I used to keep bees through my teenage years. After I left home we had to sell them, it would have been impossible to keep them in my college dorm. Over the past decades, I’ve always wanted to get back into beekeeping but decided to wait until I was at a place where I was fairly sure I would stay long term.
Since I had gotten out of beekeeping, there have been many new challenges faced by beekeepers: deadly parasitic mites, colony disappearance disorder, cheap imported (and often adulterated) honey from Asia bottoming out the price of honey in the US. These are all in addition to all the previous difficulties to overcome such as pesticides, poor honey flow, bad weather, bee diseases, etc.
However, there is nothing quite like going out into your apiary (yard where the beehives are kept) in the summer, listening to the contented hum of the hives, and smell that pleasant aroma of nectar being ripened into honey.
Yes, I do love honeybees!
Honeybees are amazing little creatures. In every hive there is only one queen, thousands and thousands of workers, and in the summer, a few hundred or more drones.
The queen has only one purpose: lay eggs to produce more bees. She may lay anywhere from hundreds to over two thousand eggs per day, depending on the season.
Interestingly, a queen can “decide” the gender of the egg she lays at the time she lays it. A fertilized egg will become female (worker bee.. or if needed another queen), while unfertilized eggs become males or drones.
The worker bees are all sterile females. Workers are all sisters or half-sisters to each other. As their name suggests, they do all the work in a hive: care for the young and the queen, make wax to build into comb, turn nectar into honey, clean the hive, keep the hive cool in the summer and the cluster of bees warm so they may survive the winter, guard and protect the hive from intruders and go out to forage and collect pollen and nectar.
Honeybees will sting if necessary but unlike wasps and hornets, are not aggressive. Rather they are defensive, if the hive is threatened by an animal such as a bear or skunk (or a human) they will defend it. But honeybees will not seek out humans to sting for no reason. Whenever a bee stings, she dies, the ultimate sacrifice of the individual for the good of the colony. As all bees in a single hive are related, and thus are basically one large family, it makes sense.
Of course, if a bees accidentally gets stuck in your hair, or you step on one sitting on a flower, she doesn’t know it was an accident; she will sting then too, and you can’t really blame her.
The drones are male bees. They do no work in the hive at all. Drones have only one purpose: mate with virgin queens. If a drone is fortunate to find a virgin queen to mate with, it will be the last thing he ever does as drones die immediately upon mating.
Most drones never get a chance to mate. Once autumn arrives, the bee breeding season is over. As there is no longer any reason for a hive to have drones, the worker bees kick them out to starve or die from exposure. It sounds pretty harsh, but why feed precious honey over the winter to drones who do absolutely no work?
I showed this to Nathan and here he is holding a drone proving they can’t sting.
When I was a kid, I once took a bottle containing a few dozen drones to school once to demonstrate this fact. I told some of the other kids that they were special “stingless bees” I had bred. Luckily when one of the other kids reported me to my teacher, he was more curious rather than angry or threatened.
But he asked me to please not bring a jar of bees to school again, as other teachers might not be quite as understanding.
When wanting to start some new hives, there are a few ways to do it: divide an established hive, capture a wild swarm or order packages of honeybees from a breeder. We ordered ours from a breeder in California.
There are several types or “races” of honeybees. The most common is the Italian race. They are known to be producutive honey producers but not quite as well adapted to rigorous northern climate. The are the classic honeybees with alternating orange and black stripes on their abdomen.
I chose a Russian-Carniolan hybrid. The Russian bees have more resistance to parasitic mites than do many other races and not surprisingly do better in northern areas than strains which developed in more southern areas. The Carniolan race evolved in the moutainous areas of Austria and Yugoslavia. Not only are the Carniolan also well adapted to places with long cold winters, they have a reputation for being the most gentle and least aggressive races of honeybees. A hybrid of the two races should bring out the best of both.
Unlike the more common Italian bees, our bees are dark gray or even black. It will be nice in the future to observe a dark honeybee on a flower and say, “Hey look! She’s one of our girls!”
