Maybe you’ve seen that t-shirt that has a cartoon drawing of a bee followed by the quote: “If we die, we’re taking you with us.”
Or perhaps you’ve read the newspaper and magazine articles that discuss bee colonies collapsing at a rate that beekeepers seem helpless to staunch.
In any case, bees are commanding more public attention these days, and most of it is not good. It’s hard to remain unaffected by such news, and several months ago on a Saturday afternoon drinking margaritas at Picos, Cameron and I looked at each other and said, “Maybe we should get some bees.”
And that’s how this all began.
We had already built a fish pond – toads like it as much as the fish do – and we finally got a squirrel-proof birdfeeder. (No worries — there’s still plenty of spillage for squirrels and mourning doves.) We’ve planted numerous fruit trees, plus a linear garden along the driveway with vegetables and herbs. Our objective is to create as natural an environment for animals and family as we possibly can. Bees were the missing piece of our environmental experiment.
As gardeners who strive for organic methods as much as practical, we are well aware that bees are the link between fragrant white flowers on the Meyer lemon tree and a voluptuous harvest. When we had My Table ~ Houston’s Dining Magazine, we published several articles over the years about bees and honey. Oh, right … the honey!
Besides the pleasure of managing several thousand tiny, lovely, hard-working creatures, honey is the reward for keeping bees. Typically, you can expect to begin harvesting honey in the beginning of your second year. The bees need several months to get oriented and start making your hive their home, nursery, dining hall and honey-manufacturing plant.
Our story about becoming beekeepers in the middle of Houston is not a how-to article – there are plenty of books and websites that tell you everything – and we wouldn’t claim that our bee journey will necessarily be your bee journey. The overriding lesson we’ve learned as members of the Houston Beekeepers Association is that there is no single correct method for keeping bees There are many ways to do this thing. But the most important lesson is: Don’t get in the bees’ way, because they, at least, know what they’re doing.
Our bee story began back in January over those margaritas, so we haven’t harvested honey yet and, again, we are not experts. (But we know people who are – that’s key, I think.) We had heard about BeeWeaver Honey Farm in the countryside near Navasota. They are to local beekeepers what Nelson Water Gardens in Katy is to fishpond folks – they have the equipment, bee suits, bees and pretty much everything else you would need to get started.
There are a few different kinds of hives, but the Langstroth box is the most common kind and usually recommended for beginners. If you ever saw the Peter Fonda movie Ulee’s Gold, those are Langstroth boxes he has. Its name honors Lorenzo Langstroth, the American who invented the box hive in 1852. One of its cool features is that the boxes are stackable, like an apartment house.
In March, we drove to BeeWeaver and purchased a beehive kit. We were now officially committed to this crazy thing.
When we got home and opened the kit, it appeared to contain about a million little pieces of wood. Actually, most of them were the four sides to the 10 “frames,” which are the removable rectangles that the bees build on. These look like picture frames, as you will see. Assembling stuff and using power tools is a Cameron Ansari genuine pleasure, so I let him do this by himself.
Cameron quickly assembled the box and the 10 frames. See how the frames slip neatly into the box like hanging files into a filing cabinet?
We chose to use plastic “foundation” on our frames rather than a wax foundation. The foundation is the starter template for the bees. Our bees seem to like it just fine, though some old-timer beekeepers insist real wax is better. Again, different strokes for different folks. Here’s a video that may help you decide.
Strange as it might seem, a new beehive needs to be fed until the bees get comfortable and start producing their own food. This black plastic hanging thing (shown above) is a feeder. It’s the same width and depth as a frame and just slips into the hive. The day we got the bees, I made a 1-to-1 sugar syrup and filled the feeder to the top. The syrup was completely gone in one week.
When we bought our kit in March, we also ordered a “nuc,” or a nucleus of bees. (It’s pronounced “nuke,” like the bomb.) This refers to a set of starter frames with bees already hard at work. BeeWeaver was so backed up with orders, that we could not get our nuc any sooner than mid-May. On the appointed May Saturday, we drove back out to BeeWeaver to pick up our girls. (As you probably remember from biology class, all the worker bees are female.) That’s a nuc in the back seat of our car.
A closer view of the nuc, with just one strip of duct tape between us and several thousand bees. See the lone outsider perched on the left end of the nuc? We had to shoo her out of the car.
We arrive back in Houston unscathed, and Cameron unloads the nuc (the feeder is laying on top) from the car.
Wouldn’t you know it would start raining just as we got ready to transfer the nuc frames into our own beehive?
Ooops! The bees have grown impatient in their cardboard nuc box and make a break.
Besides the bee suit, the most important thing a beekeeper uses is a smoker. It’s a steel/aluminum contraption about the size of a coffee can. It has a spout on top and a bellows attached to the side. We start the smoker with a page from The New York Times (our bees are liberal intellectuals), and it’s kept going and smoking with the little wood pellets shown in the baggie. The smoke drugs the bees and makes them calm down. Never, never forget your smoker when you head to the hive.
Cameron opens the nuc and begins removing the bee frames to put them into our hive box. Yes, all those bees were in the back seat of our car two hours earlier. Their new home is behind the garage in a cozy area that rarely gets any foot traffic other than the dogs.
The transfer of bees was successful, and two months later over the Fourth of July weekend, we check on the girls. Our bees are thriving, laying eggs and tending baby bees like crazy. Cameron shows off one of his beautiful frames! We’re now studying how to harvest honey. We expect the sweet stuff to be ready in early 2020.
Our little environment completes a circle, with plants, fruit trees, birds, fish pond and beehive all working together. Shown above, one of the hundreds of bees that drops onto a waterlily pad every evening for a tiny sip before heading into the hive for the night.