Jean Starr is an award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in several national and regional publications.

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A Bit About Bees
by Jean Starr       #Edibles   #Insects

This brood frame shows a pattern of eggs, larvae, pupae, capped brood and baby bees emerging from their cells.

You can try this at home! Growing bee-friendly plants is one way to help increase the bee population. Another way is to actually raise bees.  

For Denise Johnston, it started at the county fair. As a child, she’d make a “beeline” to the hive observation frame in the agriculture building, where she would become mesmerized by the bees’ activity. Then, about ten years ago, she met Bob Engle, the man behind the hives, at an antique tractor show.  

He asked if she was interested in a class he was teaching. Johnston signed on to a series of five 3-hour classes detailing how to start your own hives. After attending all 15 hours, she ordered her first batch of bees. Now Johnston is secretary/treasurer/newsletter editor of the Northwest Indiana Beekeepers Association, sells her own honey and teaches classes. (

“When I joined, we had about 20 people at the first session and ended up with five who completed the entire class,” Johnston says. “Now we have 70 people sign up, and it usually dwindles down to around 20.” 

The NWIBA now boasts 190 members, and Johnston credits the increased interest to an awareness of colony collapse disorder, disappearing bee disease and the importance of pollinators. Her first recommendation for bee newbies: get involved with a local club.  

Beekeeping associations are treasure troves of knowledge and great networking resources. It’s an ancient art after all, and many members have been keeping honeybees for decades. Beekeepers love to share.

Providing bees for cold climate beekeepers is big business. Before capture, the bees have already been pollinating California almonds, Georgia pecans or Florida cucumbers. Bee suppliers package them up with a queen and a can of food. “A 3-pound package of bees with a queen cost around $110 last year,” Johnston says. “They used to cost $8.”  

Other changes to beekeeping can be found in the mechanics of the process, but the product hasn’t changed a bit.

Jim Crawford uses the smoker to calm the bees before he opens the hive.

The Mechanics
You’ve never smelled honey until you’ve been to a clover hive that has just been harvested. On a clear sunny day in early October, Jim Crawford had just finished harvesting nearly 100 pounds of honey.

For someone new to beekeeping, Crawford moves with deliberate confidence. It’s a good manner to adopt when surrounded by hundreds of flying insects with stingers. After pulling out the honey-laden frames, he quickly stashes them in his truck. “You don’t want to leave honey out this time of year,” he explains. “It will attract all kinds of bees and even yellow jackets.”  

The bees are possessive of their honey in the fall. They need to have enough to live on through the winter months. It’s Crawford’s second year, and he’s been successful due in large part to his mentor George Manning who has kept bees for 65 years.  



Jim inspects the brood box to ensure that the queen is laying eggs in a good pattern. The brood box is where the queen lays her eggs and the new bees are hatched and raised. “You should see a nice cluster in the middle of the frame – eggs, larvae, pupae and capped brood (the final stages of the developing bee before it hatches),” Crawford explains. “Normally, if you look close you will actually see the new bees emerging from the cells.”

After harvesting what will turn out to be nearly 100 pounds of honey, Crawford inspects the hives. The brood frame, where baby bees mature, is a mix of eggs, larvae, pupae, capped brood and baby bees emerging from their cells. The frame contains cells with honey for feeding the baby bees and the worker bees. It is only when the brood frames become full of brood and stored honey that the worker bees begin storing excess honey in the upper “honey super” boxes. 

Crawford makes use of a screen called a queen excluder to prevent the queen from laying eggs in the portion of the hive where the honey is stored. “The screen has openings large enough for the worker bees to pass through and store honey but too small for the queen,” he says. “You don’t want the queen laying eggs where you will be harvesting honey.”

Materials Cost
Hives themselves range in materials and prices. Crawford has two hives – one he purchased, assembled and painted for around $400 and another that he had to assemble and paint himself for $350. He’s glad he had to put it together as it gave him insight into how a hive is built.  

Timing the honey harvest helps assure that the bees aren’t overly aggravated. “It should be at least 50 F but ideally 70 F and sunny,” Crawford says. “You want the bees to be out foraging, and when it’s cloudy, cool, and wet, they’ll stay in the hive and get kind of grumpy if you try to take the honey while they’re inside.” 

Hive Location
Crawford recommends a spot with maximum sun exposure and minimum north and west wind exposure. Honeybees don’t migrate but stay in the hives through the winter, eat lots of honey and generate heat by clustering and beating their wings. 

The Bees
For buying bees, Crawford recommends contacting a local certified apiary in order to start off with healthy bees.  

Jim shows an empty foundation frame (at right) that the bees will build up with honey comb, and (at left) a frame filled with honey that he will process.

A Little Background

According to Purdue University Extension Service, all honeybees belong to the genus Apis and bees in this genus are the only species to store large amounts of honey and exhibit a perennial life cycle. Honeybees represent only a small fraction of the roughly 20,000 known species of bees. Some other types of related bees produce and store honey, but only members of the genus Apis, are true honeybees. 

The western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is native to Europe and has since been raised all over the globe. It is the primary honeybee of western civilization, while the eastern honeybee (Apis cerana) is the counterpoint in eastern civilization. 

Among the commonly recognized species of Apis, only A. cerana and A. mellifera are kept commercially by man.


What’s in a Starter Kit?
It is recommended to join a local bee organization or find a mentor to offer support and guidance. Attend a meeting or two before investing in a starter kit that includes the basics, including the following:
• Brood chamber or hive body, which is a large box containing eight to 10 removable frames that the bees cover with a wax honeycomb. Each individual cell in the honeycomb is occupied by new bees or filled with honey for the bees’ consumption.

The smoker is used to keep the bees calm during hive inspections.

• Honey supers are additional boxes, usually shorter in depth than the hive body, that are used to store surplus honey that the beekeeper will harvest. The supers also have moveable frames for honeycomb.
• Frames, usually made of pine, hold a beeswax-coated foundation on a molded plastic raised cell sheet to help the bees start drawing the cells.
• Hive tool for opening hives that might be sealed by the bees with a product called propolis, which they manufacture from tree gums, saps and resins.
• Smoker – a metal container with bellows, plus smoker fuel.
• Bee veil is worn to protect the face and neck from stings.
• Gloves are worn to improve grip and protect from stings.




A version of this article appeared in Chicagoland Gardening Volume 22 number 2.
Photography courtesy of Jean Starr and Dadant & Sons, Inc.




Posted: 06/06/16   RSS | Print


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AllisonT (London) - 06/10/2016

Aren’t you afraid of getting stung by bees? Why don’t you wear a mask on your head? Isn’t it dangerous to touch the hives with bare head and hands?

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Allison Vestal (Zone 8a) - 06/17/2016

AllisonT, many beekeepers don’t wear protective gear all the time. It depends on many factors such as the season, how long they have been doing it, how established the hives are, etc. Some people simply don’t react to stings the way some of us do. In this case Jim had used a smoker to calm the bees before he inspected the hive, so he had less of a chance of getting stung.

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