Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Great Beekeeping Video and Some Basics

I wanted to share this video with y'all. It is a bit long - but even if you don't watch the whole thing, try to watch the first section to see him handle the bees and also to hear some of the explanation of what is he doing and why.

One thing you might notice is that he is not wearing any protective gear and you will also notice that because he is comfortable (I mean, come on, his name is Sam Comfort!) with the bees, they are not really concerned about his presence and they don't bother him. Sam is using what are called "Top Bar Hives" which are a different set-up than the typical rectangular Langstroth hives. I will be using Langstroth hives - which generally look something like this:

Here is another example of a top bar hive - from Michael Bush's website which is an incredible resource:

Another interesting thing to note is that he keeps his bees on what are called "foundationless" frames. The modern beekeeping industry uses frames with "foundation" - which is essentially a thin sheet of plastic or beeswax which has been embossed with the hexagonal pattern of honey comb (see pic below). In theory, this foundation saves the bees work - the idea being that it gives them a head-start in building their comb. But many people believe that bees can draw out their own comb faster without any foundation - hence, the foundationless folks. With foundationless hives, you basically let the bees build their own complete comb as they would in nature - you only give them a bar with a small guide on it (the popsicle stick that Sam Comfort pointed out) in order to give them a place to start building. I plan on using foundationless frames in my hives. Another bonus of foundationless is that it saves you a lot of effort and money because when you use foundation, first of all you have to buy it, and then you have to install it on each and every frame.

Another issue that some organic and biological beekeepers have with foundation is that historically, the individual cells in each sheet of foundation are one size, 5.4 mm wide and they feel that this is an unnaturally large size (the basic idea being that industry made the cells larger in order to increase honey yields). There is a school of thought that feels that, along with overuse of chemical treatments, the larger-than-natural cell sizes have lead to an increase in certain diseases (mainly, infestation with varroa mite). This has lead to the development of what is called "small cell foundation" - which is 4.9mm wide, closer to what bees make naturally (though there is some natural variation in cell sizes based on geography and other factors). This smaller cell size seems to offer the bees some protection from varroa mite infestation by disrupting the reproductive process of the mite. For those beekeepers who want to use more natural techniques but don't want to go foundationless, they can use the small cell foundation to closer approximate natural conditions. Or sometimes using small cell foundation can be a stepping stone towards going foundationless

So, in addition to using foundationelss frames, I am going to use "small cell bees" in my hives - that is, they have been raised on small cell foundation. If you order bees that have been raised on large cell foundation, there is a somewhat involved process of regressing them in order to get them to build the more natural small cell comb. More to come...

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Let's Get Started

Last weekend we loaded up the family and drove down to Centreville, MD to the von Voss homestead - otherwise known as Oak Leaf Farm. We met Vicco von Voss through our dear friend Jacqui Flisher - who married Vicco a few months ago. Vicco is a furniture maker and home-builder - but these words do not do justice to his work - go check out his website and you can see pictures of their incredible timber-frame house and some of his furniture designs - his work is unbelievable and even more so in person - http://www.viccovonvoss.com/

Among other things, Vicco has kept bees for about ten years. While hanging out with Jacqui and Vicco last fall, he unintentionally helped to plant the idea of keeping bees in my head. I had thought for a while about the idea of being able to provide locally produced honey to my acupuncture patients who suffered from seasonal allergies (the jury is not out on this, but there are people who feel that if you consume honey that is produced where you live, it can help with allergies - the honey acting as sort of a homeopathic dose of all of the local flower pollen) and finally meeting someone who kept bees helped me realize I could do it myself. Of course having my own supply of honey at home is an obvious motivation too!

So I went to the library and got out every book on beekeeping that I could find. Then Vicco sent me an entire set of other well-thumbed books to read. He also promised that he had a lot of equipment that he could loan me to help get me started in my first year of beekeeping. So, last weekend it was time to go pick up the goodies. Vicco provided me with two hives worth of equipment, a veil, a smoker and assorted other accessories (Thank you again Vicco!). You can see that the VW was packed to the gills.

Today I spent the day cleaning the equipment as it has been sitting in a shed for a while at Vicco's and it was pretty manky. I also placed my order for bees today - yes, they come in the mail! They get delivered in a package (2 or 3 pounds of bees - up to 10,000 bees and a queen) to your local post office and then they call you to come pick them up. I can't wait until they arrive at the post office around the corner from us - the looks on the faces will be priceless. So, in mid-April I will receive my bees. I actually ordered one 3 pound package and one "nuc". A nuc (short for nucleus) is basically like a mini-hive - it has brood, honey and pollen already in it. I plan on having two hives and I wanted to start one with a package of bees and one with a nuc to see how the two hives compare. I am going to keep one hive on a second story roof and one in the yard.

I started attending a beekeeping class with the Montgomery County, PA beekeepers association - it meets once a month and basically walks you through a full season of beekeeping. I also went to a separate one day seminar for beginning beekeepers. Of course as you might imagine, there is a ton of great info about beekeeping online. I have recently been reading about organic methods of beekeeping and definitely plan on trying to minimize my use of chemical interventions (which are very common in commercial and even hobbyist beekeeping). There is a growing and very active community of biological and organic beekeepers who like small organic farmers, are instituting practices which are healthier, more sustainable and more beneficial to the bees themselves. If you know me, you know this is right up my alley.