We ordered our bees to come by UPS Next Day Air. Although you can also have them sent through the US Postal Service, than can take 3 or 4 day and be extremely stressful on the bees. The extra cost of UPS Next Day Air is worth it.
Our five packages arrived Tuesday morning. Jeanne met our UPS driver so he could drop them off with her so they wouldn’t have to ride all day in the back of a UPS truck.
Yes, Jeanne is amazing… how can she not be? She puts up with me and all of my interests. How many spouses would be willing to pick up packages of bees from the UPS, bring them home and then put them in a cool entry way INSIDE their house? Not many.
We took Nathan out of school that afternoon, feeling he would learn a lot more observing how to put bees in their new hives than spending an afternoon in his classroom.
Packages of honeybees have mesh sides so the bees can breath. Inside the package is a metal tin of sugar syrup for food and water en route. By the time they arrive most of the syrup is gone.
We sprayed some sugar syrup onto the sides of the package to provide sustenance after their long journey. Like people, bees with a full stomach are calmer and less irritable compared to ones who are hungry and thirsty.
I made the sugar syrup the evening before out of white granulated sugar mixed with warm water in a 1 to 1 ratio. My beer brewing equipment was very handy for making the 5 gallons of syrup (1 gallon per hive).
After I demonstrated how, Nathan helped by spraying the mesh of both sides of the package so the bees could drink their fill. We did this outside because sugar syrup is very sticky.
Jeanne, Nathan and I worked together building and then later painting the bee hives earlier this year. A hive consists of wooden boxes (hive bodies or supers, depending on their depth), frames where the bees will build their comb out of wax, a bottom and a cover on top.
During the winter, honeybees do not hibernate, rather they form a cluster and generate heat by shivering all winter long. It might be below zero outside but inside the cluster it may be over 90 degrees. An individual bee is cold blooded and like any other insect will die if it freezes, so the bees take turns which will be on the out side of the cluster during the cold winter. In really cold weather, it might be only for a few seconds before they trade places. To generate this heat bees need a high energy source: honey.
I located the hives in a sunny area protected from the wind and built stands to keep them the ground. I put up an electric fence to keep away the horses and skunks. Our horses may be just dumb enough to graze near or even rub on a hive.
Skunks feed on insects and will scratch on a beehive feeding on the bees which come out to defend the hive all night without hesitation. If you want to experience one grumpy hive, just go near a hive that has been raided by skunks all night.
We do not have a resident population of black bears living here in the Black Hills. If one just happened to wander over here from Wyoming, however, the electric fence would protect the hives from a bear too.
As Nathan and I put on our bee suits, he was excited. I was too. I had been looking forward to this day for years and years.
As you can see, I chose to go without gloves today. I did duct tape up my sleeves. A confused bee could crawl up my sleeve and sting when pinched accidentally.
After I explained to co-workers what I did the day before, many asked, “So did you get stung?”
Most were somewhat surprised that neither Nathan or I was.
Although I do own gloves in case I need them, gloves make one less dextrous. If you understand bees, you can often work them without gloves. Bees will only sting if they have something to defend.
As the bees in a package are homeless and without a hive, they will only sting if they have a reason (such as you not paying attention and putting your hand directly on one). Package bees are basically frightened and confused.
Yes, beekeepers do get stung occasionally but it is not as often as you might think. Stings are part of the territory.
However, before you think beekeepers are crazy, remember that some people grow roses even though the thorns sometimes draw blood, other people keep pet cats even though they occasionally get scratched (and the scratches get infected) while others raise large livestock knowing there is risk of possibly serious injury.
No, I don’t like getting stung one bit. On the other hand it doesn’t happen very often and it’s not as bad as you might expect. Often fear comes from ignorance or misunderstanding. Fear of getting stung is the same.
A sting from a wasp or hornet hurts much worse than that of a honeybee anyway. What many people call is a “bee” actually isn’t a honeybee at all but something else much different.
