Saturday, February 28, 2009

I'm Scared to Keep Bees

I confess I'm scared. I'm scared to keep bees.

Here I am in February (2009) and I caught myself procrastinating on finalizing my plans to start keeping honey bees this spring.

I have two hive boxes that I bought last year and I've put them together and painted them.
I have two hats and veils and a pair of coveralls. I have a couple hive tools and a bee brush.

But I haven't ordered my foundation yet and I haven't put my frames together. That was supposed to be my winter project. And winter is nearly over. At least according to the groundhog Willie from Wiarton who saw his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. For a procrastinator, that's not a lot of time until spring.

So, I'm delaying my plans. I don't even have a place to keep my hives yet. I should be calling farmers or neighbours and friends that have large lots of land to make arrangements for a place to put these hives. Instead, I'm keeping to myself.

I asked myself why? And the answer worried me.
I'm afraid.

What I'm not afraid of is the bees themselves or bee stings--that's really the last of my worries. You might think that would be what would make me hold off and procrastinate, but no, that's not it.
Neither did the T-shirt I saw at the annual beekeepers' convention in Niagara Falls throw me off. It said on the back, "I'm a beekeeper. If you see me running, you should run too." I just laugh every time I think of that t-shirt.

But I'm still scared. What am I afraid of?

I realized that I'm afraid of failure. I'm afraid the bees won't make it. And if they don't make it, then I'll have to deal with all the reasons why and my own feelings of failure to help them be successful. And there's lots of reasons these days why bees may not make it. My success is absolutely not a guaranteed thing.

I remind myself of my purpose in beekeeping so that I could learn about the bees, hopefully help them and if all goes really well, I'd have some honey and wax. I remind myself that pass or fail, the saying "this too shall pass" applies. Over time, the bees will succeed--or not. Their genetics will change over time--or not--and those that are fittest will hopefully survive to carry on. I don't particularly like nature's policy on this and am wont to interfere.

In the mean time, I'll face this fear as best I can--head on. I'll use what I call the elephant approach. Ask yourself, what's the easiest way to eat an elephant? They're pretty big after all. The answer - one bite at a time.

And I'll remind myself that I'm most definately not in this alone. There's a sea of beekeepers at the meetings each month and they are generously eager to share their wisdom.

I will perservere. Succeed or fail, the bees and I are in this together.

Friday, February 27, 2009

My First Bee Sting

In September, my father went raspberry picking.
Dad regularly travels out to the Lakeside/Embro, Ontario area to work on his large vegetable garden.
He had discovered a family owned Pick-Your-Own Raspberries and vegetable stand a concession over from where he was working.
Of course he didn't hesitate to set aside some time to drop in for an afternoon of berry picking.

He came home with some whopping big berries in his baskets which he was very eager to show me.
It had been a good season for the berries, enough water and sunshine.
And the last few days had been really hot and sunny.
This was why Dad came over to see me to show off his berries and to tell me his news.

It was honey bees. Lots and lots of honey bees!
Thousands of them he said, and they were all swarming happily over the raspberries.
He offered to go back the next day so we could both pick berries. Of course I wanted to go so I could photograph these bees.

But it wasn't that simple, we had to go to the farm and work in his veggie garden. So he managed to swing an afternoon of labour out of me. That was kind of clever I thought.
Then after a few hours doing that we would drop in at the raspberry place and get our berries.

The sun did not disappoint and it was another great day for bees. Not much wind and tons of sunshine.
As soon as we pulled in you could see the little dots racing back and forth over the rows of raspberries.
I got my camera out.

We took 8 quart baskets with a tape-like rope threaded through them.
We tied the rope around our waist so the basket would hang there in front, leaving our hands free for the picking.

Dad, being a complete workaholic raced to his assigned row and began picking with gusto.
Me, I wanted to enjoy the place and take my time, and visit with the bees, observe, take photos and pick some berries.
Within 5 minutes Dad had almost two pints picked. I had 5 berries in my basket (and I didn't eat any). Now I was working and not just lallygagging around. I soon figured out the problem while I watched Dad finding these super big clumps of berries where he was able to fill his pint with one clump--my row had already been picked over and so it was much more sparse. He was making me look bad!

