Good news! Two Friday nights ago the universe answered my plea for help in locating a new source of honey bees. After having quite a bit of trouble with a beekeeper that I had made arrangements with back in January (things like phone calls and emails not being returned, and a general lack of professionalism), I located, and received bees all in the same day from someone different. Maybe the stars were aligned, or some other form of hocus-pocus played a part in this wonderful coincidence, but all I know is that I now have 3 colonies of Carniolan bees!
After the aforementioned problems with the first beekeeper, I started looking elsewhere for another source. I felt it was getting too late in the season to find bees, but lo and behold, I found someone through Craigslist selling 5 frame nucs for $100 a piece. I sent out an email and also left a facebook message and went on with my business for a Friday afternoon – drinking a few beers with my buddy John while shootin’ the shit and talking about gardens.
Around 3:30 or 4:00 I ended up getting a phone call from Sarah Rushfeldt, owner of Rushfeldt Apiary out of Dresser, WI. She gave me all the details about what she had to offer, and it also just so happened that she was driving up to Minneapolis that same night and I could pick my bees up then. I couldn’t believe it! Not only did I secure a new supplier of nucleus colonies, I was practically getting them delivered to me – double score!!
We arranged a pick up time of after 8:30 PM. I had my work cut out for me, as I was nowhere near ready for three colonies of bees that would be arriving here in only a few short hours, but I knew I could figure it out. John and I finished our beers, said our farewells, and I got to work. I knew I wanted them towards the back of the lot near my driveway, so that was simple enough.
Next I gathered up the materials I would need for a heavy duty hive stand that could support the weight of up to four full colonies (remember – I have two swarm traps out in a friends beeyard). After many hours spent watching youtube videos of JP the beeman and other beekeepers, I knew exactly what I would need for the stand. Thankful to my unwavering dedication to hopping into dumpsters and salvaging materials from the waste stream, I had everything I would need on hand. Three heavy cinder blocks and two 8 foot long, hard wood 4×4’s. Simple as that – place the cinder blocks on level ground spaced evenly, and lay the 4×4’s across them lengthwise. Easy peasy.
Next I gathered all of my woodenware that I would need to properly house the bees. Some of it was from last years start up, and the rest is as follows. Last winter I hooked up with an old friend of mines’ dad who runs about 50 or so hives throughout the Minnesota River Valley and purchased 15 deep boxes from him that he had extras of. “Big” John Crocker is a semi-nomadic hunter/gatherer, part time pastoralist who was a big inspiration in my teenage years. His backyard full of beans and broccoli, stories of living out in the woods for months at a time, and all the Anarcho punk music I was listening too at the age of 17, set my life on a course that I am still proudly living today.
Along with the deep boxes, I knew I would need a few other pieces to complete my setup. I spent a few weekends late this winter building the rest of my woodenware. I started with the outer, telescoping covers. Made out of ½ inch thick plywood, squared ½ by, and salvaged printer plates (basically just a sheet of thin aluminum) for protection against the elements, the covers turned out pretty well. They are a bit tight on one of the boxes, but this should not present too many problems.
Working our way down the hive, is the inner cover. This is one piece of equipment that is truly an experiment. Taking an idea I saw David Heaf talk about in this video, I decided to use a starched piece of burlap instead of an actual plywood inner cover. This is a traditional warre’ hive component, and it should lend itself well to the langstroth hive as well. Basically it keeps the bees from propolising down the outer cover to the hive body. Another possible advantage may come due to the nature of the burlap. Being that it is made up from fiber, rather than wood, there is a good chance that it could help regulate, and absorb excess moisture in the hive. This is more of an issue in winter, but still, a dry home is a happy home, free from molds and fungus that could be detrimental to the bees overall health.
The last piece of hive equipment I built was the screened base. I ended up designing this myself and so far I am very happy with how they are working. It is pretty much standard practice these days to use a screened bottom board, when the bees groom themselves and knock off the dreaded varrao mites, the mites fall through the screened bottom and are not able to reattach themselves back onto the bees. The problem I have with most of the commercially made ones is that they are two pieces and quite expensive to purchase.
Recent trials from a lot of beekeepers is to still use a screened bottom, but get rid of the second piece, the solid bottom board. This is the route I have gone with 2 of the 3 hives I have this year. Ross Conrad, who is one of Americas leading voices in natural and organic beekeeping (and I had the honor of taking a day long class from him this last winter) uses a similar setup like the one I am describing. The idea is that it allows for adequate airflow and ventilation making it easier for the bees to regulate their temperature and humidity within the hive. In the winter I may stuff the bottoms with a bit of straw for a bit of insulation against our traditionally harsh winters, but they would still be able to breathe.
