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Homesteading observations: Bees

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 April Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Top bar hive

It’s mid-March and the weather is still being crazy. Last week when it was 70 degrees, Pru and I were taking a break, sitting in the sun, when what to my wondering ears did I detect, but a loud buzzing. Turning around, I discovered the source – our honeybee friends had survived the winter! They were out and about, cleaning the hive and searching for non-existent blossoms. To me this was a miracle, as I had had little hope that they would make it through.

It wasn’t the first miracle that they had preformed either. Their arrival was also unexpected but joyously received. It was an almost identical experience, only it was our first sighting of these winged delights. On July 27, while taking a break on another hot day we heard the high volume buzz which was unmistakably a honeybee swarm. To our delight they moved into our empty top-bar hive. It must have met their criteria for a fine home because they stayed here all summer.

I love working with the bees! However, most would say I am a dabbler and not a beekeeper. Many years ago, I took a beekeeping workshop at the Pfeiffer Center in New York State and learned the basics of beekeeping. The instructor also spoke of the natural ways that bees would live in the wild.

Returning home with some knowledge, but not really nearly enough, I ordered my first package of bees. What a thrill when the postal clerk called and said “please come to the post office NOW!” He was never so glad to see me and to see me leave. It really is incredible to hold a small screened-in box containing 10,000 bees a buzzin’.

I started using a Langstroth hive, which is the most commonly used hive body today and has been standardized, thus parts are interchangeable. It’s basically a square box that contains rectangular frames. Each frame has an attached thin sheet of wax with a hexagonal pattern imprinted on it. The bees use this pattern to build out their comb. Each square contains 10 frames and when each frame (approximately 10” x 20”) is full of brood, honey and pollen, you add another box of 10 frames on top of the original. The Langstroth is a vertical hive. These full hive bodies are heavy and became hard for me to lift. So I investigated other options.

I took a top-bar hive workshop at a NOFA Summer Conference and fell in love with the concept. The top-bar has a different configuration than the Langstroth. It is a horizontal hive approximately 4’ long with access to each individual bar/frame from the top. I never have to lift all 10 bars at once. The hive I built has room for 30 bars or the equivalent of three Langstroth boxes. The bees only have access to five or so bars in the beginning. As the bees build out comb and fill each bar, they are given access to more bars to expand the colony.

Some top bars (wooden slats) and some upside down comb, built out. Picture it hanging down from the wooden slat. (Source: Wikipedia)The other reason I like the top-bar is that the bees build out their own comb without the use of patterned/predetermined frames. In nature, bees build out comb which looks like a “dollop”; like the curve you get when holding two ends of a chain.

It is easy to lift and inspect one of these combs even when full of honey and brood. Also, when building their own comb, the bees build smaller individual cells when they are not following a preset pattern. Supposedly, these smaller cells make it harder for the varroa mites (a destructive parasite) to flourish and weaken the bee colony.

I love to work with honeybees. It slows me down. I sit and meditate before entering the hive, and when I do I rarely use smoke or wear protective gloves. My approach is one of less intervention in the hive, checking occasionally and monitoring their needs. Unless I do something careless, I’m not stung. Just watching their industry is a wonder.

My intervention is indirect. I try to have a fresh cover crop of buckwheat and oats and peas in blossom from spring through frost. I allow a diversity of plants, vegetable and “weeds” to flower (broccoli, mustards, clover, and even goldenrod) for nectar collection. They are very busy collecting pollen from the corn and forest trees. I provide plenty of fresh water in shallow containers with stepping-stones to prevent them from drowning.

Back to the beginning of this tale… The swarm arrived in late July. They moved into the hive, which had about 10 bars of drawn out comb, none of which contained honey or pollen. I casually monitored them but thought that there was no way that they could build up enough colony and supplies to overwinter and loved just to have summer visitors. As the cold weather arrived, I gave them a comb of immature honey left from the bees two years before. I had kept it in the freezer for just such an application. However, I still thought it wouldn’t be enough to really help them survive the long winter. In this case, I am so happy to be proven wrong!

As I write this it is still mid-March, so who knows what will happen by May. But for now, it feels like a real blessing and I welcome the Joy that they bring! May your spring be filled with your most cherished hopes and dreams.

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