Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bird's Eye View of Chicago Honey Co-op

Courtesy of Google, a satellite shot of our apiary. Notice the extent of the community farm to the left of the concrete. We opened the space up to neighbors and friends for growing food. Our Friends at the North Lawndale Greening Committee help to manage the growing space .

For reference - the concrete squares are 20 feet by 20 feet. The image was most likely taken any time from late June to mid August 2010.

Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen

Courtesy of University of Illinois Extension
Every beekeeper runs into a testy hive once in awhile. Bees can get defensive for a lot of reasons. Most often, it is the beekeepers fault, dropping something, bumping the hive, moving too quickly, disturbing a frame of bees.
The weather can make bees cranky too. If the weather is cool and cloudy, a lot more bees will be at home that day with nothing else to do but defend the hive. This is why it isn’t a good idea to open up a hive when rain is threatening.  A poor nectar flow can can have the same effect.
On a sunny day during a good nectar flow, when a hive is opened, the bees should be so absorbed by their work that they barely notice you. That is why, when a beekeeper has a hive that is consistently defensive no matter how good the weather is, something must be done.
In a case like this, the queen has passed down a trait of excessive defensiveness to her young and since all the bees in the hive have hatched from her eggs, they all are defensive. This means a hive that is difficult to work with and potentially hazardous.
So how does a beekeeper change the behavior of this problem hive? By changing the genetics and introducing a new queen. Easier said than done.
The hive in question is on a rooftop in downtown Chicago. It is an extremely successful hive with lots of bees storing lots of honey. Just what a beekeeper likes to see, but very difficult to work on.
In order to introduce the new queen, the hive must be opened up and the old queen must be found and killed.  Harsh, yes but necessary.
It is never easy to find a queen in a hive that is many boxes tall and full of bees. The task is extra difficult when there are angry bees flying all around. Lots of smoke is required to confuse and distract them while the search goes on for the soon to be ex-queen. Eventually she was found and executed.
As quickly as possible, the new queen, inside a small screened box called a queen cage, was placed inside the hive. Doing this allows the bees to get used to her pheromone scents and accept her as their new queen. If all goes well, they will release her and she will begin laying eggs.
Worker bees with her genetics will begin to hatch out of their cells 21 days from the day they were laid. At the rate of 1000 to 2000 eggs per day, her takeover will be complete in a matter of weeks.
Can we be certain the hive will be as successful or productive or even less defensive? Not completely.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Every year around this time we start to get emails from people who have a swarm of honey bees in their yard or on their fence or in a tree. In the past they may have just called an exterminator. Now, because of the publicity about Colony Collapse Disorder, they want to avoid killing the bees and just want to find them a new home.

Even so, many people are still under the impression that a swarm of bees is a dangerous thing, ready to sting at the drop of a hat. The opposite is true. Honey bees clustered together in a swarm are surrounding their queen who has left the hive to find a new home, leaving behind a new queen and the remaining bees. This is the way honey bees propagate new colonies and in this day and age, is a very good thing.

A clustered swarm of honey bees is in a holding pattern. They aren't aggressive because they have no honey or young brood to defend. They are waiting for scout bees to come back from searching for a new home.

Before they left the hive with the queen, they all ate a lot of honey to get them through the few days it might take to find new a place to take up residence. They will use the energy from the honey to keep themselves and the queen warm while they wait.

When the scout bees come back, they will transmit the location of the new digs to the rest of the colony and they will all take off, fly around to get their bearings and go on to move in. When the first bees arrive, they will release a pheromone to help the rest of the bees find the new location.

Admittedly, a swarm of flying bees is pretty scary looking but you could stand in the middle of one as I have and not get stung unless you started swatting at them. Sure they will bump into you but they are very purposeful insects and are concentrating on the task at hand.

So, if you see a swarm of honey bees, you can call your local beekeeper to take them away or just let them find their own way in the world.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Why We are starting a CSA

Like a lot of farmers who rely on farmers markets for most of our income, Chicago Honey Co-op gets the great majority of it's sales in the Summer and Fall.  From about July to October every year for the past six years we have gone to market on Saturday and Sunday to sell our honey, beeswax candles and bath products.  Of course with income concentrated in such a short time period, that leaves a big part of the year with reduced income.  Having online stores helps somewhat but doesn't provide the infusion of cash we need in the first half of the year.

This is identical to the situation that farmers face and it is why the CSA was invented.  For those of you who don't know CSA stands for community supported agriculture.  Community Supported Agriculture started in the early 1980's in New England as a means of connecting communities with their local farmers.  Members pay up-front to provide the farmer with much-needed capital at the beginning of the season and collect produce (in our case, honey, candles etc.) in a CSA box later in the year.

We have talked among ourselves for a couple of years about starting a CSA but because of the nature of our products, felt a little guilty about making people buy bath products or candles along with the honey in a CSA box if all they really wanted was honey.  An article in the magazine Growing for Market helped us solve that problem.  In short, the farmers who wrote the article switched their CSA from a weekly produce box to a debit style system.  CSA customers pay for a share like any other CSA but instead of receiving a box they get to pick out what they want at the market stand and what they choose is subtracted from their credit balance.

We think this approach will work much better for both us and our customers.  A share will cost $48.00 and can be used at either the 2 farmers markets we will be selling at this year.  In addition CSA members will be able to choose from other products from the bee farm that we usually don't sell at the markets and will get discounted admission to events and tours we have at the apiary.

So, here we go!

You can find details about our CSA and sign up on our CSA page.

Hope to see you all at market!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Want to be a Beekeeper this Year? You'd better get started NOW

It's January and you want to keep bees this "Summer". Well, don't wait until May to get started because you will be out of luck. Your beekeeping year begins now.

"Why so early? It's just past the New Year!" you say. There are several reasons why. If you live in the Northern United States your beekeeping window of opportunity closes pretty quickly by the middle of April.

That is when beekeepers who produce package bees for sale are most likely already sold out. They are located in the Southern states and California and are offering bees for sale now for delivery in April and May. A small number of beekeeping companies offer nucleus hives for sale but they can't be shipped and you may have to travel pretty far to go get them. They are usually ready for purchase in late May or early June.

That is why you should be using this time not just to find a source of honeybees but also to prepare yourself and your bee yard (and possibly your neighbors) for the coming beekeeping year. Here is what you need to do.

By a good beekeeping book or two and read them at least twice all the way through. The Winter before I began serious beekeeping I read one basic beekeeping book, 2 books on beekeeping history and a book about nectar and pollen source plants. That was in addition to the charming beekeeping story books that inspire a lot of people to keep bees. I got to them after I got hooked.

Figure out whether you even have a decent location to put your bees. A small backyard with a couple of kids and a dog or two is not a good location for a bee hive. You need to place your hive where the activities of people won't interfere with the flight pattern of the bees. Also, be considerate and ask your neighbor's permission first.

Use the time of cold weather to figure out what supplies and equipment you will need, order it and assemble it. Yes, unless you want to pay a lot more, it is wise to assemble your own bee hives. You will also learn more about the parts of a hive that way.

Take a class and/or join a beekeeping group. You will benefit greatly from the experience of others and will have someone to ask when you encounter a situation that confounds you, which will happen regularly.

Lastly, wrap your mind around the fact that you must now care for these insect animals with as much attention as you would give a family pet. These are living creatures and it is your job to make sure they stay healthy and happy. Trust me, they give back much more in enjoyment alone.

Winter beehive photo courtesy of