Summer is prime pollinating season. Time to check beekeeping off your must-do list. —INGRAIN, Summer 2019
STORY / Tim Faith
Take a moment to consider the bees’ future habitat.
Read a book, go to a beekeeping class, and watch entirely too many YouTube videos.
Is it kosher to keep bees? Fines for illegal beekeeping can be stiff. Renter? Ask the landlord.
Don’t presume anything, even on your own property. Cities have different regulations, such as how far a hive must be from neighboring properties.
Find the right location for the hive. As in the wild, bees need a readily available water source and thrive in shady nooks (this is why hives are often found in trees or tucked under a roof gable).
Considering a penthouse view for your queen? Tar and other black-topped roofs can reach scorching temperatures that are hardly bee friendly.
What’s your area’s general weather report? If winter storms are on the horizon, consider weatherproofing your hives. (Check out the tips from Goose Island’s R&D Brewer and resident urban garden master Tim Faith below).
Be a good neighbor. Tell anyone nearby about your bee enterprise and promise sticky honey rewards. Do find out if anyone nearby is allergic to bees; a reaction can be severe and you may need to reconsider your hive location.
Community groups like the Chicago Honey Co-Op often offer beekeeping classes. For online classes, check out those by San Diego– based urban beekeeper Hilary Kearney, who tends more than seventy-five beehives in her area. (Her new book, QueenSpotting [Story Publishing, April 2019], documents her hive and queen-spotting journey.) Our go-to guidebooks for beekeeping are The Beekeeper’s Handbook (Comstock Publishing Associates, 1973) and The Beekeeper’s Bible (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2011). The latter is as much an anthology and beautiful tribute to beekeeping as it is a guidebook, plus it includes recipes.
The box into which frames and bees are installed will be the swarm’s new homestead.
Choose your bee’s housing. Go with either a ten-frame deep, medium, or shallow box OR an eight-frame medium box.
Ten-frame boxes are considered the industry standard; if you go with this over an eight-frame, our preference for urban beekeeping, choose a medium-size box, as it can make handling the box easier (bees and honey weigh a lot; larger boxes can be heavy to move).
Don’t purchase or pass down used housing. Diseases and chemicals may be present that can harm or kill your bees.
Don’t mix ten- and eight-frame equipment; the two are not compatible.
Purchase good-quality natural-wood boxes. Pine, a naturally porous wood, is standard.
Handy? Make your own. Look around at the spaces beehives often occupy in the wild. Cement blocks, packing crates, or anything with a nook for the queen can work.
Cultivated or wild?
More hives fit in a tighter outdoor space.
Weigh substantially less than ten-frame boxes when filled with bees and honey.
Honey is more compact inside the hive and easier for bees to access in cold weather.
Cultivated or wild?
Buy bees or try to catch a swarm. Good luck with the latter.
Spring and summer are good times to catch swarms. (Stealing bees from your neighbor does not count as a fair “catch.”)
Choose your packaging. Bees are typically sold in packages or nucs. A three-pound package of bees (approximately 10,000 bees) arrives via the postal service in an unobtrusive box and contains insects typically collected from mixed hives. (What we prefer.) You will need to transfer these bees, along with the queen, immediately to your box. A nuc, or nucleus colony, arrives in a small hive-like box. It contains bees that are already drawing comb and tending to eggs and larvae, and a freed queen who is also busy at work. You can keep the nuc in its packaging for a few days.
BUYING VERSUS FORAGING
How adventurous are you?
Buy a bee colony from a reputable supplier in a local or nearby area so the bees are already familiar with your climate.
Find a reputable colony vendor through your local garden or beekeeping association or resources like beesource. A good supplier will provide healthy, disease-free bees.
Know shipping policies (if a signature is required, make sure you are home) and queen condition (what if she is DOA?), and read reviews on the vendor’s general hive quality.
Be prepared upon the package’s arrival to move your hive to its new home. Bee packages do not contain pollen, honey, or other resources for the bees.
Use a good-quality swarm lure. A few sprays of Swarm Commander Swarm Lure will help bait your hive.
Call a swarm catcher. Professionals often focus on removal of nuisance hives and can be expensive. Try neighborhood communities like NextDoor to find a bee lover/swarm transfer expert.
Moving is disruptive. Do it thoughtfully. Bees fly up to five miles in search of nectar and release pheromones to communicate with one another. But you can move a hive a short or longer distance successfully.
Close up the hive entrance. Do this at night, when the bees are back in the hive, and use mesh or another material that allows them to breathe.
