The ABCs of bees with Lisa Lewis

We were very pleased to offer our first-ever beekeeping seminar last week with Lisa Lewis.

Lisa not only creates the luxurious line of Cacklebee Apiary bath and beauty products which we sell here at CLUCK, but she is also a third-generation beekeeper, as well as an artist and landscape architect. As more than 2 dozen guests crowded around on a frigid January afternoon, Lisa talked about her way of keeping bees. There are many opinions and a lot of places to get information. Here is a brief outline of some of the questions she addressed:

Where do I get bees?

Because native wild bees are solitary and produce only as much honey as they need to sustain their families, they aren’t an option for beekeepers interested in producing honey. However, if your interest is simply in encouraging pollinators for the garden, there are many ways to encourage some of the more than 3500 native bee species to find a welcoming habitat on your property.

Lisa explained that honey bees are native to Europe and live in colonies of up to 70,000 individuals. You can order these honey-producing bees by mail from a number of sources, including Dadant & Sons, located here in Wisconsin. Lisa cautioned that you should be sure your colony has been certified as disease-free or you may be in the unhappy situation of having to watch many die and then having to kill any survivors so you can start over with healthy bees.

What environment do I need to keep bees?

What you really need is some space and some flowering plants. Living in the country isn’t necessary, and in fact, Lisa said, you may be more successful if you do NOT live next to farm fields for a couple of reasons. First, agriculture today often means monoculture, and a monoculture spells starvation for bees because except during the relatively brief period when that corn or soy bean plant is flowering there’s nothing in the field for the bees to eat. In addition, most farm fields today are sprayed with pesticides (which kill bees) or are grown from seeds treated with systemic pesticides, which may also kill bees when they drink the dew or other moisture from a leaf. Lisa’s bees forage in woodlands, gardens and nearby
Dane County parkland and thus have an enormous variety of flowers, shrubs, grasses and trees to make honey from. She believes it’s part of the reason her bees are thriving and producing large amounts of very high quality honey.

How much does it cost to get started?

You can find a basic starter kit from a supplier like Dadant and Sons for around $175, but you can easily end up spending $500 and up for one to two hives once you are fully engaged in your new hobby, including the hive, bees, medications,
clothing, equipment for harvesting the honey and more.

Lisa says it’s wise to resist the temptation to save money by buying a “used” hive or beekeeping kit from someone getting out of the bee business. You may be bringing home one of the many fatal diseases bees are prone to, which means you will have to destroy all your bees and burn your hive and equipment.

How dangerous or aggressive are honey bees?

Not so much, according to Lisa. Unlike wasps and hornets, honey bees are not very aggressive. If you use common sense, you can sit and watch them work all day with very little danger, unless you are allergic to bee stings. That’s an especially important message for your neighbors to hear. They already have bees in their gardens and yards and probably pay no attention to them. But once you tell them that you are keeping bees, you and your innocent bees may be blamed for every sting in the neighborhood, including
those from wasps and yellowjackets. Lisa advises that you should first educate yourself about bee behavior and then educate your neighbors.

How much honey do they produce?

Honey bees normally make more honey than the colony needs. On average, a colony will produce about 80 pounds of surplus honey each year. To harvest the honey, beekeepers use a honey extractor (typically a centrifuge-type apparatus), to spin the honey out of the comb. An extractor can cost several hundred dollars so it would be a good idea to find another beekeeper or a local group that wants to share. Some beekeepers take all of the honey from the hive at the end of the season and substitute sugar water for the bees. Lisa prefers to leave an ample amount of honey for the bees to eat. It helps them survive the winter and she gets more production in the long run.

What about diseases?

Honey bees are subject to various diseases and parasites. American and European foulbrood are two widespread contagious bacterial diseases that attack bee larvae. A protozoan parasite, Nosema, and a virus cause dysentery and paralysis in adult bees. Two species of blood-sucking parasitic mites are particularly troublesome for beekeepers and are currently affecting wild honey bees worldwide.
The honey bee tracheal mite lives in the breathing tubes of adult bees; the varoa mite lives on the outside of larvae and adults. These mites have killed tens of thousands of honey bee colonies in North America during the past ten years. Lisa chooses to medicate her bees, even though that’s not strictly organic. She believes that being more aggressive about disease while at the same time taking a more hands-off, “natural” approach to hive management and honey harvesting keeps her bees happier and healthier and ultimately leads to stronger colonies and more honey production.

How much work is it?

“I prefer to ask how much fun and satisfaction it brings” Lisa said during our seminar. But the work load is actually minimal if you just let the bees go about their business. You can spend hours every week fussing with the hive, but Lisa has found that using a largely “hands off” approach she spends roughly 2 to 3 hours a month during the slow months and 4 to 6 hours per month in the spring and early summer. She provided a helpful handout that outlined monthly tasks for beekeepers, and how much time and effort is needed for each season.