Marin Master Gardeners
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Lessons from a foray into backyard beekeeping

October 31, 2009
Barbara J. Euser

OUR ADVENTURE in backyard beekeeping began in April, two and a half years ago.

My husband, Dean, and I did some research on the Web, read "Beekeeping for Dummies" by Howland Blackiston and, with the help of a beekeeping friend, installed one hive of bees in a corner of our garden. I had bought a wooden brood box, bottom, lid and frames to fill it.

Our friend Kathy brought us a stand for the hive of sturdy four by four planks and cinderblock pylons. The planks were 6 feet long. "Why so long?" we asked. "For your next two hives of bees," she replied.

At that point, we could not imagine having more than one hive of bees. We had purchased a box of about 4,000 bees and a queen from a supplier in Vallejo. Once Kathy had moved them into their new quarters, with my minimal help, she left.

My husband and I felt we had taken on responsibility for 4,000 new children. But the bees did not need our help. They began foraging the next day, hundreds of worker bees returning to the hive, sacs full of pollen on their legs.

We did not disturb the hive until the queen had time to begin laying eggs. Then, as new beekeepers, we disturbed our bees regularly. We had to see what was going on. Clad in sturdy white overalls, wearing veils and leather gloves, we opened the hive to check on the developing brood and honey production.

We added a queen excluder and honey super so the queen could not enter the upper box and the bees could fill the shallow frames with honey. They did so admirably.

In the fall, Dean oversaw the honey extraction process. He rented an extractor from Bee Kind in Sebastopol and with another friend harvested pounds of honey from the hive.

Of course, he left sufficient stores for the bees to eat during the winter months. We gave gifts of honey to our neighbors and they responded with gifts of applesauce and persimmon bars from trees that had flourished exceptionally well since bees had moved onto our block.

In the spring, it appeared at first that all was well. The hive had made it through the winter. Then, all at once, the bees were gone. Had our hive suffered what is known as colony collapse? Had they become infected with disease? What could have happened? We could not answer the question, and an inspection of the empty hive offered no clues.

But it did not occur to us to give up keeping bees. Our garden was thriving, thanks to the increased pollination contributed by our bees. Our neighbors' gardens were thriving, too. We enjoyed sitting in the garden watching the bees and silently communicating with them. We thoroughly enjoyed eating the honey our bees produced and giving jars of it away. Our second spring of beekeeping, we replenished our hive with new bees. And we bought a second hive and filled it, too.

This spring, again one hive collapsed or disappeared, so we split the remaining, healthy hive to replace the bees in the hive that failed.

The healthy older hive was so prolific that before spring had turned to summer, we bought a third hive box, split the hive again, and, as Kathy had predicted, filled the hive base to capacity.

TO LEARN MORE

To get started keeping bees in your backyard or to learn how to support bees by providing forage for them, attend the upcoming Master Gardener continuing education session on Nov. 5 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross. It is open to the public and the charge is $5. The two speakers will be Barbara Schlumberger, who owns a honeybee sanctuary called the Melissa Garden in Healdsburg, and Kate Frey, who designed the garden there (www.themelissa garden.com).

You can also check out the Marin County Beekeepers Association at www.marincountybee keepers.org.

Bee boxes, frames, protective clothing, other equipment and friendly free advice are available at Bee Kind in Sebastopol and also Western Farm Supply in Santa Rosa.

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