Bees: Part 1

I occasionally mention my brother and his wife on here, but I try to give everyone their privacy, so I don’t go into names and details most of the time.  If you didn’t know, my brother and his wife are some of our closest friends.  We have spent at least one day a week together pretty much every week, for nearly 12 years.  I don’t think it would come as any shock, that the two couples (my brother and Tiffany, and Scott and myself) would have so much in common.  So imagine my “surprise” when Tiffany told me she wanted to get into bee keeping.  Scott had also mentioned to me, a desire to raise bees someday.  They talked about it, and we are now keeping 4 hives of bees here (2 of them being Tiffany’s).

I asked Tiffany if she would be willing to let me interview her for a post about bees since she is the one who has been taking the lead on most of the beekeeping.  She said yes, she was willing to be interviewed, so here’s what I’ve got for you.  I’ll be sharing all about actually setting up the beehives and putting the bees in, but I think it would be too much for one post, so I’ll be doing another post tomorrow with all of the pictures and a walk-through of what happened.  I would really like to stress that she and Scott are only just beginner beekeepers, and I mean, brand new to this.  This is just to give you an idea of what it takes to get started, and things you might want to consider before taking the plunge.  Please, give due diligence to your own research before diving in!  

Danielle:  Okay, so our first few questions will be some background information, and then we’ll go into the very basics of beekeeping and some of the things you and/or Scott will be doing as beekeepers.  Let’s get started!  What made you want to get into beekeeping?

Tiffany: I want to be able to make my own sweetener and replace white sugar from our diet, and I would need a bulk source to do that.  Honey seemed an obvious place to start for us.

Danielle: What are you most excited about when it comes to raising bees?

Tiffany:  Honestly, I think I’m most excited about just doing it and getting my hands dirty, and actually taking care of the bees themselves.  The process of learning beekeeping is a long one and the threat to bees is so high right now that I’m just excited to take care of my own and maybe help in some way.  And obviously, the honey!

Danielle:  Why are you doing bees here, at Spring Lake Homestead?

Tiffany:  I took a big interest in bees and Scott had a pretty big interest as well, so it just kind of made sense to take on the endeavor together.  I am keeping bees here because we are planning to move to the country as soon as God provides the right place.  But in the mean time, we live in a village, and villages are not always comfortable with that kind of thing in a back yard.  If we waited until after we move, it would be too late in the season to start a hive, and if we don’t move until next year, then we would miss an opportunity to have bees now!

Danielle:  Since I asked you what you are most excited about, I think I should ask: what is biggest fear for this project?

Tiffany: Um, killing the bees mostly, which is more of a concern for winter, because about 50% of hives die.  You need to take the right action steps to keep a hive alive and healthy, but every winter is different, and there is only so much you can do.

Danielle: What resources did you use to learn about bees?

Tiffany: YouTube (specifically The Bee Vlog), books (The Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping), miscellaneous articles from blogs and websites…Scott and I joined the Manitowoc County Beekeepers Association…I shadowed a friend of my parents one day and helped him harvest some honey, and Scott and I visited with the beekeeper whom we bought the hives from (a co-worker of Scott), and got to see his hives as well.

Danielle:  Before we go any further, we should probably define some terms for those who aren’t terribly familiar with bees.


Queen Bee: The bee who lays all of the eggs, about 3,000 a day (!)  A hive needs a queen, and in most cases, if a hive has no queen (she dies), it will make a new queen if it has enough food and brood to keep the hive going.

Brood: Bee offspring (bee “babies”).  It consists of drones, nurse bees and worker bees, and they can also become a queen bee (under the right conditions).

Drone Bees: Male bees, solely for mating with the queen, no stingers.  They serve no other purpose and are kicked out of the hive come fall.

Nurse Bee: The bees that follow the queen.  They groom her, keep her clean and feed her.  They also feed the brood something called jelly.

Worker Bees: The bees that go out and forage for nectar and pollen, the bulk of the hive consists of worker bees.

Jelly: Food for larva (brood). Nectar.

Royal Jelly: Special food for the queen, this can be used to create a new queen in the event that the former queen dies.

Propolis:  A secretion by the bees made of tree sap that helps fill unwanted gaps in the hive.

Hive: The place where the bees live and make honey.  Usually hollow, wooden boxes stacked on top of each other, filled with frames.  (Though bees can build hives in other locations such as a hollow old tree.)

Frames:  There are 10 frames in a box.  The frame is what the bees build their comb on.  The bees either put their brood in the the frame or their honey stores.

Hive Tool: It’s sort of like a mini crowbar, but sharper so you can jam it between the boxes to pry them apart, and it helps to gently pull the frames apart because everything gets glued together with propolis.

Veil: A hood made of mesh that goes over the head and neck, and is usually fastened to the jacket to keep bees away from the beekeeper

Apiary: Pretty much any place that raises bees.

