SoCal Beekeeping

How I Started Beekeeping
Michael Henderson


Someone asked me how I started beekeeping recently and I had to really think back on how it all began, so I did some research (old pictures) to jog my memory.  Here's my story.

We have a number of avocado trees on our property and there's a belief that having bees to pollinate the trees will lead to a better crop.  My dad had kept bees when I was a child so I knew a tiny bit about bees - such as what a super is - but that was back in the 1950's and a lot of things have changed in the bee world since then.  And I wasn't really interested in being a beekeeper.

So in late 2011, I contacted Bill Walter, a beekeeper who would put a hive in our backyard.  Bill was a "natural" beekeeper. That is, he believed in going foundationless and in not treating the bees with chemicals.

In the spring of 2012, Bill brought us a hive - obviously to me now, a fairly new hive - a stand, a screened bottom board, a single brood box, and a migratory top.  I wish I had taken pictures but I don't have any that I could find.

Bill was not an attentive beekeeper - he rarely came to check on the bees.  But I came to understand that visiting bees in people's backyards was difficult and expensive so he didn't do it a lot.

The bees prospered and eventually he put a second brood box on the hive.  I don't remember when that was but I expect it was late in 2012, or early in 2013.  Probably in mid-2013, he put a single super on the hive.  The hive seemed to do very well.

I suppose it was in late 2013 or early 2014 that Bill took the first honey out of the hive.

In 2015 I got a call from one of Bill's employees telling me that they were getting out of the backyard portion of the business and he asked me if I wanted to keep the bees or they would come and get them.  I told him I'd keep them, even though I was not at all prepared to take care of bees.  To make sure this call was legitimate, I sent an email to Bill reiterating what I had been told and that I'd keep the hive.  I never heard from Bill again.   

The bees seemed to be doing well, even though they did not get much attention from Bill so I figured I'd have time to learn about bees.

One of the first things I did was get some equipment which I ordered from Mann Lake since they have free shipping for an order over $100.  I got a bee suit, a hive tool, a smoker and I don't remember what else.  I ordered books and did a lot of reading of the books and also on the Internet. 

As I learned more, one thing came to be a major question for me.  We've had Africanized bees in this area since maybe 1994, and Africanized bees can coexist with varroa mites, which I learned can destroy a hive of European bees.  My hive had been in my yard since 2012 and had no treatment and were obviously thriving.  Did I have a hive of Africanized bees?  And if so, how dangerous are they?  I had been living with them for about four years now (2012, 2013, 2014 and now 2015) and they had not attacked me or any of my animals but maybe they would someday.  I lost some sleep worrying about that.

Now, let me digress to another story.  My wife belongs to a local garden group and one of their meetings, probably in 2014, was held at a local beekeeper, Backyard Bees.  Janet, the owner, gave the group a presentation on bees and a tour of her honey processing facility.  My wife talked to Janet and told her about our hive and that I was a woodworker. Janet wanted some wooden hexagons made that she could use to display her honey at the farmer's market.  I took the following picture from the Backyard Bees web site.  Those wooden hexagons are probably the ones I made for Janet.  I made more hexagons than are shown in that picture.  That's not Janet in the picture - probably a family member.  She paid me for making the hexagons for her.

Later, after I had inherited the bees from Bill, Janet contacted me again and asked me to build her a top bar hive.  She had mentioned it earlier, when I built the hexagons for her, but nothing happened back then.  This time, I was a lot more interested because I had a hive and had to learn about bees.  So the deal we struck was that she'd pay for the material and I'd provide the labor.  Then, she would provide me with a swarm and process my honey for me for free.  I did a tutorial on building a top frame hive - you can see it here.  If I were to do it again, I wouldn't put a screened bottom on it.  Bill had been big on screened bottom boards and I did it because of that.  I now realize there are some problems with screened bottom boards so if I did do screened, I'd add a way to close it off to make the hive dark.

Janet brought me a swarm and a hive, but the swarm didn't stay.  They clustered in a tree in my yard for a day, but too high to safely reach. 

Since then, Janet and I have kept our bargain, She's done my extractions, and I've done some other woodwork for her, including a solar kiln for melting beeswax and more hexagons.  She's been very good about giving me advice and answering my questions.  I've thought about buying a hand crank extractor but the problem is where to store it when it's not in use - and it would only be used a couple of times a year.

