Agriculture has recognized the value of bees for along time. Without the bees’ help, many commercial crops would suffer serious consequences. Even backyard beekeepers witness dramatic improvements in their gardens’ yields: more and larger fruits, flowers, and vegetables.
Honey is by no means the only reason folks are attracted to beekeeping. Bees teach us how to live our life in a way that by taking what we need from the world around us, we leave the world better than we found it.
Beekeeping is rising in popularity — from urban rooftops to backyard hives, the world is abuzz with interest in homemade honey. And who better to comment on the nature of bees than the former president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, Ross Conrad. He’s led bee-related presentations and taught organic beekeeping workshops and classes throughout North America for many years, and Conrad’s small beekeeping business supplies friends, neighbors, and local stores with honey and candles among other bee related products, not to mention provides bees for Vermont apple pollination in spring. I talked to Conrad about organic beekeeping, the state of pollination, and tips for aspiring bee farmers.
A new beekeeper needs more specific skills than understanding assembly and repair of boxes, knowing terminology of the hive, hiving a package, and knowing the biology of the bee. Many will now ask, “What specific skill(s) do they need?” The answer to this will be the focus of my book.
There are many ways to start a Mini Urban Beehive (MUB) – the outline What consists of an “Eco Bee Box Mini Urban Beehive?” The mini urban beehive can be one or more mini boxes that are ¼ the standard Langstroth box size. Four mini boxes are the same size as a standard 10 frame Langstroth hive. (drawing/photo) Each box holds 5 frames the size of an open hand. These frames have a groove for a natural wax starter strip to be inserted. I suggest no plastic foundation to be used with this frame. This hive has a mini migratory / flush mount top, with top vent / entrance. This top is equipped with bee space (3/8”), and has a swing top vent / entrance reducer. Each hive is also equipped with a bottom board with bee space (3/8”). The bottom board can be accented with a landing board which provides additional landing area for bees that have poor eye-sight. Each box has either a carving or an observation window. This system is 100% secured together with Eco Bee Box stainless steel locking clips. These clips easily swing on and off bracket screws. Options include: powder coated pole bracket, English garden copper accented top, copper corner brackets, copper / zinc screws, multiple carving type (honeybee, butterfly, sunflower, magnolia, bat, filigree, cross, angel, dead tree, Marine corps, sheriff star, eagle, horse and wagon, green man, squirrel, mesa, full tree, mountains, and totem).
Existing drawn frames of eggs, larva, and nurse bees (no queen)
Queen with nurse bees (existing queen)
Queen sabbatical (3-5 days) then returned to old colony
Package of bees (bee with foreign queen)
Using empty frames with existing colony
Cut-out feral colony
Isolation with use of follower board methods
Existing drawn frames of eggs, larva, and nurse bees (no queen)
Mini Frame with Multiple Queen Cells
The first way I suggest for a new beekeeper is “existing drawn frames of eggs, larva, and nurse bees”. In the MUB system, two frames are required for successful starting. Start with one box, with top and bottom. Place the frames tightly to the rear of the box. The remaining frames, need starter strips of bees wax (thin surplus) added to them. This is done by tearing small (silver dollar size) pieces and adding them to the frame with pressure or drops of melted beeswax. (Important note: regular candle wax is made with petroleum and is harmful to living creatures). Easiest way to make a beeswax candle: take a candle wick and wrap it tightly in thin surplus. After 3-5 days, the nurse bees on the “existing drawn frames of eggs & larva”, will pick which larva is to go the route to become a queen bee. The initial development of a bee is as follows:
Queen lays either a drone (unfertilized) egg in a large cell, or a worker bee (fertilized) egg is a small cell.
