Starting Beekeeping – Housing and Feeding Your Bees

Learn How to Start Keeping Bees by Providing Food and Appropriate Housing

starting-beekeeping

By Jerry Hayes – Your packaged bees have been delivered. You’re starting beekeeping! You had all of your equipment, hive bodies, frames and foundation, bottom board, and top feeder all assembled and ready to go. Maybe you even made your own bee hives plans to create the right housing for your new colony of honeybees. You “installed” the package and checked the queen a week later to see if she was released from her shipping cage, and checked for eggs. You have continued to feed a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water to the colony but why? Let’s talk a bit about feeding honeybees and why.

When you’re starting beekeeping, your honeybees will require feeding with a substitute for nectar/honey or pollen/bee bread in only a few situations. A honeybees’ home is the elaborate beeswax comb that they build. This comb is made up of thousands of individual hexagonal (six-sided) shaped units, tubes or as a beekeeper would say, “cells.”

This hexagonal shaped cell is used because it is incredibly strong and will hold the honey that weighs 10 pounds per “deep” frame, raise baby bees (brood), and collect pollen to produce and store “bee bread.” This insect — with the brain the size of the period at the end of this sentence — has this engineering, structural and mathematical knowledge ingrained. Pretty incredible. The building material for this honeycomb is not wood, iron or steel, it is wax-pure beeswax made by the honeybees themselves, not some paraffin wax made from crude oil.

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Beeswax is produced from eight wax glands on the underside of the worker bee’s abdomen. Beeswax is secreted by honeybees that are generally 12 to 17 days old. These glands secrete the wax in thin flakes that have the appearance of glass. Beeswax production is highly energy-intensive. To produce beeswax, honeybees must consume about eight times as much honey or sugar syrup by mass. There have been some estimates that honeybees foraging for natural flower nectar have to fly the equivalent of 150,000 miles in order to collect enough nectar to produce a pound of beeswax. That is why the walls of the beeswax comb (the cells), are very thin, and the strong weight-bearing hexagonal shape is used.

starting-beekeeping

If you’re starting beekeeping, you’ve installed your packaged bees on some type of “foundation,” with no cells. This is either pure beeswax with the hexagonal starter imprint embossed on it or some combination of other materials, plastics primarily, that have the same look. This “foundation” is just that, a foundation for building the hexagonal cells making up the beeswax comb.

Honeybees, unlike some other bees, wasps and hornets, do not have piercing mouth parts. They cannot pierce the skin of a fruit and suck the sugary contents out. Honeybees have mouth parts that are more like kitchen spatulas or a mason’s trowel. These mouth parts are used to take the wax flakes that they have produced, and mold, shape, massage, pull and stretch them using the foundation blueprint into honeycomb cells. Without the cells the queen cannot lay eggs and raise new replacement bees. Honey or bee bread cannot be stored for use and the colony will slowly age and die off. Honeycomb is vital to the success of a honeybee colony. This is why you must, generally, use supplemental bee food with a highly concentrated carbohydrate source — sugar syrup — with a new package of bees, so that they can quickly build comb which is the backbone of everything else that a colony of honeybees relies on.

One of the benefits of starting beekeeping is that your bees will create beeswax. Beeswax is not only valuable to the honeybee colony but can be a valuable product to the beekeeper as well. Pure beeswax cannot be synthesized in the lab so it is a precious commodity. It is used in religious and decorative candles because as it burns it doesn’t smoke. (Who wants to clean the Sistine Chapel ceiling?) Cosmetics use beeswax as a hypoallergenic ingredient to give structure and consistency. And the pharmaceutical industry uses beeswax for everything from dental impressions to cranial surgery. There are ways that the beekeeper can harvest a portion of this beeswax and receive a monetary return, which we’ll cover at a later date.