I did my best to fill my baskets and get as many closeups as I could. We chatted with the owner when we paid our bill inside his store. I told him of my interest in bees and about the research I'd been doing for my book about bees. He showed me some tiny round holes (about 1/4") that were drilled in the edge of the facing board on his storefront porch.

The holes were drilled by Carpenter Bees. He said he could watch them coming and going and he could often see little drifts of sawdust where they had tunneled into the wood. I was glad to see that he enjoyed the study of these bees and wasn't irritated that they were drilling small holes in his wood.

The owner answered my question about where all these bees were coming from.
There were 25 beehives at the back of his property.
He said the hives belonged to a man named Bryanson, an old white-haired gentleman.
He said I was to feel free to go on back down the lane and see these hives.
So we did.

I was unprepared to visit hives that day so I did not have a veil or hat with me.
At the back of the property by the edge of the trees were about 12 hives lined up along a circular track.
I took my camera and got out of the car.
Dad waited inside the car.

Bees were everywhere.
The air was just filled with them.
There was a continual communal buzz, a happy buzz and you could tell these bees were pretty busy going about their labours collecting nectar and pollen for their stores.

I walked slowly toward the first hive and the first thing I noticed was the strong smell of honey. Wow! The last time I had been that close to hives was in very early spring on the bee course. The bees hadn't had time yet to produce any honey.
Also, the air was cool so the honey would be chilled. But that day, standing in the bee yard, the smell of honey was very strong.

It was difficult to tell where the entrances to the hives were. I walked over to some other hives and I was trying to watch to see where the bees were coming and going from.
I noticed one hive in particular that appeared to have no activity and I wondered if the hive was dead. I was bending closer to have a look when I heard the loud buzz in my ear.
I stepped back a bit and then I felt the buzz and brush of a bee near the corner of my mouth.

What followed then was a sting. It was a slight pin prick really and nowhere near as painful as any stings I'd experienced before from hornets and yellow jackets. When the bee pulled away I felt the plop vibration--I knew that would be the back end of the bee's body being torn away with the stinger. But at the time I was moving quickly to ensure no stinger was left behind.

I heard another loud buzz by my ear and I figured that it was time to get the heck out of there.

It's sad how we say "stung by a bee". We say it from habit, but for most of us 99% of the time it was never the docile honey bee that was guilty.
Usually the stinging insect is a hornet or wasp.
There was a small amount of swelling and the pain travelled a little out from the area but it was by no means disabling.
I knew from my research that the main thing is to make sure no stinger is left behind in your skin. If the stinger was still there, then if the venom sac was still attached it would continue to pump venom. This would result in more swelling and pain. There's lots of debate whether to scrape or pull the stinger out, saying that pinching the sac would cause more venom to be pumped in. The key thing everyone agrees on is get the stinger out as quickly as possible. Often the stinger may not even remain in the flesh, which was what happened in my case.
So, I have been initiated with my first real bee sting--I'm sure it won't be my last!!!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Ferguson's Apiary in Hensall Ontario

Last summer (2008), the Elgin, Middlesex and Oxford Bee Association had a meeting at Bill Ferguson's apiary in Hensall Ontario(

The weather cooperated beautifully and we spent part of the day touring a few of his 700 hives.

Bill breeds and sells Buckfast queens and he showed us his queen rearing operation.

His wife works in the small shack in the bee yard where she selects bee larvae to place inside the little starter cups that will be placed inside his nucs.

I watched while she used a pen-like instrument with a goose feather tip to gently lift a clump of royal jelly with a bee larvae into the little cups.

She commented that if she touches the larvae at all by accident then they don't use it.

These starter cups (this is a term I made up because at the moment I can't recall what they should be called) will be created into supercedure cells by the bees inside the nucs.

The peanut shaped large supercells are larger than a cell for a regular worker bee--that's to make room for the queen's bigger abdomonen.

As you can see from the photos, Bill creates these really cute "mini nucs" that he uses to raise his queens.

The gals in our group (myself included) thought these little Barbie doll size hive boxes were very sweet, especially with the pink and purple paint.

