Monday, April 26, 2010

Some basics

I’ve been a bee keeper for four years now, and my wife Priscilla and I are making the transition from hobby bee keepers very small scale commercial bee keepers. We’ll have 5 hives in our back yard and 10 nearby at a friend’s house.

This is part of an overall move to urban farming by us. By this I mean we’ve replaced most of our ornamental trees with fruit trees and added berry bushes. We also converted much of our lawn to vegetable gardens. This is all part of a landscape plan for maximum food production, privacy and beauty done by the Conway School of Landscape Design.

Bees were a natural on our .21 acre lot. Our bees gather nectar from thousands of acres of flowering trees and bushes surrounding our home in downtown Northampton. Many people think of beekeeping as being a countryside activity, but in fact bees do great in urban spaces. Think of all the flowering trees and ornamental flowers you see in parks and yards.

When starting with bees you’ll need to order a “package” of bees from someone. This can be done by mail, but we get ours from Warm Colors Apiary in S Deerfield, MA. Most providers begin taking orders in December and are sold out by February. If you want bees in 2011, start reading and planning now!

Each package contains 9,000-12,000 bees and a single queen bee. Most bees on the east coast come from Georgia. Bees should arrive in April or May. You’ll place them in a hive that you assembled and painted over the winter.

As the colony settles in they will start producing wax to make honeycomb and the queen will start laying eggs. She can lay 1,000-3,000 eggs per day! It’s pretty astonishing.

In many ways, beekeeping is different from any other kind of animal husbandry you can imagine. A single hive can contain as many as 100,000 bees, but 50,000 is a more usual or optimal number. So, if all goes well, we will have 750,000 bees in our 15 hives this coming summer. At any given moment on a warm day in July we could have 300,000 bees out and flying over Northampton. We’ll need that many because it takes the nectar of 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey, and for this the bees will fly over 50,000 miles.

Though people know bees make honey from flowers, I find the actual facts staggering. In most flowers there is a tiny drop of sweet water there to attract insects, like bees. In most flowers it would take dozens of these drops to cover the head of a pin. Daily, our army of bees fans out over the city visiting lilacs and dandelions in every nook and cranny where they grow. They fly over the heads of women at the door of Serio’s market, past babies in strollers, over the mayor and around the library.

If you’re more than a few yards away from a hive, you’d likely not know it’s there. In an urban environment bees fly at rooftop level. Bees will almost always fly 10-12 feet above the ground, so you rarely see them except when they come down to visit a flower.

In future articles I’ll talk more about keeping and working with bees, but I thought some basics would be helpful. Bees are wonderful creatures, and about as different from cats and dogs and “normal” animals that we think of when we hear the word as they could be. I find them continually fascinating.

1 comment:

  1. GREAT info here.. Lots of little things I didnt know about.. bee flight height, when you should order bees, and how so little flowers contain water.. You write so picturesque-ly!.. So cute about who bees fly over-- the mayor, baby strollers.. doctors and lawyers-- and kids riding their bikes. Will you write and illustrate a book for children? That would be awesome.. but your work keeping bees and running a blog is awesome enough!