Cracking the black box of survival. That is what this column has become more than anything else. This week I would like to demystify another survival topic that, much like Ham radios, radiation and EMP, is fraught with disinformation and obfuscation online. Learning to keep bees is not inexpensive, but it is a hobby that will pay you back dividends once you get going, and there is nothing mysterious about it. I started four hives last spring, and I’d like to take you through some of the decisions you’ll face, and the experiences I’ve had having made those decisions. I have had hives flourish. I’ve had one hive die. There is no formula for success when it comes to keeping bees. But no matter where you live in the US, there are beekeepers succeeding, and most likely if you dive in, you will too.
Langstroth vs. Warre vs. Top Bar vs. The Flow Hive
As soon as you start out on your path to learn bees, someone is going to try to convince you to not buy a 10 frame Langstroth beehive. That is what nearly every commercial beekeeper in the world uses, so of course it must be bad. In my experience, this is a bunch of malarky. Beekeepers, even the big ones, are not “Big Agri.” Langstroth hives are statutory in some states, and several states have laws requiring that you use a hive with removable frames, which for the most part are Langstroth hives. 8 frame vs. 10 frame? That much I don’t know. But most beekeepers are using 10 frame Langstroth hives, patented in 1852.
Initially I faced that torrent of advice from “natural” beekeepers and got myself sold on what is called the Warre hive, otherwise known as The People’s Hive. It was designed by Emile Warre’ in France, after testing over 350 designs of the day. His book, (free PDF)Beekeeping for All, was revolutionary for its day, but the Langstroth patent in 1852 changed everything, and I think for the better. As you’ll see in my video, the Warre hive doesn’t use frames, so the combs just hang from a top bar. The bees have to make the entire comb, and because there is no frame, if you damage the comb while extracting honey, which is usually the case, they have to make it all over again. The sales pitch of the people selling the Warre hive is that it is “all natural,” because according to the book, you rotate the hive bodies up, so there is never any comb that will be reused for more than one harvest. Theoretically this doesn’t trap bad bacteria and disease in the hive, but you won’t find any hard science behind this assumption. I tried the Warre method and didn’t find that the bees were willing to build comb below the existing hive body. I tried jumpstarting a frame both above and below the main brood nest, but there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to get the Warre hive to work as it is supposed to. I am stuck with my single Warre hive with bees in it, but from what I have experienced, they are a waste of time and energy.
The same thing goes for what they usually call a “Top Bar Hive” or “Kenyan Hive.” The sales pitch on these hives are two. One is of course the “all natural” beekeeping, just because it isn’t a Langstroth, and then there is the price. The 30 bar hives start at like $100 including shipping on Ebay, and smaller hives are even less.
I was not able to order one more hive worth of bees (which I’ll explain below) last spring to start one of the Top Bar hives I purchased, but from what I can see, they have some of the same problems I experienced with the Warre hive. The Top Bar is a triangle design, which i theoretically the natural shape of the combs that the bees make. I would call that a misnomer, because eventually the bees fill any space you give them, though the combs do start out as triangle shape. In the Top Bar hive you’ll find the same thing I found with the Warre. Because there is no frame, the bees will attach part of the comb to the walls of the hive. You’ll see in the video I made of my Warre, this causes you to have to break apart the comb as you pull the bars. Could you slide a thin blade along the sides first? Yes, but I think you’re still going to break comb.
The bigger question or survival is one of resource preservation. Why would you run a hive that requires the bees to make new comb? Do you need the beeswax for candles? I’d rather have the bees make food, and go to bed early.
I will also mention The Flow Hive here, because mine just came, even though I ordered it last spring. If you haven’t seen this thing, it is a new invention that drains honey through the inside of the frame. The Flow Hive promotions on Facebook last year were actually the impetus of me getting into beekeeping. I watched a couple Youtube videos on the subject, then ordered my bees, figuring that I’d figure it out, which I did. Now that my Flow Hive is here, I am disappointed that it came completely unassembled, and I haven’t really gotten into it yet. It looks like a neat idea. It is expensive in comparison. I would just get a 10 frame Langstroth for now if I were you, which I’m not.
