They are in trouble. Like many other species the numbers of honeybees and pollinators in general are shrinking. We know pollination is important, some foods are only possible because of pollination, without pollination our food options become less attractive and our picnics certainly don’t look as appetizing.
I don’t know if you’ve seen this picnic photo by Earth justice? I think it illustrates well what happens without bees. You may be surprised to learn how many of the foods we take for granted are made possible with the help of honeybees and other pollinators.
One of the big problems is that we’ve created vast monocultures and bees only fly about 3 miles, so they can’t live in these locations. Once the nectar flow ends there is nothing for pollinators to eat. We’ve created a situation where we have no choice but to truck the bees around. So…I’d like your help introducing some bees back into the wild, in areas where they can thrive, areas with diverse flowers and trees. Areas like your parks and backyards.
About 75% of the world’s crops depend on pollinators!
Apples, Mangos, Rambutan, Kiwi Fruit, Plums, Peaches, Nectarines, Guava, Rose Hips, Pomegranate, Pears, Black and Red Currants, Alfalfa, Okra, Strawberries, Onions, Cashews, Cactus, Prickly Pear, Apricots, Allspice, Avocados, Passion Fruit, Lima Beans, Kidney Beans, Adzuki Beans, Green Beans, Orchid Plants, Custard Apples, Cherries, Celery, Coffee, Walnut, Cotton, Lychee, Flax, Acerola – used in Vitamin C supplements, Macadamia Nuts, Sunflower Oil, Goa beans. Lemons, Buckwheat, Figs, Fennel, Limes, Quince, Carrots, Persimmons, Palm Oil, Loquat, Durian, Cucumber, Hazelnut, Cantaloupe, Tangelos, Coriander, Caraway, Chestnut, Watermelon, Star Apples, Coconut, Tangerines, Boysenberries, Starfruit, Brazil Nuts, Beets, Mustard Seed, Rapeseed, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, Bok Choy (Chinese Cabbage), Turnips, Congo Beans, Sword beans, Chili peppers, red peppers, bell peppers, green peppers, Papaya, Safflower, Sesame, Eggplant, Raspberries, Elderberries, Blackberries, Clover, Tamarind, Cocoa, Black Eyed Peas, Vanilla, Cranberries, Tomatoes, Grapes. That’s a lot of cabbage!
About 90% of the honeybees in the US are migratory, being trucked around the country to pollinate in almond fields Orange fields etc.
So, what do we do?
How do we do it? what did I do? I started reading, anything, everything I could on beekeeping. I learned I needed to order my bees a season in advance. That gave me months to get ready. I registered with the Illinois dept. of agriculture. It turns out it was free, I sent them the latitude and longitude and they put me in the books and sent me a certificate and number to place on my hives., they had an inspector come out and look at the hives just to tell me how my bees were doing.
I took a few classes, looked at different types of hives and jumped right in with a pair of Langstroth hives.
If I could do it over again I think the ideal way to start keeping bees would be to work with a beekeeper. Gradually learn how to keep bees and incrementally take over the responsibilities which is what I suggest if possible. At the end of this article is a basic planning guide for you that will outline some of the milestone responsibilities and a calendar to give you an idea of what to master when during the season.
Back to the hives. Here’s the hive type I settled on but there are a few different types out there. Langstroth hives.
I like this design because it allows easy access for inspections and lets me harvest the honey without removing all the wax the bees have produced. Which means they can easily clean up after harvest and begin refilling the frames with honey right away. The wax is great for making lip-balms soaps and conditioners
So… you have your hives; how do you get the bees? Honeybees are purchased in a 3lb. box, each box comes with one queen in her own cage. (pictured below) Hiving and the kickoff of the season in IL takes place in April. There are bee farms you can purchase bees from or you can even have them delivered through the mail. The mail carriers love walking around with a box of 20,000 bees all day. In most cases your place is going to be their first stop the mail man makes if you’ve ordered bees by mail.