Remain eggs for 3 days
Once eggs hatch, all larvae are fed royal jelly for 2-3 days
Queen larvae is continuously fed royal jelly until capped
Multiple eggs per cell, sign of a failed colony with laying workers
If a queen isn’t formed, hatched and mated, the result will be a “laying worker”. There are a number of methods used to solve having a “laying worker”, but I have my own method (see: stopping a laying worker at the end). Feeding is required, as there are very few foraging bees. Bees need excess sugars to produce wax. Bees wax is bee fat. Feed consists of 50% Cane sugar 50% water and a cap full of Complete Bee supplements. If the bag of sugar does not say Cane Sugar, it is then made with Sugar Beets and is not ideal for brood (honey bee babies). Do not use organic sugar or brown sugar, as they have properties difficult to impossible for the bee’s to digest. The feed can be given through a mason jar and a board-man feeder (mid to late summer robbing may exist with this feeder. I will address solutions at the end.) Each MUB needs a silver dollar size portion of pollen patty added for protein. Once patty is hard, replace with a fresh one. Keep in a zip-loc baggy in the fridge until needed. Place in a spot with morning sun, mid-day shade, unless in areas with high moisture. High moisture areas require sun to dry it, and keep it warm. Ideal to have hive off the ground to avoid ants and rodents (see: solutions at the end). As bees fill and grow, the frames with starter strips will fill up with drawn wax. At times the creative bees draw the frame out crooked or flawed, gently twist it to how you prefer it (see: solutions at the end). Once the frames are filled with drawn wax and brood (babies), you will see them grow and eventually get capped for the last stage of incubation. Once the bees hatch, you can space the frames 1/8”-1/4” apart. The bees will draw the comb out a bit thicker on each frame. Let the bees go through a second hatch, and when the frames are all capped again, add a second box to the bottom of the MUB. Medicine for a small/tiny colony is discouraged (see: solutions at the end). Things to look for on a frame:
Eggs, larvae, and royal jelly – bee milk
Eggs (tiny white transparent)
Young larva in pools of royal jelly
Mature white larva
Cells that are capped with larva
Newly hatched blonde bees
Cells size (smaller size for girls (worker), larger size for boys (drones)
White comb with polished Propolis cells
Bridge comb (connects areas for bee transport)
Burr comb (wax placed in areas unsuitable for your hive
Queen cells (with royal jelly beds)
Multiple queen cells
Worker bees, drones, queen
Bee bread, nectar, capped honey
Use finger to taste nectar/honey, damaged comb immediately attended to be bees, next day is fixed
Propolis on edges (used as glue, sealant, disinfectant, all-round duct tape for a bee)
Debby Yaber Anderson wrote:
“I went to a presentation at our local farm store in 2014. I have never owned bees. I have never even really been around honeybees. And, while I somewhat have a ridiculous reaction to yellow jacket [sic] beestings, I really wanted honey!! I went to a presentation for the Langstroth type of hive. I was also interested because Oregon had been having troubles with declining bee populations and my own small garden plot seemed to suffer. After the presentation, I started reading up on bees and I had also been browsing on websites and joined Oregon Beekeepers Facebook page. I think that is where I saw this beautiful mini hive box advertised.
In March, I called Al and ordered my beautiful mini 4 box hive and bees. I anxiously waited. I worried if they were ever going to come! I read and explored. I joined Eco Bee Box Facebook page.
Between March and July 3, when I received my bees. I had ordered my bee jacket. I prepared a toolbox with rubber-bands, baby powder, nitrile gloves, screwdriver, hive tool and brush (both of which I won at the bee presentation) all at the ready! I purchased a smoker and had a spray bottle to fill with sugar water. I had also ordered a Boardman feeder. And, of course my Complete! I was ready for my babies! I had also ordered a box holder that we bolted into a short steel post and mounted in a cement block. I got most of my stuff ready by following the hints given on the Eco Bee Box Facebook page! This page has been quite helpful to me!
July 3rd I received my girls. It was interesting bringing them home. While they were closed up and buzzing in the box, my husband was about to crawl out of his skin as we drove the 5 miles back to our home to put them in a dark cool place until I could set them in their new home.
I started with 3 frames. And, as predicted I had my queen in approximately 21 days. She was rather elusive, but I knew she was there because I saw eggs and larvae! I have only seen her a couple of times…And, my bees were multiplying like crazy!
