the zen of beekeeping

Posted by on May 9, 2009 in farm | 9 comments

See the big bee with the green dot to the left, in the center? That's my queen! I did my first solo hive inspection this morning. I was a little nervous about doing it, and kept procrastinating, but once I got out there, lifting up the frames and talking to the bees, all the apprehension just left, and I felt amazingly calm.

A couple years ago, I read quite a bit about beekeeping, and thought I had a pretty good idea what to do, what to expect. With the arrival of the bees, however, I realized that I had forgotten nearly everything, and so have been feverishly re-reading everything about the subject I can find, combing (bee pun, sorry!) bee forums, actually reading all the e-mails from beekeeping lists (which, oh my goodness, the organic beekeepers list I subscribe to? Those are some seriously opinionated people. I didn't think there would be so much drama on a beekeeping list), and referring regularly to my stack of books. They say, ask five beekeepers what to do in any given situation, and you'll get six different answers, and I can confirm that this is true.

Back to the inspection. I could probably go on for paragraph after paragraph about bees, but I'll try to just stick to what I did while inspecting my hive. I was all decked out in my veil, jacket (an old Nautica scuba windbreaker of Mr. HeyLucy's-bright blue and green) and orange wellies. It's quite an outfit. My gloves have not yet arrived, so I used a pair of yellow rubber gloves-the kind you probably have under your sink, for doing dishes. I just thought you might enjoy the visual of my ridiculous outfit. The neighbors can all see me too, and I would love to know what they thought about my get-up. I filled my smoker with pine needles, lit it up, and gave it a few puffs from the bellows to get it going. I took my newly assembled hive body (more on that later), just in case they had filled the frames in their current box. I also had a bee brush and a pry bar, since my fancy Italian hive tool has also not yet arrived.

When I got to the hive I took the cinder block off the top (placed there to keep the lid on in case it gets windy), and set it next to the hive. I sat on it for the duration of my visit, since the hive is only one box so far, and quite low to the ground. I puffed a little smoke in the entrance, which sent everyone hanging out there inside the hive. Then I lifted the lid slightly, and gave them another good puff, lowered the lid and waited a few moments. It's important to work from  the side of the hive, rather than looming over it. I noticed a change in the hum of the hive as I moved around and over the top of it-it's truly a hive mind, and they are all constantly communicating. There were a few bees clinging to the underside of the lid, so I gently brushed them back into the hive, where they went without a fuss.

The whole time I was working there was only one bee who was really bothersome. One of the roles played by the workers is that of guard bee. There are usually a couple guard bees at the entrance. Their job is to ward off any danger, let everyone know if there is a threat, and check the bees returning from their nectar/pollen/water gathering flights, to make sure they are a part of the hive and not robber bees come to rob them of their honey. I think I had a somewhat over-zealous guard bee, trying to chase me away. She buzzed and buzzed and charged my veil. I just kept talking to her, to let her know I wasn't a bear, and I wasn't there to hurt anyone. She wasn't buying it, however, and kept right on buzzing at me until I left.

One by one I lifted out the frames to see what progress the bees had made this week. This is a 10-frame hive, but I only have 9 in it at the moment. The beekeeper who brought me this hive included some empty frames and added some comb to others with rubber bands to get the bees started. Here's an example of tied comb. Mine have rubber bands wrapped around the frames vertically, holding the comb, rather than horizontal string like that one, but the principal is the same. Typically, you can add plastic or wax foundation to your frame, but I'm keeping everything as natural as possible, and letting the bees build their own. Some say using the foundation is faster, some say foundation-less is faster, and there's all sorts of controversy about the size of the cells on the foundation being larger than what the bees make on their own, which has led to larger bees, which in turn is a contributing factor to colony collapse disorder. I told you, there is all sorts of drama in the beekeeping world. Still, I'm going with the natural comb. I'm going to try giving them some strips to start building off of, but I'll talk more about that another time.

During my inspection I pulled out one frame at a time, and examined it front and back. I returned each frame to its same location, in the same position as I finished examining it. I was looking for a few different things:

  • Were they building new comb? Yes, there was some new comb, although I had hoped for more, and most of it was empty-they haven't been filled with eggs, pollen or nectar.
  • Was the queen alive and active? She's there, and was moving around busily
  • Are there eggs/larvae/capped brood? Yes, but I didn't see a ton of new eggs and larvae like I saw last week. Some of the brood cells seem scattered, but I don't know if that's just because bees have hatched and left the empty cells, or if the queen skipped them, or if they just didn't develop. You can see the caps below, and the new, light comb they've built, to the right.
  • Are they building up pollen and nectar (to become honey)? One of the frames had lots of pollen in the cells, but I didn't see nectar, which has me concerned. I think I may need to feed them some honey as they develop. I'd guess there are somewhere between 10,000-20,000 bees in there now, but to get strong they should build up to 60,000-80,000 bees. Plus, more bees=more honey :o) 

So, I'm not too worried, but a little concerned about a couple things. I think I'll feed them some honey this week, and see if their productivity increases. Up here in the mountains, blooming is really just getting started, so they should have more resources over the next few weeks. Right now the poppies are just starting to bloom, and I saw some mustard blossoms this morning for the first time this Spring. They've been in the rosemary, but there's only two bushes in our yard, not nearly enough for a whole hive.


When I was finished with my inspection I carefully and slowly slid the lid back in place, making sure I didn't crush any bees in the process. And that was it! It didn't take too long, and it was so fascinating to watch them all hard at work. I will have to get my camera all set up before I go out next time, it's not too easy taking picture through my veil, and I couldn't change the settings. I wish I didn't have the aperture set so low, all the pictures I took are have lots of bokeh around the edges, which is cool most of the time, but not for this. I am also going to need to do some beekeeper accessorizing, I think. An apron or box for my tools would be very handy. I sense some sewing coming on this weekend.

I hope that was interesting, feel free to ask questions, I am loving talking about bees. Also, if you want to learn more, but not necessarily take up beekeeping yourself, I highly recommend Robbing the Bees, by Holley Bishop. It's a fascinating history of bees, honey, and beekeeping, definitely worth reading.


  1. You are getting so busy on your “farm” I am worried that we will never see you again!
    Interesting life you are leading!

  2. This is so fascinating! I’m looking forward to hearing more about your beekeeping adventures!

  3. Thanks, Marne! I can’t wait to forward this to my dad. 🙂

  4. This is fascinating. Keep us posted.

  5. Did you mark the queen bee so we could see her? Or is that her markings?
    I am bee clueless!

  6. She came from a beekeeper who breeds queens, they put the mark on her. It’s
    a good thing, too, because even with the mark she’s had to find :o)

  7. I love hearing about the bees! We live on a small city lot, so I’m not sure we could even have bees, but I would love to…maybe someday. In the meantime I’ll read about yours–and get that book too.

  8. You never know, you might be allowed to have bees, check your city
    regulations. There are also some renegade beekeepers, who keep bees on their
    roofs or otherwise hidden in their backyards. New York beekeepers are trying
    to get beekeeping legalized. Here’s a video about a beekeeper in Brooklyn:…es-in-brooklyn.

  9. Wonderful!

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