Adventures in Beekeeping

Combed Honey

Two years ago we decided to become beekeepers.

Molly:  I think I came home from work one night after talking to some women who wanted to start keeping bees and said wouldn’t it be fun if…

Mike:  and I ran with it?

Molly:  You must have been between projects because you sure ran with it.  If my memory is serving me correctly I think within a few days we had Amazon delivering us every beekeeping book you couldn’t find at the library.  

Mike:  Well, I’ve always kinda wanted to keep bees since I was a kid and when you said you were going to do it I didn’t want to be left out….

We spent the winter and early spring of  2010 reading and learning about beekeeping.   The more we researched the more choices we found ourselves faced with.  We found out that there there were the conventional beekeepers and the organic ones.  People who swear by top bar hives and the ones who use Langstroths.  We also learned that most of the bees kept by people are actually artificially enlarged by 10%.  Of course there are the dissenters who believe that bees should be their natural size.  Then there is the foundation (put something in the comb frames to guide how the bees make their combs) vs. foundationless debate.  It just went on and on.

Mike: I’d heard that bee populations were declining and this was something we could do to help build them back up in our area as well as a have an abundance of polinators for the garden.  Plus, I always like to play with dangerous things :)

Molly:  I wanted the honey and lots of it.  I like to eat a little honey every day.  It’s full of beneficial properties and can even help you get over seasonal allergies.  I use it as my daily facial cleanser too!  

We decided to try to keep bees in a way that mimicked their natural state as closely as we could.  We would start with two top bar hives, use smaller bees and not treat them with any chemicals or artificial foods.

Part of the reason we chose top bar hives was because they were easier to make.  Like many (all?) hobbies beekeeping can get expensive…quick.  There is a well established industry out there happy to send you big fat catalogs just tempting you to spend your money on equipment and hives.  Our local beekeeping association is pro-frugality and when asked, someone in the group always has a great alternative to the fancy, expensive way of doing things.  Mike thinks he can make anything out of scrap wood and obsessively makes most of the paraphernalia for our hobbies.  Bee keeping was no exception.  He made two gorgeous beehives (they can start at $300) and a solar cooker to melt the bee’s wax out of….you guessed it scraps from our yard.

Topbar beehive

By May 2010 the topbar beehives were complete and our mail order bee colonies arrived.

Molly: You should have seen the mail carrier’s expression when he pulled up with a package full of bees in the back of his truck!

Mike: Yeah, but how about my expression the first time I shook the box full of 10,000 stinging insects like it was a box of cereal to get the bees out and into the hive!

Molly: It was priceless.

Our bees did really well the first season.  We picked up some experience and a couple bee stings as we learned how to work with our bees (Oops!  Turns out Molly’s got a hyper-sensitivity to bee venom).  That fall we were able to collect a gallon of honey.  Not bad for the first year.  Now that the bees had established their colony we figured we should be able to collect even more honey the next year.

We got the chance to buy all the beekeeping equipment from Molly’s parent’s neighbor, Bud (who only wears overalls) and we jumped on it.  We got six Langstroth beehives, real beekeeper’s veils & hats (we were using homemade ones) a honey extractor and a variety of bits and pieces.   Bud hadn’t done any beekeeping in a couple of decades and his equipment looked like it but the price was right.   With winter coming on we closed down the hives and dreamed of our expanding bee empire.

Topbar beehives in winter

Last winter was harsh.  We had some of the coldest temperatures on record.  We were concerned for our little ladies but hoped for the best.  When early spring came we checked on the two hives and found them in good health.  We ordered 3 more packages of bees and got some of the Langstroth hives cleaned and set up for their new tenants.

It was not only a cold winter but a dry one as well.  The dryness carried on into spring.  We had no April showers and no May flowers.  The new bees arrived and there wasn’t much for them to eat.  We had to feed the bees with honey bought from the store.  The colonies grew but at a very slow pace.  We had expected to harvest several gallons of honey this year but there was no honey to take.  Instead, we are still feeding our bees and hoping that they will have enough stores to make it through the winter.

Early summer we did move one of the established topbar hives down to Molly’s parents’ house in Albuquerque.  They live in a rural farming area close to the river (there’s only one river- the Rio Grande).  The weather is warmer down there and there’s more to forage for the bees.  In the end we harvested 2 combs (about 3 cups of honey) from their hive this season.

Langstroth beehive

It was a tough year and yes, disappointing.

Molly:  You know I go back and forth from feeling sorry for myself because we didn’t get much honey this year and being totally enthralled by out honey bees.  We know we are in a drought but the bees are the ones who are really feeling it.  

Mike:  I wish they had done better too but I still think it’s worth it just to see them working in the yard, going about their business.  It makes me feel like we’re helping to create a an ecosystem right here in our yard.

