Bees, Benton, and my Back Yard


Thousands of new bees for our hive

My neighbors had picked up my bees at the apiary in Navasota, since I was busy on the pick-up day.  Their drive back to Houston must have had a pleasant hum to it, with three “starter colonies” of bees in the backseat!  Each starter colony comes in a wooden box about 14″ long by 8″ high and deep, with screened sides, and holds about 3 pounds of worker bees (10,000 bees, give or take).  An inverted metal can holding sugar syrup to feed the bees blocks the hole where you will dump the bees out.  The queen cage (a very small box with screen sides and a sugar plug at one end, where she will come out in a few days to join the colony) is also inserted inside the box.

I had to keep the bees in their box a day longer than ideal – and that afternoon, when I went into my bedroom where I had left them until we were ready to hive them, I was greeted by a loud and ominous buzzing.  The bees were hungry!  They had eaten up all the sugar syrup.  As instructed I sprayed the screen sides with sugar syrup and the bees settled down contentedly.  Whew! 


Benton in his bee suit helps me
change frames on the hive

This was it – we were ready to go.  My 5-year old friend Benton put on his “wee bee suit”, an adorable pint-sized bee suit available from Brushy Mountain Bee Farms, but I opted to go without protection.  Before the bees have their own hive they are not at all defensive and unlikely to sting.  We didn’t need smoke for this operation either.  My hive was all ready, having been put together and painted some weeks before (so any fumes would dissipate).

We took the box of bees, the spray bottle with sugar syrup, a Boardman feeder filled with syrup, an entrance reducer cut to fit with the Boardman feeder, and the all-purpose hive tool into the bee yard (a corner of my back yard that I’d fenced off to keep my dogs out).  We took the outer and inner covers off the hive, savoring the scent of beeswax on the new foundation of the frames inside.  Following my beekeeper friend’s instructions, I hit the bottom of the box sharply on the ground to knock the bees down, quickly removed the can and took out the queen’s little cage, and immediately put the can back in the hole.  The queen looked healthy and active – the beekeeper had marked her with a dot of paint.  I poked a little hole through the “candy” that she and the worker bees would chew through from opposite sides over the next couple of days, to give them a head start.  Benton took out a frame from the hive, and we wedged the queen box between the 4th and 5th frames.  We then took out three more frames to give us room in the hive to dump the bees.  This was it…the big moment.


The bees move
into their new home

After hitting the box against the ground once more, I pulled out the syrup can and quickly inverted the box of bees over the hive, pouring and shaking them into the space where the frames had been removed.  I was a bit nervous and didn’t shake them out hard enough, so there were tons of bees still in the box when I stopped pouring.  We decided not to test the girls’ patience any more, and set the box on the ground while we replaced the frames and put the covers back on the hive.  Then we leaned the box with the hole facing towards the hive entrance.  Bees immediately began crawling up and into the hive.  They ignored us, just crawling over Benton’s ungloved fingers when he poked at them.  This was so cool!!!  After watching for a while we left the bees to themselves.  By morning the box was empty; all the bees had moved in to their new home.   

It was hard to wait for the recommended 7 to 10 days before checking on the bees.  During that week I had to refill the Boardman feeder several times, which I did at night or very early in the morning, not bothering to suit up.  At first temperatures were cool, so the bees were slow-moving and docile, hardly turning a wing when I switched out the feeders.  But one night was quite warm, and when I pulled off the feeder I was greeted by an angry buzz.  Bees poured out of the hole – yikes!  I dropped the feeder and ran, with a couple of angry girls following me all the way into the house.  I was lucky not to get stung – probably the darkness had helped to disorient the bees pursuing me.  After I’d taken a bee out of my hair, I humbly put on my bee suit and went out to retrieve the feeder and put on a new one.  All was calm again – but it was a good lesson I suppose.  The bees were definitely getting more defensive as they settled in to their new home.   Now I take the time to put on my bee suit before I mess with my new tenants. 


Benton and I admire our new hive

Some nine days after hiving the bees, Benton and I both suited up in order to check on them.  We fired up the smoker and grabbed the hive tool and the frame we’d taken out the first time.  Before opening the hive we puffed a bit of smoke under the cover.  That stuff really does seem to calm the bees down and make them move out of the way.  When we took off the inner cover, we found a long piece of “burr comb” attached.  The bees had already filled up the space left between the 4th and 5th frame.  The fresh honeycomb was beautiful – clean yellowish wax, mostly empty except for some cells partly filled with honey or with bright orange pollen.  We tasted the pollen – it was sweet!  This is the “bee bread” used to feed the baby bees.   One by one we pulled out all the frames.  The more central ones already had good amounts of comb pulled out from the foundation, filled with pollen and honey and – baby bees!  Pearly white, curved grubs lay at the bottom of some of the cells, with tiny not-yet-hatched eggs in others.  The queen (even though we couldn’t find her) was doing her job!  The outer frames were still empty.  Before closing up the hive we put the 10th frame in and made sure they were all evenly spaced.  Soon it will be time to put on a second hive body!

Since the bees were no longer emptying the Boardman feeder, I removed it and put a full-length reducer at the entrance, leaving a 3″ hole for the bees to crawl through as they came and went.  As the number of bees increases I may remove the reducer entirely.

