Category Archives: Urban beekeeping

New bees!

Last November our backyard beehive was raided and torn apart by a few hungry bears.

It’s been sad looking out at the corner of the yard where the hive had been.  I’ve missed those bees and their constant stream of activity that I used to watch from my kitchen window and deck.

This morning I headed north to Madison County to Wild Mountain Bees to pick up my new hive.  In beekeeper lingo, what I got is called a “nuc” —  a small, basic hive (including a queen) that you transfer into a larger bee box where they will produce brood and expand their population.

Nucs awaiting pick up at John Christie's Wild Mountain Bees

In preparation for the arrival of our new bees, I enlisted my brother’s help in getting an electric fence built around the hive site to keep hungry bears out.  Many of Asheville’s urban beekeepers lost hives last fall to bear raids,  and the only solution I’ve heard of is electric fencing.

Now, it’s not as pretty as when I had my simple cypress “cottage hive” without this web of shiny wires, black plastic control box, plastic orange gate latches, and green metal fencing posts — but practicality won over garden vanity here:

In an effort to keep things simple, we decided to use the more common size bee box to transfer them into (with 10 longer frames instead of 8 shorter as I’d had previously).

So I’m saving the old 8-frame boxes with the hopes of catching a swarm again this spring (I’ve put requests out on Facebook for anyone seeing a swarm to give us a call — and have since received one reply from a friend about a hive living in the wall of her in-laws’ house in Montford!  However I think that’s WAY above my beekeeping skill level.  Sounds like a rather surgical removal….)

To welcome the bees to their new home, my 3-year old boy donned his suit and helped hand supplies to us as we transferred the bees from the nuc box to their bigger, permanent box: 

My brother getting ready to transfer bees

My brother getting ready to transfer bees










The bees were really mellow for having been closed up in the nuc box and ridden in the back of a pickup through the winding back roads of Madison County and at highway speeds back to Asheville for 30 minutes.  I’m thinking that was due to the low temperatures this morning.  But by the time we’d opened the nuc box it was almost 50 and sun was shining on the new box.  We found the queen quickly:







She’d been “marked” with a yellow dot on her back to make it easy to identify her when inspecting the hive.  I was able to find the queen in my old hive even though she wasn’t marked — the queen has a longer abdomen than all the other bees in the hive.

After we’d gotten the racks of bees transferred, we sat in the yard and were mesmerized watching them flying around the hive and getting their bearings.

Me and my helper! (Note massive headband -- nothing more annoying than having long hair get in your eyes and face when you've got bee suit hat on -- I learned the hard way so the headband is now a critical part of my bee suit ensemble!)




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This video is from Western Michigan, but I wonder if the same phenomenon is occurring here right now….

Bees and flowers out of sync



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Don’t eat those berries!

I cannot remember how many times as a child my parents warned me of the perils of eating “poison berries” off bushes in our yard.  Pretty much every berry in our yard was “poisonous”, according to my mom:  crimson holly berries, shiny red magnolia seeds, waxy nandina berries…and she was mostly right.

I mean, this was in the late 1970s, early 1980s when there was no Google for my mom to instantly find out which of those tempting, jewel-colored berries were safe to touch and/or eat, so my brother and I pretty much steered clear of them.  Well, except to pick them and use them as ammo to throw at each other.

Those gorgeous, enticing purply-blue berries on the mahonia bushes that we thought were deadly are actually edible.   I just instantly and inadvertently found out via a Google search to check my spelling of “mahonia” that you can make a great jelly from those berries.  I’m still skeptical though.  Mom drilled that “poison” thing into our heads.  I do that to my boys too — better safe than sorry (for example:  they love to check out mushrooms, and I know so little about which wild ones are edible I steer them clear except to look at them).

We have several mahonias in our yard.  They are quite invasive and non-native to boot, but they were here before we moved in so I live with them and actually enjoy their punchy fragrant yellow flowers in the early spring.  Turns out that bees LOVE them too, so they further find favor in my gardening eyes.  And, as the daffodils and crocuses (croci??) are popping out of the ground in late January and early February with this unseasonably warm weather,  so follow the mahonia blooms — and a bee too!


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Early Thanksgiving for bear — beehive is ravaged

Just two days ago I was marveling at the bees continuing to bring in pollen so late into November:

It’s been fairly warm the past few weeks so the bees have been out and about, gathering the end of the season’s pollen.

I suppose it’s also been warm enough for the local black bear population to continue storing up their reserves for the winter too.  I went downstairs to get some firewood this morning and saw this:

I’m still shocked.  That’s a very heavy stand made out of cedar lumber, and the hive boxes were strapped down to it with heavy-duty webbing.  Obviously it did nothing to stop the bear – or bears – last night from pushing it over and eating all the honey and brood from two of the boxes.  (I don’t know why the bear left that last box intact.  My brother thinks it just got too full.)

