In 2016 I developed an urge to add bees to our thriving urban farm here in Emerald Hills. The gardens were producing year round, our chickens were productive, and I was exploring a lot of interesting technology for monitoring and irrigation. I needed a new project, honey bees.
I bought a hive from a guy on Craigslist who discovered one of his children was allergic to bee stings and decided to sell off his hives. Easy, everything was already functioning. I put the hive in my garden in what I would later learn is a bad location (afternoon sun only and positioned in a manner that wind would blow into the opening) and didn’t really know what I was looking at when I inspected the hive.
Lesson learned: I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Fortunately, someone I know is an accomplished beekeeper and came over to my house to give me a primer. “You are queenless,” he declared along with “and you have mites but everyone does so don’t be surprised by that”. Well not having a queen certainly seemed like a problem. I got on the phone with Olivarez and ordered a queen, which didn’t take so I did it again with the same result. The hive collapsed and I was stuck with some boxes, an ill-fitting top, and a combination of wood and plastic frames. Not exactly what I had in mind… beekeeping is hard.
Lesson learned: Failure comes at you from many corners.
I reflected on my experience and determined that my failure was rooted in a lack of education, unrealistic expectations, and plain ‘ol poor planning. This was in the fall of 2016, so I took advantage of the winter to read everything I could about honeybees while I waited for a nuc to be available from Aidan Wing, an established beekeeper here in the area.
In order to not make the same mistakes from the first attempt, I also reconsidered my placement options to give the hive morning sun (not a problem, we’re south facing) and built a proper stand to securely place up to 2 hives. Plan for success and expansion, I say.
I met Aidan out in Los Altos Hills in April 2017 to pick up a nuc and got it home and installed in my empty hive but now with a better top and a mix of new and old wooden frames. A week later, I inspected the hive and located the queen, identified healthy brood patterns, and for the first time, saw eggs. Pretty exciting.
Lesson learned: My self-learning paid off and I felt like I was on the path to a good start.
Hive #1 quickly expanded and an initial sticky board revealed a pair of mites, which I was determined to watch that closely after reading so much about the Varroa Mite epidemic. I also put a top hive feeder on to give them every chance of success, in spite of a range of opinions about the merits of feeding. They consumed a lot and I also observed them successfully foraging; it was pretty cool to see them returning to the hive with their bright yellow pollen sacks.
I also determined that getting some help would be wise so I joined the Beekeepers’ Guild of San Mateo County, attended a meeting and signed up to get a mentor. My mentor was assigned and I excitedly reached out to start that process. I relayed my experience with mites and inquired about how treatment options work… and she promptly fired me stating “I don’t believe in treatment”.
Lesson learned: People are funny.
With no mentor but some early success and a lot of determination, I plowed forward. My friend, Roger, continued to provide advice to any question I sent over to him via facebook messenger, usually late at night. I also continued to read as much as I could find, and in particular Randy Oliver’s writings influenced and educated me, giving me the confidence that I was on the right track. Youtube… it’s amazing what you can learn by watching videos of people doing what would otherwise be lifeless text on a page. Youtube filled a mentorship role for me.
Lesson learned: The information is all out there, you just have to go get it.
Around June, with some early success filling my sails and a lot of questions that started with “I wonder if this is normal…”. I decided to add a second hive to my apiary. My thinking was simple, it would give me something to compare against, but I was also enjoying the experience and wanted more of it. A member of the Beekeepers’ Guild, who happened to live a few miles away from me, had nucs that he offered for sale and I bought one. My bee yard doubled in size. The queen in this hive is not marked so I got better at identifying a queen, but other than that everything proceeded without much disruption.
I diligently kept a bee journal documenting my observations. When a one of the bodies filled 7 of 10 frames, I added another body and on Hive #1 I started adding supers. I inspected weekly, noticed the presence of what I would learn are small hive beetles. Mites were minimal but through Randy Oliver’s writings I learned about how mite load develops slowly and then tips out of control. In August I did a sugar shake on both hives and #1 had a high load, counted 35 mites, #2 was minimal with 2 mites observed from the shake. I bought some Apivar strips (giving my ex-mentor ample justification for her early dismissal of me) and treated #1 per the instructions. Before treating, I borrowed a friends extractor and harvested honey from my supers for the first time.
The honey was amazing. I could actually taste the lavender that the bees would frequent in my garden and around the neighborhood. I gave some of my limited harvest to friends and felt real accomplishment. I still can’t get over that the honey I put on my yogurt in the morning came from bees in my garden.
Winter came and I continued to monitor, albeit with less frequency, and part of me was prepared to accept that I would fail again. Beekeeping is hard and despite having a good summer, I knew enough to know that was the easy part. When the sun was out I could see activity around the hives. Clearly the bees were still going about their business.
Last weekend, I did a thorough inspection of both hives. #1 is active and has a heavy load of stored honey. I located the queen and larvae and brood in the upper and lower boxes. In hive #2 the activity was even stronger and it was obvious to me that there is a healthy population of young bees to compliment heavy brood patterns I saw. There were enough frames filled in the 2 bodies that I decided to add a 3rd medium body to this hive. This made me consider that hive #1 may have a queen declining in productivity and I should consider pro-actively re-queening that hive. Hive #1 looks healthy, while #2 looks really strong and healthy.
Lesson learned: Having 2 hives does indeed expand my ability to observe and draw conclusions about what actions I should undertake.
As we sit here at the beginning of February, I believe my perseverance is paying off and I am on my way to conquering winter and look forward to my first spring with existing hives undergoing a normal lifecycle. I’d like to add a 3rd hive this spring and expand my skills in areas that I would not have ventured last year. I subscribe to this mailing list and read almost all of the postings, even though I rarely comment. I learn a lot from the postings but probably nothing more than there are a lot of strategies and opinions so consider everything, don’t take anything as absolute. I feel pretty well equipped to confront any new challenges that come up, and if my hives again collapse I will push forward knowing that with each passing year I am improving.
Lesson learned: Don’t give up.