I am Super excited to report this week on my opportunity to learn from a very experienced beekeeper. 🙂 Lewis Struthers, of Parkers Prairie, has been working with bees for over 65 years now and while his brothers are large-scale operators, he does a fair “hobby” business with his 15 yards. For those of you who don’t know bees, I learned that a really good hive can produce 100# of honey in a good season. So, with an average of 10 hives per yard, his 15 yards could garner 15,000# of honey!! Lewis was explaining harvest time and told me he runs quite a few 5# jars (the biggest seller) and then he fills 600# barrels. It was mind boggling. But I can now attest that the difference in an empty Super and a partially filled Super is quite obvious. What’s a Super? We’ll get that shortly… Here’s Lewis!
When Lewis recently offered to share a beekeeping trip with me, I was thrilled. As we began our afternoon, it was like he was speaking a different language and my brain struggled with comprehension. He’s lived a life of bee-speak and talked quickly about drones, frames and excluders while I listened trying to translate all the terminology into sense. By the end of the day, I was really picking it up but I’m sure I missed much of his explanation as I was lost in translation. So, here’s a little overview to help you – granted, I may have some of this wrong! (Feel free to comment below with corrections!)
The Hive box contains the bees and the reproduction areas, as well as some honey storage area. It’s a wooden box about 15” x 20” with 10 hanging frames that are about 1” thick, 15” across and 9” deep. There is a little spacer between each frame and a space at the bottom for bee bodies. Each frame has a centerline divider (wood or plastic) with a raised honeycomb pattern on which the bees will build wax comb to hold honey and new bees. The Excluder is a wire frame placed between the Hive box and the Supers to keep the brooding (bee baby making) out of the Super, which you hope to be full of just honey. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7NjjbVifUM
The Excluder looks like a cookie cooling sheet or a mini oven rack except that it’s completely flat. The wire sections are too small for the queen and drones to pass through but allow the worker bees to pass into the upper sections where honey is made. The Super is similar to the Hive box except it’s only about 6” deep instead of ~9.5” deep. If you are lucky enough to exclude the queen, you will end up with pure honeycomb filled with honey, no bee babies. We did find one hive with Supers full of baby production but we could not locate that queen for our lives!
There are also bottom boards and inner covers which are at bottom and top of the box, respectively. This time of year, the bottom boards are sometimes replaced with a screen frame which gives more ventilation to the bees and allows better moisture removal from the honey. We put in about a half dozen of these screen bottoms in the two yards we visited. Each Hive Box is covered with a metal top that keeps water out of the hive.
I thought I was adorably punny when I noted to Lewis that this trip was Super fun! 🙂
Lewis and I visited two of his local bee yards in Alexandria and Carlos. The two yards are in quite different locations, one in thigh high grass and one in a clearing in the woods. It was interesting to see the differences and similarities in these locations. We found mice, spiders and ants in both but only the woods location had me getting mosquito bites. And yes, I’m sure it’s on your mind…. Did you get stung? Well, I did. As did Lewis. So we both killed a bee. 😦 My sting was an avoidable mishap and I knew it was coming. Lewis had handed me a frame so I could see the weight of the honey and, at the last moment, I saw the bee at the ear where I was taking hold of the frame. (Ears are little ledges at the tops of the frames that hold them at the top ridge of the hive box.) It wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be, but I knew I’d been stung. Video is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PG2kQZ3KAwQ
Yes, I was filming at the time. I was able to quickly brush the stinger from the tip of my finger and then stick my finger in my mouth to try to suck out the poison deposited there. I was typing pretty well with this finger the next day but it was still a bit sensitive and the first day had a swollen, warm feeling in the first section of that index finger for several hours. By day two, there was little remnant of the issue. Lewis’ sting happened at the second yard as we were dealing with some quite peeved bees. One got him on his index finger and he brushed the bee away at the moment. Driving back to my car later, he couldn’t recall which finger had been stung as he’d had no reaction to the sting. He says you acclimate to it.
When we arrived at the first yard, I felt a little in the way, standing and watching Lewis work. I asked him to let me know if I could help and he said, “You’re here to learn today, not to work.” Ten minutes later, he’d changed his mind as I jumped in to help find screen bottoms in the various piles hidden in the grass. Once he saw I was ready to assist, he was glad to have the help. I was able to do only a small portion of the work but it gave me a sense of the tasks and helped me to see that this IS something I could do. Granted, I’d be looking at one hive, not the hundreds that Lewis manages! I’m hoping to get out later in the season with him to see more aspects of the operation and, hopefully I’ll be able to assist at harvest and see the ins and outs of honey processing.
One thing that surprised me was the simplicity of his operation. He uses very few tools and equipment. We each wore a bee hat (kind of like a safari hard hat) covered with a veil – a square meshed netting that sits atop the hard bee hat and protects your face and neck by creating a rectangle around that area. Netting hangs down from the veil frame and the strings at the bottom of the netting are pulled tight and tied around the chest to prevent bees from getting under the veil, which would not be a good thing!
