wait a few days. That’s so pollen, air bubbles (churned into the honey during extracting), and bees’ knees have time to float to the top of the tank. On August 20, three days after extracting, we bottled the honey.

Making lots of honey was not our main motivation. Experiencing the joy of beekeeping was the objective. But we ended up with over seventy pounds of beautiful honey. Admittedly, that was a joy, too.

Our joy was short-lived. Skunks arrived to inspect our mini-apiary. They stayed for supper. Meanwhile, I was out of the country, checking out bees in Iceland. Daniel and our daughter Helen were with me, but my wife had stayed in Calgary. We Skyped from Reykjavik. She and our dog had spotted an entire family of skunks – a mum and a bunch of kits – pawing at the hives and eating bees. What should she do?

It was late afternoon in Calgary so I suggested that she go out in the evening and completely close the lower entrances – a relatively easy task that required removing the entrance reducer and flipping it over. Unfortunately, the skunks had irritated the bees so much that our normally placid charges were rather defensive. Eszter did what she needed to do but bees followed her all the back to the house. She didn’t get stung and the trick worked. The skunks could scratch the ground, trying to draw out bees to eat, but the upper entrances were 25 inches above ground level and that was now the bees’ only way out. A skunk’s tongue isn’t long enough to reach the upper entrance and the bees wouldn’t crawl down the front of the hive en masse to check out the skunk’s nocturnal pawing. Unfortunately, when she got home from work the next day, Eszter discovered another problem. The hive tops were covered with bees. We had confused them and the warm late-August weather made the bees cluster around the top entrance. They were no longer being gobbled up by skunks, but they were a bit hot.

My suggestion was that the bees should have a bigger upper entrance, so my wife brushed aside the bees and opened more air vents. It worked. The bees soon disappeared into their homes. Below, you can see the upper entrances. Most of the bees had gone inside.

Also, notice how the skunks had scratched the grass, hoping to entice bees to come out and be eaten. Some folks place their hives on tall stands to keep skunks from reaching the entrances. That would work, too, but now the hives weighed about 150 pounds each, so they stayed on the ground.

Well, that was our year with two hobby hives in the backyard. It was a great learning experience and helped me connect to novice beekeepers. Our adventure included queen loss, wasps, heat, and skunks as well as harvesting 70 pounds (35 kilos), drawing out 50 new combs from foundation, and leaving enough honey for the bees to survive the winter.

And speaking of winter, here is one last photo of our backyard apiary where the bees are as snug as bugs in polystyrene hives.  Have a nice winter, everyone. The bees will.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeepingblog.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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9 Responses to A Year of Backyard Beekeeping

  1. Erik says:

    Nice summary, Ron, and good to see you working bees again. I’m a bit jealous of your harvest, we get nowhere near that from most hives on a good year. Trade-offs for the longer days and colder winters, I suppose. Enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. valbjerke says:

    It was a very bad year for wasps here – I tried every style of wasp trap I could, both home made and purchased such as the ones you show. Never caught a single wasp. Ultimately ended up making a robbing screen for the hive – it confused the bees for a day or so but they figured it out.
    You did well on your honey haul 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • valbjerke, I used the same traps that Ron has in the photo above (Rescue brand disposable pheromone traps), which are available in Canadian Tire, Walmart and on Amazon. They have outperformed every other trap I have tried. But even with setting traps in spring to catch the new wasp queens, and setting traps out in a triangle around the beeyard, in bad wasp years it is a real battle to defend the hives from yellowjacket attack. Small colonies, weak colonies, sick colonies are all very vulnerable. And some colonies just seem to be rotten at defence, no matter what their size. Happily, you can fit the hives with robbing screens, and those are very effective at protecting the late summer/fall colonies from wasps.

      Nice column Ron!

      Liked by 1 person

      • valbjerke says:

        Yes I tried those traps – caught a zillion flies but no wasps. I’m hoping next year they won’t be so bad 😊

        Like

      • If you caught flies, it is possible you put up the Rescue fly trap, which alas is visually almost indentical to the wasp trap. I bought a bunch of those once thinking they were the wasp trap (and to make things worse the store clerks often put the fly traps into the wasp trap display box, argh). The wasp traps (Western, as I live in BC) attract wasps within minutes.

        Like

      • PS according to our Provincial Apiculturalist, 60% of NZ package queens are superceded within their first season. In my own club just south of the border (Bellingham’s Mount Baker club), we routinely see this level of queens going AWOL in the USA packages too. The most likely reasons would probably be: 1. in commercial queen rearing poor nutrition for developing queen larvae and 2. poor drone quality and/or few drones in the DCA’s the virgin queens are flying to. We now advise all our member beekeepers purchasing packages to deliberately raise a new, home grown queen ASAP.

        Like

  3. Emily Scott says:

    What a photo to end with! Hives turned into igloos. Can hobby beekeepers where you are get themselves started by catching a swarm, or is that unlikely?

    Like

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Hobby beekeepers could start with swarms. We recommend they don’t, because of AFB and varroa, but our bee club has a swarm task team which rescues homeowners from swarms (and vice-versa). Hobby beekeepers can ask to participate and learn. Not only do we suggest that swarms be housed in quarantine yards, but swarm season (which peaks during the last week of May) is a bit late to build a wintering unit and also make some honey.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I always enjoy your posts. We started beekeeping this past year. I agree that it is best to start with two hives. Our strong colony saved our weaker colony.

    Like

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