Raising honeybees is "wonderful for reducing stress" and for pollinating the vegetables and fruits in her garden, said Cindy Chitwood of Hortonville at a breakout session during the Wisconsin Master Gardeners Association's 2014 conference.
Beginning beekeepers can get into the hobby for an investment of well under $1,000, Chitwood said. She listed costs of between $200 and $300 for the basic materials, plus another $120-$140 for each package of 2,000-3,000 bees and a queen for each one (total of about $500 for four new hives).
Plenty of information is available on the Internet, through classes offered by Extension Service offices in some counties, from county or regional beekeeper associations and from the book "ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture" by Amos Ives Root and Ernest Rob Root. Chitwood said the book is out of print but noted it is available online .
Dadant & Sons of Watertown is a reputable source of beekeeping equipment, bees and information, Chitwood said. She also mentioned the Warre company (warre.biobees.com) as a reference for information, especially on hives such as the "top bar" model that she prefers for pollination purposes rather than honey production.
Chitwood obtains some honey from the hives but she leaves most of it — 60 to 80 pounds per hive — for bees to survive on during the winter by keeping the internal hive temperature in the 80s. Even that much honey per hive might not be enough to survive on, and nectar supplements could be needed near the end of a winter as severe as the past one, she noted.
Honeybees prepare for the winter by pushing any remaining drones out of the hive, she explained. Beekeepers can help their bees withstand the winter challenges by placing the hives where they have protection from the wind and are facing the south.
Beyond that, wrapping the hive box with black tar paper, surrounding it with Styrofoam and providing insulation at the top are other good practices, Chitwood said. In all cases, have an opening on the hive and allow access to the outside.
In her more than 25 years as a beekeeper, Chitwood has been fascinated with "the very interesting social order of honeybees." In addition to the absolutely necessary queen bee that can live for six to eight years, a hive will have drones (males) and workers (females) that have short life spans.
Worker bees have a progression of tasks during their life span of about six weeks, Chitwood pointed out. This starts with cleaning of the brooding cells; nursing of drone and queen larvae; and then wax production at 12-17 days of age.
The worker bees have such diverse duties as attending and guarding the queen; feeding the drones; building the honeycomb; packing pollen; foraging for nectar; carrying the water that is needed to make honey; sealing the honey; fanning other bees; and removing dead bees and failed larvae, Chitwood said.
When a beginning beekeeper gets a shipment of bees along with a queen for each hive, the instructions will indicate how to unite them by having them get properly acquainted through pheromone familiarity, Chitwood said. This involves eating their way in and out of their shipping container.
With the queen bee laying about 2,000 eggs a day, a full hive can soon have 40,000-60,000 bees, she said. If the queen is having problems or is nearing the end of her life, she will address that by laying eggs that would produce drones that would mate with a new queen.
What's amazing is how the queen can decide to lay eggs that will produce either drones or worker bees, Chitwood remarked. Another fascinating part of the process is how the nurse bees secrete a royal jelly that feeds the larvae that would produce both drones and candidates for a new queen, she added.
If the female larvae were not fed with the royal jelly, they would become worker bees. The jelly enables those select larvae to become a sexually mature female as a young or virgin queen. Usually, the first virgin queen bee will emerge from a specially constructed peanut-like cell a bit after much of the colony has swarmed.
If a hive is becoming crowded, the queen bee will recognize that and prepare for a swarm that she will lead. However, she also prepares the hive for survival with the choice to lay both the drone (half of the genetic base — an unfertilized egg) and queen larvae cells. Beekeepers can track this by noticing those cells are being laid at the edge of the frame, Chitwood said.
Once bees have swarmed, those in the group are very docile as they seek a new home, she said. Back in the hive, the queen that emerges first will kill all of the other candidates and then have a mating flight with 15-18 of the drones in order to build a new hive, she explained. The drones die shortly after the mating as they explode.
The victorious virgin queen engages in that mating flight by six to 10 days after having emerged from her special cell. Millions of sperm are stored from the mating, and egg laying starts in two to three days and will continue for the remainder of her life span that could last up to 7-8 years.