Once your bees are hived the occasional work of inspection begins. Most months you’ll be inspecting and adjusting the boxes (supers) 2-3 times. In the colder months you may not inspect at all depending how things are going and weather conditions.
You’ll want to be able to identify, your queen, pollen, nectar, and brood. You’ll also want to be on the lookout for pests and diseases. You’ll want to learn what you can about Integrated pest management so you can help minimize and prevent mites and wax moth, mice intrusions things like that. If your bees get sick with Nosema or develop something rare like Foul brood you’ll want to be able to recognize it, but it’s not difficult.
Above you can see the queen, the only fully developed female in the hive. The hive is all female, the workers are all female and belong to the hive. Male bees or drones are guests and don’t really belong to any hive and are welcome in any hive (at least until winter)
Below is a nice shot of brood comb but also honey and pollen, this is the nursery & nurse bees taking care of the the next generation of bees (aka brood) The larva are growing underneath the dark capped comb and will soon emerge as new bees and begin the work of cleaning up after themselves immediately.
Summer and depending on how strong your hives are possibly fall means honey harvest. There are a lot of different methods to harvesting I prefer frame harvesting which involves cutting off the wax caps and running the frames through an extractor to spin out the honey.
The centripetal force moves the honey out of the frames and it gathers in the bottom where you can open the gate for filtering and bottling.
Depending on the time of year and what nectars are available honey will vary by taste and color. Below you can see the difference between summer and late summer honey. Fall honey can be even darker and has a more robust flavor. Fall honey in Chicago means the bees are gathering golden rod resulting in a dark honey that’s loaded with antioxidants. It’s believed that antioxidants can help fight free radicals. Fall is also a good time to take stock of your older equipment. This time can be used to paint or stain woodenware and is also a great time to gather excess propolis. Propolis is the sticky glue like antibacterial substance bees use to block drafts and defend the hive against fungus and bacterial. Many people use propolis as a daily tonic or mouth spray.
A discussion about bees wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t at least touch on the honeybee life cycle. Here’s the beginning of our life cycle. Keep in mind the queen lays a few thousand eggs a day depending on the time of season, so new bees are always emerging.
Drones have no stinger and are much larger and have larger eyes. The queen has an elongated abdomen and is the only fully developed female in the hive, she is the only one with fully developed ovaries, she can live 3 or 4 years. The worker is what you see outside on the flowers
they work themselves to death and only live 3-4 weeks in the summer but a few months if they are born in the winter. Drones die upon mating or when they get evicted from hives in the winter. If you’re a drone its best to be born early in the season and avoid sex at all costs.
It’ll kill ya! The stories I could tell…
You’re not going to make a fortune by harvesting and selling honey, however an average hive will produce between 50-80lbs of excess honey and a very strong hive can produce over 200lb in summer alone, so besides doing the work of pollination for us the bees also help pay your expenses.
If you’re considering an apiary here is a basic outline of what should be taking place and when. Ideally, I think the best approach is going to be a gradual one. Working with a beekeeper will hopefully provide you with an opportunity to slowly transition the responsibilities for care and maintenance from the beekeeper to yourself. I think a 3 or 4 season transition is ideal because the learning can take place gradually and stress free. No one wants to be trying to learn how to do this overnight. (but it can be done).
Begin planning for next season, identify location for hives, engage beekeeper regarding location, bees, equipment, and installation.
Year 2+ Engage beekeeper regarding colony strength; evaluate the previous year; make plans for the new year;
order and build new equipment; repair damaged equipment; paint, stain, read and learn from last year’s mistakes. Order your bees!