As far as support from other beekeepers, I haven’t found anyone who would share their information, it’s like a private club or something. If anything, I have shared MY own experience with people who ask. And, I have shared the mini experience. I think this is the perfect way to get started and to succeed! It is a manageable size. When I started, a few people told me that I would fail, as I did not start with a queen. One person, in particular, who has kept bees for 20 years, said raising your own queen was the most ridiculous thing ever and said that I bought into a stupid scheme. Well, I feel pretty excited about me bee-growth and I have been sharing my pictures. She hasn’t said a word! Guess where the winter bees are located?
They are keeping so warm, it is melting the sno
Now I am nervous for the winter. I am trying to give my bees a good start, they are currently on 2:1 sugar to water. They drink about a quart every other day now. They are closing up spaces with Propolis. I have harvested only a small amount of honey, and I was excited for what I had, but, I think I will be able to say I was successful when they are alive in the spring!I have been somewhat nervous the whole time, mainly the fear of failing. I was afraid the barn swallows captured my queen on her mating journey, but I had eggs and larvae and brood. Then, there was the fear the yellow jackets would overtake them, which actually prevented me from opening my hive, I have not been opening it very much for fear of robbing!
I am excited for the next season and am contemplating the addition of another set of boxes!
Queen with nurse bees (existing queen)
There are two ways to start a colony using nurse bees:
A challenge for a beekeeper, at any level, is finding the queen. Many will say, “you don’t need to find her if you see eggs, you know she is there somewhere”. This is true, but in this method of starting a MUB it is necessary to find the queen. Know that the queen is usually busy on brood frames, so don’t spend much time on outer frames, or honey frames. Search the inside walls, bottom, as well as under the top cover, as you methodically go from one end to the other. I pull an outer frame or two, to give room between searched and unsearched frames. Once you find her, carefully guide her to the new MUB frame. Once she is on the frame, set it inside the mini box and take a brood frame from her old colony, and brush them into the box with her. Move the old box to a new location. Take the MUB with the queen and place it in the position where her old colony used to be, so the field bees return to the hive with the queen. The hive missing their queen will begin missing her in a few hours. With this method, it is suggested to have a couple frames of drawn comb for the queen to lay on immediately. If you don’t have a drawn frame, take some bees wax foundation, or portions of drawn comb and melt it or insert it into a the frames where the queen is to be.
After the queen has been in the new hive for a few days, return her back to the colony she came from. The old colony is preparing to replace her, but usually stop once she is found. She is their queen so reintroduction is not needed.
If you leave the queen in the new MUB, the old colony will continue to care for the new emergency queen cells they start and one eventually will be victor.
March 2015 I had inspected an over-wintered colony and found their temperament and resources ideal. On Thursday March 12th2015 I took the Carnie queen from the long-box and transferred her to a MUB with 2 deep frames of nurse bees brushed in with her. In the MUB, one frame had bee-bread, and other had food store, 3 other frames were drawn out and empty. This queen remained in this hive until Tuesday 24th, then was returned to the long-box. The nurse bees had the beginnings of larvae, in pools of royal jelly. On Friday 27th I drove to Cheyenne Wyoming with the MUB and nurse bees. On Saturday 28th I hung the MUB from a tree and taught a class in the afternoon. That night I returned the colony to my hotel room. Sunday 29th I again hung the MUB on a tree and taught another class, afterwards inspecting the hive with class attendees. At the time of this inspection 9 queen cells appeared. The MUB was returned to Salt Lake where these queens were partially separated and independently hatched.
Package of bees (bees with foreign queen)
Using empty frames with existing colonyThis is the standard practice for starting, and distributing colonies in the US and Canada. Bees are weighed and placed into a screened crate with liquid feed, a foreign queen is caged and suspended inside the crate. This queen remains caged for 3-4 days, then released.
