Adventures in Beekeeping by K. in Tennessee

I’ve been a regular reader of SurvivalBlog.com for years and had developed an interest in keeping bees. I started researching online, got a book or two from the library, and after a few years felt I was ready to give it a try. Then we moved 800 miles away, bought some land, built a house, and started a little hobby farm in southern Appalachia. Life has funny ways of getting in the way, but I’m much happier for it, and now I have a great place to try out the hobby of beekeeping.

I was quite daunted with all of the information I found, but after reading a few different books, and lots of time spent online reading even more, and talking with fellow “beeks” (beekeepers), I got a general picture of how things were supposed to work. This took several years, I found it quite my head around the bigger picture challenging. As a new-to-me hobby I only dedicated a minimum of free time to learning about it. Once you decide to jump-in, make sure you are prepared to offer more than just the minimum: I’ve had a couple adventures. I found going to local beekeeper clubs and group meetings in the area to be very useful. Knowledge, information, good deals, and general well wishes were in abundance every time I took the time to attend. Eventually I got my hive and some minimal protective gear. I ordered a package of bees for the spring through a local club, and began the adventure I am about to describe. So far it has been rewarding, I am looking forward to continuing the journey.

Starting Out

So you want to keep wild animals in a box? Several reputable vendors have hive-starter kits available for sale. Your local club may have a member who makes them cheaper, but basically we’re talking about the wooden box you keep the bees in. They come in different shapes and sizes, the most common are the Langstroth style. It’s good to standardize if you have a lot of hives, but for starters, go with what suits you. 10-frame setups are larger and heavier than 8-frame setups. The bees don’t care, but your back might! I recommend 2 deeps for your ‘hive body’ (bottom half), and 2 mediums for your ‘supers’. The wooden boxes can be used inter-changeably: the “Hive Body” is where the bees live, the “Super” is where they store the honey. Purchase frames to match (20 deep and 20 medium if you want a 10-frame setup, 16/16 if an 8-frame).

You’ll need a hammer (kits come with nails!), some wood glue, and white outdoor paint (the cheap barn-paint from the co-op works just fine!). A carpenter’s framing square will come in handy if you have one, tape measure will work in a pinch if you don’t. Building hive-boxes is simple and easy, follow the directions provided, take your time, and make sure they are square. Paint the exterior of the entire hive with the barn-paint, if you have an artist in the family, let them go to town! Give the paint plenty of time to cure and start scouting for where you want your apiary to go.

Hives like a little sun when it is cold, but not when it is warm. Find a sheltered area and face the hive South-East, protect from strong winds, and elevate slightly (pair of cinder-blocks, maybe 18” high — let your back decide!) You can find a wealth of information about how best to setup and install new hives online or in books. Don’t forget to ask around at your local club meeting – they usually have a meeting every spring where they talk about it! You may even be able to find a person willing to mentor you and come to your location to help you plan.

You’re going to need personal protective gear, unless you don’t mind bee stings. At a minimum you should get a veil and gloves. I started with just those 2 things, wore old jeans and a heavy coat, tucked my pant legs into my socks…. It was quite a sight. Eventually I got a jacket-helmet combo (same old pair of jeans, I still tuck my pants..), I highly recommend not being as cheap as I started out as. You can get a decent full suit for 50-bucks online. Worth. Every. Penny. Poor protective gear will make hive inspections much harder on you, and therefore less likely to happen, which is undesirable.

With all new equipment, you’re talking about $300-400 in today’s market. Not a bad price to start a new hobby, but still not exactly pocket-change.

Bees!

Starting with a package of bees is cheapest and easiest, they run about $125 for a 3-lb. package and marked queen right now. Your market may be different. You did contact your local beeks to find out the best deals and ordered a discounted package through them, right? You can also find a mentor to help with installing the package and learning the ropes. Once the bees are installed in the hive, it’s best to let them do their thing. Regular inspections are important to keep an eye on how the hive is progressing, and catch problems early as they develop. I found them fascinating once I acquired the proper protective gear. A box full of buzzing bees is very intimidating in a veil and sweatshirt. It’s funny how you can hear their ‘buzz’ change when they get pissed. Yes, I’ve had to drop everything and run away screaming before…. Ahh, hobbies.

The bees will gradually grow and fill the empty (new) frames with wax comb. Beautiful to watch, so clean and white when it’s first made. The bees will store their food and grow their young in the comb, so they need lots of it. Making all that wax for the comb takes a lot of sugar. You can supplement their diet with common sugar water (like hummingbirds, but 1:1 for bees) in a variety of ways, I like the ones in the hive, so other bees can’t get to it. Bees will travel up to 5 miles to find forage! You don’t have to live in the foothills in the country in order to keep bees, they do just fine in suburbs and cities. Though check with your neighbors and local ordinances if you live in one of… those, states.

