ADVENTURES OF A BACKYARD BEEKEEPER
 

Did you ever grow up imagining one day you would become a backyard beekeeper? No? Me neither! Yet here I am, donning the whites and smoking it up all in the name of apiarism.

Getting into backyard beekeeping seemed like a natural progression as part of our urban homesteading journey. Bees are fascinating creatures, no doubt, but more importantly, they are multi-purpose additions to a productive edible garden with their love of pollinating. And perfect for people preparing to be self sufficient for a zombie invasion.

This is not a guide on how to do all things beekeeping (kinda the opposite, actually!) This is not a how-to on producing a years worth of honey, or handling a swarm, or nadiring your hive. This is how we came to be backyard beekeepers, who installed our first warre beehive with difficulty, and the sticky story of how we got started in beekeeping.

DREAMING OF HONEYBEES

Keeping a beehive or two in our suburban backyard was something pencilled in to our plans in the beginning of our urban homesteading journey when we started way back in 2009, but it was a pipe-dream.

A far away thought that having bees would be a great source of honey and beeswax, our own pollinators, and the general feeling of being an awesome urban homesteader.

Growing Home Adventures of a Backyard Beekeeper

As is my tendency, I did a lot of research and reading about beekeeping and bees, including websites, like Backwards Beekeeping, Milkwood Permaculture and Bio Bees. The books I read include Honeybee Democracy, a fascinating book about how bees decide to where to live after they have swarmed. I also read Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobsen, and The Honey Trail: In Pursuit of Liquid Gold and Vanishing Bees from the library. I watched The Vanishing of the Bees, and The Queen of the Sun.

I liked what I had read about the natural and low maintenance style of warre beekeeping. So my husband went along to a talk that Tim Malfroy gave to the local ACT Beekeepers Association. Tim is dedicated to natural beekeeping, he teaches warre beekeeping, and also works hard for his own company, Malfroy’s Gold. My husband came away very impressed by Tim and by warre beekeeping. It was time for the backyard beekeeping dream to become a reality!

GET READY TO BEEK!

To get some essential skills under our belts, my husband attended a conventional beekeeping course here in Canberra in October 2012. The course included lessons and hands-on workshops on traditional or conventional beekeeping every Saturday, for four weeks, taught by the ACT Beekeepers (facilitated by CIT Solutions). Given that my husband was going to be the main beekeeper (hey, I already had enough to do around our urban homestead!) this was a really great way for him to gain much needed knowledge, as well as practical hands-on skills.

In November 2012, I attended a Natural Beekeeping course with Milkwood Permaculture in Sydney, which was taught by Tim Malfroy. During the two day course we learnt so much, including about the differences between conventional Langstroth beekeeping, and warre beekeeping. We also visited a local Sydney family who have a thriving warre hive in their backyard. It was really worthwhile. Also, as I had completed the course with Tim, we were able to buy an Australian warre hive from him (no bees, of course!) designed and made to Tim’s specific measurements.

We brought the beehive back to Canberra, in a raw state, and so we oiled it ourselves, to protect it from exposure. We also added some wax starter strips to the frames. We had also already bought some basic beekeeping supplies online, including a hive tool, jackets with hoods, and a smoker. My husband bought a pullover white jacket with hood, whereas I prefer a zip up jacket with hood. We both wear long pants (often jeans or old cargo pants), tucked in to long socks, and sturdy boots. We both use sturdy rubber dishwashing or cleaning gloves. You will see shortly why even heavy duty gardening gloves did not cut it. After gathering dry pine needles for our smoker, getting some old knives and containers, and a few other bits and bobs in a box, we were all set to become beekeeping geeks (beeks!)

We finally decided on a suitable location in our backyard, in the side yard near our neighbours fence, under the protection of a large pine tree. This is the yard where the edibles all grow, and we spend most of our time when outside, so we can keep an eye on them. The hive would have the pine tree on one side and an immature apple tree a couple of metres in front, so their flight path would be up and away (rather than over the neighbours fence!)