A 2lb or 3lb can be added to a MUB (or 26 frame comb box). In 7 days this 20 frame hive will be completely drawn and ready to split. Separate each box with new top and bottom, or with McGinty separation boards, alternating direction of entrance from front to rear. The boxes that are without a queen will now start emergency queen development, which will be visible in 3-5 days. Once it is clear which boxes have queen cells, it is easy to determine which box has the queen. Add more boxes for the queen to expand into and let the other boxes raise their queen(s).
If multiple queen cells appear, these can be separated carefully by cutting them out in square shapes, and grafting them into other frames, allowing each queen to hatch without the risk of sibling queen rivalry, or survival of the fittest.
Those with existing colonies, may decide to place multiple mini frames with starter strips or re.-used unattached drawn comb. The comb can be a complete full frame, or partial attached to the top of the frame by heating / melting it to the frame. This application can be done with Langstroth, Top-bar, or Warré hives. Zip ties work well for holding the mini frame intact. Place into brood chamber (area where eggs, larva, and capped brood are). Leave for 5 days, inspect for appropriate aged larvae. Cut zip ties and place into MUB with the nurse bees attending the young. Be sure not to take the queen. 7-10 days later, queen cells will appear.
Swarm capturethe Grim Reaper Swarm Utah 2013
There are three ways to start a MUB with a swarm.
Swarm – Dropping / adding a swarm found in your community. Best way is always where they walk in themselves. Drop a portion of the swarm into the MUB, then drop the rest on the front landing area. If the MUB has frames with drawn comb, or lemon grass, or melted dark comb, or swarm lure inside the MUB, immediate acceptance will be seen. It is ideal to add a portion of pollen patty and 1:1 cane sugar feed with supplements. As the summer progresses, I lock the bees in the MUB for 3-5 to promote acceptance. Keep in the shade. Once released, be sure a water source 15’ or more away. It is hard for bees to locate sources of food and water within 15’ of the hive.
Apiary maintenance – Responsible beekeeping dictates each apiary (place where bees are kept), will have some form of external swarm control / capture. The probability of a colony swarming is natural and expected. An MUB hive can be placed nearby (15’ or further away). It is better to attempt initial capture, rather than causing fear to nearby people, or taking up residence in a nearby home. If bees abscond, many beekeepers are bee-less until the next season. Some beekeepers even practice apiary maintenance for apiaries unattended. Which leads us into the next method.
Intentional baiting – is the practice of setting hives / MUB in areas susceptible to swarms. Swarms are looking for an area they can control the environment – humidity, temperature, and defense. They also are attracted to areas with a nearby water source. If the area scouts are inspecting was previously used or smells previously used, scouts are apt to find it appealing. Swarm lures exist in the market, some effective and some less so. A small portion of dark comb melted onto the inside wall of the hive, aides in acceptance. Do not bait with food! This creates a robbing frenzy, and no one, not even bees was to relocate to a place they have to defend.
Cut-outs / retrieving a feral colony
Every beekeeper will be asked to remove bees from a home/wall/roof/shed at some point. I
do not endorse trap-outs, unless you just are weakening the colony and depleting stores prior to extermination. The key for a successful extraction is obtaining eggs and larva on drawn comb, and placed in a hive with bees immediately (within an hour or less). Bee vacs are highly suggested in successful cut-outs.
Isolation with use of follower-board and honey-wall methodsWhen removing the comb from a feral colony, knowledge and inspection for disease is mandatory. Begin, if possible, by removing comb from the outer edges first. The outer edges of a colony are usually honey. Place honey in a bucket and take home to crush and strain for personal use. Comb that is empty or filled with eggs and larva, cut to the inner size of a MUB mini frame (keeping the comb right side up). Use elastic bands to hold in place. If the queen died during the extraction, the bees will choose from their eggs and larva which will be their subsequent queen. Many queen cells can appear, if all the brood comb was saved and colony of bees was strong. These capped queen cells can be cut out and grafted into other mini frames, and placed into MUBs to hatch. Minimum mini frames needed to generate a new colony is 2, less if lots of bees are added.