For comb, they make small frames to fit the hive boxes.

They use a small piece of wax comb as a starter strip for the bees to build their comb on.

Inside the mini nuc Bill puts a Styrofoam cup with sugar water for the bees as a built in feeder.

I enjoy the interesting colours that beehives were painted with. A beekeeper confessed to me that the colours are usually whatever paint is on sale at the paint store.

The honey house was a real commercial operation with equipment for large beekeeping operations complete with a warm room to help keep that honey flowing.

Although we brought veils and hats, no one wore them--and they weren't needed.
It was a hot and sunny day and the bees were happy to be flying about their business gathering pollen and nectar.

Outside one of the hives was a large mass of bees, some of them in a ball shape.

There was some speculation as to what exactly was going on, whether they were actually balling the queen or whether they were outside the hive because they'd been irritated by a predator such as a skunk.
It was a very interesting day and I enjoyed an opportunity to see a larger beekeeping operation.

The Middlesex, Elgin and Oxford Beekeeper's Association

With a little Googling around the internet and a couple emails, I was able to find out where and when the local beekeepers in my area meet.

I was quite pleased to hear they are an active group that meet monthly almost all year round.

I attended the first meeting in May last year (2008). I'll never forget walking into the room and seeing the sea of white hair. There were approximately 40 people in the room, mostly men, and almost all of them were seniors.

Two thoughts struck me almost simaltaneously: What a vast amount of experience and knowledge in that room; and that the industry could be doomed if younger people didn't start to jump on board and get into beekeeping.

I have to confess that I have developed a deep love and respect for seniors. I certainly didn't always feel that way though. When I was younger I didn't care much for "old" people (my grandparents were always an exception). I thought they were grumpy and very set in their ways. Maybe some of them were but what I was completely overlooking at that time was that maybe they were grumpy for good reasons. And maybe they were set in their ways because they'd tried everything else and they knew what worked and what didn't!

Some things I guess you can only appreciate once you get closer to it yourself. I'm approaching 50 myself, having just celebrated my birthday this month.

I had my most consistent contact with seniors while I worked out of my home as an aesthetician. My most loyal, dependable and entertaining clients were the seniors. They came to have their feet done - toenails trimmed and calluses or bunions smoothed out. For them the pedicure wasn't a luxury, it was a necessity--older joints, arthritis, and artificial hips preventing them from doing their own foot care. What was a reality for them was a blessing for me. It brought in income at a needed time and it also opened the world of the older person to me--the life and times of the golden years.

So, when I entered that bee meeting and I saw seniors, I got excited. All that wisdom and experience in one place. I knew beyond a doubt there would be those that would be more than willing to mentor me in beekeeping, to share their knowledge, to pass on something of themselves. And I knew too that I would be obliged and happy to pay it forward for them too by helping someone else in turn.

The bee meetings are very interesting. They have professionals from all aspects of the industry speak at each meeting. Many bring a video or slideshow to share the scientific facts coming out about our poor beleagured bees. Topics discussed are Diseases, Overwintering of Hives, etc., etc. Many of the topics presented these days relate to the science of bees.

I overheard one beekeeper recently say to another how much the professionals--scientists--are now getting involved in beekeeping. And they need to be too. With bees in serious trouble world wide, the beekeeping and scientific community are coming together, not always in agreement, but at least coming together to try to find out what exactly is going on with bees today. Agreement, I think, mostly exists in a fictional utopia, but I do believe that people in the bee industry are working toward a common goal. What they do agree on is that they want to help the bees.

I was very pleased to see that some of the white heads at the local bee meeting were women! I gravatated to them and it was like kindred spirits meeting to chat about old times.

The bee club also arranges to have visits to beeyards where we can open up some hives and see someone else's operation. Last summer (2008), we met at Bill Ferguson's Apiary ( in Hensall, Ontario. We spent part of the day touring some of his 700 hives. He breeds and sells queens as well and he showed us his queen rearing operation. His honey house is a real commercial operation with equipment for large beekeeping operations. (See my next blog coming soon for photos and details).