Danielle:  Okay, with that out of the way, what do you need to become a beekeeper?

Tiffany: First and foremost, your hives and bees.  Either a jacket and a veil or a suit and a veil, and typically, some sort of glove.  Some people don’t use gloves once they become accustomed to working with the bees, and some people don’t like using the recommended gloves as they can feel too clumsy.  Find one that works for you.  I’ll be starting with beekeeping gloves, but eventually I would like to get comfortable enough to work without them.  You will need a hive tool to pry apart the boxes and the frames.  A smoker (not a necessity) but most beekeepers will tell you to get one.  If you are a new beekeeper, you need some sort of feeder with a sugar solution to get your hive going.  And a brush!  We still need to get one, but you can use a special brush to gently brush the bees off of you when you check on your hives, before you take your beekeeping clothes off.

Danielle:  Where can you get bees?  It’s not exactly something you just go to the store for…

Tiffany: We got ours through the local bee club (Beekeepers Association), and is probably where most beekeepers will tell you to get them.  You can get your bees at a discount because they order packages in bulk.   Oh, that’s another word to define!  You can buy them online or go to a local apiary that you know sells bees.  You can also collect bees from the wild.  It’s called “catching a swarm.”  You’d probably want some experience with bees before attempting this.  If you are comfortable enough with bees, or confident enough, you can put your name out there as somebody who collects or removes swarms.  I don’t know a lot about it, but would like to maybe someday be able to do that.

Danielle:  So what is a “package,” then?

Tiffany:  A package is how you buy the bees.  A 3 lb. package has anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 bees per lb. (that’s a total of 9,000-12,000 bees per package!).  By the end of the season you could have 80,000-100,000 bees, but most of the drones will die off…

Danielle:  And if you buy bees, you’d buy a package, correct?

Tiffany: Yes, 1 package per hive.

Danielle: How is a hive assembled?

Tiffany:  There is a bottom board, possibly with a vent, that the whole hive sits on.  On top of that, you have the first two boxes, which are brood boxes.  This is pretty much where the queen will stay and lay her eggs.  When the time is right, you will add the queen excluder, and then the honey supers immediately following, as the queen excluder keeps the queen in the brood boxes.  The worker bees are able to pass through the queen excluder to the honey supers.  The honey supers are what you put on when the bees need more space to store their honey.  They will run out of space in the brood boxes. There is also an inner cover and an outer cover for the hive that always stay on top of the hive.

Danielle: If you’ve never done this before, how will you know when to add the supers?

Tiffany: Once 80% of the room is taken up in the two brood boxes, that’s when you will want to add your supers.  (The frames will have brood in the center and they keep the honey around the edges, in the honeycomb.)  You also need to make sure that the honey is capped-meaning that there is a thin wax layer over each cell with honey.  This means that the bees have take the right amount of moisture out and is ready to eat.

Danielle: Then what?

Tiffany:  If it’s a really good year, you continue to add boxes as the previous box becomes 80% full.

Danielle:  So in order to know how full they are, you must need to check on them from time to time.  How often should you check on them?

Tiffany:  It is suggested once every 1-2 weeks.  It is not recommended to wait longer than two weeks, but once a week is the maximum.

Danielle:  How do you know when it’s time to harvest the honey?

Tiffany:  It depends on your area, usually August to September.  After the honey flow dies off and flowers are finishing up for the year. (Keep in mind, we live in Wisconsin, so it could be very different in different areas.)

Danielle:  What would be a good location for a hive?

Tiffany:  The front of the hive should be open, nothing obstructing it, and should probably face the sun (south, here…mostly for warmth in the winter).  Keep the hives out of wind.  Some people will build a wind block, but we are using areas with trees to help.  If you know of bigger predators, you may want to put a cage around the hives.  The hives should somehow be off the ground.  Some people build fancy hive stands, we’re just using some pallets that you guys had around.  You don’t want mice or ants to get in or grass to block the entrance.

Danielle:  You mention predators, what are some threats to bees, predator or otherwise?

Tiffany:  The biggest threats are diseases (such as american foul brood…), varroa mites (they go in by the larva and threaten their lives), bears, mice, ants, wax moths…

Danielle:  What is it costing you to get started?

Tiffany:  Our hives are used (which is sometimes frowned upon, but we had a good source that we trusted), we each bought 2 hives at $100/ea.  (The hives we bought each had a queen excluder, 2 brood boxes, 2 supers, frames, a bottom vent and the top covers.)  The hive tool and smoker were a gift, but it would have been another $30-50 had I purchased them.  The bees were $110/package, and Scott and I each bought 2 packages.  I bought a jacket which includes the veil, and gloves and altogether it cost about $75.  Grand total (had I bought the hive tool and smoker), my cost for start-up would have been about $550, give or take.  New hives  and frames (regular or foundationless) would have been the biggest change to overall cost.  The hives and frames are usually sold separately, and you’ll need to make sure you order the right size frames.  The supers have a smaller frame than the brood boxes.

