The buzz about small scale Bee-keeping

We have been bee-keepers for close on 6 years now, and we do it for a few reasons, we have an orchard that needs pollinating, we grow vegetable seed for re-sale so often bees are required there, my wife makes soap, hand creams and lip-balm and she often uses bee’s wax there. I use bee’s wax when tying flies, OK I don’t use much but I still need some bee’s wax.

Lastly, fresh unfiltered honey on the comb is a delicacy that will require you keeping your own bees or knowing a beekeeper that will sell you some. Honey can store indefinitely… I must stress the ‘can part’ because invariably it does not in our house.

Now when I say we are bee-keepers I say that in the loose sense of the word, a professional is an Apiarist… we are bee-keepers. I feel a distinction should be made, as professionals run their operations (as it should) like a business. We mere bee-keepers just keep a few hives to keep our family and the occasional lucky friend in honey once or twice a year.

For the uninitiated most honey in South Africa is imported from China under much controversy and disrespect for our laws, the public’s health and the serious Apiarist in South Africa. ALL honey in South Africa needs to be labelled with the country(s) of origin, and if it’s a local beekeeper it needs to have his contact details on it. Imported honey legally needs to be radurised…. basically a nice way of saying that it’s been stuck into a nuclear reactor to kill of anything that may be in the honey, Good or Bad.

Unfortunately, bad honey is being brought into South Africa and at the same time bringing with it new diseases. One of the most recent and devastating  of the imported diseases is “AFB” American Foul Brood that was believed to have been brought in with contaminated honey that was fed to our local bees. What a lot of guys are doing is blending South African and imported honey to make it more ‘acceptable’ to the consumer. As if a little bit of poison should be acceptable.

I encourage everyone that I talk to too either have a hive or two or find a reputable Apiarist that you can buy honey from. Cut out the importer and make him feel the pain of deceiving the South African consumer.

OK onto the good stuff, now that I have had my little rant. There are many different styles of bee hives that one could look at. The two most common are the Langstroth and the Top Bar Hive (TBH). Langstroths are used by all the professionals as it a workable design that allows Apiarists to move hives around easily when they follow a honey-flow or are doing contract pollination. TBH’s are the ‘new generation’ of traditional hives that are making inroads into the bee-keeping world. Beekeepers will argue until the wax melts about which design is better, and the merits of each.

Newly completed hive, not even dry but the bees are moving in already
Newly completed hive, not even dry but the bees are moving in already

For us ma’Plotters we prefer a TBH for a few reasons, not being an expert and not needing to move hives from one place to the next, the much larger TBH holds a larger swarm, the hive is in a more natural configuration for the bees, when opening the hive it tends to lose less heat (or so I’m told), because the hive is so large there is less chance of the bees swarming off as they have room to expand the colony. This in turn give a larger honey crop to the bee-keeper… which is why we are keeping bees.

Now, my design is a mix of various designs but the original idea can from the late Tim Jackson and his son Crispin who made a plastic hive of similar proportions. I use Marine Ply as the wood for my hive. It’s a bit more expensive, however I find that it lasts very well, especially with a lick or two of Waksol sealant every other year.

Unlike most TBH’s that just use a top bar and no frame, I use a full size Langstroth frame (Brood Frame) that will allow me to wire and spin the combs if required. We don’t wire our frames as we harvest both the honey and the wax. But the option is there if we ever need to. I like having options as it gives one flexibility if our needs ever change. If you don’t harvest the wax you will get a higher honey production as the bees eat honey to produce the wax. Re-using the wax saves them a lot of work making new wax. Any frames that have beautiful straight comb we try to return to the hive.

It was going to be a cold spring evening (2009) so I helped the swarm in.
It was going to be a cold spring evening (2009) so I helped the swarm in.

Many Apiarists say that it’s hard to keep the brood and honey separate, as the queen will lay eggs all over the hive. I have found that if you separate the storage and brood frames with an empty frame the queen most often will not cross the gap and lay eggs in the storage combs. A simple solution that would cost most “langstrothers” a queen excluder per hive.

How much honey do we get, I estimate that we pull about 20-30 kg’s per hive per year. Yes I could get more, but I like to leave more than enough honey in the hive for the bees to live off in winter.

If you are keen on starting out with bees have a look at this book. Written by South Africans for South Africans, it’s a very good introduction to beekeeping for the self-sustainably minded person.

It will give you a good grounding in how hives work and it even has information on queen rearing, something that I have not tried but I believe is very rewarding.