The club works closely with the Ontario Bee Association (OBA) ( and many events are arranged in common, such as the annual summer meeting and the Annual Beekeeper's Convention in December--both of which I'll blog on later.

Last month, the bee club had a presentation of a video on bee migration in China. It was very interesting to watch a few months in the life of beekeepers in China. They certainly do things very differently there compared to here. This week there will be a presentation on the results of experiments with frozen bee spermatoza. The range of topics is certainly enough to satisfy the beekeeping appetite.

And the seniors, oh yes, they are more than willing to answer my questions about bees and behives. They are very patient and I can tell they enjoy an opportunity to share their wisdom and experience.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Clovermead Apiaries' Bee Beard Competition

Some events you attend alone. Others you know are going to be interesting and educational.

So when Clovermead Apiaries was having their annual Bee Beard Competition last summer (2008) I booked the family to attend.

After all, we all love honey and we came from grandparents who were involved in farming and agriculture so I knew most of us would appreciate a trip to the country.

The family had listened patiently to many of my bee facts and tidbits. They'd even read my book and given me feedback. So I felt it was their due to have a trip to Clovermead.

Henry and Anne Heimstra started Clovermead ( many years ago and they still enjoy active participation today. Their son Chris and his wife have taken over the daily operations.
The Heimstra's have an awesome set-up created to educate individuals, groups or bus loads of people about bees and beekeeping.
They have a few animals in pens too and some sport related interactive areas for the teenagers.
There's several heritage buildings to enjoy along a boardwalk. My favourite room was the historic beekeeping room. In that building I could look over the tools of the trade from times past and the piece de la resistance is the largest observation hive in Canada. This hive must have about 40 to 50 frames of bees.
They also have a regular size deep hive box with a plexiglass top. I took a couple photos and I think I actually got a photo of the queen although I didn't see her sitting there when I took the photo--I don't see attendant bees around her so I'm not sure if it is the queen.
Outside was a netted area with hives so you could safely walk around it on a boardwalk but also get some closeups of the bees. There's even a large hollow tree stump with a hive inside.
The kids enjoyed seeing the sheep, goats and hens and pigs. There was even a peacock. Then they discovered the hay bale climbing and paint ball and I lost track of them.
Of course, there were bee related Olympics. Various beekeepers competed in a hive tool toss and speed agility with dressing in a bee suit the fastest, lighting a smoker and collecting bees.
I got to compete too (the family failed to take photos) in the honey comb squeezing contest. The goal was to squeeze the most honey from a comb the old fashioned way.
I did resist for a bit licking all that honey off my hands. I placed second and a photo was taken by a reporter in one of the small town newspapers.
The highlight though was the bee beard competition.
The beekeeping volunteers stood inside screened areas while the bees were gently poured on them by a bee wrangler.
Unfortunately a little rain storm blew in which disrupted things temporarily and the bees weren't super happy with the weather.
There was a really good crowd out for the event and none of us left when it rained - we just went inside to wait it out.
Once covered in bees, the competitors were weighed to determine who was carrying the most bees. Paul Kelly from Guelph University placed first and Allison Skinner from the Ontario Bee Association Tech Team placed second, I can't recall the name of the gentleman who placed third, except that he was a beekeeper.
We all bought honey and honey comb in the shop and I got some candles too. I just love the smell of beeswax candles. They really add a special ambiance to any event that paraffin candles just can't compare with.
On the way home in the car I asked the teenagers what they thought of the day. Being teenagers they agreed to come, but mostly because their Mom and I were telling them they had to go.
On the drive up to Clovermead, Codie had been worrying about bees, saying he didn't like bees and he didn't want to get stung. He was pretty concerned (one of the main reasons why I wanted the whole family to have this experience).
He imagined all kinds of events involving terrible bee stings. Of course, none of his fears were realized and people found they could stand right next to the competitors covered in bees and the bees didn't care.
I asked the kids if they had been afraid of the bees that day at all. The replies were a resounding "No!" It did really help Codie to overcome his fear of bees.
I asked Codie to comment on what he thought of Clovermead and he said, "That place kicks ass!" That, coming from a teenager, is a great compliment.
Everyone wants to attend this event again in 2009. Maybe one day I'll be the one to wear the bee beard.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bee Hives in the Living Room

Yes I had bee hives in my living room. There weren't any bees in them though. I ordered 2 hives from Munro Honey in Alvinston.

