Tales of a Terrible Bee Keeper

I’m more of a cat person, really.  But as a farmer, I love pollinators.  Birds, butterflies, especially bees help to ensure that we will have crops.  I wanted to help them out in any way I could (and perhaps have a bit of honey for my tea) so I set up a hive.

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My friends were using top bar hives so I did too.  The problem is that one of those friends is now deceased and the other probably tired of my questions and problems.  No one else I know, bee keepers from all over, has any clue about top bar hives.  Books exclude them.  A general shh surrounds the subject.  This is a problem because as you know from reading my adventures I can surely make a mess of things if not shown properly how to do it in the first place.  Such was the occasion yesterday when a mini-size Revolutionary War occurred on the grasses of our new homestead where now lie dozens of dead bodies and a meager pot of beeswax.

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It started out with good intentions, Brett told us to go check the hive now that we had moved it.  Make sure the combs hadn’t fallen down, make sure the queen is alive, make sure…oh, I don’t remember what else.  They were busily working on their nineteenth frame.  Imagine that!  Such a good year for bees.  Originally we heard to save them ten frames to get through the winter but with the talk of an upcoming hard winter, fifteen became their larder.  Four for me.  Luckily, or not so luckily, one of the combs had indeed fallen down.  Doug went inside for a large pot and some tongs.  We realized how fragile the comb was as it continued to break into pieces which made it very difficult to get it into the pot, honey dripped everywhere, bees trapped in their own creation, the rest growing in increasing anger.  We moved the next frame and part of it broke off.  I panicked, sudden vision of all of the combs breaking under the force of our knife trying to see if everyone was alright and inevitably smothering the whole bunch.  We took out the frame we had just messed with, content to harvest two frames and leave the kingdom alone.  Not so easy.

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The entire outside of the frame was sticky and a hundred or so bees would not let go of the comb.  Meanwhile in the pot where the four pieces of comb and honey lay, another several dozen bees tried desperately to get the honey back out.  As we placed the other comb on top (or threw it, I can’t remember, the bees were really mad at us at this point) the bees on the bottom layer melted into the honey and buzzed to their death.  The bees would not leave the pot.  In the middle of the night we went out and tried to scoop them out, they fell here and there, died in their sticky grave, huddled together in a swarm.  They were not giving me one ounce of honey.  I had not read about any of this.  Books make things look so seamless.

What I ended up with.  I have the rest back to the bees.
What I ended up with. I gave the rest back to the bees.

I have bees because between the fight against genetically modified crops and mass use of chemical pesticides we have killed a vast amount of the bee population.  I care about their survival.  I care about my own Queen Victoria and her hive.  I care!  Yet for a few tablespoons of honey I inadvertently killed a hundred bees.  Was it worth it?  I think I must have done something wrong…

Note: After writing this, I spoke to a few different bee keepers that said, “That’s all the bees that died?  You did good!”  Uh.  I guess I know more than I think!

14 thoughts on “Tales of a Terrible Bee Keeper

  1. Hi to you from a Homestead that also seems to spend a lot of time saying, “I think I must have done something wrong”. For the record, we have a top bar hive and by far the best book in the world for them is “The Barefoot Beekeeper” by Phil Chandler. It took us three goes, but we have finally managed to get our hive through a winter (touch wood) and are now waiting for the perfect weather to harvest the honey. We plan to follow this ladies method http://beekeeperlinda.blogspot.co.nz/2007/06/honey-harvest-crush-and-strain.html
    but having said that, things here have a tendency to not work out as planned so ….

  2. The adventure of homesteading, hobby farming, farmsteading or whatever term one chooses to use, is an adventure in education. Sometimes that education comes at the expense of vegetables that didn’t grow or weren’t harvested at the right time. Sometimes that education comes at the expense of an animal. Valuable, yet sad lessons are learned and down the road we hopefully reap the benefits of those hard lessons learned.

    One day you’ll have an abundance of bees and honey because you tried something new, you experienced some failure, you experienced some success, but mostly you learned from all the ups and downs along the way.

  3. You were refered to me by someone who reads your blog and was told you need a little help. If so feel free to email me and lets see if I can help you straighten out this top bar stuff.

  4. I’m a guardian for a friends top bar hive (she brought it to the country after her bee’s started dying from neighbors pesticides). It’s been a learning experience for us as well. Hang in there, it get’s easier. My friend that owns the hive has harvested a good amount of honey and found extraction practices that work pretty well. In Colorado there’s a great instructor for Top Bar, http://www.backyardhive.com. It sounds like you’ve found some other to help as well. Good luck!

  5. Hi there, although I don’t know much about TopBar beekeeping, there are some things that all bees do (regardless of where they live; )
    I don’t know if you used smoke, or not, but a just little puff (on a nice, sunny day when the yard bees are all busy gathering nectar) will keep the hive bees busy thinking about fire – not what you’re doing…
    Be calm and steady; remember to breathe in lots of calming oxygen but take care not exhale into the hive; as this, abrupt motion and “stress sweat” will all draw the bees’ attention. Also remember to remove jewellery before working on your bees, as watch faces and other shiny objects (think of a honey Predators’ eyes) are an attractant to guard bees.
    It’s really important to ensure the combs you plan to harvest contain only honey – as Nurse bees will NOT leave their brood. {Capped honeycomb will keep as is and is much easier to tell apart from brood comb.}
    If you have a box set up with a bee escape in which to place your harvested combs, as (if undamaged) trapped bees will return to the hive rather than stay with the honey comb. Having said that, in the days when bees were kept in straw Skeps, honey combs were simply melted, bees and all.. Speaking of melting honey comb, you could use an old double boiler for this (one that can be used for a dedicated honey/wax pot; ) as melting everything over gently simmering water prevents both scorching the honey or wax catching on fire.
    Once fully melted the honey, being more dense, settles to the bottom while the melted wax, bees and any other contaminants will float to the top. The wax layer will cool quite rapidly, once removed from the heat and, if allowed to set completely, should stay fairly intact for removal. Once you’ve poured your honey harvest into clean, dry, airtight containers [it will keep indefinitely at room temperature] everything sticky can go outside for the bees to clean up – but be sure to put it fairly close to the hive as there will be a robbing frenzy as the bees recover their lost treasure…
    Hope this wasn’t “too much information!” Wishing you continued success with your BaBees & Happy Holidays, Deb

    1. This is exactly what I needed. Thank you so, so much. We removed the damaged combs but they were not capped which would be why the bees would not leave it, even in the cold night! Thank you for this.

  6. P.S. My Grandma always said, “The day I don’t learn something, you might as well just dig a hole and throw me in it!”
    Well, she was just as good at passing knowledge along as she was at gathering it and, by teaching me the importance of not just learning, but sharing it with others, I feel honoured to follow in her footsteps.

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