Coming up next we’ll tell you about all the amazing things a beehive can provide you with.

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14 Comments

  1. Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Nice pictures!  Just curious, do you require a special permit to keep bees?  

    • Posted October 5, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Thank you. We live outside of the city limits so we do not have to have a permit. The city of Santa Fe does allow beekeeping (without a permit) and are currently working with the local beekeeping association to write up some sort of guidelines. One thing that is on the table is to require beehives to be a certain number of feet away from a public sidewalk. If that can’t be accomplished a high wall needs to be between the hive and walk-way.

  2. Posted October 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I just watched a documentary about the bees disappearing. It was called Vanishing of the Bees. 

    I have always wanted to keep bees. One day we will live where we can keep bees and chickens. 

    • Posted October 6, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      We’ve seen that movie- quite good.
      Of the two species bees take less upkeep!

  3. Grumpyrumblings
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Poor bees.  Are there dry-weather flowering plants you can get for next year?  It seems to me like we’ve been buying quite a bit of local rosemary honey this year. 

    • Posted October 6, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      There are dry weather native plants like the multi-headed sunflowers that should be lining the roads right now but even those are in short supply this year.  Part of our longer range plan is to get more native flowering plants established in the yard to provide forage for the bees throughout the season.

  4. Posted October 7, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    I totally want bees and I’ve been wanting chickens too and my husband has been adamantly against both, but then one day as I was daydreaming about where to put a chicken coop in babci’s yard, he said “you’ve got a better chance of keeping bees than chickens”.  

    What do you think? Can I interpret that as a green light?

    • Posted October 7, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

      That is so a green light! I need to get my girlfriend Natalie to pipe in. She started her first beehive this past spring. I kept telling her, ‘Oh, it’s so easy’. It will be interesting how easy she felt it was.

  5. Posted October 7, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Lovely! The photo of the honeycomb is so luscious and the hives in the snow look like little Japanese temples, despite their German-sounding name. We had bees visiting what I considered was our sub-standard garden this summer, and they made me realize that my flowers “worked” anyway, they were beautiful and the bees knew it!

    • Posted October 8, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      Bees don’t judge they just want the food!

    • Posted October 10, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      Those might have been some of our bees.  They can travel out to a 4 mile radius to forage.  You should ask them next time you see them.

  6. Posted October 8, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I picked up a nice vintage copy of A.I. Root’s “the ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture” at a yard sale. Every once in a while I skim through it, and daydream of the day I’ll start a couple hives. I eat honey every day, but for now, I’ll keep buying it from a couple of bee-keeping friends.

    • Posted October 10, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      I’ve heard that XYZ is one of the must have books on beekeeping.  (I haven’t read it yet)
      Bee keeping does take an initial amount of time and $ investment up front but after they get established bees are pretty self sufficient.  One of the best ways to get going is to attend a meeting at your local beekeeper’s group. When you get the chance to talk to someone who’s actually doing it it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  I honestly don’t see why backyard beekeeeping isn’t more common than backyard chickens.  That said, I waited about 30 years from when I first saw some one doing it to doing it myself.

  7. Natalie
    Posted October 8, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I started beekeeping May 2011. Things have been going really well. I harvested 1.5 gallons of honey around Labor Day! This was unexpected and so rewarding. From nurturing the bees to harvesting the honey to sharing the rewards with family, neighbors, and friends, it is well worth it as a hobby.

    I spend 1-1.5 hours a week caring for and inspecting my bees. I don’t think it takes much work but I did read books and online articles, attend a workshop, enlist a mentor who has come by once to survey my hive, and occasionally have my husband help and document me working.

    I really enjoy the bees and feel that the barriers to entry are zero to none. I had been fascinated with the activity and fully committed to doing a good job as a beekeeper though. 

    I would say to make sure that it is more than a passing interest. I feel good about contributing to our ecosystem as Michael mentioned.  

2 Trackbacks

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    […] This debt-free story is from Mike and Molly, a married couple who talk about their love of making, building, sewing, growing, and cooking stuff — and living on less — at their new blog, Mike and Molly’s House. Molly’s also spent two years writing about how they cut back their expenses by more than half and expounding on other financial matters on her blog, Molly On Money.  They live just outside of Santa Fe, NM with their two girls, two dogs, two cats, an assortment of chickens and ducks and tens of thousands of bees. […]

  2. By The Benefits of a Beehive - mikeandmollyshouse.com on October 27, 2011 at 7:11 am

    […] few weeks ago we gave you the low-down on why we started beekeeping.  We knew nothing about beekeeping when we decided to become beekeepers.  In the months before […]

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