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Adventures in backyard farming

Let's talk about the birds and the bees. Chickens and beekeeping, to be more precise. In this column I'll get into some of our experiences with backyard beekeeping, hen keeping, gardening and more, and hopefully some of what I found will help or at least entertain you.


Perhaps we’ve gone a bit over the deep end here, or maybe it’s in preparation for the inevitable zombie¬†apocalypse. Over at the McDuffee household, within about two months time, we’ve gone from being a household of five males (myself, Owen, two cats and a hamster) and one female (Deb) to a household of a few hundred males and about 10,000 females. The new additions come in the form of four hens and a newly-established hive of bees.

Let’s start things out with the bees, and I can talk about the chickens in another post. What I’d like to do is make this column a sort of how-to for my experiences with beekeeping, chicken keeping and more, as well as some tips here and there for what I’ve discovered along the way. You do not need to have acres of land and live in the middle of the woods or pastures to do these things!

For a few years now I’ve been interested in the possibility of beekeeping. I didn’t know anyone who did it, and I thought getting my own honey would be pretty cool, along with having my own bees helping pollenate my gardens. Win win! So, last month, I finally took the plunge and started taking beekeeping classes held by the Worcester County Beekeepers Association. I thought maybe I’d be in a class of ten people or so; it turns out I was in an auditorium of over 250 people! Crazy.

Two classes into the course (which cost a measly $30 for seven weeks of 2.5-hour classes), I knew I was going to do this. On April 1, I had my first package of bees and installed them in the hive box myself. A few weeks later and I’ve got brood larvae present and will probably have newborn bees in my hive this week. Seems like only yesterday I saw them each as a teeny rice-grain of an egg. Out of the whole experience so far, only one sting, but it was totally my own stupid fault.

Alright, that was my experience up to this point, put succinctly. There’s a bit more to it than that, but, honestly, not very much …yet. As it turns out, if you want to start out beekeeping, and you’ve got the drive to succeed at it, it’s easy to get started. Here are some of my main tips I can share with you for starting out:

Take a class. The beekeeping class I took was invaluable. There are things I’ve learned in this class that I have yet to see mentioned even with simple web searches. There’s a chance you may learn quite a bit from an experienced beekeeper, should you know one who has the time to mentor you through your endeavor, but even the most seasoned pro is likely to miss something. In the class I’ve been taking, there are multiple teachers throughout the course, each having a varying level of expertise and varying approaches and opinions to traditional and not-so-traditional ways of doing things. In only two weeks I was convinced I was going to learn most of what I needed to know to get started, and so far I’d say I was right … to get started, at least.

Do not be afraid. You have to go into the whole affair without a fear of being stung. It’s not that you should simply accept you’ll be stung; in fact, it’s unlikely you will be, in most cases, when you’re doing things right. Believe it or not, bees can sense fear and may very well react to the expulsion of more CO2 and adrenaline from your freaking out, so you have to be cool. When I installed my package bees, I admit there was some uneasiness on my end, but it was more for me being afraid I’d screw up than of being stung. Overall, if the bees aren’t irritated from something — illness, recent animal intrusion, overheating — they’ll pretty much pay no attention to you. I’ll stand right in front of the hive for quite some time, the bees passing back and forth and paying me no attention. Remember, these aren’t those asshole wasps or hornets; they’re fuzzy, cute honeybees, making honey … honey you’ll steal from them later. Well, some of it.

You need a veil — the rest is optional. During the course we watched a video of folks in Georgia who basically funnel bees into boxes (packages) for people like me to install. The guy in the video was a well-seasoned pro, and the only bit of protection he had on besides regular clothing was a hat and veil. Hell, he even had a short-sleeved t-shirt on! No gloves. Like a boss. No stings that I could see. Know why? He wasn’t afraid. I’m not balsy enough to go without gloves, and I wear a long-sleeved sweatshirt and jeans when opening my hive. The veil is simply not optional. When you’re lifting frames and messing around with moving hive pieces around, the last thing you want to deal with when your hands are full is a bee stinging your face, or crawling up your nose, ears or mouth; you’ll drop what you’re doing in a hurry when that happens, and things only get worse from there.

Those are the main tips I can share for getting started out beekeeping. There’s more I will share as we go along, but, this being the first post in the series, I’ll start off small.

Are you a beekeeper yourself or are you looking to get started out? Let’s hear from you! Ask questions, too, and hopefully we can share things in this column as we go along.

Photo Credit: Keith McDuffee

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