The next series of photos go through the process of actually putting the bees into their hive. Nathan was the photographer/videographer. He did a great job, didn’t he?
I put links to the video clips with audio of me explaining the process further at the end of this post.
I do talk to the bees when I work them… I don’t think they care one bit what I say or the tone of my voice (actually bees are deaf, but they can sense vibrations). I feel it puts me in the proper calm and respectful frame of mind for working with them.
Yes, I am strange. Of course, if you have been reading this blog I am sure this is not a surprise for you, you already knew that. Heck, I’m the same guy who runs ultramarathons because regular marathons are too easy.
Why try to be like everyone else…that’s BORING… when you can be unique and different instead?
Anyway, back to the bees.
The first step after spraying the packages with sugar syrup and setting up the hives, is to pry up the feed can and remove the small cage with the queen in it.
Sometimes the feed can is hard to get ahold of with your fingernails; a tool called a hive tool has a flat end that can help with this.
Because the bees and the queen usually come from separate hives, the queen is kept in a separate tiny plastic cage inside the package. At one end of the queen cage there is some firm candy.
After being together a few days, they get to know each other and the bees accept the new queen as “theirs.”
The queen cage is attached at the top of the package need the tin feeder. There often will be lots of bees clustered around her- that’s a great sign- the bees have accepted her.
“Hey, Mommy what’re you doing in there?” must be what they’re thinking.
The queen releases a special scent or pheromone to let her bees know where she is at all times. the bees cluster around her to feed her and keep her safe.
You can see the bees walking around these cages and over my fingers and hands.
Just thinking about this I am sure would give a lot of folks the creeps.
Even though the these bees are clustering around her, they aren’t mad or defensive.
Trust me they WILL NOT STING unless you’re just being careless and you pinch or squash one with your finger. You deserve it then.
However, for some reason three out of our five packages had the queen cage fall from its attachment at the top of the cage during transportation down into the mass of bees.
I had to reach down there… get this…..WITH MY BARE HANDS… to fish out those cages with the queen in it.
The feeling of thousands and thousands of curious bees crawling over your bare skin is amazing and hard to describe.
Yes, if they had wanted to, the bees could have all stung me at once… but there was no reason for them to sting… so they didn’t.
There’s no reason to be afraid as long as you understand.
After brushing off the bees from the outside of the queen cage, I put her in my pocket where she will be safe and warm while I attend to the next step: emptying the bees into the hive.
First, you need to make space for where you will dump the bees into the hive out of the package. Take out four frames and set them aside.
Then, you shake the cage firmly on the ground a few times. The bees are all clustering at the top of the package and you want them to fall to the bottom. The bees don’t like this, but it doesn’t hurt them or make them mad.
After that, you remove the feed can. A few bees will start flying but they are for the most part confused. They have no idea what has happened these past few days, they don’t know yet where their new home is going to be.
You then tip over the package and dump the bees into the space where you have removed the frames.
You don’t have to get every last bee out of the package.
They stand up high on their legs and release a scent into the air that basically is a signal to the other bees, “Here we are! Come on in to our new home!”
As I said, bees are amazing.
After most of the bees are dumped into the hive, you put the package at the front entrance so the remaining bees can crawl into the hive.
I have seen this before, but it really is miraculous every time I see it.
The frames must be replaced… carefully… so you don’t accidentally squish anybody. If you do so slowly and gently, the bees will move out of the way.
After all of the frames are in place, the last step before closing up the hive is to hang the queen cage in the middle of the hive.
There is a plastic cap over the end of the cage that has the candy. The plastic cap must be removed before the cage is put into the hive. Over the next few days, the bees will have to eat through the candy before they can release the queen. This gives them a few more days to get to know her.
If the bees aren’t aquainted and haven’t accepted the queen, there is a chance that they could kill her in their confusion.
Until the bees are able to collect and make honey of their own, we must feed them. The greatest danger now could be starvation, so we feed, feed, and feed the bees.