Two large boxes arrived and I opened the boxes with the same enthusiasm as a child on Christmas morning. I sorted and piled everything in the only open space in the house - the living room.

Over the next few days I watched TV at nights while I hammered my hive boxes together. I'm pretty good at hammering a nail and can hammer with either left or right hand.

Then things got stalled for a while when I realized that starting with bees in 2008 was cutting things a little close. It was already late spring/early summer and I was very busy with the writing and illustrations for my book. I longed to be with the bees for real but I knew that I would be dividing my time too much. I put off starting in 2008.

I painted the hive boxes in traditional white and opted to paint my supers a lilac colour. The colour difference would help me tell at a glance which box was which.

Based on advice from bee books and online beekeeping groups I opted for a medium deep - that's the box where the bees live and raise their babies. The honey boxes are also "shallows" which means they won't be so big and heavy for me to carry.

So now in February, everything is sitting outside .... waiting .... anticipating. Spring is just around the corner. I can feel it in the warmer air. Sure there will be some cold and blustery days ahead, but we're around the corner. It won't be long.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Introductory Beekeeper's Course taken in 2008

Last year (April 2008) I attended a 2 day Introductory Beekeeper's course at the University of Guelph, Ontario.

I was very much looking forward for a chance to get some hands-on experience with honey bees. After all, I'd been writing a book about them and had spent months eating, sleeping, dreaming, writing and researching bees.

I was obsessed about them (still am). Finally I would get to see them up close and personal.
My over excitement caused me a bit of a problem - when photographing the bees I was doing close-ups and I kept going too close--many of my photos ended up being blurry! Then the batteries on the camera died.... well you know what it's like I'm sure...
The smoker puff sounded just like Thomas the train. We wore bee veils and hats but they weren't really needed. Some wore protective outfits and gloves but I noticed that the experienced beekeepers only wore the hat and veil.
The instructors of the course were very knowledgeable, but I must comment that they aren't just knowledgeable - they know how to teach, how to share, how to instruct (great use of the experiential model!)

The course was one of the best course designs I've ever had the pleasure to participate in - just the right amount of in- class and hands-on to balance out the day.

The forecast had rain in it so they had put tarpaulins over the hives but it was to be a blessed weekend and the predicted rain didn't come.

The bees were quieter because it was early spring - they hadn't had enough time yet to build up their population.
The first blooms offering pollen were just starting - you can see the trees hadn't even leafed out yet.

Before I learned more about bees I thought they'd be all over us when we opened the hives. The opposite was more true - they were too busy doing their own thing to pay much attention to us.
The nurse bees hovered over their brood in a cluster to keep them warm. They were too preoccupied with their tasks.

When we first opened the hive the bees came up to take a peek at us to see what was going on. We saw all their shiny black eyes glowing between the tops of the frames. We gave them a couple puffs of smoke to distract them and they disappeared back inside the hive, ignoring us.

There were about 25 people on the course, mostly from southern Ontario but some had come from farther north.
We covered all aspects of beekeeping from starting to maintaining the hives, to extracting the honey. Some attendees had already started in beekeeping and others like me were enthusiasts hoping to start into beekeeping.

The second day we extracted honey from frames, using a heated uncapping knife to open up the hexagonal cells.

The course covered bee diseases too. Unfortunately there's a plethora of viruses and pests that are troubling our honey bees globally at the moment.
I'm sure you've seen or heard something in the news about it - and it is a concern: Varroa Mites, Tracheal Mites, Israeli Paralysis Virus, Nosema, etc. And they advise the African Hive Beetle currently in the USA is at the border.