The bear chose a bad night to feast — not for the bear, but for the bees.  It was pouring rain and 45 degrees overnight, so they had no shelter and I found hundreds of dead, wet bees all over the ground near the hive.

There were a few signs of life, though.  I saw a few small clusters of bees trying to keep warm.  I also got stung on my back where my bee suit gaps between the top and pants.  They were definitely in protection mode and were agitated when I was trying to piece the remaining box and racks together that remained.  They are weak and slow from the cold and it made me sad to see them so disoriented and strewn everywhere.

 I’m doubtful the queen survived.  I started to look for her but figured it would be best to leave them alone and get them set back up as soon as possible because it was cold.  If she’s gone, along with the  thousands of other bees that didn’t make it, plus most of the brood and honey, I’m thinking there’s no way the remaining bees will make it through the winter.

But I went ahead and set the base back up, put the intact box on top of that, and salvaged what racks I could that the bear didn’t totally finish off.  I was able to put those racks into another box along with random pieces of comb that were strewn across the backyard.  I scooped up a few handfuls of bees sheltered under some leaves and shook them off into the top box.

It amazes me that we live a mile from downtown and have black bears roaming through our backyards. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, though.  Their habitat is dwindling as developments have spread out and up the mountains.  And of course, bears do love honey, so an urban hive is fair game to a wandering, hungry bear.

A six-foot fence and heavy-duty tie-downs are no match for a bear.  I think it’s time for electric fence around it.

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Posted by on November 23, 2011 in bears and bees, Urban beekeeping


We’ve been robbed…and infested

Our beehive is having a rough time right now.  Not only have they been discovered by a band of marauding robber bees, they’ve also had some freeloading hive beetles and wax moths move in.

Beetle traps, sugar water, pollen patties (cider vinegar and oil to bait the traps)

To fight back, I called John Christie at Wild Mountain Bees up in Madison County and ordered some ammo:  mite strips and hive beetle traps.  And to help my bees re-stock their food supply to get them through the winter, I ordered some pollen patties.

Since we got this hive back in April, tending the bees has been fairly low-maintenance.  I fed them sugar water to get them established, and checked the hive every couple of weeks to make sure they were producing brood and building up a good supply of honey.

All was well till I started noticing the tiny black shiny hive beetles scurrying around in the racks, then I realized every time I’d go in the hive there were more of them.  Then we found some wax moth larvae (eww, vile grubby things) attached to the sides of one of the boxes.  But the most alarming thing was that where there had once been racks full of honey, there was nothing.  And it happened fast.


Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot you can do to prevent robber bees from coming in.  Robber bees are just bees from another hive who’ve been tipped off by one of their own that there’s a good supply of food in another hive, and they make quick work of stealing it.

One thing we did was to put an entrance reducer on the front of the hive so that our bees would have less territory to defend.  It basically is a strip of wood with a small notch cut out so that only a couple of bees can come in or fly out at once. I also put some grass and leaves over that entrance after a Google search informed me that would confuse the robber bees and they’d eventually give up trying to invade and go back home.

This is not just happening in my urban beehive:  it is happening in all my friends’ hives around the 28801 and 28806 zip codes.  I sure would like to see the hives where the robbers are absconding with our honey.  They must be strong and gigantic.

Mite strips: 7-day treatment

When checking on the hives a few weeks ago we noticed that some of our bees had shriveled-up wings.  That’s a sign of mites.  Despite their flightlessness, the other bees don’t reject them.  (My brother was marveling at this, reminding me that bees will banish the drones from the hive at the end of the season when they don’t need them anymore, but they will “let” these hive-bound bees stay and work.)

These mite strips about knocked us over — they’ve got formic acid in them. I don’t know what formic acid is exactly, but it smelled like the vinegar on steroids.  I felt guilty putting them in the hive knowing the bees would be trapped in there with all those fumes, but I knew that unless we dealt with the mites we were at risk of losing the entire hive, especially since we’re headed into winter.

Pollen patties on top of racks

So my bees wouldn’t hate me forever after I subjected them to the formic acid treatment, after I took the mites strips out I immediately put in some pollen patties.  Pollen patties look and smell just like PowerBars (I swear I didn’t taste one!) The bees started eating them as soon as I put them on top of the racks.

Trapped hive beetles

The hive beetle traps are great.  They work by luring the beetles in through small holes in the top with apple cider vinegar, then they get stuck in the vegetable oil inside.  These little traps also sit on top of the racks.  One note if you try them:  be really really careful with the oil — don’t spill any inside the hive because any bee that touches it will get all gunked up and won’t be able to fly.

