Adventures in Top Bar Beekeeping

We’ve had our bees for a month now, and it’s been quite an interesting experience.  Since we’re using top bar hives – as opposed to the traditional langstroth – there aren’t many people in our area to reach out to when we encounter an issue.  At least one professional beekeeper we spoke to at a farmers’ market seemed critical of our decision to go with a top bar hive, but we feel it’s a more natural way to keep bees.

When we tell people we recently got honeybees, one of the first questions – after “have you been stung” – is “how many bees are there?”  It’s hard to say, since many of the die off for different reasons, but a 3-pound starter package of bees holds can hold approximately 10,000 bees, and since we got two packages… well, that would be 20,000 bees!  Since they’re small and clump together, I seriously never would have guessed that figure, but the sheer amount of buzzing bees can be intimidating at times.

It was a little nerve-wracking, picking up our bees, bringing them home, putting them into their new homes, but it wasn’t as “scary” as I thought it would be.  I feel like all those little honeybees are my babies to care for, and while I do wear some protective gear when checking the hive, it’s nothing like the worry you feel when watching a hornet or wasp fly about near your head.

When we first dumped the thousands of bees into the hives, we were able to stand there without any protective gear for a long time because the bees weren’t aggressive; they had neither established hive nor accepted queen to protect.  Only Gwen got a sting after a while, probably due to the fact that she squished on of the bees.

We decided right off the bat that we would be respectful and cautious with our bees, but wouldn’t assume the worst and spend a lot of money on expensive gear.  We used a smoker the first few times we checked on the hives, but it actually seems to upset them more than anything, so we haven’t been using it.  Phil and I both use a hat with an attached veil to protect our faces/necks, and I use gloves that protect my hands and arms, but that’s about it.  We make sure to choose a day when the weather is nice, wear light clothing since bees are attracted to dark colors, and make sure that we smell neutral (I wouldn’t go out with hair products or scented lotion, for instance).  We also work in pairs – never by ourselves – unless something happens.  Luckily, our little bees seem pretty tolerant of our intrusions, with just a few buzzing guard bees around our veils.  We are also careful not to squish any bees between bars, move the combs around gently, and so forth – don’t give them a reason to get angry with you!

Let’s see, some of the challenges we’ve faced so far:

  • The two packages of bees went back and forth between two hives.  Twice.  First one hive was the bigger of the two, now the other is.  So, one hive is technically “stronger,” I guess.
  • Both hives finally released their queens, and although we can’t be sure, it seems that one hive killed their queen immediately.  The stronger hive had an egg-laying queen; we were so excited when we saw the larvae!  A few days later, though, we saw supersedure/emergency queen cells in the same hive and no queen.  We assumed that when some of the bees from the first hive moved in, they killed her.  Hmmm.  At least she had time to lay eggs!
  • Since the larger of the two hives had more than one bar of comb with queen cells, we decided to move some of it into the smaller hive, hoping it would result in two queened hives.  Not being able to recognize a newly-hatched queen, we’re still not sure how to regard the now-empty queen cells.
  • When walking around just yesterday we saw two clusters of bees on a tree right near the hive boxes.  Ohmigoodness, did our bees swarm?  They hung on the tree for a while, then they all flew in the air for a few minutes, eventually disappearing.  We’re not sure if they all came back.  Was it the queen’s mating flight?  If so, perhaps at least one queen will finally have a healthy, egg-laying queen.

Upon some googling, it seems even more experienced beekeepers get puzzled by some of these scenarios.  A small measure of comfort.

We were surprised how quickly the bees started building comb.  At first we couldn’t see it since they were so tightly packed, but little by little, we saw the white comb poking out around the edges.  Then the more they built, the more obvious it became.

They have already built up a bunch of nectar and pollen stores.  Seeing them buzz around the yard, pollinating our plants and fruit trees is exciting!  I sure hope they get their act together soon so they can work together and give us honey already.  I can’t wait!

I never thought we would be beekeepers.  This is so cool!