Beeing a Beekeeper Sure is Sweet

This week, a few of us went to check the beehives on the campus of University of Michigan – Dearborn (UMD). The beehives — just two of them, currently– are one of the many sustainability initiatives being championed by the Environmental Interpretive Center (EIC). The EIC is serves as an institutional steward of the 300-acre natural area in the middle of metro Detroit, making it one of the only urban ecology research areas in the country.

Up until this year, almost all of the upkeep was done by John Kates, the  Community Outreach Committee Leader of the Southeast Michigan Beekeeper’s Association (SEMBA). I am sad to say that he passed away sometime last year.. I had the chance to work with him once during the 2008 honey harvest a few years ago. Not only was he a warm and friendly person, but also a great teacher: he would tell us everything he was doing and why during every step of the honey harvesting process, transferring both his knowledge of and passion for beekeeping simultaneously to a new generation who would unknowingly end up carrying on his legacy at the very same beehives. Since his passing, the task of maintaining the hives has since been bequeathed to EIC staff. That knowledge — coupled with our supervisor’s long-time beekeeping experience — has made way for thriving hives.

Getting the smoker going — Rick, above, stuffs it with loosely-crumpled newspapers first before putting untreated cedar wood chips inside. You can also fuel your smoker with dried grass, corn cob, burlap or pine needles; keep in mind that whatever you use should not be chemically treated unless you risk hurting your bees. Pump the billows to get the smoke and flames going; once the smoke is milky and thick, close the cap and proceed.

Before opening up the hive, you have to smoke the entrance, which is usually located by the bottom (unless there are holes or openings elsewhere). Don’t push the billows too hard or you’ll shoot flames out of your smoker — most beekeeepers wouldn’t want to do that.

Why do you have to smoke the bees? You smoke them to calm them: when bees sense the smoke, they gorge themselves with honey and become docile and slow. They also become so engorged that they can’t even bend over to sting. The smoke works so well at calming them that some beekeepers don’t even wear suits when opening up the hives. Even Rick went gloveless for the top two hives; he put them on only after getting to the lower two. (There’s something special about the lower hives.)

Rick has uses the hive tool to pry the plywood off of the top of the first box.

Here, Rick pulls out a frame from the first box. It’s swollen with honey; in a stack of four boxes like this one, honey is usually made and stored in the top ones (called honey supers).

Wait a minute, stop everything! There is a daddy-long legs on the sheriff beekeeper’s face. Okay, moving on…

We decided to keep the one frame of honey (one of the honey supers). Notice that Rick still did not have gloves on at this point — the bees were still very docile.

Last time we harvested honey, we used a brush to remove the bees; this time, we just gave it a few shakes and the bees flew (or fell… oops) right off.

Cindy holds up the frame of honey.

Back to the bees. Here is a picture of a semi-circle of bees gorging themselves on a puddle of the good stuff:



Next, we move into the next box.


The second box (the blue box) looks pretty much the same as the first — each frame is filled with cells that are swollen with honey.

Moving onto the third box, we begin to see something new — cells filled with something else, most of them darker in color:


Using the hive tool to live the frame out


Showing off the frame


Much different frame than one filled with honey


Holding it up

What you see in frames from the lower boxes — like this one — are cells filled with honeybee eggs (sealed up with waxy casp) and larvae (white grubs in the bottom of open cells). The lower hives are usually where the brood chambers are located. Honeybees tend to be more sensitive about  brood chamber disturbances — possibly because it is like the “nursery” where the young are raised.


3 Larvae in the red circle

Why doesn’t the queen lay any eggs in the higher boxes? Check out this diagram:

Separating the brood chambers and the honey supers is the “queen excluder”, which is basically a grate with slats that are large enough for drones & workers to pass through, but are too small for the queen.

One of the frames from the lowest box– where the honeycomb is still being built:

In addition to the frame of honey, we also decided to take two frames of eggs, larvae, and some nursery bees (nucleus colony) to start a new hive. Even though there was no queen on the frames we took, it’s no problem — the nursery bees will feed some royal jelly to one of the larva, which will cause it to develop into the hive’s queen.

Cindy prepares the new hive where the new frames will be placed:

Putting the hives back together:

Almost done… taking the “honey trail” out of the beehive area!

The fashionable Cindy sauntering out with delicious, fresh frame of honey. It’s currently in the kitchen for sampling by guests and of course staff, too.

A group shot just for posterity – Cindy, Dana and me:

We will be harvesting the rest of the honey next week!

Edit: I have edited the post to add this nice email I received from John after the 2008 honey harvest. It stands as an example of just how nice and warm he was to everyone he met.

Hello Sara…

Patricia and I thank you for sharing the photos. We did a great deal of activity with the hives. All this could not have been done with as much fun without each of you BEEKEEPERS!!!

Hope you enjoyed the sweet honey!

We will download our photos (that means, asking our daughter to do it for us) and will send them to you.

Take care and study hard!

…John & Patricia

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