Memphis Backyard Farmer

Bee Keeping 101: It’s That Time
January 4, 2014, 1:11 am
Filed under: Bee Keeping | Tags: , , ,

My Newest Hive

I’ve had several folks ask this year if I’d help them get started in bee keeping. I’ve been keeping bees for 15 or 16 years now, so I guess that makes me “experienced” enough to give out a bit of advice. So here’s your first bit of advice here on January 3; time to order bees.

I know it’s freezing right now. Heck, it’ll be 16 in Memphis next week, with a low of 9. The bees aren’t doing anything except huddling together in their hive trying to keep each other warm. But in just three short months (in Memphis), the temps will regularly inch up to more than 55 degrees, and the bees will start flying, looking for forage. By early April there will be a steady honey flow due to the mass of flowering plants here in the south, and you want to have your hives well established in order to take advantage of the flow.

WARNING: If you wait until March or April to order your bees, you’ll be flat out of luck.

Established bee keepers know that there’s a fixed number of bees at any specific time (after all, they’re living creatures that must be bred), and coming out of winter, the numbers are generally low. First come, first served is the name of the game this time of year.

So step number one that you should be thinking about right now is ordering either packages or nucs (nucleus hive), preferably from a local bee keeper (we’ll talk about why that’s important in another post).

If I were just starting out, I’d check with my local extension office for a bee keeping association. Hook up with the guys/girls in the group and find out who they order from, or whether any of the members would be willing to sell you a nuc. You can find a goldmine of information and make some terrific connections through your local bee keepers’ association.

No rest for the weary backyard farmer. While you’re sitting inside enjoying your hot chocolate, start looking for bee breeders!


12 Comments so far
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Why not take this time right now and build some swarm bait boxes? I built 9 last year and came up with three swarms. I bought a little book here, that tells how to build and bait them. Catch your own swarm!

Comment by solarbeez

Solarbeez, I’m all for free bees! And I, personally, keep a few swarm boxes around. Since this is a “101 series”, I wouldn’t recommend swarms as a way to break into bees for newbies, though, would you?

Comment by memphisbackyardfarmer

Well, that’s how I started, but I’m more into the natural way and less into maximum honey production. My mentor insists I should be using miticides and antibiotics. He gets lots of honey. I’m not into the honey because that goal takes you down a different road. My goal is to give the bees a place to stay, grow as many pesticide-free bee-loving plants as possible, and NOT rob the honey. My reward is watching (and video-ing) the bees on flowers and flying into my unique hives.
The problem with buying hives is their expense. The industry offers a caveat. “Yes, it’s expensive to start out, but you can sell your honey.” I say, “build your own hives, catch your own bees.”

Comment by solarbeez

You’re absolutely right. It depends on your goal. I’m a honey producer. We use gallons of it at the house, and I sell a good bit to friends. But I don’t use antibiotics or miticides. I try my best to take advantage of what the bees do naturally (produce honey and pollinate), but still let them live as natural a life as I can. Swarms and top bars are great opportunities to get started with bees on the cheap, but I’ve found that most of the people I speak with are in it for the honey as well. I’ll probably do a post or two on top bar hives and swarms as well.

Comment by memphisbackyardfarmer

I’m not into finding swarms just to get free bees. I look at it as getting survivor bees. These bees have made it through the winter. They are acclimated to our very wet weather (average 60 inches of rainfall/year).

If we buy package bees, they will ship from California, Texas, (maybe even Tennessee.) The queen might not even belong with the bees in the package. I’ll bet if you mention finding swarms, there will be some interested beginners who will want to try it.

I’m happy to hear you don’t use miticides or antibiotics. How are you dealing with varroa?

Do you raise rabbits for meat? When I was stationed in Memphis, they served rabbit at the mess hall. It’s the only time I’ve ever eaten it.

Comment by solarbeez

I am somewhat leery of packages for some of the reasons you mention. I actually prefer nucs, because I can purchase them locally (bees are already acclimated to climate, local queens, etc.) however, there are problems there as well – you obviously need a good local source who raises their bees with the same mindset you do, and uses a strain of bees you approve of. Then there’s swarms. There are definitely positives and negatives there, too. My experience is that their timing and stability is unreliable, and often they can come with a higher disease load than regularly inspected bees. Not to say they’re undesirable; far from it. I’ve had some super strong swarms! But there are pluses and minuses to each method.

I do raise my rabbits for food. Love the meat (and the side benefit of the manure!) so you were stationed in Millington?

Comment by memphisbackyardfarmer

I was in Millington about 8 months of 1969 while I was in the Navy. It was too cold in the winter and too hot (high humidity) in the summer. I grew up in Phx, AZ so I knew high temps, but the humidity was hard to live with. (Probably excellent growing weather.)
The swarm bee call came from an ad I put in the newspaper when I was getting desperate to get bees. Everyone else had ordered package bees and gotten them in mid April. Here it was late May and I still didn’t have any. Those went into my Warre hive. The ‘heavies’ in my bee club recommend killing the queen and adding a ‘known’ queen. I just couldn’t bring myself to do that, so I stayed with that queen. She didn’t build up real fast so I had one box only going into winter. Against my original goals, I decided to feed it starting about Oct. 25.

The log hive bees came from a tree that I learned about from a pest control man. I obtained permission from the owner of the tree to hang a bait hive on the tree. 10 days later I saw bees bringing pollen back into the box, so I knew it was occupied, probably with a laying queen.

In neither case did I know the history of the bees, but they both survived the winter.

I would love to have rabbit manure for the garden. I also heard it was good for raising worms. We consider ourselves half way sustainable, but if the infrastructure broke down, we’d have a hard time getting our rice, beans, and nuts. Keeping chickens, rabbits, and bees is probably much more sustainable. Way to go!

Comment by solarbeez

Yep – Memphis’ humidity is overbearing some times. It’s murder in a bee suit!

Your log hives are absolutely amazing. Tell me – do you have some kind of removable frames?

Comment by memphisbackyardfarmer

The first log hive has a hat which can pivot on a dowel to gain access. I set top bars into the square opening, then set up my bait hive with same size bars. The hive can be seen here opened up without the top bars or quilt box.
The idea was to pull the bars out of the bait hive and place them in the log hive. It was a good idea, but didn’t go as smoothly as planned.
I wanted to keep things as natural as possible. Just like in the tree they came out of, you’re not going to be pulling out frames, but if an inspector insists, then I can pull them out, but I suspect they will be horribly cross combed. I like the idea, though, that the bees have figured out their ventilation system without me interfering and tearing apart their combs every two to three weeks. These bees have never been fed sugar water, sprayed with fumagellon, or treated for varroa mites. I’ve seen some DWV, but that disappeared later in the summer. Needless to say, I’m not going to take any honey. When the hive swarms, I’ll try to catch them, but I’ll never make splits or try to thwart the swarm urge in any way.
Here’s some thoughts on “Swarming Bees are Healthy Bees” that supports my thinking about letting the bees decide to swarm…

Comment by solarbeez

Know of a good package seller in the Memphis area?

Comment by Bill

Bill, there used to be a company across the river in Arkansas, Jester Bee Company. I bought several nucs from them in years gone by. I’m not sure they’re still around, though. I Googled them and only got a FL operation.

I personally order from Wolf Creek bees ( for various reasons I’ll cover in another post. They aren’t local to Memphis, but they are in TN, and they will ship your bees to you, or often will make trips to Memphis for local drop off.

Comment by memphisbackyardfarmer

Interesting conversation. I’m sending my husband a link to the swarm bait box post.

I’m looking forward to this series of posts!

Comment by Lunar Euphoria

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