Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Adventures with Home Beekeeping

Ever since I knew a beekeeper next to my school when I was in 5th grade in Michigan I've wanted a beehive. I went mental over bees BEFORE meeting the beekeeper as there was a field of red clover next to our playground...I had taken a milk carton, cut a hole in one side, taped sandwich wrap over it to make a window, and would catch honeybees and study them, fascinated. After I met the beekeeper, and he gave me one day a freshly cast block of beeswax still warm in my young hands, I went over the edge....I gently rewarmed the block of wax, and used a hexagonal pencil inserted into it many many times to make a fake honeycomb. My Dad got me a small hypodermic, and I spent many hours getting nectar out of red clover blooms, and injecting it into the cells, which I capped off. I had read all I could about how bees make honey with the enzymes in their stomachs so I knew not to expect success but tried anyway. All the cells molded. But that passion gave me a positive focus in a very very sad time in my life due to extreme dysfunctional daily drama at home stemming from a very disturbed, astonishingly cruel mother and a passive father. As long as I've been happy as an adult, it blows my mind to remember that at 10 I began contemplating suicide. That beekeeper and those bees I see clearly now were lifesavers and provided rare unconditional joy.

I did not pursue beekeeping my 15 years in Denver due to the high cost of a conventional hive and money was very tight the whole time due to being a landscaper in that climate and my money-losing publication 'THE GARDEN DOCTOR", but also because I was advised the hard long winters could be a real challenge for hives. But I've been back home in my native balmy Florida since November 2002.

So a few years ago I decided "time to make that old dream come true" and I revisited beekeeping via obsessive Googling. In the course of that, I stumbled on the elegant simplicity of "top bar hives". Using scavenged materials I made two top bar hives, and bought a swarm of bees from a local beekeeper. It was a marginal swarm plus he installed in incorrectly despite my in advance telling him that this was NOT a conventional hive. Nonetheless, my daily feedings of sugar syrup barely sustained them as a few more hatched.

Then, one very thrilling day, just as I walked past the hive, I saw a newly emerged queen return to the hive after her mating flight, at first perched on the side of the hive surrounded by her tiny cadre of worker bees...then she went inside!

Within a few weeks I could tell the hive was growing, with more and more bees coming and going daily. Friends and I would sit in chairs beside the hive facing each other, conversing as we watched bees return from nectar gathering flights, others leaving for more. Soon it was a very populous hive!! My childhood dream had come true!

As fall approached I used a cheap smoker and bee veil to make my first tiny harvest, which confirmed my suspicions that the beekeeper HAD sold me an Africanized swarm. DAMN were they mean compared to the Italian Domestics I've encountered at other hives. But nonetheless I had my first ever harvest of honey and combs! It tasted so sweet for obvious reasons and I loved giving bites to friends.

One day, the bees began swarming oddly and a few days later left...when I looked inside the top bar I saw why.....the beekeeper dropping the comb to the floor instead of helping me wire the comb to a top bar resulted in the comb getting wet and catching what seemed to be Foul Brood Disease. So I scrubbed and sterilized the hive and let it sit open in the sun for weeks then re-assembled it.

The next spring I spent $60 on 3 lbs. of Italian Domestic workers and queens, but they arrived with no release instructions. So I called the company and followed her instructions...within the hour the bees fled. BUMMER!!!! The next day I called the company in Georgia, told her what happened, and she gave me the number of the owner's other office in Michigan so I called him and told him what happened. I suggested that he include release instructions with his live bees, and to cover both conventional hives and Top Bar hives.....he said he'd been thinking about that for several years but had not gotten around to it. I told him the instructions she'd given me and he said in essence, "oh that is completely wrong, no wonder they flew away". He then said this woman answering the phone had zero experience with bees! I asked why he'd have such a person taking calls at his sole retail center....."because I know she won't take from the till"!!

I said I felt I deserved compensation in view of all of his and he gave me a grand speech about "making right" I said great, when will my replacement bees arrive? Turns out 'making right" consisted of SELLING me another batch for $55 vs. $60!! It is very revealing that he has ignored multiple contacts from the Georgia Better Business Bureau after his hearing from me how long I'd wanted bees and the failings on his end, not mine.

I have been given the number of a local apiary with a GOOD reputation plus one of my students might be able to help due to a nephew raising bees in Odessa near to Tampa. So I am getting excited all over. Money is very tight this month due to rainy weather having hurt class attendance so I will dip into savings to try again...I would LOVE to have a thriving Top Bar Hive buzzing with contented, productive Italian Domestic bees making my sweet dreams come true but long term this time.
I hope you look into Top Bar Hives, and enjoy the various pictures from that heady experience after I had waited over 40 years to pursue it! John


  1. Bees--Yes. Do you have any now? They are something I would like to have in the future. To cange the subject--How do you fare with nematodes in Tampa. When I lived in S. Florida they were brutal.

  2. No bees now but hope to get some soon. I keep nematodes largely at bay due to keeping my pH close to neutral and by continually adding organic matter that supports a predatory fungus that traps and digests bad nematodes while sparing the good ones.

  3. Great pictures! I hope you get some non-Africanized bees this Spring. Keep posting your progress.

  4. I've been watching bee videos with great interest lately. May have to plant clover instead of grass in my backyard. How much honey did you end up with, John?