Beekeeping for beginners

by admin on 18/10/2015


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Having thought some time about learning about beekeeping, I joined a beginners’ course,  run by the beekeepers’ association in Lier, Røyken and Hurum, about 15 minutes drive from where I live.

The course was mainly hands-on and having arrived at the top of an apple orchard, an old-timer who had been doing beekeeping for ages, wished me welcome. While I and the other “students” used at least some protective clothing, he did so only when the bees were really angry, which fortunately happened seldom.

The course took  place at an apiary , which consisted of 5 beehives  in a row. Inside the beehives, groups of honeybees were living, consisting of queen bees , worker bees   and drones . While the worker bees, who are all female, really live up to their name, the drones are males and their only purpose is to mate with the queen bee. While our teacher could distinguish between  drones and worker bees at once, I still need some practice before I can do the same. Mostly, we only checked the upper part of each beehive, each of which is called a Langstroth hive  after the inventor. The upper part is called honey super and it consists of 10 vertical boards where the worker bees store nectar in honeycombs. Actually, the frames supported artificial honeycombs on which the honeybees would build cells consisting of beeswax. The colour of the honeycombs varied from light yellow to dark brown and our instructor could see just from the colour what the bees had been eating, e.g. pollen.

Below the honey super, a queen excluder , consisting of a metal grid, impeded the queen bee from entering because she’s larger than the other bees. Below, the brood box was located. There, the brood, consisting of eggs, larvae and pupae together with the queen who is the mother of all of them and some worker bees, live. Lifting up a frame in the brood, we could sometimes notice eggs inside the hexagonal cells and sometimes larvae. I guess the pupa stage occurs after the worker bees have sealed the cells shut. Then, after about three weeks, a new honey bee will be born. Besides, we could also see worker bees who had lowered most of their upper bodies into the cells, feeding the larvae.

At the base of the beehives, there was an opening through which the honey bees could enter and exit and our experienced instructor had also placed some kind of fine netting below the opening in order to let the honey bees avoid landing on the ground if they missed it. In nice weather they were very active, exiting the beehives in order to collect pollen and nectar amd we could sometimes see that they had two yellow balls of pollen, one on each side of their body, when they returned. An important subject among the more experienced beekeepers, who were also present at the course, was which type of plant the honey bees were visiting even though they couldn’t do anything about it because the beehives should stay in the same place.

Since the health of the bees in each beehive was quite variable, we were also shown how to mate strong honey bees with weak ones. If I don’t remember wrongly, the honey super of the weak honey bees was left exposed. Then, a sheet of thin paper was laid on top and perforated with a knife. Finally, the honey super of the strong bees was laid on top of the sheet of paper and various types of lids were laid on the top of the hive in order to protect the honey bees against cold and moisture. Leaving the beehive in peace, the honey bees would start eating the paper at the holes and when we returned one week later, the sheet of paper was in tatters.

We were also shown how to identify the queen bee by her bigger size, then grabbing her carefully by her wings and putting her into a plastic cylinder with a grid at one end. Then, inserting a piston carefully into the cylinder, the queen bee would be forced towards the grid through which the instructor used a a pen to mark the queen bee with a dot of a bright colour. Each year, the queen bees are marked with different colours such that the beekeepers can identify their age.

Sometimes, a queen bee was deemed to be unsuitable, she disappeared or she died. Anyway, she had to be replaced by another one. Then, a new queen bee together with a small group of worker bees were put in a small plastic cage with lots of holes and, if applicable, the old queen bee was caught and finished off. Finally, the plastic cage was suspended between two of the frames in the honey super and the beehive was closed. After 3-4 days, the instructor would return and release the new queen bee and the worker bees from the small cage. He told us that the worker bees needed to get to know the smell of the queen bee before they could accept her, else they could kill her.

In August, it was time to extract honey from the honey super. Then, one frame at a time was lifted out of the beehive and if it weighed, say, more than 2 kilogrammes, the bees were swept carefully away by means of a brush and the empty frame was inserted into an empty honey super. This procedure was repeated until all the frames with honey had been extracted from the beehive.

In fact, the bees eat honey and in order to let them survive winter, they were given a mixture of sugar and water. Besides, depending on the health of the bees, a number of frames were removed from the honey super and replaced with wooden boxes of the same size. A strong bee colony would be left with, say, 8 frames, while  weak ones were left with 6 or 7.

The course started in April and the bees were left to hibernate in September. We had weekly meetings all the time and I really liked this course. I’ve still not started beekeeping due mainly to that I live in a block of flats in a town and I don’t know where to place the beehives. In addition, our instructor advised us to read about beekeeping and having a long, and maybe cold winter to look forward to, it should be plenty of time to read about those little guys and how to keep them as domestic animals.

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