Beekeeping: Year One Lessons & Plans

Last spring I jumped into beekeeping. It wasn’t thoroughly thought out, but I have a friend who has kept bees for nearly 50 years and he assured me it was pretty trouble free. I thought it would be a good thing to help reintroduce bees, and that bees could help pollinate my growing selection of fruit trees, vines and bushes, which might improve my garden production. So I got two hives, put one on the hillside by the fruits and the other down by the garden.

That placement is not strictly necessary because bees will fly a couple miles to gather nectar, but I liked the idea. Also, I wanted to experiment with the relative effects of a more exposed hillside location and a more protected location. And I thought it might be fun to look out the kitchen window at a bee hive.

Two anecdotes point to pollination improvements. One: our old patch of berries, located just a few yards from the hillside hive, produced a much better crop of raspberries last summer. Our new raspberries also produced well, but as it was their first true bearing season, I have no comparison.

Two: my neighbor recently reported that her old apple tree, long producing disappointing fruit, bore large, tasty apples last summer. She attributes it to the bees we keep a quarter mile or so from the tree – and has become inclined to get a hive of her own next year.

The Upper Hive, Day 1

Dozer Inspects the Lower Hive, Day 1

I was intrigued by the different “personalities” of the two hives. The one on the hill was edgy from the first day. My visits were quickly met by a host of bees wondering what I was up to. The hive by the garden, on the other hand, seemed to take everything in stride. My visits were met with a relaxed, “mi casa es su casa” approach. I took to referring to the hillside hive as the “uptight” hive, and the garden hive as the “dope smokers”.

Over the course of the summer and fall, I thought the lower, garden hive was actually more active and fruitful than the hillside hive. And when winter settled in I quickly became afraid that the hillside hive would not survive. Indeed, I think they died off fairly early. In part, it’s because their site was too exposed to the north wind. And wind – I have learned from Eliot Coleman books on gardening (see my Resources page) – is the great stealer of life. It is more harmful than cold.

By contrast, as late as early February I saw strong bee activity in the lower hive. On the few days when the weather hit 40 degrees or so, groups of bees could be seen outside, clustered around the upper entrance (a drill hole). But closer inspection worried me: in the aftermath of warm days, I saw hundreds of dead bees in the snow, and sometimes a dozen or so frozen to the hive exterior near the entrance hole.

And, in fact, that hive did not make it. Sometime late in winter it succumbed. I’m not sure what did them in; my beekeeping friend tells me it was a hard winter for bees, and somewhere I heard that as much as 20% of the bee population of Vermont was killed off this year.

The upper hive lost its snow cover in February. The bees were dead by then, but if they hadn’t been I think the chill wind would have done them in once their 3-foot-high snow blanket was blown away.

The lower hive had nearly 4 feet of snow surrounding it until early April. I had to move snow away from the upper access several times between January and March as the high accumulation of snow and wind drift threatened to trap them inside. It’s likely the long-lasting snow blanket, along with the partial windbreak caused by the hive’s placement on the lee side of some fir trees, helped them survive longer. But I need to do more to protect them.

Honey comb

A sample of my first honey crop

On recent warm days I’ve opened both hives to clean and prepare them for new colonies coming next month. Unexpectedly, I found large quantities of delicious, amber honey. Now that I’ve finished harvesting, I can report 34 lbs, 8 oz from the lower hive and 27 lbs, 4 oz from the upper, for a total of 61 lbs, 12 oz. I will put some of it up for sale when I go to the Ludlow Farmer’s Market this summer, which will allow me to recuperate most of my bee expenses for last year.

I could more than cover all of last year’s expenses if I sold it all. My goal, though, is to let sales pay for my own consumption. If next year I pull off just half as much honey as I got this year, I’ll more than recover all of my expenses for getting started, replacing lost colonies, and adding a third hive.

As I replace my colonies, I am adding a Carniolan queen to each. Carniolan queens are from Yugoslavia and are more winter-hardy than the Italian bees and queens that are the dominant strain sold in the U.S. The Carniolan queen will produce cross-breed bees which will hopefully increase their odds of surviving our cold winters. Those colonies come from Betterbee in Greenwich, NY.

I am also going to add a third hive, from Orwell, Vermont-based Singing Cedars Apiaries. Singing Cedars has a bee breeding program to develop a strain of bees that is suited to the harsh Northeastern U.S. climate, is resistant to common bee problems, is docile, and is highly productive. I’m intrigued.

I will place all three hives on the south side of my garden shed. That will help protect them from our cold northern winter winds, expose them to the winter sun, which hangs low in our southern sky, and, because of the site’s slightly elevated location, encourage earlier snow melt from around the hives.

I’m also going to apply some of Eliot Coleman’s winter harvest principles to beekeeping. Coleman uses double covers on his Maine farm to protect growing plants from the life-stealing winter wind, and is able to harvest produce ten months of the year. I think my styrofoam hives can function as an inner layer if I protect them from the winter wind. So this year I plan to create a mini hoop house over my bee hives to block the wind. (I’ll leave a small opening on the south side so bees can get out on warm days.) That should keep the temperature inside the hive as much as 18 degrees F warmer.

Finally, I am intrigued by the very new “barefoot beekeeping” philosophy of Philip Chandler, an English beekeeper. The core principle of barefoot beekeeping is that “the bees know what they are doing: our job is to listen to them and provide the optimum conditions for their well-being.” Consequently, Chandler has been experimenting with tossing out the accepted conventions in beekeeping in favor of adaptations of more ancient, bee-centric methods. In a nutshell, his approach to beekeeping seems to me to be akin to Coleman’s approach to growing healthy vegetables: work with nature and the rhythms natural to what you are attempting to cultivate and you will produce sustainable, toxin-free, highly fruitful results.

I am ordering Chandler’s two books – The Barefoot Beekeeper and The Barefoot Beekeeper’s Guide to Swarms and Swarm Management – which, I am sure, will change the way I keep bees as early as next year. (The Barefoot Beekeeper is available on Amazon through the link above; or as a downloadable PDF from Chandler’s website. The Guide to Swarms is only available as a PDF from the site. Click on the Swarms link to go to the website.)

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