Danielle: And Scott opted for the whole suit, plus gloves, which was about $150-160 altogether with shipping.  We were all able to space those expenses out over time, buying the hives first back in fall/winter, paid for the bees near the end of winter, got the smoker and hive tool in early spring, and we ordered the jacket and gloves last, just a few weeks before the bees came, so if this is something you are considering, you could space out your purchase of supplies so that it doesn’t hit you all at once.  Of course, that will require some planning.

I have a few more questions, the first one being about something you are doing differently with one of your hives…you’ve removed the comb from the frames in the brood boxes.  Why do that?

Tiffany: The reason for this is that it’s more natural for the bees. In the wild, there wouldn’t be comb already built for them. They have to make it themselves and its something they are REALLY good and efficient at doing! I should say that the bees do take longer to build up comb in foundationless frames. Our other three hives were purchased from a co-worker of Scott’s with drawn comb on all of the frames already, which will speed up our production in those hives quite a bit! The bees will go in that comb, clean it out and then it will be all ready to use. All in all, the foundationless frames are going to be a total experiment. Oh, and I don’t recommend taking the foundations out of old frames that have drawn comb on them already. It was labor intensive and frames are relatively inexpensive so I would take the easy way out and just buy new, foundationless frames.  (We’ll share how she went about this in the next post.)

Tiffany removed the drawn comb from these frames to make foundationless frames for one of her hives.

Danielle: Now, I know enough about your plans that I know enough to ask you this, but you are doing a no-treatment method, right?  How come?

Tiffany: I am choosing the ‘use as little treatment as possible’ method. This means that I will not be using pre-treatment for anything but should a concern arise, I am willing to try something more natural rather than giving them harsh chemicals. I chose this method because #1 anything you give to your bees, gets into your honey and #2 its bad for the bees.

Danielle:  Is there anything else you’d like to add to our interview?

Tiffany:  If you are thinking about getting into beekeeping, I urge you to do it (or at least look further into it).  The threat to bees is very high and anything we can do to help would be great.

Danielle:  Would it be fair to say that it would be a good addition to any farm or garden or homestead, just for the benefit of pollination?

Tiffany: Yes, it definitely would.

Tiffany, checking the first of her hives after all of the hives were set up.

Tiffany, thanks for letting me pick your brain!  Even though I had watched on the sidelines a bit as you and Scott made your preparations, I’ve learned a lot from our little interview.  I’ll be posting a follow up in the next day or two about the bee installation process, as well as how checking on the hives for the first time went yesterday evening, and loads of pictures, so make sure you watch for that!

If you are a beekeeper, and you see some glaring mistakes or misinformation, we do welcome kind, constructive criticism.  We don’t want to misinform others, and we certainly are hoping to keep our bees alive and healthy 🙂  And as always, we invite you to leave your questions and comments!






  • The Big Garden and Croft

    J > I’m not sure how aware of this you are, as it is often something that is not mentioned in books as in many cases it isn’t necessary to do so. The drones produced aren’t to mate with the queen from the same colony. They go out, at certain times under the right conditions – and hang out with drones from other colonies in what is called a drone cloud. They give off pheremones which attract queens. If there is, generally, in your district a number of bee-keepers with bees from different sources, then there will be a variety of genes and your drones (and any virgin queen) will have no problem finding what they need within your locality without you having to do anything about it – you don’t even need to know anything about this aspect of bee mating. However if that is not the case, it is good to have say four hives at each location, and two or three locations, each 3miles or more apart. You then move hives around, once each year, so as to mix things up. The 3 miles is the foraging range, so this limits the breeding to a specific location, and helps with bio-security in the case of disease. It is becoming increasingly common – it started with commercial bee package producers – to not leave mating to nature, but to manage it entirely by controlled means. That’s not a subject I’ll tackle here, but suffice it to say I’m not happy with man’s intereference in nature except (and even then hesitatingly) to correct disasters created by man, as I believe we should leave Nature – which we will NEVER understand or control (and to aim to do so is in my view an arrogant foolish presumption) to run things as best she knows how!

    • Spring Lake Homestead

      I couldn’t agree with you more about nature and our constant interference because we assume we “know better.” I did not know any of that about the drone bees. Very interesting! I will make sure Scott and Tiffany read this!

  • The Big Garden and Croft

    J > Oops forgot: the drone cloud is often mistanken for some kind of swarm, and folk get angry and try and disperse it or kill off the bees, which they think are attacking them. Bad move, guys! That’s the future generation of our world you’re looking at: step back, let them do their thing, as they’ll be done and gone within an hour or so. Tioraidh an drasd’!

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