Aside from the actual cost of the bees, the screened bottom bases were the most expensive part of this project thus far. The screen that you need to use is quite hard to find and pretty expensive. You need to find ⅛ inch hardware screen. The ⅛ inch size is important, it is small enough to keep the bees contained, but allows the varroa mite, and other hive debris to fall through. A fifty foot roll ended up costing me around $55, and I should end up being able to make around 40 of them if I remember my calculations correctly. I can only hope to someday be running 40 or more hives with all of my homemade hive bases!!
One last piece that I made, but not so much a permanent part of the hive is what is called a boardman feeder. It is a feeder that slides into the bottom opening of the hive and allows the bees to access supplemental feed without going too far. Opinions differ quite a bit about how well these work. Some people have said that the boardman feeder promotes robbing between hives, especially if you have any Italian bee genetics going on in your apiary, but I thought it was worth experimenting with.
Now as a side note, I am not a huge fan of feeding bees supplemental feed, but it does have its place and time. At some point I am sure I will delve deeper into the topic of supplemental bee feeding, but for now this is what I do, and once again, Ross Conrad is to thank for this idea.
Typically people will make up a simple syrup to help establish a new colony, or to help feed them in the fall because they robbed too much of the bees honey. The syrup can be anywhere from a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of cane sugar and water. White cane sugar is important for a few reasons. While it seems counter intuitive that a highly processed product would be better for the bees, it is the fact that there are no other ingredients going on other than sucrose. This mimics, in a very generic way, honey. Also, never use white sugar derived from beet root. First and foremost, beets are grown with a huge amount of chemical inputs, and secondly, a large percentage of American grown beets are GMO – lets try and stay away from that.
To go along with the simple syrup, Ross Conrad advocates that when you do have to feed your bees something other than the honey they make for themselves, it is important to try and fortify your simple syrup with a few bee healthy adjuncts. Rather than using just plain water for the base, first make up a tea that includes chamomile, thyme, and nettles (the last one is my addition). Along with that add a pinch of high quality, unprocessed seas salt, a splash of cider vinegar (organic if you can find it), and a drop or two of lemongrass oil. All of these add trace minerals that are lacking in just a basic simple feed, and they also help to mimic nectar by making it more appealing to the bees.
So I have covered a lot here. It has been very exciting getting bees again after I lost mine back in March. I think nucs are the way to go when it comes to purchasing bees, but they may be a bit harder to find (versus a 3 or 4 pound package that you can get through the mail) if you do not live near to any beekeepers who put these together in the spring. One other drawback, and this is less of a criticism of Rushfeldt Apiaries, as it is just the truth, at least one of the colonies I purchased had a significant amount of wax moth larva presence, and another has(d) evidence of small hive beetles.
The wax moth larvae are relatively common pests for bee hives, and as long as the colony is strong and hygienic, they can fight their way back to a clean and healthy hive. I am a bit more concerned about the small hive beetle, as I have never seen them before. They are typically only found in the southern parts of the United States, and because my nucs originated at least in part in Florida I am not surprised. I will keep monitoring for these, as well as the varrao mite and will take the proper action if and when necessary.
If this post or any of my other ones has not proved what can be done and built using salvaged materials, let me remind you. Almost all of the materials used so far in this year’s construction of hive equipment was free and rescued from the waste stream. The burlap was sourced for free from a local coffee shop, the aluminum printing plates were purchased for scrap value from a local printer ($5 for about 25 sheets, and will make one hive top for each piece), and once again, all the lumber was free from various dumpsters and industrial sites. The only true expense for new materials was the ⅛ inch hardware screen, and small nails that I needed.
It was important for me to keep the costs down for a few reasons. First, keeping bees is expensive. There are many costs that can accumulate quickly if you are not careful. Secondly, I really want to figure out how to make this into a part time living, and if I am to do that I have to figure out ways to make it more affordable. Making my own equipment is one way to do that.
So finishing on that note, there is a lot going on with the bees this year. New bees, new equipment, and a new location – my backyard. This is going to be a good test to see if a year of trial and error, subsequent research and hard work can pay off! The bees are in a bad place globally and I want to play a small part in trying to change that. I will keep you updated my friends!! Peace & Cheers