On hot days, the author’s bees emerge from their hives and cling to the sides to cool off.
For the past several years, I’ve wanted to get into beekeeping. Adding beehives to our property seemed like a natural fit, because we already have a large garden, some chickens, and lots of native flowering plants. However, beekeeping seemed a little daunting. What would I need to get started? Where would I get bees? How would I manage a hive?
The answer came in the form of a regional Adopt-a-Hive program that serves wannabe beekeepers who live in the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The program was started in 2018 by experienced beekeeper Dane Wallis. “A lot of people were pondering getting into beekeeping, but didn’t know quite how to get started,” Wallis says of the endeavor. I was one of those people, so I eagerly pursued the program.
Adopt-a-Hive programs help beginners get acquainted with beekeeping under the guidance of an experienced mentor.
For $300, I was able to acquire all the bees, a hive (on loan), a T-shirt, and 10 pounds of honey delivered to me at the end of the season. More important was the promise of some hand-holding by Wallis, who’s not only knowledgeable about bees but is also a patient teacher.
I decided to purchase another hive to go along with the rented one. I bought additional bees and a kit that included an assembled hive and 10 frames, a smoker, a protective veil and gloves, a hive tool, a sugar-water dispenser, and a book on beekeeping for beginners by Keith S. Delaplane titled First Lessons in Beekeeping.
The bees arrived on May 11, about the time dandelions were blooming in my front yard. The drones and worker bees were transported in a ventilated wooden box, with the queen in her own separate travel case. I removed half the hive frames to make way for the thousands of bees that were about to be emptied into the hive. I also removed the can of sugar water that came with the bees and set it aside.
Wallis gently shook the bees out of the box into the hive. They didn’t all come out at once, so he lowered the box into the hive. At this point, Wallis pulled the precious queen out of his pocket, and, with a pocketknife, removed the cork at one end of the cage, being careful not to poke the queen. He then replaced the cork with a small marshmallow, which the worker bees would nibble on for the next few days until the queen was freed.
Next, we stretched a large rubber band around one of the frames, and inserted the queen carrier between the rubber band and the frame. We then lowered the frame back into the hive so the worker bees could get acquainted with the queen.
With the extra hive, I was able to get the hands-on experience I needed. Wallis would demonstrate the procedures with the rented hive, and I would follow suit with my own.
A few days after the initial setup, Wallis came over and removed the box from the hive, dumped the remaining bees out of the box into the hive, and replaced all the frames he’d removed. He used a hive tool to move the frames as needed, so as not to squish any bees, especially the queen bee. He then set the box, which still contained a smattering of bees, near the entrance of the hive, and placed the sugar solution at the entrance. The bees used the sugar to get off to a good start.
This was a critical time for the hive. The queen was being introduced to the hive and would need to be accepted by the other bees. She had mated prior to being placed in the hive and was sending off pheromones that spread to worker bees throughout the hive. If everything went according to plan, they would accept the queen, and we’d be able to spot her in the hive the next time we opened it up.
Seventeen days later, on May 28, Wallis returned, and we opened the hive to see how the queen was doing. We were in luck! She was moving about with thousands of other bees. We marked the queen with a blue marker so we could easily find her the next time we opened the hive.
About a month later, when clover was blooming in the surrounding hayfields, Wallis returned to open the box and check on the bees and developing hive. He said things were looking good, with plenty of egg-laying activity and pollen gathering evident in the frames of the hive. We were on track for a healthy hive and the production of honey for later extraction.
A honey extractor is an expensive purchase, which is one good reason to join a beekeepers association that has one for members to use. Wallis extracted my honey and stopped over one fall day to deliver a box containing pure, golden, delicious honey — the kind you can’t buy in a store.
Besides teaching beginners about beekeeping, Wallis’ Adopt-a-Hive program helps more people set up hives and help bees, which have been in decline for several years. Plus, Wallis says that having beekeepers in both rural and urban areas helps with pollination of a variety of ornamental and agricultural crops. Similar hive-adoption programs exist across the country; check with local beekeepers to see what’s available in your area.
If you get a mentor, or even a helpful neighbor, to show you the ropes of beekeeping, take good notes and even pictures. The process isn’t too complicated, but learning the protocol from an experienced beekeeper will help you succeed.
Neil Moran is a horticulturist and writer who lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.