Starting Beekeeping: How to Stimulate Brood Rearing

When you’re starting beekeeping, you’ll need to know how to stimulate brood rearing. (Maybe you even dream about learning how to start a honey bee farm on your property!) “Brood” is the name of all stages of honeybees except eggs. These can be workers (sexually undeveloped females), drones (males), or even queens (a sexually developed female). These are called “castes,” or physiologically different individuals.

starting-beekeeping

The beekeeper sometimes feeds carbohydrates (sugar syrup) and protein supplements in situations such as building up a colony started from packaged bees when you’re starting beekeeping, or artificially building up or increasing the colony population earlier than normally would occur. These supplemental feedings would temporarily be fed before natural flower nectar and pollen would be available. This would stimulate the queen to begin laying and the workers to prepare to feed and take care of the brood, as it simulates “spring” to the colony. Consistent food resources tells the colony that they can gamble on reproduction. You want your packaged bees to have built and continue to build comb, which then allows the queen to lay eggs and to have food available to feed these new developing baby bees.

starting-beekeeping

A new colony started from packaged bees needs to build comb on a minimum of 20 deep frames and to have 60 pounds or so of natural honey stored to go into a typical northern winter, or less if you live in the southern tier of states. A colony of honeybees will have 50,000 – 60,000 individuals in mid summer. A worker will only live six to eight weeks in summer and has to be replaced, which takes 21 days. A queen may lay 2,000 eggs per day in the spring and summer as she works to build a populous colony that can collect enough watery nectar to produce 60 pounds of honey, and enough bee bread (pollen) to feed this group through a winter and early spring.

Starting Beekeeping with Bee Bread and Other Nutrients

Since I have mentioned bee bread, let’s review a little about the protein, vitamin, fat and mineral component of a honeybee diet. It’s important to know what the nutritional needs of your honeybees are when you’re starting beekeeping. Honeybees use a lot of energy flying miles and miles to collect food. This energy comes from the sugars stored and concentrated in nectar and the honey. Just like athletes, sugars (carbohydrates) are providing the “energy” for muscles. And just like us, honeybees can’t live just off sugar. It would be like eating candy bars or drinking sodas as your only food – we would quickly get sick. Honeybees are no different. Their protein, vitamins, minerals and fats come from pollen.

Pollen is the male element on the anthers of a flower. Ever look closely at a large flower such as a sunflower and see the dusty yellow material on the flower anthers? Honeybees collect this material into large balls that are deposited on their hind legs to take back to the colony. This pollen is then fermented to release nutrients and preserve it for use at any time.

Bee bread is the best non-carbohydrate food, just as honey is the best carbohydrate source for honeybees, not sugar syrup. But until the colony can get established when you’re starting beekeeping, fresh expeller pressed soy bean flour can be used as a pollen substitute. Some soy flour is processed using the solvent hexane and the residues of this, even if in very low amounts, is toxic to honeybees. Use only expeller pressed soy flour to temporarily encourage brood rearing when you’re starting beekeeping until natural pollen is available. Mix enough sugar syrup with the soy flour to make a moist dough. Shape into 1/4 pound patties and place on top bars of the frames over the brood nest (the place the queen is laying).

Feed your bees with “syrup” until all 20 frames of foundation are drawn out into usable comb. This should take four to six weeks. By then most regions of the country should have sufficient natural nectar and pollen for this new colony to be self-sustaining, barring major weather events (cold, drought, wetness, etc.). Cross your fingers, as this is agriculture, which is another word for gamble. One tries to understand and work with the natural world in any agricultural pursuit. Starting beekeeping is no different, so enjoy the ride!

The honeybee species that we use in North America has their origins in temperate Europe. Just as many of you experience a long cold winter and have to prepare by storing fuel, food and providing shelter for yourselves and livestock, the honeybee has to store food for the time when no flowers are available. They require 60 pounds or so of honey to get through a normal winter. Early spring brood rearing really accelerates and uses honey and bee bread very quickly. Honeybees will store much more than 60 pounds of honey, which allows the beekeeper to harvest some and leave an appropriate amount for the colony. Many times colonies may store 100, 200, even 300 pounds of honey.

Honeybees have refined the art of protecting resources from predators including man. Honeybees will sacrifice themselves by applying a painful sting to drive away predators. Honeybees die after stinging as the stinger and its venom sac are pulled out of the honeybee causing internal damage and death. Each worker has the ability to protect its space and colony with a sting. Queens rarely sting and drones do not have a stinger at all. The sting is designed to be painful to mammals and cause them to re-think their attack. It hurts for a beekeeper to be stung. Even after many years of being stung myself it still hurts.

starting-beekeeping

Approximately 1-2% of the population may have a serious and possibly life-threatening reaction to honeybee stings. Most who get stung though have a normal reaction to being injected with a foreign protein (venom) by localized swelling, pain and itching. This is not a systemic allergic reaction but is normal. Therefore, keep in mind when you’re starting beekeeping that you will want to keep the colony calm and non-defensive to protect yourself from the occasional sting with a bee suit or suitable covering.

