Getting started with beekeeping - with Vickie from Making Our Sustainable Life

by Liz Beavis
This week I'm talking to Vickie from Making Our Sustainable Life.  Vickie and her husband live on acreage in the Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains, just east of the Sacramento Valley.  Even though they are in a different country, with a different climate and bee habitat, I think there's much to learn from beekeepers all over the world.  The things that particularly interested me about Vickie's bees is that she uses a horizontal top bar hive, which is a totally different type of hive from the common langstroth hives that we use.  Here's what she had to say:

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Making Our Sustainable Life
The top bar hive

Farmer Liz: How long have you been keeping bees?

Vickie: We have had bees only since this past Spring 2015, though we have dreamed about keeping bees since we bought our land (which would become our current homestead) more than ten years ago.

FL: What got you interested in bees originally?

V: The original reason for getting bees was for pollinating our orchard. Right now we have 2 cherries, 2 peaches, 2 apricots, 2 apples, 2 walnuts, 2 almonds and a French prune tree. We have a 3-in-1 pluot and a 3-in-1 pear tree on order to be planted this winter. That is why our first beehive was placed in our orchard! Secondly, as we are trying to live self-reliant lives, we were looking for a natural sweetener, and honey was the answer. Though I have a wonderful Stevia plant and I am starting to experiment making our own sugar with sugar beets, honey is my favorite sweetener. Finally, the beeswax can be used in both candlemaking and in making lotions and creams

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Making Our Sustainable Life
inspecting the hive

FL: And how many hives to you have now?

V: We only have one hive – our first. We are building another hive (maybe two) this winter and will be buying another package (or two) of bees (1 queen and 3 pounds of workers) this spring.

FL: Can you tell us a bit about top bar hives and why you chose to use a top bar rather than the typical langstroth hive?

V: We have done quite a bit of research on all types of hives, and attended several classes and workshops on beekeeping. The main reason we chose the top bar hive was because it is the most natural type of human made beehive. The varroa mite and the tracheal mite are two reasons (among others) beekeepers are loosing so many hives, called colony collapse disorder. When bees draw comb in a traditional langstroth hive, they are following a pattern already set in the frame. Each cell of the comb will be about 5.2 mm, which is not natural for European honeybees. 4.7 to 4.8 mm is natural. Mr. Langstroth (the hive developer) thought that if the cells in the comb were bigger, then the bees would be bigger. They are! He also figured bigger bees, more vigor, more honey. Not necessarily true, but a good theory. The problem is that a tracheal mite will not fit into the trachea (in the abdomen) of a smaller “natural” bee, but easily fits into the larger bees produced from the Langstroth hive. Also, the varroa mite reproduces within the cells along with the pupating bee. The larger bees from a Langstroth hive require 2-3 days longer in the cell to develop, therefore more varroa mites are able to develop along with the bee! Because of this, the top bar hive will naturally have fewer varroa mites than in a Langstroth hive. It is true that with a top bar hive, the bees need to spend more energy and resources drawing out honeycomb instead of honey, which is why commercial beekeepers prefer the Langstroth hive. We decided we would prefer to have a bit less honey and a healthy hive, rather than have to use pesticides or lose our hive to the mites.

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Making Our Sustainable Life
A top bar frame - the comb is all built by the bees

FL: My biggest concern about using a “different” type of hive as a beginner is that we would find it difficult to get help from other beekeepers if we had any problems, have you found that this is an issue?
V: We were lucky to have a friend who is both a Master Gardener and a beekeeper! Kim has tried several types of beehives and, like us, prefers the top bar type. When we attended one of her beekeeping workshops, she gave us plans to build a Kenyan Top Bar Hive, which is what we used to build ours! You can see how we built our Kenyan Top Bar Hive here.  We also found a great book on beekeeping called Top-Bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health by Les Crowder (affiliate link). Just about everything you need to know about top bar beekeeping is in this book.

FL: And what resources (online/books/in person) have you found useful in learning how to manage your top bar hive?

V: The book has been extremely helpful. It is also nice to have a friend who can answer questions, and Master Gardener Kim from Berry Creek Station has been a great help. Top Bar Hive beekeeping is becoming more popular for the backyard beekeeper, and I have found more and more resources online for building, using and maintaining top bar beehives. There are also quite a few You Tube videos on top bar beekeeping.

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Making Our Sustainable Life

FL: Is there anything that you’ve learnt to far that you wish you’d known right from the start?

V: I do wish we had read the book “Top Bar Beekeeping” before we actually got our bees, but instead, we did it the other way around! We had no idea we were supposed to move bars around inside the hive every few weeks, nor did we know all the different problems to look out for. We jumped into beekeeping before we really knew what we should have known! Luckily, our bees seemed to know how to take care of themselves, to a certain degree. One mistake we made (before we got the book) was when we felt sorry for the bees in our hot summer, so we erected a tarp to give them some shade during the heat of the afternoon. Then we got the book and read that bees actually like a certain amount of heat and the shade was a definte “no-no”. We are still learning a lot about beekeeping, and I am sure we have a lot more to learn!

FL: What advice would you give to readers who are considering getting bees?

V: Do your research! Attend a class! Make friends with other beekeepers! Then, decide why you want bees. For the honey? A Langstroth hive produces the most honey. For the wax? Top Bar Hives produce the most wax. For pollination? Any beehive will do. To help keep the honeybees from going extinct? In my opinion, the Top Bar Hive is the most natural, therefore the best for the honeybee as a species! Your answers to these questions will help you decide which type of hive is best for you!

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Making Our Sustainable Life
bees love sunflowers

FL: Thanks so much for sharing your story with us Vickie!  I can relate to wanting to use the bees for pollination and beeswax as well as honey production.  I didn't know about the size of the bees causing them to be more susceptible for different parasites, that's a very good reason to let the bees make their own comb.

If you want to leave a comment of question for Vickie please head over to her blog Making Our Sustainable Life (also check out her other sustainable activities!). 

Getting started with beekeeping

Gettting started with bees - Root Simple
Getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
Getting started with bees - 5 Acres and a Dream
Getting started with bees - Making Our Sustainable Life

Other posts about bees on Eight Acres:

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