The only things that could mess with our bees now are the giant variety:  bears.  They are roaming all over the place.  They’ve been in our neighborhood the past few weeks.  There was a family about a half mile from downtown, not far from us, just recently:

Mama bear and 3 cubs in tree, courthouse and downtown in background



To end on a happy note:

October 13th and still coming in with pollen


Bees! We got bees!

Easter afternoon we were driving over to a cookout at James’s cousin’s house.  Right around the corner from our house, I saw a person in a beekeeping suit in our neighbor’s yard. Well, I figured there must be a swarm so we pulled over to check it out.

The swarm

Sure enough, our neighbors had a swarm in their backyard.  We told Andy, the beekeeper, that we had an empty bee box in our yard and were on a wait-list for getting bees this spring.  He told us he’d captured 3 swarms in the past week, so he was all set on hives, and he offered to give us these bees.  Woohoo!

He got them all corralled into his bee box, stapled some screen over the entrance, put them in the back of his pickup and followed us back around the corner to our house.  He told us what we needed to do to get them transferred over to our bee boxes — I was listening intently, but not understanding much, with the notion in my brain that I’d call my brother ASAP to get him to come over and show me what to do with them later.

Andy getting the swarm into the box

Well, later came around, Craig got over here and we donned bee suits and transferred the racks from Andy’s box to ours.  I was a little nervous as that was the first time I’d worked with bees since my one or two feeble teenaged attempts when my dad started tending a few hives in our backyard (I’m sure I was more scared of other teens seeing me in a bee suit than I was of the bees).

Craig and me, ready to go

Anyway, it was amazing.  They were pretty calm but their collective buzz was steady and loud.  I felt safe in the bee suit even though they were flying all around us.  We got them all transferred, added a sugar water feeder to the front of the box to help feed them till they get established (in bee-speak, I think that means they’ve got to build their wax honeycomb cells up enough to be ready for them to put honey into…I think).

Bees in Andy's box on right, prior to transfer to our box on left

Of course, the boys were totally taken with the entire process — especially the bee suits.  How cool to be able to look like a spaceman/alien and it doesn’t even have to be Halloween!  They didn’t get too close to the hive but were watching what we were doing.  They’re only 4 and 2.  I wonder if it was instinct helping them keep a safe distance, or if they were following James’s lead (who didn’t have a suit but was also trying to watch from a couple yards away).

Amanda reloading the smoker

The next day, my brother and I had to go to Greenville for family business(not exciting stuff). We went to my Dad’s house while we were there to check on his four hives.  When we got there, our friend Amanda was already there, suited up and checking the first hive.

Now, I am a complete beginner.  So this might not all be exactly right.  But, I learned that “checking on a hive” means that you’re making sure the hive is healthy:  you go into the boxes, pull out the racks and see what’s going on.  You look for brood cells, pollen cells, and of course cells filled with honey. (You also check for ick things like wax moths and some kind of parasitic beetle that can harm a hive.)

Opened bee box, checking racks

Amanda at work

You also look for the queen — my favorite part of the entire activity.  I’d always envisioned the queen as just kind of sitting still in one place, immobile, while the drones and worker bees helped move her around so she could lay eggs in the cells.  Nope, the queen of the hive I first looked in was just as mobile and busy as all the other bees, moving around fairly nimbly for having a much longer abdomen than the others.  We saw the queens in the other hives too and they have been working hard, making healthy bees and hives.

Learning by doing, baptism by fire — whatever this crash course in beekeeping was, it sure was fun.  I did get stung once through my glove but it wasn’t too bad.  I guess I was distracted by all the activity.

Here I am trying to figure out how to get the smoker to work, loading it up with sticks I’d carefully picked up from among a ridiculous amount of poison ivy in my dad’s yard.  It is a true miracle I didn’t end up with a major PI problem. Thank goodness for the full coverage of the bee suit!

Amanda explained to me that the smoke confuses the bees by masking the pheromones they emit when they get mad (i.e., when people get in their hive), so they stay calmer.

Back in Asheville the past couple of days,  I’ve been intrigued by these new residents in our backyard. I can see the hive from our porch.  There’s a lot of activity right outside the entrance, but Craig assures me they’re not getting ready to swarm and leave.  He says they’ve got to get their bearings, and he’s confident they like their new home.

This afternoon I told my 4 year old that we needed to go to the store.  He asked, “Are we going there to get my bee suit?”  I looked online and sure enough there’s a place that sells bee suits for kids.  I think it’s great, but I know it will start World War III if my 2 year old doesn’t get one too (they don’t make them small enough for him)…he’ll just have to wait a little longer….and enjoy the honey in the meantime!

They're all in! (Sugar water feeder on the front helps them get established)


Honey harvest

One thing about taking pictures for my blog is that my camera phone gets a little dirty.  I’m writing about gardening and composting, so when I take photos to put in a post, my hands have usually been in the dirt or I’ve been wrangling a muddy toddler.

