This spring, like so many before us over the centuries, we’re venturing into the exciting world of beekeeping!

Honey bee on bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

We both have some limited previous experiences with honey bees.  I personally was very fortunate in middle school to have a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Miller, who was absolutely passionate about bees.  She loved all animals, but was especially enthusiastic about honey bees.  We had an observation hive mounted on the window of our classroom, and any time she could weave morsels of bee biology or behavior into our lesson plans, she did.  I even remember knitting a bee, in two colors (the only time I’ve ever knitted in two colors), in an art class. It was a subtle attempt to teach us basic bee anatomy, and our knitted bees had to have a head, a thorax and an abdomen, replete with wings and antennae!  I wonder what ever happened to that bee?

Honey bee on forget-me-nots (Myosotis latifolia)

Many today would no doubt consider keeping a hive so close to a classroom to be a liability, but then again, honey bees are misunderstood by many.  In retrospect I feel very fortunate to have had such a teacher, that provided her students with such a fantastic up-close and personal glimpse into the world of bees and bee-society.  Without that experience I might never have considered venturing into beekeeping as an adult.  I know if Mrs. Miller was still with us, she’d ‘bee’ so excited for us this spring, and no doubt thrilled that at least one of her students has gone on to be passionate about bees too.

Honey bee on Spanish lavender (Lavandula Stoechas)

However, that said, neither of us has ever been a beekeeper, so this is still a rather exciting (and somewhat daunting) leap into a relative unknown.  We’re trying not to jump into beekeeping completely blind though.  We understand that there is both an art, and a science, to beekeeping.  The fundamentals haven’t changed much in centuries, but over the years much has been written, and passed down through generations, and we recognize that we have so very much to learn.

Honey bee on basil blossoms

For us one of the best ways to learn about honey bees, and the practical aspects of beekeeping, has been talking to other beekeepers.  We are now members of both the Santa Cruz Beekeeper’s Guild, and the Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild.  Each guild meets once a month, and discusses various topics related to honey bee husbandry, including equipment, seasonal hive management, pests, and diseases.

As we were planning to add bees to the farm this spring, we’ve been attending guild meetings for the last 6 months, in addition to reading through numerous books, bee journals, and online resources.  As new about-to-bee beekeepers, one thing has become clear to us in recent months.  If you put 5 beekeepers in a room, there will 5 opinions on how ‘best’ to do something related to keeping bees.  This has been perhaps our most valuable first lesson in beekeeping.

A pollen-coated honey bee resting on the leaf of a scarlet runner bean

There is no single right way to manage honey bees.  Some methods work, some don’t, some methods work for some beekeepers at certain times of year, or in a particular location, some don’t.  Some beekeepers face pests and diseases that others don’t.  My science-oriented brain usually wants those clear-cut, black and white, yes or no answers, but I’m learning that herein lies the art of beekeeping. There may not always be hard and fast answers, or guaranteed solutions to a problem.  Finding what beekeeping methods and solutions work for you, for your bee yard, for your bees, in your location, is part of what being a beekeeper is all about. This, for us, will be part of our beekeeping adventures over the coming months.

Honey bee on Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas)

Although pests and predators may change from one bee yard to the next, the fundamentals of beekeeping remain relatively constant.  The biggest first challenge for us to overcome as ‘newbees’ was familiarizing ourselves with all of the equipment used in beekeeping, and then sorting through which equipment is required at a minimum to get started, versus equipment that we might want to add down the road.

One of the more efficient ways we found to familiarize ourselves with beekeeping equipment, was to browse through some of the popular beekeeping catalogs.  Two that have been resident on our coffee table for the last few months are Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, and Dadant.

Beekeeping Catalogs

Browsing catalogs such as these helped to provide us with an overview, not just of the equipment, but also of the costs associated with keeping bees.  Unless you’re able to simply assume someone else’s hives, it does take an investment of resources to start up as new beekeepers.  Some equipment, like smokers, and various hive tools, if we take care of them, should be a one-time purchase. Other equipment, such as frames, foundation, and hive boxes, may require re-purchasing, or rebuilding, over time.  Feed supplements, breeding equipment, and extraction equipment may or may not be required, depending on the methods we choose to use in keeping bees, and extracting honey.

Pollen-coated bee on a squash blossom

Although used equipment may be an option, and help to save money, purchasing used equipment can also be an expensive mistake.  Anything metal, such as smokers, frame lifters, and honey extractors can easily be sterilized if necessary, and I have no problem with the idea of acquiring those components as used equipment.  Wooden hive boxes, frames and natural comb however can all carry disease, and are virtually impossible to clean.

Honey bee on heirloom sunflower ‘Autumn Beauty’

It’s difficult to learn much about caring for honey bees without becoming at least somewhat familiar with the most common pests and diseases of honey bees, and how they are spread.  Between varroa mites, tracheal mites, small hive beetles, wax moths, and diseases such as chalkbrood, nosema, European and American foul brood, and of course ‘colony collapse disorder’.  Not to mention  marauding mice, antagonistic ants, yellow jackets, and exposure to pesticides, sometimes it’s a wonder honey bees survive at all, but we’ll save some the details of those challenges for some future posts. Infectious diseases however are the greatest concern with acquiring used equipment, so we’ll be starting off with everything new.

Honey bee on heirloom sunflower ‘Lemon Queen’

At the beginning of February we ordered our first two packages of bees, and they’re projected to arrive in early April.  A ‘package’ is basically a colony, consisting of 3 lbs of honey bees, shipped along with their mated Queen bee.  Each package will need to be installed into a separate hive.  However, before this last weekend, we had no hives here at the farm.  Hive selection alone is an entire post in and of itself, so I’ll get into the details of that in our next bee post, as there’s more than one type of hive, and various ways to configure hive equipment for bees.  For now though, suffice it to say that we have a pile of hive equipment in our dining room to nail together and paint before the bees arrive…

This weekend’s hive assembly project

In our next post we’ll explain what we chose, and why!