Honeybees communicate in several different ways but a significant method is by the use of chemical odors. We call these chemicals pheromones. These chemicals are produced and secreted primarily by the workers, but also the queen. They are used like we would use an alarm system, to quickly notify their sisters in the colony that a predator is attempting to enter their home.

starting-beekeeping

Beekeepers also use a device called a smoker. This is simply a sealed metal container with a nozzle and bellows, to pump air in and out of the smoker. Using a variety of easily gathered burnable materials or purchased wood pellets, a smoldering smoking fire is built in the smoker. The hinged nozzle lid is closed and a pump or two on the bellows blows out a cool, thick, smoke. This smoke, when directed at the honeybee colony entrance and within the colony hive space, overwhelms and disrupts the pheromone communication between individual honeybees and the colony. The bees can’t communicate as the smoke cancels out the chemical pheromone signals. They perceive that they are alone. As such, they are less defensive and aggressive in defending their colony. The beekeeper can now, by applying smoke from the smoker, open the colony and manipulate the hive parts, particularly the frames holding the comb, with calm assurance (or at least calmer assurance).

Confidence in working with honeybees, particularly if you’re just starting beekeeping, increases with the use of protective clothing in conjunction with smoke. Wear some type of hat and veil to protect your face and neck; a jacket or suit to protect arms, torso and legs; and gloves to handle frames. This is an outfit that will allow you to gain knowledge, confidence and respect for your honeybee colony.

Last but not least, let’s anticipate that as you are starting beekeeping, your colony has incredible flower nectar and pollen resources in the optimum 2-1/2 mile foraging range. Your colony is off to a good start. You have checked the colony and the queen, and whether the comb construction is going well, by using your smoker and protective equipment to visually inspect it all. The weather is perfect and you are ready for your colony to collect more honey above and beyond their needs now and for winter, so you can learn how to use your honey extraction equipment. Where will you place it?

You have provided the two deep boxes with 10 frames per box (20 frames) and the colony has built comb completely on all 20. The two-box unit is called your “brood chamber.” This is the colony’s permanent home, where the queen lays the eggs, where baby bees develop and emerge, and where bee bread and the 60 pounds of honey is stored. If the beekeeper left this “brood chamber” alone, the colony would continue to grow, and with more bees it means more foragers, which means more nectar collection to convert into honey. This nectar would be stored in the brood chamber in cells that baby bees would have been reared in. So, your queen would have less room (cells) to lay in, which would result in a premature drop in colony population and fewer foragers, etc., etc. It is a self-regulating system that, because of lack of space, means the colony never reaches its full size or potential.

The beekeeper is responsible for optimum conditions for his/her colony. This means providing the additional extra space for the colony to grow, develop, and provide a maximum return to the beekeeper. The extra space is provided by adding extra boxes with frames and comb (foundation at first) on top of the brood chamber unit. These honey storage collecting boxes, are called “supers” in beekeeper jargon. The word comes from another word, superimpose, which means putting something over or on top of something else. You are placing additional boxes, superimposing them on the brood chamber. You could use the same size deep box that makes up your brood chamber and call it a super. This deep, when filled with honey, can weigh 70 pounds easily.

You may have noticed the little fingertip cut-outs on your deeps to allow you to lift and reposition it. Now imagine a deep or two on top of your brood chamber at chest or head height, filled with 70 pounds of honey. Try lifting this (these) off at this height and at this angle with your fingertips! Nothing on a beehive is ergonomically correct, so be careful. My suggestion is to use smaller-in height-boxes called mediums, Illinois depth or shallows, for supers. Being smaller with smaller frames, they individually hold less honey but are infinitely easier to handle. You can use two, three, four or more of these stacked on each other as supers.

Originally published in 2007 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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