Peggy Hill is a garden consultant. She maintains a blog about her garden shenanigans at

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The Buzz About Backyard Bees
by Peggy Hill    

Bees are fascinating. You may remember learning about the waggle dance they do to communicate the direction and distance to great flowers, but did you know that the hive entrance guards sometimes accept bribes? That’s right — a bee from another hive will slip one of the guards a little nectar, and then that guard will tell the other guards, “Hey, this is my nephew Joey. He’s okay.” Joey will slip in, steal a little honey and make a quick getaway. And I bet you thought only humans were corruptible.

The only problem with this story is that most of the bees in the hive are women, so Joey is most likely a Josephine. In a hive of 50,000 bees, only a few hundred are males. The bees have complete control over whether the eggs will hatch into males, females or a queen. They usually choose females, because females do all the work. The males just sit around, eating and drinking more than their share. Sound familiar, ladies? In fact, one indication that bee season is over is when the females decide they don’t need the lazy males anymore. They’re tired of taking care of them, so they kick them out of the hive and leave them to die on the ground. Take note, gentlemen, you have been warned…

And if you’ve ever dreamed of being queen for a day, there are only a few days in a queen bee’s life that you could possibly enjoy. These are the days when she soars in the sky, mating with up to 20 males. For the men, it’s drop-dead sex — and I mean this literally. Mating kills the male bees, and they fall out of the ski. Dead bodies litter the ground. After that, all is drudgery for the queen, and she will probably never fly again. She’s not even allowed a bathroom break as she goes about her life’s work of laying eggs. An entourage surrounds her, tending to her every need, grooming her, feeding her, moving her from cell to cell and, most importantly, encouraging her. “That’s a fabulous egg!” “Put another one right here!” “Wonderful!” “You’re the queen of all queens!” “Lay some more!”

We became backyard beekeepers for many reasons: to harvest honey, to help pollinate the garden, to alleviate — in our own small way — colony bee collapse and to have fun. My husband Dale does most of the work. Last fall, he attended a beekeeping seminar and classes at the library and became a dedicated member of our state beekeepers’ association. Dale’s a careful planner, so all of our decisions were thoroughly researched.

The queen is a stranger to the other bees, and they would kill her if they could. It takes several days to chew through the candy plug, and by that time, they’ve accepted her as their queen.

Ten frames of wax usually hang in the hive bodies, but Dale removed several frames to make room before shaking the bees into the box.

Very early on, we had to decide whether to get a “split” or a package of bees. A split is typically something a beekeeper splits from his hive. It may contain several frames of gestating bees/brood and the house bees that take care of them, a frame of honey, a frame of pollen and a queen. If you choose this option, you will likely harvest honey during your first year of beekeeping. A package of bees is just a box of bees and a queen. It takes longer to establish this type of colony, and it will be the second year before you get any honey. As a gardener, this seemed like the difference between starting my own seed and buying a quart perennial. The allure of watching it all unfurl from the beginning was irresistible, so we went with the package.

After learning all we could about beekeeping, we ordered our supplies. The frames required some assembly, but most do-it-yourselfers will find this easy. We were ready and waiting. The bees arrived in a wire box inside of another wire box with wooden handles. We could see them frantically climbing around, on one another, and I’m certain the UPS man was happy to get the buzzing package out of his truck. Dale was out of town when the girls arrived, so I was responsible for moving the cage to the garage and spraying them with sugar water twice a day.

Putting the bees in the hive ranks high on Dale’s “most fun things I’ve ever done” list, and it was exciting to watch. He opened the door on the box and gently shook the bees out over the open hive. Some flew into a small, lively cloud, but most fell into the box. After spending several days in a cramped cage, Josephine looked around and said, “Wow, this is great, we can make this work. It’s much better than that little wire box.”

It was exciting to watch Dale open the package of bees and gently pour them into their new home.

The bees are delighted with their new home.

In just one week, the busy bees covered both sides of the wax base with honeycomb and began stuffing the cells with brightly colored pollen.

During the first week, Dale went into the hive and couldn’t find the queen, but when he saw the small, white larvae in these cells, he knew she was alive and doing her job.

Dale is a proud bee daddy. While inspecting the frames during the third week, I heard him shout, “Look, look, it’s a baby bee climbing out of its cell. Oh, look, there’s another… and another… Yeah! This is so cool.” Dale began pampering “his girls” even more. He fed them all the sugar water they could use, and when the temperature sizzled, he not only relocated the big umbrella from the deck to the bee yard, he also adjusted it twice a day to keep them shaded. 

Watching baby bees push through the papery cap and crawl out of their cell is very cool. This frame would usually be covered with worker bees eager to help the babies, but Dale shook the frame so we could see them.

Cells filled with honey ring the edges of this frame. The bees put a white cap over the honey when it’s done. Many of the cells in the center of the frame are capped brood, where the larvae are developing. Some bees have already hatched and left behind dark, empty cells.


Dale pulls a frame of delicious honey from the honey super.

All that pampering paid off, and our hive grew quickly. When they filled their one-story bee house, Dale added another box. Within three months, they filled three medium-sized boxes. That’s enough honey to get them through the winter, so anything else they make is ours. We were told we wouldn’t get honey the first year, but it isn’t jam that I’m spreading on my toast! In late July, Dale added a queen excluder and a honey super. The honey super is where the honey is harvested. It’s a box exactly like the other three boxes in the hive, but it’s separated from the other boxes by a queen excluder. The queen excluder is a piece of mesh that allows the worker bees to pass from the brood chambers to the honey super, but it excludes the slightly larger queen — no one wants larvae in their honey!

Every time you go into the hive, you set it back about three days, but as a new beekeeper, Dale was enthralled and couldn’t resist checking their progress.

The bees never stop. Even while Dale inspects the frame, they just keep working.

Bob Fanning, a past president of our state beekeepers’ association, says, “I always recommend that a new beekeeper get at least two hives to provide a reference for comparison. If one hive has problems, it is more obvious to an inexperienced beekeeper if there is a second one to compare it to, and thus a red flag that help might be needed.” Following are his estimated startup costs:

Bee suit & veil
Two hive tools
Two hives & related equipment
Two packages of bees
Total estimated cost of two hives

Note: If you decide to start with one hive, it will cost approximately $522.

Phillip Garrison, president of our beekeepers association, has 110 hives. He visited our hive in July and helped me with this article. He estimated that our original population of about 4,000 has grown to a full hive of 50,000 bees. He also told us that in our area beekeepers harvest an average of 60 pounds of honey each year. His advice to anyone interested in beekeeping is to join a bee club, take classes and find a mentor. If you need help finding a bee club, your state department of agriculture can assist you.

Bees are fascinating, and they never stop working. They don’t even sleep. In fact, when Dale shakes the frame and bees fall into the hive below, they just brush themselves off and immediately start working wherever they land. Phillip says, “If only humans could work together as well as bees — there’s no telling how much we could accomplish.”

It’s fun to watch the bees buzz among the flowers and fill their pollen sacks. This little lady is enjoying the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).


For a few extra dollars, you can have your queen marked like the one pictured here. The color of the mark is standardized, but it changes every year so you can tell how old she is. I took this picture at a beekeepers’ picnic, where the frame was securely enclosed in a plastic cage.

From State-by-State Gardening November/December 2012.
Title photo copyright © all other photos courtesy of Peggy Hill.


Posted: 05/22/17   RSS | Print


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