Posts Tagged ‘For The Love of Bees’

Last week a group of us from the Santa Fe Master Gardener’s Association had the opportunity to visit “For the Love of Bees“;  the farm of Les Crowder and Heather Harrell.

Les Crowder

Les was my first beekeeping instructor and not only did I learn all the details of raising bees in a top bar hive, but he and his wife Heather showed me how to handle the bees in a smooth gentle manner. Their farm is in a lush valley north of Santa Fe, and it is here they not only have their bees but also raise  medicinal herbs, vegetables and pollinator forage crops. They also have sheep, geese, chickens and turkeys, and sell their honey , herbs and veggies at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market every Saturday.

Heather in her herb garden

They recently received a Western Sustainable Agriculture and Research & Education grant to turn their property into a demonstration site for pollinator forage species. This was the reason I visited them…to learn more about pollinator gardens and how to incorporate these plants into my landscaping plan.  Drought resistant shrubs such as peashrub, chokecherry, sand cherry, leadplant,  spirea and lavender are all good sources of nectar and pollen. Herbal perennials such as mints, angelica, St. John’s Wort, hyssop, comfrey and salvia provide additional food for bees as well as attractive foliage and color in the garden. Their farm will be one of 10 featured in the 16th Annual Farm Tour sponsored by the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. This self-guided tour will take place Sunday, August 28 from 9 -3. If you are in the area and have the chance to visit Les and Heather at their farm, you will be in for a treat! Checkhere for more details of the tour.

Les and Heather at their booth at the Farmers' Market

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A nucleus colony ( commonly referred to a a “nuc” ) is a starter colony that you can buy either from a local beekeeper or a commercial apiary. Last year I started too late to order my bees. Turns out you have to get your order in very early.  Local beekeepers usually have fewer nuc’s that they can spare, and so theirs go quickly…usually by late summer they will have received requests for next year’s bees.  And it all depends on how well the bees have overwintered.  A very severe winter could stress out the bees and there will be fewer to sell off.  A nuc usually consists of 4 combs, hundreds of worker bees, and a young egg-laying queen. One advantage to getting local bees is that they are adapted to the area and the sometimes crazy weather conditions we experience here in the high desert of Northern New Mexico.   There are three local beekeepers that I have met over the past year and I was able to secure a nuc from one of them for this Spring.

Steve Wall at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market

I met Steve Wall at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market, where he sells his honey, wax candles, and bee pollen.

He’s also going to teach basic beekeeping to beginners like me , so this will be great.  He’s local, his bees are from the ‘hood, and he will be easy to contact when I need help and support.  You can check out his website here. A great guy, and I’m looking forward to working with him this year.


There are two other beekeepers that also set up at the Market:

Les Crowder        http://www.fortheloveofbees.com/


Melanie Kirby and Mark Spitzig       http://www.ziaqueenbees.com/

All three are really friendly and full of information….and so eager to share their knowledge.

Check out their websites to learn more about their bees and what they offer.

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Here Les showed us  how the bee colony develops in the spring as pollen and nectar begins to appear.

Learning how the hive develops

A healthy queen can lay up to 2000 eggs a day and if conditions are right, the beehive will begin to get full!   Soon the bees will realize that it’s getting too crowded and a large group of workers will swarm…. take the queen and fly off  to look for a new home.  This can be in the form of a hollow tree , log or an attic space or inside the walls of a house (not good)   The swarm will temporarily nest in branches , bushes, or under the eaves of a house while workers scout for suitable permanent sites. A queen will take about a third of the bees with her. You will lose your queen ( also not good)  So what should the beekeeper do?  Answer:  Split the hive before this happens. Let’s check out the hive and see how it’s doing.

Checking the hive

The first signs of a potential swarm is the formation of lots of drone cells.  The only function of drones is to mate with a virgin queen, so having  a large number of them indicates that the workers are planning to rear some new queens to replace the one that might be leaving the crowded hive.  You can identify drone comb by the fact that they bulge out more on the top than worker cells.

Can you see all the drone cells?

Mmmm…lots of drone cells. The next thing to do is to see if there are any queen cell cups around.  These are easily recognizable due to their large size….they look like a large peanut.  Look in the cell to see if there is an egg or larva in it. It takes 16 days for a queen to develop from egg to adult. Here is a part of the hive with a queen cup on it.

Queen cup on the comb

Making a divide

We ended up finding a number of queen cups in various stages of development, so…it looked like the bees were getting ready to swarm.  We took out a number of comb containing the queen cells and drone cells and put it in an empty hive along with a number of workers. A new queen will hatch out soon    ( the first queen to emerge will immediately go around and kill off the other developing queens… there’s only room for one queen , honey! ) and the colony will have room to grow without swarming.  Now you have two hives and will soon have double the number of bees.

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Yesterday I went down to Albuquerque for my first beekeeping lesson from Les Crowder, an expert beekeeper and assisted by his wife Heather.  With over thirty years of experience, Les introduced me and 18 other students to the world of beekeeping in general, and raising bees in topbar hives in particular.

Les Crowder

His is a chemical-free operation; he uses no antibiotics or insecticides.  After some basic history ( Egyptians raised bees in tubes on barges and moved them along the Nile throughout the year as conditions changed), and general bee biology ( the male drones are produced when the queen lays an unfertilized egg….it has no father), Les gave us an overview of raising bees in topbar hives: placement of the hive in the yard, bee sting prevention, swarm prevention, the role of the queen in the hive, and basically how to keep the bees happy and healthy. After a quick lunch we began our hands-on training. First order of the afternoon was to put on a protective veil.

Suiting up

Bees will sting when they feel threatened…so the idea is to keep calm, move slowly and be aware of their behavior. Light clothing is recommended ( dark, fuzzy pants/shirts remind them of predators…as will hair) and a veil will keep them out of your hair, eyes, nose, mouth…places where a bee’s sting would have the greatest effect at deterring a potential threat to the colony.  A bee’s stinger is barbed and when she stings, part of her abdomen rips off with the stinger and she will die. She is not going to use that defense mechanism lightly, so the best way to avoid being stung is to keep them calm and let them go about doing their bee business. The next step is to fire up the smoker, using dried cow manure and pine needles.

Heather lighting the smoker

Smoking the entrance of the beehive basically distracts the bees; the smell of smoke makes them think a fire is nearby…they rush to the cells to load up on honey in case they need to flee. We then set out to the hives.  A gentle smoking at the entrance and we were ready to go.

Smoking the hive

Watching Heather gently pry out a topbar with comb, hold it up to check for the queen, drone, brood, nectar, and pollen cells I was fascinated by the tranquility of the process. Her motions were so smooth and calming….very Zen-like. We followed her example, each of us picking up one comb after another and replacing it in the hive.

Examining the comb

I never thought working with bees would be so meditative. She explained to us that if we move slowly, bees will hardly notice, and it became obvious the more we were around them. We could hear the changes in the sound of the hive if they became agitated and then covered them back up…. even bees have a limit as to how much we could disturb them! It was such an illuminating experience….thank you Les and Heather.  Our second lesson will be next week, where we will learn summer hive maintenance. Can’t wait!  You can read more about them at their website, For the Love of Bees.

When I returned home I realized that I better get my hive finished, as bees will be swarmng soon, and I want to get a local swarm to start off my first hive.  The opening on the side of the hive will be for an observation window, so I can see the bees in action without taking off the top and removing the combs. I need to finish the “roof”, add legs to the hive, attach the observation door, and paint the outside. Soon!

My topbar hive

My topbar hive with "roof"

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