Beekeeping 101: Beauty is in the Eye of the Bee-holder

I had the honour of taking part in a beekeeping course at the CBC, taught by Vanessa Stewart of Vanessa Bees and Sol Flower. I learned a lot, yet realize there is always more to discover when it comes to the world of bees.

The Basics of Beekeeping

Beekeeper's tool: smoker, frame and J toolThe Beekeeper’s Setup:

To begin your adventure into the apiary world, you can find all the information you need through the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). They can provide information on what you will need and where to purchase it, including your housing (box and frames), materials/tools, and colony of bees (often called a nuke), including the queen. Your apiary will also need to be registered with OMAFRA. A permit must be obtained which includes the apiary location. Bees are very self-sufficient and great at taking care of themselves, but sometimes they need help with pests and adapting to certain environmental factors. The technicians at OMAFRA will make visits and inspections to help ensure the bees are healthy.

Make sure to choose a location that has access to a food and water source. If you don’t already have this on your property, plant a garden! A variety of flowering plants, especially native pollinators will make for a well-balanced diet. Some ideas: sunflowers, lavender, nasturtiums, bee balm, snapdragons, wildflowers (these are sometimes sold as a mix) and any flowering vegetables. There are also some plants that carry medicinal value such as anise hyssop, poppies, lilac and lemongrass. you can set up a fountain if you don’t have a natural water source nearby.

Pertinent Tools to Get Started as a Beekeeper

  • Smoker: keeps the bees calm when opening, handling and observing your hives. Bees communicate through pheromones, so the smoke works to inhibit their stress signal for a short period of time and keeps them from getting agitated and swarming you.
  • ‘J-tool’: metal and shaped like a J. Each box is filled with frames that the beeswax is built into, to hatch their young and produce nectar and honey. The J-tool fits under the corner of each frame, and allows you to easily lift them out to observe the bees and their work, without harming them in the process.
  • Protective gear: a bee suit with a mesh hood & gloves
  • A notebook and a pen for taking notes, a camera for logs
  • Cutting tool for harvesting beeswax and honey
  • Barrel or bucket with frame spinner
  • Mason jars and filters for collecting honey
  • Hydrometer: measures the liquid content of the honey you harvest

Beekeeping logs are important for tracking the progress your bees make from spring until hibernation. The female bees inside the hives including the queen and the workers (the brood) build beeswax, produce eggs, hatch larvae, and transform pollen into nectar and honey. The drones are the male bees who collect pollen from nearby flowers and deliver it back to the workers. As you spend time observing your bees, you will get better at recognizing the difference between the males and females, young and old, their different behaviours and habits, as well as the different parts of the honey-making process taking place. It is important to keep in mind that bees are highly evolved and very particular. So when you remove each frame with your j-tool to observe the inner workings, make sure to put them back in the same order and direction so as to not disturb their process.

Understanding Your Worker Bees

One job amongst the worker bees we learned about is those that act as the beacon of home. Worker bees don’t leave the hive under normal circumstances, but when we are taking the frames out and inspecting them, they sometimes fly off or get knocked off. They may not know their way back inside and find themselves disoriented in the outside environment. So there are bees that are appointed to go to the entrance of the hive and flap their wings, sending a pheromone signal to those lost bees to find their way home again. Sometimes the drones get tired from their flights and pollen gathering and need that beacon as well. They’ve evolved to hold each other down as a community. Something we all need…

Bees must eat eight pounds of honey to produce one pound of wax. Depending on the time of the season and access to blooms, the speed of production varies. We leave a patch of clover in the grass near our hives to ensure a constant source of food nearby. When bees come out of hibernation in the early spring, we make sure to leave our dandelions (food & medicinal value) for the early risers. “No Mow May” is becoming more widely practised, which involves leaving the dandelions for the entire month. As a beekeeper, you can also provide some honey and lemongrass in the hives as food and an immune booster to start them off.

You will often find a sticky resin-like material called propolis among the frames in your hives. The bees produce this valuable material from matter collected from surrounding plants and trees. It has many antibacterial and antifungal properties that keep the bees healthy. They can prevent sickness and reduce the risk of pests. Propolis holds mechanical and protective benefits as well, sealing holes and cracks in the hives against weather threats and predators. Propolis can be harvested and transformed into naturopathic products, often distilled into a tincture for cold remedy, or used to treat burns and wounds.

Beekeeping the Worker Bees
Can you spot the Queen?

Bees are very productive organisms! They are constantly working to fill up the open space in their frames. Once a frame is filled with reproductive or honey cells, they move onto filling the next frame. Often beekeepers will add a second box above- acting as a second story- with new frames once the first one is filled, so they can keep up their hard work through the season.

Sometimes you will inspect your hive and find that the queen is missing or has passed away. The bees will then make it their mission to produce a new queen. This can be a challenging and lengthy (and very interesting) process. If a queen passes mid-season, it can affect your honey yield as the bees’ priorities have shifted until the queen is reinstated. Every society needs order and direction, for it is the queen’s pheromones that regulate the hive and production. Often beekeepers will purchase a new queen and introduce her to the colony to expedite the process. Another occasion where a new queen gets introduced is when splitting a hive to make a new colony and increase your bee population.


Harvesting Honey:

Harvesting raw honey from the frame
Cutting comb and honey from frame

This is typically done near the end of the season (mid-September through early October), once the drones have had ample time to collect pollen, and the workers have transformed it into nectar and then honey. The honey frames are the heaviest, and have an amber hue to them. You’ll find it oozing out of the wax honeycombs. After brushing the bees off, you can use a knife or honey-extracting tool to cut the combs and honey from the frame. Don’t worry, the bees will rebuild! You can also use your spinning tool to extract any remaining honey from your frames: they fit right inside usually two at a time (see image). The honey must be filtered and poured into prepared (sterile) jars. The wax can be collected and used in a variety of ways (candles, lip chap, in mushroom logs, polishing or conditioning a variety of materials…)

During harvest, you will use your hydrometer to measure the content of water within your honey. Any honey that is 18% water or less will be stable and safe on the shelf. In other words, it won’t expire. This is called Grade 1 honey. If you plan to sell your honey commercially, there are label requirements in Ontario that can be researched and certified through OMAFRA before hitting the shelves. There are many delicious ways to eat honey, whether by itself as a spread, in coffee, tea and cocktails or incorporated into a recipe.

A very interesting note on the taste and colour of honey is the concept of “terroir.” Just as the sandy Norfolk soil produces unique grape and hop varieties for wine and beer, the pollen collected by our bees from our flowers hold unique characteristics of our land that are inseparable from the honey they produce. We uphold an organic stewardship of the land, meaning we don’t spray any chemicals on our grass or in our garden. We value not only the health of our family and guests but extend this care to our bees who are just as much a part of our community. And in turn, the honey they produce is just as much organic as it is healthy and delicious. As we expand our hives at Charlotteville, we plan to sell more honey in our retail shop and use it in some of our beer recipes. We even plan to get into the production of Mead, which is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey.

We got to do a honey tasting during our last class, sampling honey from different areas and different sources. You can definitely taste the difference that terroir makes. I’ve also done a honey tasting in Mexico, and a few varieties were actually quite sour (acidic), as the pollen was drawn from citrus fruit trees.

Wintering the Hives:

The female workers and queen bee hibernate in the hive through the winter, while the drones unfortunately just live for one season. There are materials you can add to your box to keep your brood warm and safe from the elements. You may also want to construct a wall to block the wind if you find they are in an especially vulnerable location. This should be done in October or early November at the latest. Tuck them in for a slumber, for they will need lots of energy for next year’s production.

By: Ms. E. Hoey