Follower boards are equipment used to separate a colony from itself. Typically follower boards are used in top-bar hives, but can be used in creating nucs as well. Another way to generate the sense of a follower board is creating honey walls. Honey walls are areas filled with capped honey, and is a barrier for the queen. Queens can walk on honey and capped comb, but lays and typically resides in the area called the brood nest or brood chamber. A queen will not lay multiple brood nests in a hive, so once the honey wall is in place she will lay no further. The queen will lay to the area allotted. Multiple queens can be kept in a long box or top-bar is honey walls or honey walls separate her from the other areas.
In the MUB, McGinty boards are vertical follower boards that isolate sections of the hive
Mini Urban Beehive – has many applications.
storing queens / banking
splits creating new colonies
just saving the bees
some comb honey
for beginners to advanced
Creating queens – is an essential part of beekeeping. Reproducing stock we know and like with traits we are familiar with. Every beekeeper should have a queen savings account, where they can go for a queen or queen cell or young larva, if they need them. At times a queen will be black-balled by a colony. Rarely is a queen cell destroyed and is a great way to re-queen a colony. Storing queens – in areas that have Africanized Honey Bees, until they are needed. They can lay eggs and so do not feel the effects of being isolated too long.
Splits – are useful, as I mentioned above. Some say, well…these frames don’t fit anything I have now. Actually, they fit everything including a top bar. When the mini is filled four boxes high, take the top three boxes of frame and zip tie them into medium or deep frames and place into standard Langstroth boxes. Or take a top bar frame and zip tie it in there as well. I would always keep one box so there is always a mini nuc in waiting.
Swarm control – Every responsible beekeeper needs to have a swarm control hive near their apiary. A mini hive is suitable for this. Can also be used as a swarm lure. Melt some dark comb to the inside panel of Mini frame of brood added to a queenless top-bar hive. Dark areas show where the brood was eventually laid
Mini frame placed on top a qeenless hive
with eggs and larvaePollination – Most people just want some kind of pollination for their gardens and a full hive with 80,000 bees is a bit intimidating. This mini hive is the same size as a tree hive, the bee’s natural habitat. Even children aren’t scared by a mini, compared to a full size hive. In the environment rarely are there multiple colonies in an area naturally. We place many hives in areas clustered together today, and create almost a ghetto where the bees have to fight each other and for local resources. One mini hive per household is acceptable and will produce one box of comb honey a season (3 pints). the box and let it sit or hang in your yard. Your mini becomes your first line of defense.
Save the Bees / Pollination Garden – Some only want a bit of honey, or none at all. Each person decides why they want bees, and I am finding many now just want to help. Also available are pole stands, which allow a MUB to be mounted and raised above a garden or flowerbed. These support brackets fit under the bottom board and can be attached to the bottom board with screws. This support fits over a 2 3/8″ pipe that is driven into the ground, some even cement it in. Can also drive a secondary pipe into the ground that the support pipe just slides over. Having a hive on a pole is a great way to get your hives away from ants, weevils, mice, rodents, etc. Education – Those getting into beekeeping have had no other options than a big hive, and either it does well and or it dies. If it dies, the beekeeper has to pay again for a new package of bees. If it does well, the new beekeeper is quickly over-whelmed. A mini allows for inspections ideal for finding the queen, seeing eggs, larva, capped brood, etc. Learn what to look for and become familiar with it, learn to feed, care for, and be around the tiny girls. Some environments may have issues with honey bees, and testing the waters out first is practical. Some neighborhoods have those adamant against anything new. See if things are fine before you dive in.
Comb Honey – I sell local comb honey from my comb box, with frames the same size as a mini hive. I let the consumer harvest by cutting the comb out, dropping it into a baggie, squishing it, letting it settle, popping several holes under the baggie with a tooth pick and letting it drain. All natural, done by the consumer. No larva juice. No bee guts. No unsterilized equipment. No additives. No surprises. Extracting honey isn’t regulated by the food industry, just bottling is.