But back to bees.  Janet does the same thing that Bill did.  She picks up feral swarms (she mostly doesn't do cutouts - she used to refer to Bill for those) and puts them in people's back yards.  Her business is honey.  She shares Bill's philosophy - foundationless and no treatments.

The things that I wondered about were: (1) Since she was picking up swarms, what liability would she have if she put a very defensive Africanized hive in someone's yard and they attacked an animal or person, and, (2) how are the hives doing without treatments for mites?

With Africanized bees, I've heard that their defensiveness increases as the hive gets larger since they have more to defend.  I don't know if that's true but, if true, a hive could get worse as it builds up.

She claims that she's never encountered a true Africanized hive, and said she has probably never worked a true European hive.

As to the second questions, she claims that her losses each year are light and very acceptable for her business.  My guess is that if she's going to lose a hive she will lose it in the first winter.  If the hive did not have the ability to coexist with varroa, it would probably be destroyed by mites in the first winter.

Now, back to me.  As I learned more about bees, it became apparent to me that there's an advantage in having two hives (actually, that's why I asked Janet to get me a swarm).  If one hive had certain problems, I could move brood from the other hive to save the failing hive.  So I put the word out to people in my community to let me know of feral hives or swarms in the area.  And I got responses.  One was a hive that set up in a bluebird box.  I took the box to my house but must have lost the queen in making the transfer.  I found a swarm in a cable TV box and realized that I'd need a bee vacuum to get them so that got me going on building a bee vacuum.  By the time I got the bee vacuum finished, the bees were no longer in the cable TV box.  I don't know if they left on their own, but I suspect someone sprayed them.  They were right next to a sidewalk.

The bee vacuum came in handy when my gardener found a swarm in a small tree at one of the houses he works at and called me. I picked them up and transferred them to a hive but they absconded, I think because I had a screened bottom board and didn't have it blocked off to make the hive dark.

I got a pointer to a swarm in an irrigation box next to the middle school and picked them up but they failed from varroa mites.

I eventually got two winners.  One was from a cable TV box.  The property owner said that the bees had been there several years and, from the size of the colony and the amount of comb, I think he was right.  They were easy to pick up and transferred to a hive very well.  They've been doing great and are docile.

The second was from someone's home.  They had an outbuilding and the bees had made a hive under the outbuilding between the floor and the ground.  That one was also established for several years.  They were packed with comb and had obviously become "honey bound".  I had to cut the floor to get to them but the owners didn't mind.  That hive was also very easy to pick up and transferred to a regular hive easily. 

Both of these two hives have been building up well.  I had them each in a single brood box and recently expanded them to a second brood box.  One of them (the cut floor hive, I think - I sort of forgot which is in which box) has already started making comb in the second brood box.

I still get calls about bees but usually don't have anywhere to put them.  A neighbor who keeps bees lost two of her three hives and asked me to get her a hive.  I got a call about an established hive in an outbuilding and went to take it.  But it was obviously a very defensive Africanized hive and I wound up having to exterminate it.  I actually enjoy doing a swarm capture or a cutout but I have to have a place to put the bees so I usually have to pass when someone contacts me about a feral hive.

Let's see - I didn't talk about education.  I've taken two seminars with Randy Oliver through the local bee club, and one seminar at Cal Poly Pomona.  I learn something at every educational session so I take what's offered.  I subscribe to Bee Culture and American Bee Journal and I participate in the Beesource forum.

I have continued to work the original hive that Bill gave me - it's about six years old now - and I'm developing the two new hives I have.  I hope to put supers on them next year.  I've harvested honey from the original hive several times and keep an eye out for how the bees are doing so that they don't become honey bound and swarm.  The original hive was somewhat hot to deal with, but must have superseded the queen this past season because the hive is noticeably more docile (it's also possible they swarmed and I didn't see it but I haven't noticed a reduction in the number of bees in the hive).  My two new hives are quite docile.

One thing that worries me is that a hive will supersede the queen and the new queen will mate with drones that are from hives that cannot coexist with varroa and I'll lose that characteristic in my hive - and probably lose the hive. 

I have not done any treatments on the hives and don't plan on doing any unless there's something that is a transient problem that a treatment will help with.

I need to learn more about the diseases and pests of bees and how to recognize them so I keep reading and taking classes.

I don't have any plans to expand beyond the three hives that I have now.  My one hive produces more honey than we can use and give to friends.  The last time I harvested honey I sold most of it to Janet.  I expect that once I start harvesting from the two new hives I'll have to sell most of it.

That's my bee story to date.