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Diggin' In: Raising honeybees

March 24, 2014

Ruth Meredith is a gung-ho gardener and raising honeybees is a natural extension of that passion.

"I enjoy providing habitat for the song birds and butterflies, water gardens for the gold fish and dragon flies, so why not add a home for the pollinators," she says.

Ruth lives in Smithfield, Va., but grew up in nearby Yorktown where she always had a corner of the family garden for her own plants.

"The mail order seed catalogs were my ‘comic books’ when I was growing up," she says.

"I remember as a young girl visiting the local garden centers with my mother on the weekends. And my father has built me a greenhouse at each of the houses I have lived in. My mother has always enjoyed gardening and birdscaping, and that love of nature has been passed on to me."

While attending Virginia Tech for a bachelor’s degree in horticulture, Ruth read a book on beekeeping, and was immediately taken with the idea. Having no place for a hive, she shelved the idea. Even so, she gardened in a bee-friendly way, allowing good bugs instead of chemicals to control bad bugs.

In 2008, she began hearing about the Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, that kills honeybees. Knowing that honeybees are crucial to crop pollination for our food sources, she wanted to do something to help foster their numbers and good health.

"Back yard beekeepers have increased in number since 2010, as the plight of the honeybee has made headline news," says Ruth, now a business systems manager at McDonald Garden Center in Hampton, Va.

"But, as I once again looked into all the necessary equipment, I decided that I still couldn’t afford the time or expense. And due to CCD, beekeeping books were recommending prophylactic treatment of the bees with miticides and antibiotics to keep a healthy population. I just wasn’t interested in that type of beekeeping."

Ruth, however, was interested in a different type of beekeeping — top-bar beehive — she first read about in April. A top-bar hive is different from the traditional white square boxes, called Langstroth hives, which we associate with honey production, she says. The top-bar hive is trough-shaped with sloping sides that have thin bars laid across the top to form the lid. The bees are able to draw out their own comb on these bars in a natural shape and cell size, like they would in a hollowed out log.

Convinced the top-bar beehive was the way to go, she found a website that sold a complete top-bar bee hive for less than $170 — www.honeybeehabitat.com. It arrived unassembled, so she had the opportunity to put in an observation window along the length of the hive before she stapled it all together.

"The observation window is a must for hobby beekeepers," she says.

"I love to sit there watching them work, and my friends like to be able to take a quick look inside the window to the bee world."

Next, she needed to locate some honeybees. Since suppliers were sold out, she reached out to local beekeeping groups, and a member helped her adopt some of his honeybees.

"Beekeepers, like gardeners, are a very friendly group of people who love to share what they know," she says.

"And they have lots of different opinions on what is the best practice."

During the process of establishing the hive, Ruth struggled with some failure due to the lack of a queen bee in the first batch of honeybees. Once that was fixed, the process went smoother.

"The normal routine for a beekeeper when the colony is just getting started, is to open their hive about once every two weeks to determine if the queen is continually laying more eggs, and to check for small hive beetles, which is the newest threat to honeybees," she says.

"A screened bottom to the hive with a removable board underneath covered in oil, helps control the larvae of these beetles. They will fall thru the screen and get stuck in the oil and suffocate. The same thing will happen to the varroa mites that attach themselves to the honeybee. Dusting the bees with powdered sugar also helps control the mite population as the other bees will knock the mites off the infested bee as they clean up the sugar."

"I tend to look inside my hive more frequently than every other week, as I am fascinated with the process of the bees building the comb and filling it with brood, pollen and nectar. Pulling out the individual bars lets you watch that up close and personal. I also take a lot of digital pictures to document how the hive is progressing and also to update my bee’s Facebook page — www.facebook.com/topbarbeehive.

Ruth said she hopes her Facebook page educates the curious about the beauty and importance of honeybees — and that it dispels some myths about the bees.

"So many people have a misunderstanding that honeybees are aggressive and sting for no reason," she says.

"This is just not the case. Honey bees can be defensive when guarding their babies or honey stores, but a single sting means death for that bee; so they only sting as a last resort."

In addition to watching the bees while they work, Ruth likes the top-bar’s easy honey harvest — whenever the bees have an extra bar of capped honey to spare, you just reach in and take out a single bar. With the standard beehive, called a Langstroth box, a honey harvest is usually reserved until the entire box of 10 frames are filled, which means the box can weigh 75 pounds or more.

"To harvest honey off the top-bar comb, you cut the comb off the bar, and either eat it straight from the comb or crush it over a strainer," she says.

"Each top-bar weighs five to seven pounds and yields about 1 pint of raw nutritious, pesticide-free honey."

For now, Ruth’s major concern is getting the bees through their first winter. They rely on honey stored in the hive to get them through the winter, until February or March when plants like dandelions begin to bloom and provide food. When winter temperatures get above 50 degrees, bees also come out in search of pollen, so she plants plenty of cold weather-flowering plants like pansies, camellias, mahonia and hellebores to supply their needs.

"The bees also need a large enough population to cluster together in the winter to keep the queen and brood warm," she says.

"Because I got a late start, I plan to be feeding the bees in their hive as well."

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

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RESOURCES

Beekeeping books Ruth Meredith read:

"The Backyard Beekeeper" by Kim Flottum

"Top-bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom & Pleasure Combined" by Wyatt Mangum

"Top-bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health" by Les Crowder & Heather Harrell

"The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally" by Michael Bush

"Beekeeping for Dummies" by Howland Blackiston

"Honey bee hobbyist: The care and keeping of bees" by Norman Gary

Websites Ruth likes:

Beekeeping Resources at http://www.beesource.com

Bee Basics at http://www.bushfarms.com/beesbasics.htm

200 Top-Bar Hives at http://www.tbhsbywam.com

Barefoot Beekeeper at http://www.biobees.com/

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FOLLOW RUTH

Ruth’s beekeeping Facebook page at www.facebook.com/topbarbeehive.

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BEE-FRIENDLY PLANTS

To attract honey bees to your yard, Ruth recommends planting any of the "old-fashioned" flat, open-faced flowers. Honeybees have short tongues and cannot reach very deep into flowers, says Ruth, who has a degree in horticulture from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Here are some honey bee-friendly flowers she recommends:

Fall/winter:

Goldenrod

Joe pye weed

Asters

Mahonia

Hellebores

Camellias

Early spring:

Crocus

Fruit trees

Willow

Holly

White clover/dandelions in the lawn

Mid spring/summer:

Bees have many more flowers to choose from during this time, so you don’t have to plant specifically for the honeybees — avoiding pesticides is more important — but they do like:

Sunflower

Thyme

Lemon balm

Lavender

Globe thistle

Cosmos

Butterfly bush

False blue spirea

 

 


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