Early Success

My first year the bees did well in this environment and expanded quickly. I soon had both hive bodies (deeps) setup and there was a frenetic buzz of activity about the hive all day long. Next I added the queen excluder and a super, and before you know it, they were making honey. New hives (started from packages in the spring) generally need a year or so to develop and get strong (draw out all that comb…), so if any excess honey is made by the hive, it is best to leave it on the hive for the bees to use during the slow times. Honey’s natural purpose is as a food source for the hive during times when there is no natural food (e.g. over-winter). A hive with a good supply of food to over-winter is more likely to survive, and may even have some left over to start the spring out with a bang!

I was excited about having bees, and poked my finger into the comb a few times during the inspection, but really wanted to give them the best chance to survive. I knew the harvest would be richer the next year, if I held off the first, so I did not take any honey for myself (beyond just a taste or two).

Hive Robbers

One not-uncommon problem apiarist encounter, is hive robbers. Other nearby bees may catch wind of your hive and stop by to take a look. This presents several problems, as they can spread pests and diseases this way, as well as report back to their hive the juicy, honey-stores your bees have worked so hard to put up for the long hard winter. A couple times I want out to the pasture to check on the hive, and could not believe the cloud that was outside the hive. I didn’t know what to think, but even as a novice, I could tell, something wasn’t quite right. Turns out my hive was under attack from some nearby bees (never did find out where they came from). The attack lasted a few days, and in the end my hive lost. All but a few score of the nurse/worker bees were left, and I saw the queen. She was barely alive (I think only the 3rd time I ever saw her, if I’m being honest!) The hive was a mess. I spread it all out and tried to clean up, a friend from the beekeeper club helped me freeze all of the components (to kill any potential pests), and I readied myself for the next year.

My second package did well and grew even faster than the first. I got a different type of honey-bee this second time around. I wanted to try something different. This variety was a little more expensive, but supposedly more resistant to a particular type of pest, and was available from a bee-supply company close enough for me to drive to. A friend from the local beeks club (there is that group again) drove up there with me, about three hours each way, and we installed my new bees in the old hive. Those bees made it through the year even better than the first. I felt my knowledge improving, and with more reading, learning, and experience, I felt my comfort and confidence growing. The hive grew well, put on a lot of honey, and I told myself this year I wasn’t going to miss out!

I took one frame of honey out of the hive and we just scraped it into the kitchen colander. The colander caught the wax, the honey flowed through into a bowl we had beneath, and we got nearly an entire quart caning jar full of honey from just a single (medium) frame! Boy did that stuff taste good, too. Frankly, I think it was mostly sugar water (I was feeding heavy, the nectar was light that year), but it still tasted like manna to me! I left the rest of the frames on the hive, made up a little wind-break for the hive, and got them ready for winter.

Hives go dormant in the winter anywhere that the weather gets cold. They can even survive extreme cold conditions. You could probably talk to someone about it at your local beekeeper’s club. Just saying.

Spring time comes and (hopefully) the hive explodes with activity like everything else. My second year with this type of bees was rather interesting… Again I was surprised by a cloud of activity outside the hive, and a strange buzzing. The frenetic activity was different this time. Last time there were distinct attack runs I could see some bees making. This activity was more nebulous, more cloud-like. The swarm of bees eventually drifted up into one of the nearby trees. It was there the next day, but flew off in the afternoon. “Huh, odd….” I said to myself. Next weekend, same thing.

Hey, I know, I’ll call my buddy from the local…

Turns out my hive was swarming. This is good/bad. I learned a lot, and was able to come away with a ‘split’, or a second hive, as progeny from my first. Apparently this is how things go. Like rifle’s in the gun safe? It starts with one, who gets lonely, so you get it a friend, who also wants to have a friend… Ahhh, hobbies!

Conclusion

It’s been several years now and I’ve spent only a little bit of money acquiring equipment and knowledge… It’s very rewarding mentally, and a relaxing and enjoyable hobby for me. I find the learning stimulating, and the people I’ve met helpful and interesting. I don’t think it will ever be a profitable endeavor for me – that sounds too much like work! The opportunity exists however: honey, wax, pollen, propolis, and the work of the bees themselves are valuable commodities. (Some farmers will pay to host a hive near their field).

After some initial trepidation, I am very glad I started down this road. It’s been rewarding and affordable. (I can’t say that about some of the hobbies that I’ve tried). There are countless benefits beyond just some free honey (pollination rate on my garden and orchard alone…) In our corner of the blogosphere, it could also prove a very useful skill!

For others considering it or interested, I suggest checking it out. You can usually find books for free at your local public library, sometimes through inter-library loan. There are several websites and chat boards you can read and talk to other beekeepers for free. As mentioned, I’m a huge fan of meeting in person with your local club. Usually minimally expensive ($10-$25 annually around here), your county agricultural co-op or farm and feed supply store should be able to point you in the right direction. Thanks for reading.




8 Comments

  1. Very nice write up, throw a damp bed sheet over the hive if you suspect robbing it’s the best way I’ve come up with. Bees are fascinating, My 85 year old mentor is still learning new things and passing them on to me!

  2. Good article. I have been a small beekeeper for over 50 years, thus having some experience in this endeavor. Bees are like people in the sense each hive has there own personality.