For short distances, place items (twigs, for instance) near the entrance of the hive a day before moving it; this often gives them an incentive to get reoriented. If some of your bees have not reoriented, place a nuc in the old location to “capture” the remaining bees and move them. Or try moving the hive VERY gradually (12 to 18 inches at a time); do this at night over several evenings.
For longer moves, close up the hive at night. (If you purchased bees by mail, this will already be done for you.) Try not to shake the hive; treat it like your most expensive ceramic vase. If you are transporting the bees more than three miles (or beyond their foraging radius), they should be reoriented easily upon arrival.
GEAR & OTHER STUFF
Special equipment isn’t technically required, but it helps you manage your brood.
Some hive kits contain everything you need, including protective gear, like those from Kelley Bees. For a beginner, this route can be one of the most economical. $195 to $475
Buy protective gear. A jacket or full bee suit with a built-in hood and veil both work well. As beekeeping season gets underway in the spring and summer, most are made of lightweight materials for warmer weather. $50 to $250, various vendors (widely available)
Sting-resistant gloves are a must. Leather or other sturdy gloves should be pliable enough for your hands to move freely. Mannlake economy vented leather gloves: $20
Are you an avid gardener? Bees will find a food source, but if you want to take advantage of the free labor, consider planting flowering bushes (rosemary, lavender) and trees (citrus, apple) that attract bees.
Consider more than one hive. (Wait, what?) With two, you have a comparison metric. When you have only one, it can be difficult to judge the health of your bees, like whether they might be infested with a disease or whether an environmental condition caused harm (a particularly frigid winter or hot summer).
Try again next summer when all else fails (and sometimes it will; these are living creatures not decorative art). Once you get the beekeeping bug, it’s nearly impossible to resist the lure of fresh honeycomb—and the busy bees that made it.
WINTER PREP WORK
Two of the biggest mistakes a beginning beekeeper can make as winter approaches is to over-harvest the honey and/or over-insulate or incorrectly insulate the beehive.
Let’s dig deeper. Bees, like all living things, need food. They’ve worked hard all spring and summer to grow the colony and make that sweet golden ambrosia that we all love. On average, a single healthy hive can deliver a surplus (harvestable) of about thirty pounds of honey per year. This assumes that the hive is healthy and free of disease and parasites.
Now, just because there may be thirty pounds of honey in the hive, it doesn’t mean that honey is for you. If the colony has flourished and generated an abundance of honey, it will need a solid food reserve for the coming winter. When in doubt, take less honey when it comes time to harvest.
If you feel that a hive does NOT have the honey reserves needed to survive the winter, either because you took too much or there wasn’t enough to begin with for a variety of reasons, you may supplement the food supply with a simple syrup made from natural sugars (beet, cane, or corn) or even your cupboard honey stock from the previous year’s harvest. Obviously, this is a last resort.
ALWAYS REMEMBER Higher bee population = more honey is produced = more honey is needed during winter
One of the biggest challenges with beekeeping (anywhere, not just in an urban setting) is preparing your hive for winter. Bees have an incredible ability to generate heat, and in fact it is an evolutionary defense against foreign invaders of the hive. However, generating heat is not the same as retaining it in extreme circumstances. And even though hives are made of wood (which is a great substance for thermal retention), high winds and really cold winters can easily strip even the largest hives of their heat. In an effort to preserve the hive, there are several ways to increase the colonies’ chances of surviving winter.
1. Hive placement is probably the most important. You’ve probably considered this from a flight-pattern perspective, and to make your neighbors happy, but one must take into account the patterns of wind and cold. Avoid open areas where the wind cross is unobstructed and try to avoid placing the hives where snow drifts are likely to occur. One of the best options is to have a semi-permanent shed or other shelter covering the hive. It will help block the wind and snow, but also help the hive retain heat.
2. Don’t insulate the hive with plastic. Even though plastic can block the wind, it doesn’t allow moisture to escape—bad news when the weather is fluctuating. Moisture buildup not only means the hive refreezes internally, it can also encourage mildew and other moisture-friendly bacteria and molds to grow. Cloth, Styrofoam, roofing felt, and really anything that has a decent R-value (insulating power) can be used to help protect the hive.
3. Leave part of the entrance to the hive open and include an upper exit to allow moisture to escape. This will help maintain proper ventilation and give the bees the opportunity to experience daylight when (in the odd event) the winter temperatures in Chicago are suitable.
We’ve made several great honey beers here at Goose Island over the years. Most recently, we made two beers with the National Honey Board: a Honey Brown Ale with radish honey and a Honey Chamomile Lager with watermelon honey. Our most popular honey brew is the limited- release Gillian, a wine barrel–aged, Belgian-style farmhouse ale that marries white pepper, strawberry, and honey into a harmoniously tart and sweet beer.