A Note on Plastic Frames
You’ll see in the video that I had terrible problems with “bridge comb” when I first got my bees going. This only happened where I used plastic frames in my brood box, and my takeaway from this is not just to avoid these frames for brood boxes, but to also bee aware of bee supply stores. I bought these hives from my local bee supply, and they installed the bees in them for me. When I ordered the plastic frames, based on internet research, they didn’t say anything. It was only after the fact, when I told them that I had problems, that they told me they suggest wooden frames with a plastic comb, not full plastic combs. I have not yet tried their suggestion, but I did rescue those hives somewhat by swapping out some standard wooden frames with preformed wax comb.
To start your bees, it is hard for me to tell you to try anything besides wax comb at first. There is risk involved, because the beeswax has to come from somewhere, and that means potentially introducing another beekeeper’s problems into your hive. The risk is theoretical, and I have yet to find even one horror story, but you just never know. I’m trying to cover the bases for this article, so you don’t have to stumble on these issues as you begin your own research. Most likely I’ll start my next hive with wooden frames and plastic comb. In my problem hive I did find some wax moths, and they can’t invade hives that use plastic frames.
Where Do I Buy Bees?
First let me back up a step. How exactly do I do this? You would be surprised at how easy it is to start bees. You order what are called “package bees” from one of dozens of suppliers online, and believe it or not, they mail you the bees, using USPS generally. Your local post office will probably call you frantic that you have to come pick up your bees, because they have never dealt with this before, but once you have the bees in hand it is pretty simple. Inside the box will be about 3 lbs of worker bees, and one impregnated queen bee, in her own little “queen cage.” You spray your bees down with sugar syrup, made in a spray bottle with half and half sugar and water, and then, after you remove a couple of frames from your hive, literally shake the bees into the hive. Then you can just put some frames back and brace the queen cage in between a couple. Close up the hive and check it in a couple of days. If the bees have not freed the queen by eating the candy plug at the end of her cage, you probably can just pry the cage open and shake her into the hive.
Package bees cost between $115 and $200 this year. I would check to see if a local bee supply store will be arranging for a shipment that you can go pick up at their store rather than ship it in, because often these are cheaper. Our local store in Miami, South Florida Bee Supply, is only bringing in “nucs” this year, but last year they sold package bees for $90. A nuc is a small usually 4 frame hive that has already been started with a queen and workers, and that will already have some brood in it maturing. You’ll pay more for a nuc, but there will also be less chance of failure. I think that our supplier had a rough year and that is why they are only selling nucs.
I can’t tell you where to buy bees this year really. As I write this, if you Google “package bees 2016,” you’ll get a lot of hits. Most of the early dates are already sold out, but I was able to get April delivery from Mountain Sweet Honey Supply. Their base price is $135, and the shipping is very reasonable. I was able to snag a weekend special tonight for $115, so hopefully that’ll still be lit up when the Digest comes out Monday. I would have run this article a little earlier, because I know that the bees do sell out, but this is early enough to order bees.
The place I ordered from last year, Pigeon Mountain Apiaries, still has bees available, but I have to warn you, as you can see from the end of my video, I can’t guarantee that the bees I got from them are not Africanized. Less than a year later they are extremely aggressive and when they sting, it produces a huge welt. They got into my suit and stung my face when I made the video, and the next day my face swelled up like a cantaloupe. That has not happened with the bees I got from South Florida Bee Supply. Pigeon Mountain had great customer service I have to say, but the nuc I ordered from them was not closed properly and my postman had to deal with flying bees. He put a bag over the nuc, so it was half dead when it arrived. They sent me a new queen and the hive did fine, as you can see. I am quite sure that they will vehemently deny that their bees have been Africanized, but you can judge for yourself.
Feeding Your Bees
The most important thing you can do after you install bees is to feed them, a lot. Dadant sells what I think is the best hive top feeder for the 10 frame Langstroth hive. It is made of styrofoam, and goes for just under $30. Most hobby beekeepers will tell you to use bottle feeders, but after a ton of research last year I found that the pros all use hivetop feeders. A bottle feeder can only feed about 20 bees at one time. A hivetop feeder can feed hundreds at one time.
The initial feeding that you provide will allow the bees to immediately build comb, without having the find a local source for nectar. In the spring nectar can be pretty sparse to begin with, so feeding your bees could be a matter of survival. The workers that you get in your package bees will be alive less than a month, and during that time they have to build comb so that the queen can start laying. The queen already has all the eggs she will ever have, so everything is ready to go but the comb, and the bees have to make that. With a hivetop feeder, you’ll see the comb building every day.