With regard to the hives, everything was very simple. Wooden boxes, simple screen bottoms, wire excluders, and metal/wood cover tops. Wooden frames, some with chewed holes – darn mice! A small metal pry-bar Lewis used to open the boxes and pull frames apart for inspection. [Everything the bees touch becomes waxed together.] And a smoker, a critical piece of equipment that helps keep the bees calm. Just a can with wood chips and a little grass, stopped up with a Kleenex between yards to prevent it getting too smoky, squeezed gently and occasionally as we worked through the hives. At one point we found a frame with a broken ear and Lewis installed a metal replacement ear which he nailed on with 4 small nails making the frame good as new. Nothing fancy. It felt very unintimidating compared with some of the high tech bee suits and hive paraphernalia I’ve seen on TV, YouTube, and Google. In this photo below you see: the Excluder screen leaning on a Super, the Smoker, a Hive Box partially filled with Frames, and a few Frames outside the box.
We first looked at the “nukes”, new 4-frame hives that Lewis was hoping had developed queens (photo below). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NwGwPvEggE&spfreload=10 When we found queens, we were able to transfer these frames into fully-framed hive boxes, typically adding a brood frame from a stronger hive. Lewis noted that the bees on the brood frames we placed in the new hives would find their way back to their home hives but the brood cells would be left in place and these bees would hatch and become part of the new colony. Giving these young queens a head start with brood cells gives the hive a fighting chance at making their way to being a strongly producing colony. I believe these new colonies he lets keep all their honey the first year, hoping for good production in the following year.
In order to find good brood frames, we looked through the stronger, more productive hive boxes and this gave us a chance to check the progress on these colonies. Often we would add an Excluder and a Super or two as this is the heavy production time of year for his girls. Lewis made clear several times that it is the GIRLS who do all the work and he has a great respect for them, both in the bee world and the human realm! Here’s a little video on workers and queens. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSsjcQ8X7mY And, yep, that’s me holding that frame!!
Lewis showed me the comb with honey which looks like black water as it reflects in the sunlight. We could also see pollen stored in some cells. Then there were egg cells, larvae cells and capped brood cells (which look kind of like capped honey cells to this Nube). The freaky stuff are the drone cells, which are like yellow mushrooms exploding from the comb ~ puffy topped cells, and the queen cells which hang off perpendicular to the comb and are really large, reminding me of morel mushroom tops. The queens are not too difficult to find, especially once Lewis points them out to you… After finding my first queen pretty readily, thereafter I mistook drones for queens, even though Lewis was constantly reminding me that “drones are like fat beer belly guys” while queens have an enlarged and elongated abdomen. The Young Virgin Queens (queens that may have mated but not yet produced brood cells) are especially hard to find as they are smaller than more developed queens. Some queens have yellow abdomens while others have black abdomens and, while not a rule, if you see black drones, you will likely see a black abdomen queen. I still never really picked out a second queen on my own but if Lewis told me he saw one, occasionally I could find her too.
Most of the bees we saw were worker bees with some frames having quite a few drones. We saw some workers with legs full of pollen. I told him they reminded me of little motorcycles with saddle bags, which I think tickled him. When colonies were less productive, the frames were less populated with bees. Full production hives had loads of bees and much activity.
The day was a bit overcast and the bees were quite mellow. Lewis noted that this was a bit unusual as they were usually happiest when it was sunny and work was in progress. But I was glad to have happy bees. There is a difference when they are mad ~ they will have a higher pitched buzz and come at you more aggressively (though still pretty lamely). At the first yard we had one or two times when the bees seemed a bit more stirred up. They had a more high-pitched buzzing sound, definitely like they were warning us to leave. I would occasionally just stop and wait for them to calm. The big key was moving deliberately and not too quickly. Slow and steady wins the day. Each time Lewis would open a new hive box, he would smoke a bit, then pry the top off slowly. When he would remove the first frame, he would go quite slowly and smoothly. Once he was prying frames apart, he would move a bit quicker but that first frame was slow and steady every time.
As we left the first yard, Lewis stopped to show me a hive box tied up in a tree. This is an empty box that he has available in case of swarm. It won’t really help a swarm at this yard as bees typically go more than 2 miles away to find a new hive when they swarm. But he did catch a swarm last year in this box so sometimes a colony from elsewhere will come find new digs in these extra boxes. He has a yard about 3 miles away so, if those bees swarm, there is a chance he’d catch his own colony at the close-but-not-too-close location.
He showed me at the second yard which was located in a clearing in the forest. This was much darker and cooler, which resulted in mosquito attacks on arrival. There was even a mouse brave enough to have made a home in the top of one of the hive boxes – he was not home… probably heard us approach. We destroyed his home and found a few mice in the pile of screens and covers. They’re quick but a few were not quick enough. 😦
The work here went quicker. Partly because there were not quite as many productive hives and partly because I was a little more trained. We took time here for me to pull apart a box to look for developed brood. Here’s my video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWlKsYOpYos You can see here the little gear we wore (no gloves), the simple tools (pry bar) and equipment (wooden boxes). I was amazed at my calm in participating in this work. I found that the bees were not as scary as I thought. Though we did find one colony which appeared queenless and thus, was not quite as calm and content. This was the hive where Lewis was stung and he was able to add a queen cell to hopefully bring them a new leader. Here’s a video of him placing the queen cell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAydYQQlyG8
I had an enjoyable day helping Lewis with his ladies. It was a great learning experience. I am hopeful for the possibility that I can keep bees in the future. And that Lewis will keep showing me the ropes as I learn more and, in turn, provide a bit more help for him on our visits! You might want to try some of his honey… it’s yummy! http://www.honey.com/honey-locator/profile/struthers-honey