Last year, my wife and I decided to start keeping bees. We took a class sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardners Association and taught by Dave Smith of Sparky’s Honey and Maple http://sparkyshoneyandmaple.com/index.html . It was a six-hour class packed with information, I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking about keeping bees.
The advice I liked best from Dave was to learn as much as you can about bees and observe them frequently in the first few years- a six-hour short course will never be enough time to really get to know what you need to do. He pointed us towards some great sources of information, magazines we promptly signed up for, a local company to buy our hive components from (Humble Abodes in Windsor, they have been amazing to work with and have incredible prices http://www.humbleabodesmaine.com/ ), and gave us several sources for bees. We promptly ordered two packages of bees when we got home from him, and the hive components from Humble Abodes- and waited in anticipation.
We watched videos all winter long put out by Dadant and Sons, a beekeeping supply company that has been in business since 1864. We read constantly and dreamed of the day we would pick up our bees. We were like kids counting down until Christmas. We were nervous as well. It had been several years since either of us had been stung. How would our bodies react? As a kid, I remember it brought tears to my eyes when I was stung. Could we really keep ourselves calm enough so that we minimized the alarm in our colonies?
We picked up our first two hives in April. Although Dave drops bees off fairly close to our house, we opted instead to drive to his house to pick them up. We are always up for a tour of Maine, it may not be efficient or an effective use of our time, but we live in the most beautiful state in the country- why not enjoy it every chance we get? The bees came in boxes with three pounds of bees and a queen in them. We got home, donned our bee suits, and spritzed the bees with sugar water. We shook the bees into their new homes for a few seconds, and then set the packages in front of their hives. I am not sure we got more than a few thousand bees in their home with our first attempt. This was our first mistake of the day, we should have shaken more out. It would not be our last mistake of course. We failed to secure the queen cage to the frames and had to release her manually three days later when we did our first hive check.
We checked our bees nearly every week the first year. We had so much to learn, that we didn’t feel like we could miss any stage in their development. It was amazing to see them work. On our first hive check, we were content to simply see there were eggs in the cells. On our second hive check, I spotted a queen- something I worried about my ability to do. My wife spotted a queen on our fourth hive check. At the end of the season, we had spent weeks of time checking on the bees. We received about 20 pounds of honey for our efforts. We made mistakes that would end up costing our colonies their lives before the winter was out, unfortunately. However, we were not deterred.
This year, we got our bees in April. We had planned on checking them as frequently this year- we had trouble finding time in our busy schedules. The demands of my wife’s job kept us off of the farm as much as we would like to be. We resolved to spend at least one day a month at the ocean as well. We had visitors come. There were the chickens to tend to, things to build, and maintenance around the homestead to do. There was wood to stack. There were weekend rainstorms that ruined our chance to get into the hives. The excuses piled up, and we became anxious. Were our bees really doing okay? They seemed active when we worked in the orchard. Our fruit set shows that we had plenty of pollinators around. There is still so much to do in the apiary. We need to treat the bees still and wrap the hive bodies. Last week we harvested the honey. This week, we started separating the honey from the comb, but so far we have over double the honey we collected from last year. There are many reasons for this. First of all, our bees didn’t have to build as much comb. The season was much better for the bees- there was no major drought. But, more importantly, we didn’t disrupt the bees every week either. I guess sometimes neglect can be a great strategy.