We spoke with our neighbours, their teenage daughter was home and said, no worries! It is only that we knew our neighbours very rarely accessed the narrow side path and junk piles on that side of their home. The only time we have ever seen them walk down that side of their house is when we offered for them to pick the apricots on our tree that were accessible from their side.

This location was not where we were originally thinking, but after doing our backyard beekeeping courses, we realised our original spot would be too cold in Winter as it gets little sun at that time of year (combined with frosty mornings and -7 degrees celsius nights, could see a terminal event for a hive). We considered the front yard, as there were a few sunny, protected spots that would be away from people, but then be at risk of dogs or kangaroos knocking it over! Or people seeing it and complaining.

WHAT THE BUZZ! BEES GET NEW HOME, NOT HAPPY ABOUT RELOCATION SERVICES

Now, we just need the bees. We knew, however, we had probably left our run a little late, to not only acquire a swarm, but also for them to have enough time to set up and get stores in by Winter. We kept on going though, oiling the hive, putting the starter strips in with melted beeswax, finding the location and setting up the foundation underneath it. When we got to the point of thinking we were basically ready, we made some calls and messages to people we knew either had hives they were considering splitting, or who may come across swarms. In Canberra, we have the ACT Beekeepers Association (ABA), who we contacted and a member there offered to sell us a ‘nuc’ of bees. Given the low chance of getting a swarm in November, late in Spring, we said yes.

However, as luck would have it, the next afternoon, we got a call from a member of the ABA, who had a swarm in a cardboard box, ready to be picked up. Well, my husband and I had the impression it was a swarm, which he went to pick up later that evening, and pay *ahem* $50 to the man for his help in catching the swarm for us. The man only wanted $20, but my overly generous husband couldn’t help himself. If only we had of known!

Swarming bees are generally sedate, whilst they debate where to live next. These bees were not.

So, the next day, Grandma and Poppy kindly took the kids to their house, so we wouldn’t have any distractions. My husband and I got ready. By the time my husband had gotten out of bed though (lazy pants), and the kids left with their Grandparents, it was already quite a warm day. We put on our jackets, long pants and socks, sturdy shoes, gloves and sweated like the novices we were. We lit the smoker (and really, we should have practiced keeping it alight before we actually had the bees). We also had a spray bottle of light syrup with peppermint essential oil (as advised by a fellow beekeeper, who has topbar hives) to mask pheromones on stings, or in my case, to spray as a whole gang of angry bees attacked my gloved hands.

We opened the cardboard box off, only to discover, it was not a sedate, healthy swarm with a strong queen who merely would require transferring by shook-swarming into our new hive. Oh, no, it was not! And that is where the real excitement began! It turns out, the hive was in a wooden ‘research bird box’, which had been put into the cardboard box! No doubt the hive had swarmed and made its home in the bird box earlier in the season, having nicely set themselves up, only to be evicted (box and all) from their chosen home. They would not be sedate, as swarms generally are, and they probably would NOT like being moved into a lovely new home, when they had a great one already, full of honey and brood comb. (Spoiler: they did not!)

After we opened the cardboard box and removed it, the bees went crazy. There was quite a lot of them buzzing in the air, and gathering on the birdbox, especially at the entrance point. This wasn’t too bad, but I did mention (several times) to my husband at this point, that maybe we just leave the birdbox here, and let them ‘relocate’ themselves into our warre hive. Surely they might just decide to do that, allowing us to not have to jimmy open a wooden box full of angry bees! Surely! The bees, and my husband, were not in agreeance with that option.

So Operation Holy Sh*t What Are We Doing began, and my husband prised open the box full of bees.

We’d been standing around ‘thinking’ a bit by then, about what was best to do. The bees had been flying around ‘thinking’ about how best to defend their home. It seems as we decided to just open the box up with the claw part of a claw hammer, and brush the bees into the new hive before then trying to ‘chop and crop’ the comb, they had decided to try stinging the crap out of us to get us to GO AWAY.

