How Beekeeping Has Made Me a Better Gardener (Part One)

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There are more benefits to beekeeping than pollination and honey. That’s all I was thinking of 4 years ago when we officially became beekeepers, but having bees on our property has brought greater advantages than just having more cantaloupes.

Having several hives of bees at our garden’s edge has made me a better gardener, in ways that can’t be measured in harvest yields. It’s changed my gardening practices in several ways, from the way I manage my garden’s health so that I don’t have to use pesticides (even many organic ones are toxic to bees), to my selection of winter and summer cover crops.

I’ll go ahead and share my biggest gardening revelation that I’ve learned from the bees, and it might surprise you as much as it did me — the work that our darling honey bees do in the garden is a little over-rated. Really. Once we employed hives of bees at our garden’s edge, I became much more observant of the pollination happening in our garden — where were the honey bees, doggone it? Turns out,  it’s our native pollinators like bumblebees that do the bulk of the work in our gardens, giving us big tomatoes, lima beans, and winter squash. But hang in there if you think I’m bee-bashing — I’ll speak more on this later.

Today’s post is an introduction to our urban bee yard, so that you better understand how we got started in beekeeping and how we manage our hives today. Stay tuned for the next post, however — I’ll be delving into the many ways my gardening practices have evolved since inviting thousands of honey bees to live at our garden’s doorstep.

 

Getting Started in Beekeeping

Want to know the smartest thing that we did as beginning beekeepers? We made connections with people that knew more than we did — we found mentors!

Pa Hubbard inspecting a frame of bees from our first hives, while a mentor (and new friend) gives advice.

Pa Hubbard inspecting a frame of bees from our first hives, while a mentor (and new friend) gives advice.

How can you find a beekeeping mentor? It could be as simple as finding local honey for sale in your area, and contacting the beekeeper. Or you could be lucky like us and there is a beekeepers group in your area. (Our club is hosted by our county’s Cooperative Extension office, so start looking there). We learned from the lectures offered at the meetings, we visited other people’s bee yards, and we met someone who could sell us LOCAL bees instead of having to purchase a package reared hundreds of miles away. As if all of this weren’t great enough, by becoming a member of the group (for the bargain price of $10 annually), we were given access to REALLY expensive equipment that is needed for honey extraction, candle-making, etc. And did I mention that the group introduced us to some of our best friends?

(You can check out some of the shared Beekeepers group equipment in this little video that I made a couple of years ago — we’re extracting honey).

 

We started with nucleus colonies (commonly called nucs), which are essentially a few frames of bees from a larger hive with a new queen. A nucleus hive has many advantages over a package. Whereas a package of bees is all adult bees with a queen, a nucleus contains the queen and adult bees, but also honeycomb, bee eggs, bee larvae, and stored honey and pollen. So while a package of bees takes several weeks to get going (making honeycomb, laying eggs, waiting for larvae to mature) before the next generation of workers can forage from the hive, a nuc hits the ground running.

 

Our Bee Yard Today

We started beekeeping with 3 hives of bees (it’s recommended that you start with more than one hive — you’ll always have a comparison and a backup in case something goes wrong). We’ve experienced a few losses over the past four winters, both as a result of novice mistakes and disease. It’s always a relief to see all of the hives buzzing on a warm winter’s day, when the bees will exit the hive to take “cleansing flights” over the snow.

 

Pa Hubbard built all of our hives, including a very cool top-bar hive that has observation windows. Keeping expenses down in this way has made it much easier to expand our bee yard; we now have 9 hives of bees.

 

Checking on the bees is easy in this observation top-bar hive -- just remove a panel and take a peak.

Checking on the bees is easy in this observation top-bar hive — just remove a panel and take a peak.

Top-bar hives don't have to be managed as intensively, but we needed to check that a newly-caught swarm had their queen.

Top-bar hives don’t have to be managed as intensively, but we needed to check that a newly-caught swarm had their queen.

This is why it's called a top-bar hive; rather than providing bees with frames of wax foundation, the bees build the comb entirely from scratch from wooden bars place on top of the hive body.