I bought a whole wagon load of 25lb bags of granulated white sugar at Sam’s Club the week before. It is estimated that a new package of bees may require up to 5 gallons of sugar syrup until they can survive on their own.
The woman at the door asked me, “What are you going to do with all the sugar?!?”
“It for our bees!” I replied and then explained how we must feed them until they can produce enough honey on their own.
She was somewhat incredulous, but then said, “Well, I just learned something…”
If I had instead told her I was going to use it to make moonshine or something similar, she probably would’ve found that more believable than what I actually was going to use it for.
There are many kinds of feeders. I prefer the top of the hive feeder. It holds up to 2-gallons and is located where the bees can reach it, even in bad weather. Plus I can refill it without disturbing the hive too much.
We repeated the procedure for all five packages. As I was in the process of hiving the beess, I looked over and noticed that Nathan no longer had his gloves on.
I asked, “Nathan, did you take your gloves off and forget to put them back on?”"
“No Dad,” he replied, “I just decided to take them off. If you’re not scared of the bees then I’m not either.”
“Well, be careful where you put your hands,”I cautioned, “the bees aren’t mad but if you touched one by accident, she might sting.” I wanted his first experience with honeybees to be a pleasant one.
“Oh it’s OK. You know I’ve been stung before,” he said, “It doesn’t hurt that much.”
Now this is the kind of stuff that makes a father proud!!!!
How many adults would’ve not only been brave enough to stand by while thousands of bees were being put into their new hives but also take their gloves off? Nathan is amazing.
After we were done, we took off our bee suits and packed up our gear.
Nathan sat on the back of the pickup smiling, “That was fun!!”
“Yes, it was!” I agreed.
The hardest part now is to wait the five or so days before rechecking. The bees are best left alone to settle down into their new home. After a few days I will check to see if the bees have released their queen and refill the sugar syrup.
Although many hives do produce some surplus honey their first year, I am planning on leaving it all for the bees. The first year is the most difficult; if they produce any extra honey this year, they deserve it.
We’ll have more honey than we will know what to do with next year. An average hive can produce 50 to 100lbs of honey a year!
Nathan recorded all of this on video, links to the clips of each step of the process are below:
I’ve had such a busy spring. It’s taken me this long to go through my photos and finally write this race report.
Often I am so busy in the process of actually doing everything that I do, I don’t have any time to write about all it is that I’ve been doing.
My pre-race report is here: http://ultrathon.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/the-day-before-rocky-raccoon-and-the-demographics-of-ultrarunners/
Huntsville, Texas February 4/5th 2012:
The day before the event we had our pre-race briefing. This was the largest ultra by number of participants that I’ve ever run in: 376 hundred milers and 298 fifty milers. Many ultra events have only 150 or 200 participants total. They are quite unlike the masses at many 26.2 marathons and other road races. There are not many crazy-people out ther like us.
Weeks earlier, I decided to sign up for the 100 mile race. As is often my philosophy, I would rather DNF attempting a longer distance than to get an “official finish” doing even the exact same distance in a shorter race.
There are no buckles or finisher’s awards for DNFing but that is not why I run.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE each and every one of my buckles. But they are only metal trinkets compared to the intangible rewards of finishing an ultra.
“Even if I can’t go the whole way, ” I told myself, “If I can at least go further than 50 miles, it will be a good training run.”
However, as race day approached, I began to doubt the wisdom of signing up for the longer event.
I had been training, but not as much as I know I should have. It’s been a busy winter. I’ve been traveling more weekends than I’ve been at home. All of the lecturing and presenting is an honor, but it does interefere with my ultramarathon training.
Then the week prior to the race, I had bronchitis. I was coughing and coughing. I didn’t think doing the full hundred was possible.
I certainly didn’t want to make myself sick, or have the bronchitis turn into something worse, such as pneumonia.
I didn’t want to DNF my race in my mind before it had even started, but I also had to be realistic.