Everyone asks when we will start to harvest honey.  Apparently it may not be until the second year after starting a new colony, depending on the honey flow (availability of nectar-bearing flowers).  That’s okay – extracting the honey is hot, sticky work and Benton and I are really in this for the bees, not the honey.  His nickname, after all, is Bee!

Adventures in Beekeeping

If you’ve visited the Butterfly Center in the past year, you’ll see we have updated the upstairs and downstairs exhibit space outside the butterfly flight area.  One of the new sections is on bees, beekeeping, and honey, and we also installed an “observation bee hive” inside the butterfly flight area itself. 

In the course of doing background research on honeybees I met a Houston beekeeper (Donald Burger, who is featured in our video about backyard beekeeping) and also read many books on keeping bees.  The more I learned about these insects, the more fascinating I found them.  As a result, and with Donald’s encouragement, I decided to set up a hive myself!  As of mid-April 2008, I am the proud caretaker of a hive of “Allstar” honeybees.

My next few blogs will be about my experience setting up the hive and what I have learned and continue to learn about bees in general.  I’ll also include insights gained from our observation hive at the Cockrell Butterfly Center.


The museum’s hive

But back to setting up my own honeybee hive:  Last fall I started ordering equipment, which is available from several beekeeping supply companies around the country.  The ones I used were Dadant, Brushy Mountain, and Rossman Apiaries. They all have pretty much the same equipment at comparable prices.

Basic startup needs include the hive itself, which consists of a box filled with frames called the hive body.  The hive body sits on a stand and has an inner and outer cover.  Here’s a link that shows you all the parts of a hive.  All these components are made of wood and must be assembled and painted – so you need to order these things this well in advance.  You also need a bee suit, a smoker, a hive tool, a Boardman feeder, and a couple of entrance reducers (strips of wood used to control the size of the bees’ entrance to the hive).  It took me quite a while to get all the components and put them together.  However, this helped to increase my sense of anticipation…


We mark the queen bee
with a blue dot in the museum’s hive

I ordered my bees from a local supplier back in the fall (you need to order bees in advance, as suppliers sometimes run out).  A starter colony consists of 3 pounds of bees (about 10,000 bees, I’m told) and a queen.  The bees come in a wooden box with screened sides – not that big a box, either (maybe about 12″ long by 6″ wide and deep).  The queen is in a much smaller box inside the main box.  In our area starter colonies are available for pickup in early April.  We got our bees from B. Weaver Apiaries in Navasota, one of the main local suppliers of honeybees.  Unfortunately I was out of town on the weekend they were distributed, but my neighbors, who also decided to keep bees this year, picked mine up along with theirs.  Here are a few pictures of the bee breeder’s operation.

As the colony grows I will need to add another hive body and on top of that, the “honey supers” where the bees will store honey that beekeepers periodically “rob.”  A healthy colony makes more than enough honey for itself and a beekeeper – in fact Donald tells me that the main problem with keeping bees is what to do with all the honey they produce!

Next time I’ll tell you about how my five-year old friend Benton and I installed the bees!  In the meantime, there are tons of websites with information about beekeeping.  Here are just two of them:  a beekeeping website with general info; and one on backyard beekeeping

To BEE or not to BEE

Did you know that Native Americans called honeybees “white man’s flies”?  Honeybees are not native to North America, but were brought over by European settlers in the 1600s.  They are now completely naturalized here.  The Africanized bee (more on her some other time) is a different strain of the same species – indeed the two are virtually indistinguishable except in their behavior.


The Bees from our hive in the Museum
pollinate the plants outside.

Despite not being here naturally, honeybees today are vital to our economy and to our health!  They pollinate most of the fruits and vegetables we eat, as well as cotton, almonds, many wild flowers as well as garden cultivars, and more.  In fact, it’s hard to think of a non-grain food crop that is NOT pollinated by bees!  Of course, bees also produce honey and other products (wax, pollen, propolis) – but these are much less important than their pollination services.  The recent concern over the health and well-being of honeybees is because of their huge importance to agriculture, not because of a potential honey shortage.  I’ll digress about “colony collapse disorder” in a later blog.


When not in an established hive,
honeybees are not agressive.

People typically use the term “bee” to denote any flying, stinging insect, and “bees” are generally feared because of their sting.  However, most stings blamed on bees are actually due to social wasps such as yellow-jackets and bald-faced hornets.  Social wasps do not collect pollen or make honey but are predators of insects and spiders.  They do defend themselves and their paper nests with a painful sting!  Moreover, unlike honeybees, they can sting more than once.

In fact, away from their colonies, i.e., when they are out foraging for nectar and pollen, honeybees are unlikely to sting.  Yes, they will certainly sting if their nest is threatened, but in general they do so reluctantly.  Because a honeybee loses her life when she stings, every sting needs to count. The barbed tip of a worker bee’s stinger holds fast into whatever is stung – and pulls out her venom sac and other innards along with it – a kamikaze end to a short and busy life.

If you walk through a meadow of wildflowers in mid-summer, you may see (in addition to honeybees) many different native bees visiting flowers.  Large bees include bumblebees and carpenter bees.  Smaller ones might include leafcutter bees, orchard bees, sweat bees, digger bees, and more.  Of these only honeybees (and bumblebees to a much lesser extent) collect nectar and make honey.  The others are solitary, and mostly collect pollen, which they use to feed their young.  Female solitary bees do have stingers, but since they do not have a large nest to defend, they only sting if they are handled carelessly.

Coming next week: Adventures in Beekeeping!