Posts Tagged ‘bees’


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.

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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










New Crops Galore!

It’s been a busy few weeks of planting, weeding, and harvesting at the farm. With the ongoing good weather, things have been growing like crazy.

Seeding and Transplanting2013-06-01 14.04.31

Getting plants going on the farm is an ongoing process. Sequences of salad mix greens and brassicas continue to be planted, to ensure an ongoing harvest. I was able to get to use the JP Hand Seeder to plant arugula and radishes, quick growing spring crops. The seeder is a tool that greatly speeds up planting, and helps ensure even spacing, cutting out thinning time later, and straighter lines, for easier weeding and harvest. We also spent a few hours putting squash and cucumber transplants into the ground, poking holes in black bio-plastic mulch, which protects the plant from excessive weed growth, keeps the soil warmer while retaining water, and makes it so that the fruit won’t sit directly on the ground, which can lead to rotting. 2013-06-13 10.39.58

With a small army of 10 practicum students to do these kind of transplanting tasks, we get the job done relatively quickly (although my planting speed is less than half that of the experienced farmers), and it often makes me wonder – how does a small-scale, 2 person organic farm get things done?

Pruning and Harvesting

With greenhouse tomato plants getting to about 3 feet tall, we spent sometime pruning off the suckers. When a tomato vine grows on a farm, we want it to grow with just one, maybe two, main stems, in order to concentrate the plant’s energy into fruit production, as well as keep the vine in control, so each new stem must be cut off. We learned to identify each new sucker – the new stem with multiple leaves, growing in the crotch of the main stem and a single-leaf branch.

2013-06-14 14.18.00The exciting moments came with the harvesting – strawberries! Plucking the ripe red berries from the low bushes, with just a couple samples (it’s a tough job, but someone needs to make sure they taste good), is a sure sign of summer. Although not the farm’s first harvest, the strawberries are the first harvest I’ve participated in this year, and it’s very exciting, signalling a change from season preparation into the long days of harvest and market.


The other day, on our way back from the field, we saw a massive swarm of bees not far from the hives. For a while, they flew all around in a huge swarm, but then settled into a mass of bees along the ground and a few low branches of a nearby tree. Relatively harmless, the hive had produced a second Queen, and the first had stopped laying, making herself small enough to fly, as I learned from the beekeeper who arrived a while later. Taking off, about 30-50% of the hive follows her in search of a new home. When the beekeeper arrived with a new hive for them, with honey in it to smell like home, he gently clipped the branches the bees had settled on, and placed them in the hive, where eventually the other bees followed. Overall, a pretty exciting afternoon.

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