The lid came off quite easily, and wow, wasn’t that a sight to behold, all that full honeycomb, and all those bees. My husband then held the birdbox over the warre hive, as I attempted to brush (using a special ‘bee brush’) them into the hive. They do not like this. I repeat, they do not like this. At all! (Tim had told us this during the course, I must say). Despite that it is called a ‘bee brush’, it should be called a ‘get bees to sting your gloves multiple times brush’ because that is what happened. I was wearing gloves made from leather and heavy elastic, which ended up with about 6 to 8 stingers on each of them, and somehow, one actually made it through and stung my thumb.

Up until this point, we had both been fairly calm about what we were doing. I mean, a certain amount of novice beekeeping adrenaline was pumping, but I wasn’t scared by the bees or what we were doing. I didn’t feel panicked in any way. Even when I was stung, I wasn’t upset, I just thought, crap, I need new gloves! And crap, there are a lot of bees on my gloves, trying to sting me. And crap, my thumb is hurting quite a bit.

I retreated to the patio, spraying wildly with my peppermint solution, no doubt looking crazed.

I took my gloves off, which was a bit dumb, as there were still bees around me, so I hid my hands inside the jacket sleeves, and my husband came around and suggested rubber gloves, like he was wearing. I got some, but I only had those darn ‘eco’ rubber washing up gloves, which looked pitifully thin, so I double gloved, with those underneath and my other gardening gloves on top. I wish I had time to take a photo of my gardening gloves before I started using them again. There were multiple little stingers stuck all over them! (Poor bees!)

So, back to it, and I continued brushing the bees off the birdbox into the hive, until my husband could get a hold of some comb inside. The idea of ‘chop and crop’ (a term I had not even heard of until the day before doing this!) was to use established comb and secure it into the empty wooden frames, so the hive would move in and already have some comb with honey and brood (babies) in it. This would make them want to move in and stay, but also help them get established and healthy in time for the cold weather. We’d been given some thin wire to secure the comb to the wooden frame (as done in conventional beekeeping), but had been advised to use cable ties instead. However, due to my husbands tardiness in getting out of bed early, and the time of year when it is already bloody hot by nine in the morning, the comb was too soft to handle.

Growing Home Backyard Beekeeping

Oh no! There goes this supposed chop & crop idea we were going to do. There was no going back though. We couldn’t put the lid back on the birdbox, and come back when it was cooler. There were bees everywhere. Poor, lost, confused, angry bees. And hopefully a queen. So, we did a bit more thinking, I offered a solution, my husband ignored it, we thought some more. I might have yelled. I definitely swore. And then we went ahead with my solution, which will call the Chop & Drop. This won’t be something the beekeeping society will be latching on to anytime soon, to call their own. But we had no other options.

This is a desperate move performed by idiot beekeepers who have no idea what they are doing…

We had four boxes for our warre hive, but had planned to start with two boxes set up (with frames and starter strips). During my course, Tim Malfroy had explained how to shook-swarm a swarm into two boxes of the hive, then add more boxes as the bees expanded. He did not explain what to do, when you have a birdbox full of bees, and soft comb, and a smoker not staying alight, and a delivery guy bringing groceries in the middle of it, and several more stings each. No. We had absolutely no idea of what to do in that scenario!

My brilliant Chop & Drop idea was to put two empty boxes on the bottom, then two boxes with frames and starter strips of beeswax ‘foundation’ on top of those. The empty boxes had no frames along the top of them. We placed, carefully as we could, the pieces of comb out of the birdbox. My husband checked them for brood (and possibly a queen) as we went, but really, we just wanted to get them into the bottom of the hive, and put it all together, in the hope that the bees would then get into the hive (and stop dive bombing us from their crazy flight pattern of doom above us).

If they would move into the hive, go up to the top boxes (as bees like to do) to start a new home on the starter strips, there was hope for them. If we left the brood and honey comb down the bottom, the queen might be there, or they might be able to raise a new queen from those brood cells they had. They could scavenge the honey too, perhaps, as there may not be a lot of nectar around as we are in a very dry, flowerless period here in Canberra.