No bee stings for me on this first excursion into hives.
I was more concerned about hurting them than being hurt by them.
It's so easy to crush and smash the bees when loosening and removing frames and I was determined not to hurt a single one.
This spring I'll be taking their next course and that's the Bee Integrated Management Program.
I can't wait to say hello to the bees and see how they fared through the winter.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bee Anniversary Day

In January 2007, I started researching about beekeeping. I had purchased an Introduction to Beekeeping book ten years prior which I had not read. At the time I purchased the book my life seemed to be very much in the control of other influences - financial and work related--in fact maybe it still is today! Either way, I put off getting into beekeeping at that time. I do recall that the presence of the mite which I now know is the Varroa Mite was first making its entrance on the North American scene and was devastating the bees. It was not really a great time to consider beekeeping. And now is much more difficult. As I read the book last year I learned that the bees are still battling the mite, and a variety of other viruses and diseases.

I forged ahead with my plans and found a beekeeping course at the University of Guelph. Something else was happening at this time. The more I read about the life and biology of bees the more fascinating they became. At the time I was wanting to write a children's story and was considering a couple of story topics, none of which was really taking off. The bees did it though. As I researched I realized I had found the most amazing topic for my book. Shortly after that the Bee Magic Chronicles were born. I started writing on 10 Feb 2008, so today is the anniversary of when I started writing.

I took the Introductory Beekeeping course in Guelph. It was fantastic. I'll blog on that shortly. I also ordered two hive boxes, a bee hat and veil and a smoker. Over the next few months I concentrated mostly on my writing and illustrating and research for the book.

I kept planning to start with my hives and now I wait for winter to end and spring to come so I can officially become a beekeeper instead of a wanna-beekeeper.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Where It All Started

There was always honey at Grandma and Grandpa's house. Not just one kind of honey either. They had creamed honey, pasteurized honey and honey in the comb.

It was at Grandma's house that I tried honey in the comb for the first time. It was delicious and sweet. My Dad told me they ate the bees wax as a chewing gum when he was a kid.

I'll never forget the metal pails that the honey came in. They had metal lids and wire handles. We couldn't get these pails in the city. In the city, all our honey came in plastic containers. I guess it was old fashioned to have honey in pails, but later I found out there was a good reason for the pails.

Grandpa liked to spread his toast with a lot of butter and then he'd add a huge heap of honey. At one time I remember Grandma eating a lot of peanut butter and honey sandwiches. She got nspired and then mixed up the honey and peanut butter together in a container. She thought that was a marvelous idea.

One day she asked me if I'd like to visit the bee man. I look at her funny, "the what?" Then she explained that they needed to get some honey and she was going to go see the bee man. She said that wasn't really his name, that's just what she called him. Of course I wanted to see this man too.

We drove down country roads and after about 10 minutes she pulled into the place where the bee man lived. We went inside a room that looked a lot like Grandpa's milk house - it had white walls and a big window. There were a few bees flying around inside and a couple of them were flying at the window, but the bees weren't interested in us at all.

It was kind of exciting to be inside with bees and I wasn't scared of them either. The bee man was old like grandma and had white hair. He was very nice and he smiled. He asked me if I'd like to taste the honey. Of course I wanted to, so I nodded, "Yes." He gave me a plastic spoon and he directed me to a big tank.

The tank reminded me of the water tank in my basement at home, the one where the hot water is kept for our showers and baths. At the bottom of the tank was a little tap and Grandma first held her spoon under the tap and I watched as the bee man turned the spigot on the tap and honey ran out onto Grandma's spoon.

It was my turn next and I put my spoon under the table and the bee man turned the spigot. I held my spoon as carefully as I could so I wouldn't spill. The golden honey was thick and it filled my spoon. I tasted it and it was very very good. After that, Grandma brought her empty tin honey pails and the bee man held her pails under the spout and turn the spigot to fill her honey pails. Then I understood that the metal pails were used over and over to refill with honey when she visited the bee man. I thought that was very clever.

The fascination with beekeeping and honey and the bee man has stayed with me my whole life. I regret that I do not remember the name of the bee man but he has absolutely influenced my life.
In the spring I will be starting with my first two beehives and I'm very excited to become a beekeeper. Maybe one day I'll be called the bee lady.

My grandmother passed away many years ago but she left me her honey pails. I have them on display in my living room and when I look at them I remember Grandma and her love, the friendly bee man with his delicious honey and the honey bees that flew around inside a room, ignoring us.