Engage beekeeper verify bees and equipment are ordered. Research beginning beekeeping
Year 2+ Check colonies food supplies; feed if necessary; check and remove any dead colonies, order package bees & queens for desired delivery dates, later in month feed 1:1 sugar water & pollen substitute. Remove winter wraps if possible
Year 1 Insure site is prepared & equipment is in place for April installations
Observe hive Inspections twice this month for food supply, queen rightness, mites,
and diseases; reverse brood chambers; continue feeding 1:1 sugar water & pollen
substitute, treat to prevent foulbrood, nosema, and control mites;
Year 2 observe hive inspection 1, perform inspection 2, feeding, remove winter wraps
Year 3 perform 2 hive inspections, feeding
Year 4 perform March beekeeping tasks
Year 1 Observe installation of bees into new equipment
Observe inspections twice this month for congestion, queen rightness, diseases, and mites; act to
prevent swarming; divide colonies or re-queen if planned; install package bees, check food stores.
Year 2 participate in hiving, observe hive inspection 1, perform hive inspection 2
Year 3 perform 2 hive inspections, hive new bees
Year 4 perform March beekeeping tasks
Year 1 Observe Integrated Pest Management
Inspect twice for congestion, queen cells, diseases, mites, food supply, and queen rightness;
add drawn supers for spring honey flow; watch for swarming and act to control it;
check for incoming pollen; combine weak colonies. Practice IPM
Year 2 observe hive inspection 1, perform hive inspection 2
Year 3 perform 2 hive inspections, observe powdered sugar treatments, drone comb placement & removal
Year 4 perform May tasks
Year 1: Observe Basic Hive Inspection and Maintenance
Inspect twice for congestion, queen rightness, diseases, mites, and food stores; watch for
swarming; harvest spring honey if there are full supers; add more supers as necessary. Practice IPM.
Year 2 observe hive inspection 1, perform hive inspection 2, observe micro harvest, Observe IPM
Year 3 perform hive inspections, IPM, honey harvest
Year 4 perform June tasks
Observe Basic Swarm Control
Inspect colonies once for congestion, queen rightness, diseases, mites, and food stores;
remove and process full supers; provide additional supers as needed; sell the honey. Practice IPM.
Year 2 perform 1 inspection, observe shuffling and adding empty supers, harvest honey
Year 3 perform 1 inspection, add/shuffle supers, harvest honey
Year 4 perform July tasks
Year 1 Observe Swarm Control, Basic Hive Inspection and Maintenance
Inspect colonies once for food stores, queen rightness, diseases, and mites; remove
and process full supers; remove queen excluders if used; add supers where necessary.
Year 2 perform 1 inspection, observe shuffling and adding empty supers
Year 3 perform 1 inspection, add/shuffle supers
Year 4 perform July tasks
Year 1: Observe Basic Hive Inspection and Maintenance
Inspect once for diseases, mites, and queen rightness; re-queen if necessary or
planned; inspect for food stores; remove last honey supers; prepare for dearth; add pollen
patties. Practice IPM.
Year 2 perform 1 inspection, observe pollen placement
Year 3 perform 1 inspection, place pollen
Year 4 perform Sept tasks
Research candy boards and overwintering hives
Prepare colonies for winter; feed 2:1 sugar water as necessary, increase colonies’ stores for
winter if necessary; provide upper ventilation hole for wintering; reduce entrances.
Year 1 Observe candy boards placement for overwintering hives
Fund raising, order equipment for next year, winterize/wrap hives, install candy boards.
Year 2 Assist winterize/wrap hives.
Year 3 Winterize/wrap hives
Year 4 Winterize/wrap hives
Research & prepare for the next season
Watch the hives, make sure winter winds don’t remove the top covers, insure the opening is free from snow so the bees can get out on warmer days. Hope for the best!
Thank you for your interest in keeping bees. Illinois and Chicago are among the few areas where numbers of bees appear to be on the rise, no doubt due to local farmers and increased interest in backyard beekeeping. With your participation we’d like to see this trend continue.
Work with a local beekeeper to customize a handoff that suits your needs.
Would you be willing to create your own apiary?
Have you tried our delicious and natural honey? Try it here!