At this point we were thinking that we probably accidently killed the poor queen, and even if they hatch a new one from existing brood, there won’t be any drones around at this time of year for her to mate with. We probably just had a sticky mess of comb and honey and dead baby bees in the bottom of our hive to clean up. We also worried that sticky mess might have been blocking the entrance in and out, to the frames up above, that we wanted them to move into. I wanted to stick a hive tool in, and jimmy an entrance out of whatever comb might have been blocking the entrance, but my husband wasn’t keen on this. Nor were the masses of bees gathering around the entrance trying to get to their brood (and hopefully their queen).

WHERE THERE IS BUZZING, THERE IS HOPE

However, we remained hopeful. My husband got out his trusty drill, and made a chock from three pieces of wood stakes, to place between the boxes, with one side left open to create a new entrance. We put all our (sweaty, stinky) gear back on, and ventured out. They had actually calmed down a lot, and were trying to get in the hive through the usual entrance. My husband lifted the two top boxes, and I put the half-wonky frame in to chock the boxes apart by about 1 to 2 cm. We cleaned up the area, leaving a galvanised tub with the pieces of comb that had not been put in to the bottom of the hive, so the bees could scavenge from it.

We took a few pieces that were purely honey comb, as I figured we’d earned it, and paid $50 for it!

I had read on Wayward Spark, about pressing honey in a potato ricer, then sieving it to get any miscellaneous bee parts out. It worked a treat on the small amounts we had, and I will also clean the beeswax up too. The first tastes of the honey were AMAZING, and my use of capitals should clearly demonstrate by just how much I mean that statement. It is rich, sweet, and not at all birdbox flavoured.

The next morning, and the bees still seemed completely dazed, lost, buzzing all around the area (but not nearly as many were randomly flying about), no particular flying patterns being taken. I guess they were finding out where in the heck they are. They are trying the ‘usual’ bottom entrance, as well as the temporary one higher up, so hopefully the hive might be already building on the starter strips, and also accessing the honey down below. Who knows! They could be trying to purely rebuild down the bottom, using the comb that we placed there, and we’ll have another big angry mess when we open it next! They are scavenging (and possibly drowning) in the miscellaneous pieces left in the tub, but there are less of them stuck all over it now.

We planned to take that away (and process it) later in the evening. We left the pieces inside the bottom of the hive, and the two ’empty’ boxes on the hive for a few more days, at least. We wanted any undamaged brood to be hatched (if such a thing would even still happen), but not long enough for it all to be glued by the bees to the very bottom of the hive, as that will stay there. Who knows how hard it will be to remove the mess and the boxes, but that is what we decided to do in the middle of the crazy scenario we had found ourselves in the day before.

LESSONS IN BACKYARD BEEKEEPING

So, what did we learn, besides that it might have been a good idea to ask whether it was a simple box of swarmed bees in the first place! That we are beginners given a baptism by fire into the world of backyard beekeeping. That we make fairly unattractive ‘beek’s. That we may have saved the hive from being poisoned or destroyed by exterminators only to massacre them and destroy their comb anyways. That double gloving isn’t just for surgeons and scrub nurses. That getting up early when you have a birdbox full of bees in your backyard in Summer is probably a good idea. That stings are somewhat painful, then itchy and sore for days (weeks) to follow, but sweet gooey honey makes it all worthwhile!

BUT HOW DID THEY GO? DID THE QUEEN LIVE? THIS IS WORSE THAN WATCHING THE GAME OF THRONES MID-SEASON CLIFFHANGER!

Fast forward to 2016, and you’ll be pleased to know the hive made it, they are still going strong. There will be more posts about backyard beekeeping to let you know how we all managed to survive, and how you can get started in backyard beekeeping too. In the mean time, I would love to hear your bee stories! Are you a backyard beekeeper, or have plans to get into backyard beekeeping? Have you thought about where you will locate their hive? What gear you might need? Who can be a partner or assistant for you? Let me know in the comments section below!

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