A friend gave you some old bee boxes. So where do you start? What do you do?
Before you fill those boxes with bees, you should plan ahead, says Extension apiculturist emeritus Eric Mussen, whose career spanned 38 years before he retired last June. He continues to maintain an office in Briggs Hall, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, and is often asked these kinds of questions. We thought we'd share some of the advice he recently gave to a prospective beekeeper.
“The most difficult problem that you are likely to face in California is where your apiaries are going to be located for use during certain times of the year," Mussen said. "There are very few places in California where you can let honey bee colonies just sit there and they will do fine. If such spots exist, other beekeepers already have 'squatters' rights' on them and intrusions can lead to nasty activities. The best way to be certain of at least some locations is to buy out an old-time beekeeper who is ready to leave the business. By 'beekeepers' agreement' you get to use his or her bee yards. You also are likely to pick up the old beekeeper's almond contracts. You will need those, or new ones, to prosper."
"Next November the California State Beekeepers' Association is holding its annual convention in Sacramento the week before Thanksgiving. That is THE GATHERING of beekeepers in this state. It will provide your best opportunity to 'schmooze' with your peers and find out who might be ready to phase out of the business allowing you to phase in."
What about the using old bee boxes?
"There are two things important to you," Mussen says,"that you have to watch for:
- Combs containing 'scale' that formed following an American foulbrood disease problem. If you don't know what I am talking about, find someone nearby who does and talk it over with them.
- The outer dimensions of beehive boxes made by many manufacturers have identical outside dimensions. However, inside the boxes, each manufacturer uses its own method of producing the 'bee space' between the top bars and bottom bars of frames. When equipment form various companies are stacked together, some combs will touch and be glued together with propolis and some will have too large a gap which will be filled with beeswax comb sticking the combs together. Working with such a stuck-together mess is time consuming and frustrating. The bees will let you know that it bothers them, too!
"I believe that most beekeeping equipment manufacturers produce good products. You might want to consider which company has a large outlet closest to where you will be headquartered. You will be running to the supply company many more times than you can imagine."
"Your final decision is very important, because it impacts your beekeeping from just about the time you put your bees in the boxes. Are you going to try to keep bees with no chemical intervention to prevent or reduce commonly-occurring problems like American foulbrood and Varroa mites? Or are you going to first try 'soft' approaches, and then more rigorous approaches if the problem seems to persist? Yes, there are a few commercial beekeepers who do not treat their colonies very often, if at all, but they are using mite-resistant lines of bees and they tend not to stay in the heart of the agricultural production areas all season. Most of them pollinate almonds, then scoot off to try to produce a honey crop."
Of course, new beekeepers are encouraged to read beekeeping books; subscribe to bee publications such as American Bee Journal and Bee Culture; join a local beekeepers' association, join state and regional associations; and get to know bees and beekeepers. A regional beekeeping association, co-founded by Mussen, who is a five-term president, is the Western Apicultural Society.
When do you start? What should you do?
Newly retired Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, continues to field questions. He's kindly agreed to respond to beekeeping queries until the new Extension apiculturist, Elina Lastro Niño of Pennsylvania State University, comes on board in September. (Actually, we expect to see Mussen buzzing around Briggs Hall and at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility quite a bit in his retirement years.)
Some questions come from 4-H leaders who organize the youth beekeeping projects.
Mussen is quite familiar with 4-H (head, heart, health and hands), a youth development program that emphasizes "learning by doing" and "making the best better." For decades, he's judged the annual California State 4-H Beekeeping Essay Contest.
Since 4-H'ers usually launch their projects in late summer or early fall, continuing through June, does a beekeeping project lend itself to that schedule?
No, not in the late summer or early fall.
"I won't tell you that you cannot start a colony of honey bees in the late summer or fall, but they will have a real uphill battle," Mussen recently told a 4-H leader. "The colony has to have enough time and food to rear a large enough colony population to make it through the winter. The harder part is having access to enough nectar and pollens to rear all the brood they need and still have enough extra nectar to store as a honey crop to get them through winter. They also need quite a bit of stored pollens to consume slowly during the winter and consume like crazy when brood-rearing starts for real around the end of December."
"Also, it will be a bit difficult to get a bunch of bees at this late date, unless you are in good with a beekeeper who will sacrifice a colony. And, if that is the case, I would take everything and overwinter it. Next spring you can split off some bees if you wish to raise a 'homemade' package."
Mussen says those who wish to reserve a package for next spring, should contact the bee breeder now. "They will be booked solid, due to winter colony losses this winter. You may have to hunt around for a smaller operation that will deal with “onesies.” The bigger producers sometimes do not like to ship less than 100 at a time.
"Otherwise, chase down a local beekeeping club and add your request (and dollars) to a larger order that the clubs put out in the spring. While packages can be obtained in late March, the mating weather can be pretty 'iffy.' A week or two into April sounds better to me."
So, bottom line: if you want to keep bees, contact the bee breeder now. Join a local beekeeping club and find a mentor; read beekeeping magazines, journals and books; and peruse back issues of Mussen's online newsletter, from the UC Apiaries and his Bee Briefs.
Beekeeper Brian Fishback of Wilton is quick to answer that.
“Bees,” he says, “teach us core family values. Bees have to take care of each other and work together for the success of the colony, just as people do for the success of their families.”