However, I already had paid my registration fees and for my flights.
“It’s too late to back out now,” I thought.
I took the early start as I often do. Slow pokes like me need as much time on the clock as we can get. As we prepared to begin at 5AM, rain began to fall. Torrents of water fell, obscuring the trail. Lightning briefly lit up the woods. There was water everywhere.
Now I don’t mind running in the rain… a quiet, warm drizzle…. not a downpour complete with lightning and thunder.
I wondered out loud, as I often do while running an ultra, “Why oh why couldn’t I have chosen a more mainstream sport to take up in my middle age? Why not something a little less mentally and physically arduous? Like golf? Or fly fishing?”
Our feet were soaked within a couple of hundred yards of the start. No use changing socks, they would be soaked in moments.
Today would be a test of my foot-taping.
Since learning how to pre-tape my feet before races, blisters have become a rarity. And any that do show, are minor and manageable. In such wet conditions, I was not sure what to expect, even with the best of taping.
I like this photo.
I didn’t realize until I was going through my photos this morning that I just happened to capture the “One Way” sign pointing directly into my mouth.
Yup, that’s the goal, for food and drink to go one way, into my mouth… not up and out the other way!
Some have said that at ultramarathon is an all-day, all-night party with an all-you-can-eat buffet table every 4 or 5 miles.
Others say that ultramarathons are not a foot race, but a race to see who is able to eat and refuel continuously over the longest distances.
There is a lot of truth to all of this.
No food = no go.
Nausea and sometimes vomiting is part of the experience of ultra-running, but me, I’d rather not go there, thank you very much.
I prefer for my food to stay in my stomach where it belongs, not chumming the side of the trail for raccoons.
Slowly the sun rose, the cloudy skies kept the forest dark hours longer than it should have.
Rocky Raccoon is run on the trails of Huntsville State Park. As hundred mile races go, it is considered an “easy” hundred, if running 100 miles could ever be considered easy. Relative flat, with only the occasional tree root to trip over, it usually has a high percent finisher’s rate.
The event consists of five 20-mile loops. I do not do well at high altitude. The air felt thick, from the humidity and also the lower altitude.
“Too bad, I have bronchitis and it’s so muddy,” I thought, “this is a race I could possibly done well at. ”
Of course, in my mind, if I simply finish, I consider myself to be doing well.
We were told that the trails would recover quickly. Despite all the heavy rain, don’t worry about it…the sandy soil should drain well.
That is what we were told.
But as you can see be the following pictures….that is not what happened.
There were a few sections with wooden boardwalks over them.
After almost slipping off of one, I decided to simply wade through the wet sections. I was slow and backed up other runners the board walk; my feet were already soaked anyway.
The rangers had reported seeing a 9-ft long alligator here only a few days earlier. Before the sun came up, as I slogged through the water and mud over my ankles, I imagined myself tripping over a “log” that was not really a log, but an alligator, which would turn on me and drag me into the deep dark water… never to be seen or heard from again.
It’s funny what kind of thoughts cross your mind when running a night in the rain in a dark wet swamp.
I coughed continuously, I was surprised by how much sputum there was down deep in my lungs. Despite how miserable the conditions and how poorly I felt, it actually was a beautiful course. I was glad that I had come down to run it.
One of the aspects of ultra-running that I very much enjoy, is that I get to see and experience many natural and wild places, under all kinds of conditions, in a way the few people do. After several hours of running or fast-walking, you begin to feel as if you are part of nature, rather than separate from it.
It is true that you could get a similar experience by hiking and backpacking but it is not the same. To go 100 miles on a backpack trip would take several days; the experience lacks the intensity as does ultrarunning on the same trails.
Physical and mental hardship distills an experience. My memories of past ultras remain clear and fresh in my mind, unlike so many other memories which slowly fade with time.
The aid stations were well-stocked; the volunteers cheerful and supportive.
I’ve run in many other ultras over the years. Some events know how to support their runners better than others.