    I would start with “nucs” instead of package bees. “Nuc” is the short tern for Nucleus of a hive. It consist of 5 frames with brood and a queen. Here in the northwest hives are off to a far stronger start by beginning with a nuc.

    Always have access honey off by mid-August and begin feeding. Here in the inter-mountain northwest a hive must have 100 pounds of honey to get itself through the winter. If not, they will likely starve. I insulate three sides of the hive plus the top.

    Treat for parasites and disease! Most states have restrictions on the small beekeeper. Something to think about…the honeybee in the natural world travels best only a mile or two whether foraging or swarming. They were not meant to be trucked all over the country. The small beekeeper is blamed for disease/parasite issues when the fact is the “big” beekeeping industry is responsible for the spread.

    Beekeeping is a rewarding hobby. The greatest benefit is pollination to both the keeper and his neighbor.

  3. Good article, about Beekeeping. Some people take to raising honey-bees like fish to water. K. in Tennessee said, “started a little hobby farm in southern Appalachia.”
    For many people, the need to ‘pay the bills’ require a successful commercial endeavor. … Beekeeping might work for some Survivalblog readers [Some people just like working with honeybees].

    americanbeeproject(dot)com/50-state-guide, “One of the best ways to save on property taxes is to apply for an Agricultural classification. Bee apiaries are specifically included as a form of agriculture in most states.”

    Honeybees are essential for commercial food production. There’s are people raising and moving bees throughout the USA, as a source of income. The honeybees and the commercial beekeepers are ‘migrant’ workers during pollination season. Farmers pay a fee per hive to pollinate their crops. … During the rest of the year, the beekeepers need to ‘park’ the beehives.

    The beekeeping hobby is a good way to first enter the beekeeper business. = There’s a lot of heavy lifting, travel/driving and working out in the boonies. Usually, we only hear about beekeepers, when a flatbed truck of bee hives overturns on the road.

    K. in Tennessee says, “It’s very rewarding mentally, and a relaxing and enjoyable hobby for me.” …. [Some people just like working with honeybees.]

  4. If you have more than one hive and one is robbing the others, popping all the hive tops off will force the bees to regroup to defend the home turf and call off the assault.

    In southern climates, keeping hives on stands with the legs in containers of oil will help keep hive beetles at bay.

    Besides food, you may also need to supply the bees with water. If you don’t, they might decide to annex your neighbors swimming pool.

    The sugar/ water ratio changes depending on the time of the year.

  5. Tried using non-honey (wild)bee house to increase pollination in my small garden and saw increase in productivity. Very small (looks like a small bird house) little chance of stings(only if you disturb bees while laying eggs) and very low maintenance(put up in spring,put in shed overwinter(eggs go dormant and survive moderate temperatures) and clean out for new eggs). Easy to see wild pollinators working hard in my garden.

  6. Been beekeeping about 15 years, I was taught put your hives in the place the sun shines first and longest. Bees aren’t bringing in honey when they’re in their hives, the warmth of the sun brings them out early.

  7. My grandfather kept bees for decades and i always wanted to have some. A few years ago i finally had a spot in a bit of land where theyd have something to eat , not be bothered unduly, and where id be able to ensure they had water (bone dry summers here, no rain april-october). I found a local beekeeper who treats his bees well, who was willing to sell me two colonies. I started out with simple top-bar hives i constructed. The goal was establishing happy colonies and not in honey production- if they grew further wed get some honey sooner or later… they were doing wonderfully. from the one frame of comb in each (just to get them in the new hive with something for the queen to walk around on) ,
    over the next couple of months they fully built out the new top bars with comb, growing population and setting up a bunch of honey.
    I had a 200 gal tank nearby with a faucet dripping to make sure that even if i was away for a week they’d have plenty of water.
    Indeed was away for about a week and one of the first things when i got back was to check up on the workers. a sense of dread came over me as i approached that field… just expecting scenarios of something bad.
    i came there to find the hives turned over and scattered, one of them smashed to pieces.
    it really wasnt something that would happen by accident. a herder in the area who has a reputation for opening gates, cutting fences, and eating peoples gardens , fields, and vineyards, had indeed left his mark.. but goats dont smash beehives to pieces either, even a ram headbutting the thing would just knock it over and he wouldne be headbutting it on the ground after that..
    i never found out who did it but havent yet gotten new bees. if some animal had gotten in there and eaten the hives, it’d be one thing… sometimes there are people who are just mean or jealous or malicious and will ruin something they see someone else working to accomplish. Stay on the lookout and keep your bees safe!

  8. (I do not know why my comment is appearing in bold).
    I, too, enjoyed this article. Several interesting aspects that we have not experienced in Alaska. Bees are fascinating.

    Regarding the comment above mine: it sounds like a bear. The author does not indicate his/her location, but a bear ravaged several of our hives one year, even though we had ratchet strapped them down to 4x4s elevated on cement footers. The bruin lifted and tossed the whole installation of four hives on two boards. We now surround them with an electric fence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.