I made my sugar syrup at 1:1 sugar to water, by volume. So I’d take a half gallon grapejuice bottle, fill it half way with Walmart sugar, then fill it up the rest of the way with my reverse osmosis water, because I don’t want to feed fluoride to my bees. The hivetop feeder holds almost two gallons, but even with 3 lbs. of bees, in South Florida in the spring, the water got moldy if I put in more than a gallon or so. Periodically I dumped the syrup, washed the feeder, and refilled it, because I could smell the sugar fermenting.
The other hivetop feeders I tried were made of wood, with floats, and didn’t work even close to as well as the styrofoam feeders. Every time I checked that feeder I found a dozen or more dead bees, whereas during the entire time I fed with the styrofoam, I think I found about 6 dead bees.
I also fed my bees what you’ll see called “pollen patties,” but I later learned that they are not made from actual pollen. If you search Youtube you’ll find how to make them out of soy flour, but I bought mine. My experience with them was not good, because I gave the bees way too much. If you decide to use them, start with very small amounts. Otherwise, at least here in South Florida, you’ll find small hive beetle maggots in the patties within about a day. I assume the beetles came in with my bees, but I don’t know what I could have done to prevent their arrival. They love those patties, I’ll tell you that. See the video for the small hive beetle traps I bought. They work great.
I strongly suggest that you buy The ABCs and XYZs of Beekeeping. It will give you the most recent updates on how to treat Varroa mites and all of the other common bee ailments. Don’t let the disease side of the equation scare you away. As I said above, beekeeping is easy and mostly successful. If you are running 1,000 hives as a pro beekeeper, and your hives are being shipped out to farms who pay you to bring them pollinators, there is a pretty good chance that you’ll be exposed to something that is actually fairly rare in backyard beekeeper circles.
Why Did I Lose a Hive
My best guess is that I killed my queen. About two months ago I saw that I needed to extract my honey. But as I explained in the video, I had not yet gotten a bee suit, so I did it bare handed and bare armed. It didn’t go well, and I dropped the hive bodies several times, killing a lot of bees. I also hadn’t experimented with the use of spray syrup instead of a smoker, and I went a little commando on my bees with the smoker. When I opened the hive the other day I found only a couple dozen bees trying to raise a queen cell. I am going to feed them and hope they succeed, but the queen will also have to make a successful mating flight and return for that to happen. Most likely I’m just going to dump a new package of bees in there once they arrive in April.
Thankfully, when I extracted, I skipped the hive you see here at the end of the video, because that hive had brood in the top hive body, and not a lot of honey, so I left it alone. Those bees are gloating at me today, because they definitely won that round, but I’ll be back.
Africanized honey bees, otherwise known as “killer bees,” have migrated to most areas of the US that produce package bees. My bees were sold to me as Italian honey bees, which are the most common type, and they are known for being docile, as well as great producers. That hive came to me as a nuc from Pigeon Mountain, and it hasn’t produced much if any honey, while the bees are extremely aggressive. For the video I first was sloppy with my zippers on the suit, and I only wore a tshirt under the suit so I would be cooler. Those bees stung right through it, so I’m going to need to put some denim under the suit and try it again, or buy a thicker suit. I’ll be moving that hive out of my backyard to my bugout location. I’m thinking that I can make an electronic sensor connected to a solenoid and kick that sucker over should an intruder arrive. Anyway…
Buying a Beehive
The best buy I have found for buying a complete 10 frame Langstroth hive, shipped, is this guy on Ebay. It is just under $200, which is insanely cheap, and much less than I paid online before I discovered that we have a local production shop here. South Florida Bee Supply has a great deal if you are local. It is a deep super for a brood box with frames, and two medium honey supers with frames, plus the bottom board, top cover and telescoping cover, for $170. They do ship, but the shipping isn’t cheap. You will see in the video that the two hives I got from them are unpainted. This was because I had them install the bees for me because I couldn’t pick them up on Saturday, which is their pickup day. I wish I had asked them to paint the hives first. You’ll see that I drew pictures on the front of my hives. The bees get confused if you don’t mix up colors or something for them, and they will go to the wrong hive, only to get into fights till the death the hive guards.
If you elect to go for the alternative hives, just Google around and search Ebay. There are only a few companies that make the Warre design, and if you watch their videos, they admit that in their own apiary, they only use Warre hives as an entertaining side project, for something different, but the online popularity has given them an income from building and selling the hives. I had to try it so I got not only a couple complete 4 frame hive setups, but also hivetop feeders for the square Warre design, and even some framed honey supers.
