Recently at the UBC Farm practicum, we were lucky to have Brian Campbell from Blessed Bee, expert beekeeper, join us to do a short introduction to beekeeping, something I’ve been very excited to learn about. Bees of all kinds – honey bees, but also native bees – are vital to our current farming system. Bees pollinate crops, which is what allows many of our fruits and vegetables to grow. In preparation for this workshop, I also read The Thinking Beekeper.

Bee Basics2013-08-19 2

A very quick overview of honeybees. There are over 20,000 species of bees, and the honeybees we generally raise are European. In a colony, there are worker bees (infertile females), drones (males), and the queen. The drones only exist to mate with the queen, although they do also, just by being there, keep brood comb warm. The queen lays all of the eggs for the colony, and emits a pheromone that all the other bees recognize, creating a cohesiveness in the hive.

The workers do pretty much everything else. They start off their adult lives ad nurse bees, caring for the brood comb (egg and larval stage bees encased in the wax comb). They start to produce wax glands, and then can build comb. Then, they become guard bees, at the entrance of the hive to ward off unwanted intruders. They start to take exploratory flights, getting farther and farther from the hive, memorizing where they live. Then, they will become foragers, going out to collect nectar and pollen for making honey.

Honey is the life source for the bees, their food, necessary for their survival, especially through the summer months. We are lucky that they can produce excess, which we are able to harvest for human enjoyment, through careful beehive management. I am only learning the beginnings of this, but it is very exciting!

Working in the Hive

It’s important to sterilize tools between hives, so that you don’t spread any potential disease or infection. When bees are flying, then you know it’s warm enough to open the hive – you want to leave it alone when it’s too cold.

Here are some important notes I learned from our short session:

  • Always keep any parts of the hive that you remove that have bees on it touching the hive, so the bees (who haven’t left the hive before) can find their way home.
  • Blowing smoke at the bees makes them get out of the way, but it’s not really necessary.
  • Once a bee has stung you once, it releases a toxin that lets other bees know where the danger is, which makes you more likely to get stung again.
  • It takes about 8 times as much energy and pollen for bees to make wax as it does to make honey, so it is useful to not destroy the wax when extracting honey – done by having a foundation.
  • “Winter” starts around mid-August, which is when bees start preparing for winter. After that time, you should not disturb them too much, so you remove honey before that time.

Pests2013-08-19 5

There are various pests that can attack a beehive, but the Varroa Mite is the most well known and problematic for honeybees in North America. The mite attaches to the back of the bee where it can’t be reached, and sucks their blood.

We checked for mites in a way that annoyed the bees rather a lot. Brian scooped a cup of bees into a jar, putting a wire lid on top that prevented them from escaping. Then he added icing sugar to the jar, and shook them around a lot until they were coated (and very dizzy). The sugar made the 2013-08-19 6bees slippery, so when he then turned the jar over and shook it out into a container, sugar fell out. When water was added, the mites floated to the top. This gave an idea of how many mites might be in the colony – even1 is a problem, because they will multiply, but he also indicated that 3 mites in the spring is the threshold for action, and 9 in the fall.

We did not talk extensively about options for combating mites, but Brian said to add formic 2013-08-19 7acid, an organic gas that is toxic to mites but not bees and is not persistent in honey, as it disappears and turns into water. Non-organic beekeepers would use other, chemical means.

Honey Extraction

I had the opportunity to attend a follow-up workshop at the Homesteader’s Emporium with Brian for honey extraction. In a couple of hours, 6 of us extracted honey from a few dozen frames. First, we used a comb-like tool to carefully remove the wax caps off the cells, saving the wax for future candle making. Then, the frames were placed in an extractor, which spun them around, using centrifugal force to spray the honey out of the wax and into the drum, from which it then poured out of the bottom, through a filter and into a large bucket. And voila, honey! Store-bought honey is often pasteurized, to retain the liquid form for longer, but this is not necessary, and reduces the health benefits of this tasty sweetener.

2013-09-08 12.16.01

Removing the wax caps

Honeycomb frames in the extractor

Honeycomb frames in the extractor

Pouring honey from the extractor

Pouring honey from the extractor

Empty wax comb

Empty wax comb











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