Rocky Raccoon is an ultra which certainly has its act together. What a well-organized and well-run event this is.
The name of this race was “Rocky Raccoon” but there were almost no rocks. Several of us, decided that a better name would be “Rooty Raccoon” for all of the tree roots to trip over in the mud and leaves.
My upper respiratory illness and the muddy conditions, finally began to take their toll. I slowed down.
I felt so tired, oh so tired. I had an urge to lay down and just go to sleep. Although that feeling is completely normal and expected at 2AM, it is not normal at 2PM.
The first formal cut-off would be mile 80 at 6AM. I realized that the chances of even going that far or that long were unlikely.
How far did I want to go?
How far am I capable of going?
These thoughts went through my mind over and over as I finished up my second loop.
“I should not be feeling this bad, not this early in the race, ” I thought.
As I approached the start/finish staging area and turnaround at mile 40, I had a decision to make:
Today was not going to be my day.
Should I just quit now?
Or should I try for another 20 mile loop for a total of 60 miles?
I was sure I could do 60 miles, but doing 80 miles was extremely unlikely… 100 miles would be impossible.
I got some stuff out of my drop bag. I rested a while before I made my decision.
“If I quit now, I will be showered and dry. I’d be able to go to a restaurant to get a good dinner to fill my stomach,” I thought.
“ If I keep going, it will be in the middle of the night when I finish the next loop. There would be no going to a restaurant for dinner because no where will be open.”
“Hmmmm… eat dinner now vs get no dinner later.” Well, that is what made my decision for me.
I had nothing to prove. What would several more hours of misery prove? Nothing at all.
So I decided to drop.
I went to one of the race officials to inform him of my decision.
He tried to convince me otherwise, “But you look so good! You have plenty of time, why don’t you wait and see if you’ll feel better later.”
What he meant is that I didn’t have the glassy-eyed look of someone about to DNF. He was right.
It is easier to make a wise decision when one is still clear and coherent, however, compared to later when I may no longer be with it enough to recognize when it would be better to stop instead of go on.
And you know what? I don’t regret my decision to drop one bit. It just wasn’t my day.
Only an ultramarathoner would allow themselves to feel bad about going “only 40 miles.”
Running 40 miles in the mud while sick with bronchitis is certainly nothing to be ashamed about. Many runners run their entire lives and never go that far.
I met a couple of other runners from Canada at the hotel and later ate dinner with them at a Tex-Mex restaurant. Had I not dropped, I would not have had the pleasure of meeting them and their friends. Yes, I definitely will need to run an ultra up north sometime.
Rocky Raccoon is a race I’d like to come back and try again. I hope next time, it will be without the mud and the bronchitis.
Take care, be well and run well…
I’ve been extremely busy between working 10 to 12 hour days at the office, traveling to lecture at medical conferences around the country on weekends and keeping up on all of the professional medical writing that I do. I haven’t had any time to write any posts on my personal blog nor read or comment on anyone else’s blogs.
I haven’t had a chance to post my race report for Rocky Raccoon … and I have another event coming up in two weeks!
So much to do, so little time!
Spring is here. What little free time I do have, I’ve spent getting the garden ready for planting season. I’m finally getting the hoop greenhouse I started last year finished.
We have honeybees coming in a few weeks. We had to put together and paint the beehives so they will have a place to live after they arrive. I kept bees as a teenager, ever since then I have looked forward to the day when I would have bees again. I’m glad this year will finally be the year!
We moved our laying hens from their winter quarters out onto the free range. They absolutely love it and it shows in their egg production. Nathan has an egg selling business now. Most of the egg money goes right back into the chicken food fund but Nathan does get to make a few extra dollars for helping out with chores.
The photo above is of Ruby, our Australian Cattle Dog caught in the act. Yep, it looks like she is an egg-suckin’ dog.
Do you think the Ruby looks so guilty because she knew what she did was wrong? Or is it only because she happened to be caught?
Sometimes a photo is indeed worth a thousand words…