Yesterday Parker and I went to go pick up our first two packages of honey bees! We had everything all set up at home. We had assembled all the frames, putting pure beeswax foundation in them, I had painted all hive boxes with 2 clear coats of un tinted paint and we had chosen a spot for the hives, ten or so feet north out my tiny house, where they would be in easy site, but out of any direct line of human traffic. We have 4 hives, as we are picking up two more nucs in a few weeks, so we set up two with entrances facing east and two with entrances facing south. Three of the hives are up on cinderblocks and one is just on a pallet as we ran out of cinder blocks. And our hive suits and bee tools were ready, with a smokers waiting to be lit.
The only thing we didn’t have was sugar for making sugar water if we had to feed the Bees. I had mixed feeling about feeding the bess sugar water made from cane sugar. I do my best not to eat cane sugar, and when I do I feel my body react strongly, feeling sluggish, often getting a sore throat, and sometimes breaking out with painful canker sores inside my mouth. How could I give my precious bees something that seems so processed and unhealthy?
So I had spoken to a some more experienced bee keepers and done some research. Could I feed them honey instead? Well, the downside of feeding them honey is that honey can also carry diseases from other bees. And if it is pasteurized honey the process of heating it can actually create Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), a product of breaking down fructose, and something that is toxic to the bees. For the same reason maple syrup is not recommended because it has been heated to boil off all the water and hence has lots of HMF! Sigh… so it sounds like cane sugar really is the best option IF you have to feed your bees anything. Unless you can get honey from a known source, perhaps still in the frame, from a colony you know is healthy and thriving.
So on our way to go get our bees we stopped at the local food coop and bought a bag or organic 100% pure cane sugar to have just in case we felt the bees needed more food due to poor weather for foraging. Turns out we still messed up here! As I made some sugar syrup, following the 2:1 sugar to water ratio that is recommended using only warm but not boiling water so as to avoid creating HMF, I found I was creating a dark syrup, the color of caramel. Was my water too hot despite my precautions and was a caramelizing the sugar?
It turns out that what we call brown sugar, and most organic cane sugars are made by evaporation of cane sugar syrup, done through a process of heating, which keeps added minerals etc. in the sugar making it more “healthy” than white table sugar, but is also means there is more HMF in the sugar! And so it is not recommended for the bees! Alas, despite my best intentions I had still managed to get the wrong kind of sugar! This sugar, with HMF and a high particulate matter content (aka mineral impurities) would give my precious bees Honey Bee Dysentry. So turns out I will be making another trip to the store today, to Wegmans, not my local food coop, to see if they have plain white table sugar. The lesson I learned: you want the syrup that you feed your bees to be clear, not dark, free from particulate matter and HMF, so basically the only option I have heard so far is pure white table sugar.
All that being said though, at least a few beekeepers I spoke too have said they think most people overfeed their honey bees. Honey bees are generally pretty good at feeding themselves as long as they can find some nectar sources and the beekeeper doesn’t take too much honey from them! So, my plan: to have some white table sugar on hand to feed them in case I get nervous and feel they need it, but to, as much as possible trust nature to take its course or for the bees to feed themselves. And to not take too much honey from them!
Other than the hiccup with buying the wrong kind of sugar, and pulling the cork off the wrong end of the queen cage so she was immediately released rather than having to eat her way out through the candy plug, the installation went pretty smoothly! And Parker and I have been like new parents going outside every chance we get, just to “check on the bees,” watching them fly about and begin their work!
It seems both hives started using their upper entrances in the inner cover (what are generally called the escape entrance) rather than the main entrance at the bottom of the hives. Although this isn’t ideal we were told it is ok. But next time to try and prevent this from happening we will probably put the package opening face down to encourage the bees to go down, and may put the queen in one of the lower hive boxes also to encourage the bees to go down and start using the lower entrance.
We were also a little surprised by the amount of activity that we saw almost right away in the first hive we installed! Was everything ok? were the bees in distress? Had they lost their queen that had escaped the cage? But a fellow bee keeper assured us that they were probably just taking an orienting flight, which is one of the first things they do, to figure out where they are. He said the second hive should also start doing that but perhaps they are just responding a little differently, to the transition, which is fine. My theory? Because in the second hive the queen was still in her cage they were perhaps more focused on getting her out and clustering around her. While the already released queen may have already been giving orders to go forage so they can start building their new home! I also think the fact that we smoked both packages but then left the second package for a bit may have caused them to settle in more to their “fire” response, which is to go deeper into their hive and gorge on honey, or whatever food source they have – in this cause the sugar water can that they came with.
So anyway, there is a snapshot of the first day with the honey bees! A look outside this morning showed them already out and about foraging. I can’t wait to open the hive up in a couple days and see what progress they have made, and make sure all is truly well!