I will most likely use those Warre hives to catch swarms from other local beekeepers, and if I am successful, and we aren’t already eating survival food by then, I’ll do an update article. Eventually, unless you employ countermeasures, all beehives will eventually swarm. This usually means that they hive raised a new queen, and a whole bunch of bees decided to leave with her. They don’t always warn you that they are going to swarm, if you even have time to check in on them enough to catch it. The trick is to give them an attractive home far enough away from the original hive, so that they will decide to to there on their own. You can buy “catch hives” online, which are just small boxes of some sort, and there are lot of lure tinctures you can buy to bait the box. To my knowledge, my hives have not swarmed yet. But I would say the mean one will do so soon, so I’m getting it out of here.
Langstroth’s book, and just about every beekeeping book you’ll find, has a big section on preventing swarms. This is very technical stuff, and you are better to find a class on it than try to figure it out yourself. Most backyard beekeepers just let them swarm and hope they don’t decide to settle in the eaves of the neighbor’s house. I bought a vacuum box in case I have a swarm emergency. there is a guy selling them on Ebay.
One of the more lucrative options for making money with bees is the provide them to farmers as pollinators. That involves moving your bees. To do that, the popular advice out there is to use what they call hive staples to nail your supers together. Then when you put the hives out, you space them about 10 feet apart. The pros don’t do this. It just so happened that right near my bugout location, a commercial beekeeper dumped 88 hives for orange blossom season. I don’t think he was hired to do this. I think he just wanted to be able to sell orange blossom honey, but the nice thing was that I got to see something of how he rolls. His method is to forego the bottom boards entirely, and mount 4 hives on a wooden pallet. Then he uses a mini forklift to load and offload the hives from a flat trailer. He just removed the hives about two weeks ago, and I periodically checked in on them, as he had left the hives on what I think was either state or railroad land. I don’t know if he lost hives or if people just stole them, but about a dozen hives disappeared over the time that they were there. The apparently figured out a system to keep the love bugs from bothering the bees, by putting white and black buckets on top.
Keeping Bees for Survival
I didn’t address this section first because I think it is self evident that keeping bees won’t be first on your long term survival plan. If you have a bent to grow things and care for things, learning bees now is probably a good idea if you can afford to start. I will be surprised if we get through this summer before everything boils out, but you never know. The powers that be may have a short term plan to kick the news of our imminent demise down the road a couple years. One thing I can tell you is that the news of the death of the bees has been greatly exaggerated by the media. The biggest threat to the bee population has been beekeepers retiring and their kids not being interested in the business. Hives die, everywhere, often for unknown reasons unrelated to pesticides or geoengineering. I have not heard tell of one beekeeper who lost their hives in a wholesale swath of destruction, unless you are talking wax moths. Feed your bees for a month when you get them. Let them get strong and confident, and they will fight off most threats.
There was a recent study by Keele University that revealed huge levels of aluminum in bumblebees. This is no surprise to me, because as my regular readers know, I have been trying to open people’s eyes to the top secret spraying of aluminum on all of us, including the bees, for some time. If you dig into the docs at geoengineeringwatch.org, you’ll find that geoengineering in the form of stratospheric particle injection has been going on for decades. The bees, and all of us, are part of a giant science experiment that is failing. If we don’t change course, there is no future for any species on this planet, not just the bees. Aluminum has been measured at levels tens of thousands of times normal in everything from whales to salmon to cows to your own human body, but most of you will keep calling those white trails behind the planes contrails, until this finally ends.
As pollinators, from a survival perspective, bees are not what we have all been led to believe. If you bought the Seedsavers book I suggested last spring, you have already read the section on pollinators, and honey bees are great at some types of flowers, but not great on others. I would take a look at that book before jumping into bees just for the pollinator side of the equation.
Enjoy your bees for the months after you install them. Before they get comfortable, they really don’t attack you. I used just a head net until recently. And unless you do get some Africanized bees, just because they are buzzing around you doesn’t mean they are trying to sting you. Try not to kill any bees, because bees give off a fight or flight pheromone when they die, and that will get the rest of the hives stinging. Also, if you get stung, flick the stinger out with your hive tool right away, and run for the hills. They also release a pheromone when they sting, and it acts as a giant green light to go all in with stinging this intruder until he leaves, so leave. A few bees will chase you, or in the case of these African bees, a lot of bees will chase you, and keep trying to sting you for like an hour. Then they just give up and leave, I wish the rest of the world was like that.