Meeting Victor has been one of the highlights during this strange time. He introduced himself by letter, which he left in Beatrice’s (aka Queen Bea, our elderly mother) mailbox to see if he could keep bees on the property behind her cottage. Due to the virus our beekeeping service was put on hold. We already had two hives, he would add another two and in exchange he would care for all four. It was a win-win all around and we were thrilled with the prospect. It was so delightful having him here, watching him work and learning from him. Beekeeping is a complicated, time-consuming and fascinating process. Victor has a way with bees and he is very generous with the wealth of knowledge that he has accumulated, as well as the delicious honey that he has harvested! We’re looking forward to more as time goes on.
Below, I’m sharing with you Victor’s Beekeeping Diary from the last several months. He was kind enough to share his notes and musings on all things beekeeping. I think you’ll enjoy some of his storytelling. Have a read!
A BEEKEEPER’S DIARY
I retired in late 2019 and thought I would take up an old hobby I had pursued for many years when I was younger, beekeeping. Initially I intended to keep the bees in my backyard but the town of Brookline had other ideas and my yard did not qualify for the necessary permits. I tried contacting local community farms and community gardens to see if they might have a place for me to keep the bees but no luck. There was a house in Dover right on the Charles which I had passed many times on bike rides through the area. I noticed they had built a little greenhouse, had gardens and had planted a small orchard. I thought this would be a perfect place for bees., In any other year I might have knocked on their door to inquire but in the days of Covid that seemed unwise. I left a letter instead and a few days later I heard back and was delighted that I would be able to keep my bees in this beautiful spot.
I spent the remaining winter months assembling hives and frames and in mid April received my first package of bees. Installing them is relatively quick and easy. Shake the bees into an empty hive and place the queen in her own separate little cage between two frames, to be released over the next several days by the workers, then leave them to settle in. A few weeks later I got a second hive and a few weeks later a third.
Over the next several weeks I stopped by to leave a feed of sugar water on each hive. Until there is sufficient spring bloom the bees need supplemental food to support their growing population. During this time I made occasional inspections going through the frames to make sure each hive had a queen who was actively laying eggs. A strong queen can lay as many as 1,000 eggs in a single day. It takes a large workforce to care for the developing brood so initially the queen does not lay so many eggs but as the population of the hive increases the queen increases her egg laying. This leads to an exponential increase in the colony population. In April and May and early June the hives are building in strength. When they started out they probably had about 10-15,000 bees in each hive and by mid June populations were probably over 50-60,000 bees in the 2 stronger hives. The trick is to try and have a maximum population when the main honey flows start. It’s always a little slower with a new hive compared to one that has successfully wintered over which may increase to a population as high as 80,000.
Two of my hives were off to a pretty good start but the third hive lost its queen somehow. I was able to purchase a new queen but she wasn’t accepted by the bees and I had to get another queen (she comes in the mail) and this time she was accepted.
The black locust trees are the first significant honey flow of the year. Prior to this the bees had been using whatever honey they brought in to feed their developing brood but with the black locust blossoms they are able to start putting away a surplus. The bees are making the honey for themselves to survive the winter but by manipulating the hives so that conditions are optimal it is possible to get them to produce a surplus, the beekeeper’s harvest. Following black locust, tulip poplar came into bloom in mid to late June. I’m not sure how significant a flow the tulip trees are but there was a pretty big tulip just 100 feet from the hives and I did note some others in the area. The bees can fly in a radius of just over 1 mile so they have a pretty large catchment area.
By early July following the tulip poplar bloom the linden trees come into bloom. Linden trees can be a prolific source of nectar although the yield can be quite variable depending on weather conditions. There are a large number of linden trees in the area. There are several types of linden trees with sequential blossoms and so the honey flow went on for a few weeks. By mid to late July the linden trees had given up their bounty and now purple loosestrife came into bloom. Purple loosestrife is an invasive that has become fairly common along waterways and wetlands. It is generally thought of as a environmental problem but not a problem for the bees. The area on the Charles where my hives are was covered in it.
A note on Varroa Mites
When I kept bees years ago varroa mites were not a problem but since the 1990s they have become ubiquitous throughout the country. All beehives are infected, beekeepers need to monitor the extent of the infestation and when it reaches a certain threshold they need to treat. I did my first treatment in early September.
With the major honey flows over it was time to harvest the honey. The bees store the honey in open cells, and by ventilating their hives they evaporate water off of it and when the moisture content is low enough they seal it in with a wax capping. Once about 75% or more of a frame is capped its ready to be harvested. First you have to make sure that you leave enough honey for the bees to survive the winter, in Massachusetts that’s probably in the range of 60 to 80 pounds per hive. Then you can take any surplus. Two of the hives did have a small amount of surplus which I was able to harvest. First I took some of the honey from the too strong hives to give to the weaker hive which had not produced enough, then I harvested the remaining surplus. To harvest I placed a small trap just below the supers (hive boxes where honey gets stored) I wanted to take off. The trap is placed in a board between the 2 lower hive bodies and the supers, it allows bees down and back into the main hive bodies but they can’t get back up into the supers. Several days later when I returned the supers were pretty much empty of bees. I brought the supers home where I first uncapped the comb with a hot uncapping knife and then placed each frame in an extractor which spins the frame and the honey comes out via centrifical force. The honey drips down the sides of the extractor and is collected through a spout at the bottom. In total I harvested about 30 pounds of honey.
Sometimes in late September or October the queen stops laying eggs. The drones who don’t do any work and are only there to mate with a queen are kicked out by the workers. Their laziness is tolerated in the spring and summer but not in the fall. The Spanish word for drone “sangano” is also an idiom to call someone a lazy good for nothing. During the summer a worker bee lives about six weeks but during the winter bees born in late September or October will live until late winter or early spring until after the queen has started laying again and the hive is being repopulated by young bees. I did another varroa mite treatment in mid-November. Hopefully this did the trick and the bees will be able to survive the winter. Without such treatments they inevitably die over the winter. I will likely feed them a sugar candy over the winter just as insurance in case their supplies run short. Basically my work, like the work of the bees is done for the year.
The bees don’t hibernate over the winter. They stay in a cluster and move through the hive consuming the honey they made over the summer. When the temperature gets colder they tighten up their cluster and each bee rotates her position in the cluster, in to out and back in. Late in the winter the queen will start to lay eggs slowly and the hive population will slowly start to increase. If the hives are able to survive the winter they will get a good head start in the spring and will be much stronger next year than they were this year. In a good year it’s not unusual to get 50 pounds of honey from a single hive or even more sometimes. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a good year for humans as well as bees.
Thank you, Victor, for all that you do for our dear bees on the riverbank!