The Bee to Be
I have to admit I am a very unlucky, unexperienced bee keeper. During the last couple years my small bee farm (just 2 hives) experienced the entire gamut of possible failures: the queens died with an enviable consistency, the bees mysteriously disappeared or flew away -- or just died. But… the undying image of the famous detective (for those who did not spend a few childhood years reading Conan Doyle - Sherlock Holmes was a famous beekeeper in retirement) inspired me again and again. And of course I gained plenty from my failures: my beekeeper suit is covered with honorable pollen stains, I could make the smoker work from the first attempt, and our basement is filled with an ever growing collection of frames, supers (the wooden boxes that hold the frames) and other numerous and mystical components of the hive.
And the books… oh all the books devoted to my favorite subjects - yes, flowers - that I collect with much enthusiasm and read and make my imagination run wild and colorful. The poppy flowers were introduced to our landscape because of the bees. A couple of linden trees were planted for the same reason. And finally we decided to plant the crop specifically for bees on the remaining portion of the hay field (A story of hay field transformation is yet to be written..). Last year we planted crimson clover in the fall (September). It survived the winter and now, in May, it is the beautiful field of red flowers. I do see bees on the clover flowers. If that will be translated into a surplus of honey - great. Bees or no bees - the red field of clover in the spring is quite a sight and I see it as a permanent spring feature on our farm.
So after three years of spectacular failures, it was time to change my approach completely.
First - I switched to Saskatraz bees from Mann Lake. Yes, I know, Italian bees are more friendly and quiet... but I needed honey. And a glimpse of success.
Secondly - I doubled the number of hives. Sounds counterproductive, right? Kinda like doubling the losses? But I was aiming to the break through. I swapped medium supers for deep ones. So from the start I had 2 medium 8 frames hives - supers cleaned and disinfected, almost all frames replaced with clean ones. And 2 brand new deep 8 frames supers.
And lastly, I decided to feed my bees, that arrived at the end of April. And by feed them I mean the way I feed chicken and sheep.
This season I established the bee pastures. I had 2 unused parcels of land, around 1 acre total. One of the parcels was seeded with crimson clover previous fall. The new hives were put right there. The clover nicely overwintered and in the spring, early May, the field was glorious with crimson red flowers. The beautiful show lasted about the month and a half, as the crimson clover flower opens slowly and one flower is constantly visited in the course of couple weeks as tiny flowers open on the stem. And it was full of bees and other pollinators! I did my observations almost daily - from the sunrise till about noon ( when nectar flows) the field was humming with thousand of working insects. After the first week of the clover bloom (3 weeks after bees arrival) I inspected the hives. The feed I put for them upon arrival was untouched - but ALL and I mean ALL frames were full with honey and eggs and larvae. It was the same with all hives, regardless of the location. I removed the sugar feed, built all hives to their maximum (3 medium supers, 2 deep supers) and left them alone for a month.
In mid June the clover was mostly finished, though late blossoms were still visited by occasional bees. Immediately we tilled the field twice (a rather hard job as the roots were deep and strong) and planted buckwheat. I did not worry much about feeding the bees in June - the acacia trees were in bloom around us. My inspections in June showed all supers filled with honey and babies.
And then mid July, exactly when we had nectar dearth here in central Jersey, the buckwheat started blooming on the same field. And that was when I removed first honey and added the extra supers for our future bounty.
Next step was to engage the empty parcel - we planted buckwheat there mid August. It is in bloom now (mid September), adding additional source of nectar to the goldenrod and asters. And the bees are working hard on the field. We are slowly harvesting the honey, and I could not be happier - a medium 8 frame super (that is what all 4 hives are topped with) produce about 10 kilos (20 lbs) of honey with the combs (yes, we remove all combs and use the wax-stained wood in the fire pit). It is mostly buckwheat honey, which I do not mind at all. I will probably try to plant clover in the spring as well next year, aiming to have clover field in bloom in July-August to be able to harvest light clover honey. My conclusion after this summer - feed the bees, establish the bee pastures wherever you could. Right now I am planting crimson clover on ALL my vegetable garden beds - they will be the cover crop in winter, feed the bees with nectar in early spring and then enrich the soil with nitrogen when I till them in.
Happy bee feeding - and happy honey harvesting!