Last Saturday I took a class on beginning beekeeping. I had a great time. Washington State University runs all of the agricultural programs in the state, and, together with the Washington State Beekeepers Association, provides opportunities for people to take classes in varying levels of beekeeping skill. Becoming an Apprentice Beekeeper requires one eight hour class or a series of five two hour classes in which you learn the basics of bee entomology, hive culture, honey and comb collection, pest and disease management, and the bee geek language. At the end you take a test. A score of 80% in each section is required to pass. Here in western Washington, there are a number of different club chapters that put these classes on throughout the year. Mine was sponsored by the Northwest District Beekeepers Association, which mainly serves Snohomish County. Our teacher was Jim, owner of the Beez Neez Apiary and Supply in downtown Snohomish.
Have any of you taken one of these classes? Do you raise honey bees? My class was pretty intense. There's a lot to cover in just eight hours, and it's tough to get all your questions answered in that span of time. Below are some of the things I learned that seemed most interesting or most important for our first venture into the world of honey.
- Bees regulate the temperature in their hive. How do they do this? A group of individual bees will sit at the bottom entrance of the hive and flap their little wings like mad. This pushes cool air up into the hive and gets the hot air moving out. In the winter they can keep the core of the hive at about 87 degrees. It may be chilly outside, but the bees inside huddle into a clump to keep warm. For this reason, it's really important not to open your hive unless it's over 50 degrees out. And you shouldn't try to inspect brood comb (where the little babies are growing) unless it's at least 60 degrees.
- Bees don't function as individuals. I can think of lots of Star Trek themes that fit this very well. Rather than consider their own needs, the bees will function as a unit, doing whatever will benefit the hive most. Therefore it makes sense that much of a bee's life is sacrificial. A sting to protect the colony ends their life. Mating ends a drone's life. It seems cruel to us, but it's natural for bees to operate this way.
- A varied diet is a balanced diet. Bees need to collect many colors of pollen to get the protein and vitamins they need to thrive. When commercial beekeepers use their colonies to pollinate crops like sunflowers, the bees end up with severe nutrient defficiencies. Most bees will find what they need on their own, and you can check what kind of pollen they're getting into with a pollen collector. Some people will even pay big bucks for bee pollen!
- When laying eggs, the queen bee can decide the gender of her offspring. If she lays a fertile egg, it will become a female. All unfertilized eggs become drone males. How about that.
- Propolis, or bee glue, is one of the key ingredients in the varnish on a Stradivarius violin. It will also stain your clothes if you're not careful.
You can't imagine just how much info got crammed into my little brain. I still need to take my test and mail it in for my Apprentice certificate, but there's time. Hive and bee orders don't need to happen until early in the year, so now is the time to plan. What kind of hive should we try? Traditional Langstroth or something more like a top bar hive? One hive or two? And, most importantly, where do we put our hive(s)? We still haven't firmly decided to start keeping bees in the spring, but taking this class really helped me understand the work, patience, and determination we'll need to be successful.
And I love honey.
Maybe that's motivation enough.
Are you curious about bees? Check out this link from WSU, or contact your local agricultural extension office for more help. Find an issue of Bee Culture Magazine at your local library. Even the New York Times likes to write about bees! Keeping bees in the city represents some unique challenges, so please comment or email us with your questions, suggestions, ideas, and experiences.