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Beekeeping 101

I am excited about beekeeping. This surprises those who knew me as a kid — terrified of bees, screaming and flapping my arms at the sight or sound of a bee approaching. I’ve learned that there are things to run screaming from — angry bulls, spiders and “scrapbooking,” but not bees.

Canada produces over 31,000 tonnes of honey each year, making us the fifth-largest honey producer in the world. Alberta produces the highest total in Canada, with Saskatchewan having the highest yield per hive.

My husband Ron and my farm is on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan — perfectly suited for a beehive! If you are interested in beekeeping, I encourage you to give it a try. There’s a lot to learn, and after only four weeks I am certainly not an expert, but I’ve found it to be a very interesting and rewarding journey so far.

Our hive equipment came from the Alberta Honey Producer’s Co-op in Spruce Grove, Alta. There we picked up our “supers” which are the boxes that the bees will live inside of. At least three supers are required to start a new hive. The bottom two are for brooding new bees, and the others will hold honey to be harvested in the fall. The supers come disassembled, so we put them together and painted them with low-fume, latex outdoor paint. These supers sit on top of a hive bottom. It is assembled and covered in beeswax, so there’s no need to paint it.

Frames hang inside of the supers, and we bought pre-made plastic ones. The bees will build honeycombs onto these frames, and inside of the combs they will manage their brood (bee eggs and larva), honey and pollen. Our supers each hold 10 frames.

A feeder is required in early spring until the nectar starts to flow, and it hangs inside the hive, taking the place of one frame. The feeder holds one gallon of 50 per cent sugar water solution which the bees use as their food supply until more natural sources are available. The bees also need a pollen substitute until the flowers open up, so a pollen patty is placed on top of the frames inside the hive.

Once the supers are sitting on the hive bottom and the frames are inside, it all needs to be covered with a hive cover and a lid. They come assembled and covered with wax and tin, so no need to paint.

Extra things to have available are a hive tool for prying frames and supers apart, a brush for brushing bees away from where you are working, a smoker to keep the bees calm and to slow their communication, and a bee suit to give a feeling of security until you are more comfortable working with your bees.

The hive should be set up facing south in a sheltered area, and the bees require flowering plants within a three-km radius as well as a water source nearby. The bee yard needs to be protected from livestock or bears.

With our site ready, we left to pick up our bees. Canada doesn’t have enough breeders to supply the spring bee demand, so they arrived from New Zealand. Makes you wonder what might be in the cargo area of your next flight doesn’t it?

They are sorted into 2.2-pound tubes, which is 6,000 to 10,000 bees per tube. We loaded ours into the jeep, and after ensuring that both ends of the tube were secure we began our three-hour journey in a car with 10,000 bees. What could go wrong?

At the hive, we reviewed our procedure to be fully prepared when we released the bees, and we found the queen attached to a ribbon hanging inside the tube. She is in her own cage to allow the colony to get used to her before she is introduced. There’s a cork in the end of her cage that is removed and replaced with a mini marshmallow that the colony will eat in order to release her from her cage if they have accepted her.

The remaining bees are then poured into the hive, half over the queen in her cage and the other half spread over the frames.

Five days later it was time to check the hive. Initial inspection from the outside showed no activity and a few dead bees lying outside the entry. This didn’t seem good, but when we opened the hive we found that the colony was alive and thriving. Combs were being built onto the frames and there were both honey and pollen being stored there; the queen had been released from her cage and eggs were present; the bees had found the feeder and it was ready to have more syrup added; the pollen patty had been used, evident by both pollen in the combs and the reduced patty size. What a relief!

The weather was cool and rainy, and we have since learned that on days like this bees aren’t that different from the rest of us. They like to stay inside cleaning the house, eating and visiting.

One month into beekeeping and it continues to run smoothly. We’ve removed the feeder and pollen patty; we’ve seen our bees at work in apple blossoms, dandelion and saskatoon flowers; juvenile bees are beginning to emerge. We’re looking forward to our first honey harvest! †

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