This is why it’s called a top-bar hive; rather than providing bees with frames of wax foundation, the bees build the comb entirely from scratch from wooden bars place on top of the hive body. Look closely and you can see bars in various stages of completion.

 

Some of our bee yard expansion has come from either purchasing local nucs, or from package bees (which we won in free raffles at our Beekeepers group — Yay!). We haven’t had much luck with the packages, though, as they tend to be more protective of their hives and less likely to survive winters than our locally-sourced bees.

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Those aren’t escapees; the outer screens of the packages have been sprayed with sugar solution for energy, which entices other bees to visit.

 

My favorite source of bees is cost-free: swarms. Swarms occur when a hive produces a new queen; a little over half of the bees will leave the hive with the old queen, and those bees can be captured and placed into a new hive body. Watching a swarm of honey bees form is truly a magical experience. Honey bees instantaneously begin exiting the hive all at once, in a frenzied cloud of buzzing and circling around each other. The cloud of bees slowly drifts to a nearby tree limb or other aerial structure (like a house eave or fence post), where the bees settle down and calmly hang out while others scout for a more suitable permanent location. Here’s a few videos of swarms forming (and getting captured by me!) for you to enjoy:

 

Beekeeping with Children

Our two girls are captivated by the bees. On some mornings, you’ll find them peaking into the hive entrance, watching the bees wake up. Miss Muffet has recently started trying to entice bees onto her hand — she’s never been stung, and I don’t know if it’s curiosity about what a sting feels like, or if she is just genuinely interested in holding a sweet honey bee.

Because the girls have recently developed such a keen interest in the bees, we bought them their own bee suits this year. Now they can comfortably (and safely) assist us in our beekeeping activities.

Looking for the queen. Is that her?

Looking for the queen. Is that her?

Little Bo Peep helps me catch a swarm.

Little Bo Peep helps me catch a swarm.

Miss Muffet’s Bee Garden

This past winter, Miss Muffet announced that she wanted her own garden to plant in the spring. I excitedly grabbed my seed catalogs and let her browse away. Several days later, Miss M returned the catalogs with the seeds she wanted circled in bright blue marker.

“Flowers?” I asked. “No melons, beans, corn, or anything to EAT? Don’t you want to plant a tomato in there?”

“No, Ma.” came her sweet reply. “My garden is for the BEES.”

How could I argue with that!

And I’m glad I didn’t. Not only has she introduced me to some great plants, but I’ve found that I really enjoy hanging out near the bee garden in the early morning. What they say is true — it really is important to stop and smell the flowers!

Miss Muffet posing in her bee garden with fresh-picked blueberries (from the bushes under the hoops in the background).

Miss Muffet posing in her bee garden with fresh-picked blueberries (from the bushes under the hoops in the background).

Zinnias, calendula, and cosmos aren't a honey bee favorite, but other pollinators love them!

Zinnias, calendula, and cosmos aren’t a honey bee favorite, but other pollinators love them!

There's a "Bee" in Borage

There’s a “Bee” in Borage

Bee's Friend

Bee’s Friend

Thai Basil does double duty, feeding the bees and our stir fry.

Thai Basil does double duty, feeding the bees and our stir fry.

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Miss Muffet gets her wish. Here she is holding a honey bee drone. Did you know that these male bees cannot sting?

Miss Muffet gets her wish. Here she is holding a honey bee drone. Did you know that the male bees can’t sting?

 

3 Comments

  1. Texan

    July 12, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    Hives are on my list. I took Bee classes last year. Learned a lot! A beekeeper of many years who taught chemical free bee keeping. I had no idea that so many things you don’t want in your honey are used in hives by many bee keepers. It was a real eye opener for me. I hope to get hives this next year. The memories you are building with your girls, so wonderful!!!!

  2. Brittany Shepherd

    July 25, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    I visited the my community garden plot the other day, and I believe half a hive of your honey bees were happily buzzing around my corn! If I end up with any corn this year, I’m sending them a thank you note!

    • Ma Hubbard

      July 26, 2014 at 7:45 am

      That is fantastic, Brittany! They do love it! Thanks!