Fishback, a past president of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers’ Association, a member of the California State Beekeepers' Association, and a former volunteer at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis, instills his love of bees and beekeeping to everyone around him.
He and his wife, Darla, are teaching those bee-driven core family values to their two daughters Emily, 3, and Jane, 18 months (a third daughter is due this month). The girls have been around bees since birth. The Fishbacks keep 89 hives on their Wilton ranch, the BD Ranch and Apiary. So committed are they to bees that their website is www.beesarelife.com.
Through community outreach programs, Brian Fishback eagerly takes every opportunity to educate the public about honey bees. He displays his bee observation hives at the California State Fair and Dixon May Fair; engages in classroom, farm and other educational presentations; and annually hosts the American Honey Bee Queen, sponsored by the American Beekeeping Federation.
In his spare time, Fishback teaches introductory and advanced beekeeping classes at the Soil Born Farms, located at 2140 Chase Drive, Rancho Cordova. His next class begins March 8 and will be a two-part class, covering both beginning beekeeping and a more advanced session (See registration information. Sign-ups are now underway.)
What’s different about his classes? For one: The students (who are primarily young adults) don’t just stand back and observe him opening a hive. “They’re going to work a hive that day,” he says.
Fishback remembers the joy he felt when he first opened a hive. “From the first moment I opened a hive and held a full frame of brood covered with bees, I was in utopia. Everything came together. In my hand I held the essence of core family values.”
That was in 2008.
It was also the year he and Darla purchased the Wilton ranch to pursue a self-sustaining life. “I catapulted into this way of life, knowing that honey bees would provide us with pollination as well as a natural sweetener,” Fishback recalled.
In the fall of 2010, he began volunteering at the Laidlaw facility. One of his goals was to gain more knowledge to share in his community outreach programs. He worked with bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, beekeeper/research associate Elizabeth Frost, and Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen, among others. He assisted Cobey with her classes on queen-rearing and instrumental insemination and her class field trips to Butte County to visit commercial queen bee breeders. Fishback also took on tasks that needed to be done around the Laidlaw facility, such as mowing the lawn around the apiary.
Another highlight: Fishback participated in a bee beard activity that Cobey coordinated for a small group of Laidlaw beekeeping staff and volunteers. (See top photo).
Fishback continues his outreach programs “to encourage interest in honey bees and to share the importance of the honey bee to our environment and our food supply.” When he visits school classrooms, he delights in asking students to single out the queen bee, workers and drones in his bee observation hive.
That's not all.
“I allow anyone or any group with an interest agriculture, small-scale farming and of course, beekeeping, to take a day tour of my ranch, get in a bee suit, and feel the joy that life has to offer."
So you're thinking about becoming a backyard beekeeper...
What considerations are involved?
Honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist and member of the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty, has just revised his Bee Brief on "Getting Started in Beekeeping," posted on the department's website.
"One of your most important considerations," Mussen says, "is the safety of family members and neighbors." Indeed, someone might be allergic to bee stings and require immediate medical attention.
"The only way to find out is to ask the neighbors, and this will allow you to find out whether or not there is serious opposition to your keeping bees in the neighborhood," Mussen says.
Among the other considerations:
1. Over how much of the year will nectar and pollens be available to the bees? Will you have to feed the bees to ensure their survival?
2. Over how much of the year will water be available to the bees? They need it every day.
3. What will the bees be flying over to get their food and water? They defecate in flight and bee feces can damage finishes on cars and leave colored spots on everything below them. Also, will they be flying across a pedestrian, bicycle or equestrian pathway? If so, they have to be encouraged to gain altitude quickly by installing fencing or solid, tall plantings near the hives.
4. Is the apiary accessible year around? Flooding at or near the apiary site is the usual problem.
5. Try to avoid low spots. They hold cold, damp air for prolonged periods.
6. Try to avoid hilltops. They tend to be windy.
Mussen goes on to talk about beekeeping equipment, costs, knowledge of diseases, beekeeping journals, and the "bible" on honey bees, the 1324-page book: The Hive and the Honey Bee.
It's a good idea to join a local beekeeping organization and get tips from the veterans.
Beginning beekeeping books? Mussen points out that Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine, recently published a 167-page book, The Backyard Beekeeper, and that UC Davis emeritus professor Norman Gary (and bee wrangler) has written a beekeeping book, The Honey Bee Hobbyist, due out in November or December.
There's a wealth of information out there to help you get started.
What makes a beekeeper?
A research team from the Department of Psychology, Bradley University, Peoria, Ill., wants to know.
Led by Wendy Schweigert, Ph.D., of Bradley University and Larry Krengel of the Illinois State Beekeepers, the team is conducting research about "beekeepers and their characteristics" and seeks beekeepers 18 years or older to complete an anonymous survey.
The survey is intended for commercial beekeepers, sideliners and hobbyists. The researchers want to know the usual questions: how many hives you have, how many assistants, what hive products you produce (bees, queens, honey, pollen, propolis), and what chemicals, if any, you use.
Then they'll delve into "political, social and environmental feelings."
The survey will be available online until Feb. 14, 2010.
If you're a beekeeper--new or experienced--back away from the hive, drop your hive tool, and take the survey.
The beekeepers I know care intensely about their bees and are as social as the bees they tend. Good people. Good bees. Good life.
It will be interesting to see the results.