Beekeeping is the care and management of honey bee hives for the purposes of harvesting honey.
There are many facets to beekeeping and many different perspectives on the “best” way to keep bees (if you ask 10 beekeepers, you’ll get 11 different answers!) This post serves as a brief overview of different topics in beekeeping and will continue to be a living document with links to other posts by me and that I find on the internet. So bookmark it to come back often!
History of Beekeeping
Honey bees migrated over from Europe with colonists as early as 1622.
So, yes that means that honey bees aren’t native to the United States. However, after 400 years here I think it is safe to consider them naturalized (although there are research studies and debates about this and their impact on natural ecosystems).
Honey Bee Biology
Within a honey bee colony there are three types (or castes) of bee.
There is one queen who is responsible for all of the egg laying for the colony. The drones are the male bees (the cute, cuddly, non-stingy ones) whose responsibility is to mate with virgin queens from other hives. The majority of the colony is made up of female worker bees who carry out all of the work of maintaining the hive – raising brood, making honey, guarding the hive, and foraging for nectar and pollen.
The worker bee’s anatomy is perfectly designed for pollination and honey production.
They have pollen baskets on their hind legs that, you guessed it, carry pollen and their entire bodies are covered with hair that also traps pollen and then drops it on other plants. They have two stomachs – their stomach for digesting and their honey stomach. When a honey bee drinks nectar from a flower she stores it in her honey stomach. She then takes it back to the hive and passes it off to another worker bee who turns it into honey using the enzymes in her mouth and puts it in the honeycomb cell.
The Bee Hive
A group of bees is a colony but the wooden box that they live in is called a hive.
The “Father of Modern Beekeeping” Lorenzo Langstroth created Langstroth Hive design that is most commonly used today. The movable frame structure makes it easy for beekeepers to inspect their colonies and intervene when needed.
When inspecting your colony in the beehive, there is basic equipment that you need to have on hand.
At a minimum you should wear a veil over your face. Bees are used to defending their hives from bears so they tend to go for the eyes when threatened! Most beekeepers that I know in Illinois generally wear a jacket/veil combo. I also highly recommend wearing gloves because almost every time I’ve gotten stung it has been on my hand. Plus, things get a little sticky in there!
The smoker helps to mask the intruder alert that bees put out via pheromone when the beekeeper opens up the hive. The hive tool and bee brush make it easier to remove frames and remove bees when you need to take a closer look at something.
Seasons of Beekeeping
In the Midwest especially there are distinct seasons of beekeeping.
March is what I consider Fool’s Spring and is the time when the beekeeping train is entering starvation station. Overwintered hives can be a bit spicy this time of year as they work to defend their last precious stores of food. This is the time to suit up and feed your bees every time the temperature is above 55 degrees.
Real Spring starts about mid-April when package bees can be installed and that is when there is a lot of work to be done to ready hives, install the bees and then regularly inspect to make sure the colony is building up well.
Summer is still a busy time and a time to regularly inspect the hives but it is also when the payoff comes in form of rich delicious honey! July-Early September is the best time to harvest excess honey.
After you harvest your honey it is time to test and treat for varroa mites before the temperatures get too cold.
And then in the winter there isn’t much to do…except plan for next season, place orders and build equipment for next year! Oh, and eat lots of that honey that you harvested!
The real scoop is that there is SO MUCH involved in beekeeping and I barely scratched the surface on each of the topics mentioned above. I am looking forward to diving deeper on future posts.
Please, follow this blog for updates on new posts by pushing the follow button in the footer and entering your e-mail address. Also bookmark this post to come back to – as I said in the intro, this will be a living document and a place that I will add to and link to both my own posts and others that I find on the internet to help provide a well-rounded education.