Yesterday I took my first venture into the world of beekeeping: I harvested 10 racks of honey from my brother’s hive in his yard. Now that was a challenge — trying to take pictures while working with honey. Not to mention that was my first time doing this, and by myself too. My 4 year old was keenly interested, but mainly in eating the honey. (Fortunately for my beginner-beekeeping self, there were no live bees involved — it was just a box of racks full of honey.)

Consequently, my phone got pretty sticky as I was trying to capture some images of the whole process. And the honey can be found in various places in our house, from the front porch to my 4 year old’s forehead.

My brother showed me the basics of how to get the honey from the rack, then left me to figure it out by myself.   So, from here on, remember that I’m no expert, and that there might have been easier (and more correct) ways to do what I did:

First, I used an electric hot knife to remove (“de-cap”) the wax covering the honeycomb cells:

The left side of the rack shows the cells that still have the wax caps.  The right side is where I just made a swath through with the hot knife and honey is exposed.  (You can also see where the honey kind of “cooked” on the blade and turned brown.   I don’t know if it was supposed to do this, like maybe I should have been wiping the honey from the blade while working —  it didn’t affect the outcome but it will be a pain to clean I’m sure.)

**Note — the above tool is a hot. knife.  My thumb will attest to that.  A burn/cut combo. Ow.  It was a scary enough tool that even my boys wouldn’t get near it, and they’re usually attracted to anything electric, sharp, and/or poisonous.

Spinning honey on front porch

Two uncapped racks went into the extractor at a time.  I turned the handle and it spun the racks (they were in a cage-like contraption inside).  It took about 10-15 minutes of spinning per set to get the honey out.

Something I’ve learned about gardening in the front yard is that it’s much more social than back-yard gardening:

When I had the extractor on the front porch, my neighbor’s landscaper, Shylock, came over to check it out. Shylock is from Zimbabwe, and he told me how he and his brothers get honey from hives in the woods there.  Getting honey from a wild hive is a whole ‘nother ball of wax (couldn’t resist)….I like the idea of bee boxes and protective bee suits myself, but it was truly fascinating to hear him tell about it.

When they were all done, I brought the extractor inside to sit on the radiator.  The warmth of the radiator made the honey less viscous so it flowed better when it was time to strain it.

It also made our house smell deliciously of honey.



Our resident Pooh bear was right by my side once the honey started flowing:  He eats a peanut butter and honey sandwich *every* day for lunch.  He’d love to be able to live on honey alone.

After all the honey went through the strainer and into the 5-gallon bucket, then it was time to put it into jars.



My brother’s amazing sense of timing brought him back to the house right when I was starting this part — or as he described it, “the fun part”.  Knowing that I have a touch of adult ADD and am a little klutzy (both amplified when toddlers are around) he kindly reminded me that it was *really* important to keep an eye on the honey filling the jar — not fun when it overflows.

I am proud to say that I had no spills — amazing for me!  Here’s the beginnings of what we got: 

Its flavor is just perfect…it is flowery and light.  I have been eating straight spoonfuls of it and can’t stop.

I used random left-over jars so there were 3 different sizes, but we ended up with 10 pints, 3 half-pints, and 4 4-oz. jars.  If my math is correct that’s over a gallon of honey….

And one very happy resident Pooh bear.


Bee burial

Don't worry, they're not alive!

My dad and brother started keeping bees in our backyard when I was about 14 years old.  Beehives and the associated tending were not high on my priority list at the time.   The bees were mainly a source of entertainment to me at that age — not of the “oh that’s so cool” kind, but of the “Oh Hey!  Check it out — I think the bees are chasing Dad!”   Oh teen humor.

Well, my dad and brother are still keeping bees in their respective back yards, 20 some-odd years later.  Today my brother suggested it’s high time for me to have my own hive.  He has a couple hives in his backyard, about a half-mile from downtown Asheville, said he could help me get set up and even offered to do the tending.  Wow!

Now, with two toddlers who are always in the yard, I’m a little hesitant, but I think we’re going to give it a try, make the hive far enough off the ground that the bees’ flight path is out of range of my little fellas. Maybe on a platform.  We’ll see…

Anyway, through the years I’ve always noticed that to my brother, father, and beekeeper friends, the bees are not just a mass of stinging insects that happen to produce one of the most divine substances ever, but they’re also something else to them, I can’t quite place it.  They love bees, their tenacity and amazing productivity despite being robbed occasionally by humans of their hard-earned honey. They are indeed amazing creatures.

Listen to a beekeeper talk about their bees and you’ll pick up on it.  It subtle, not exactly like a person talks affectionately about a pet, but it’s a little like that.  A friend of ours went to a beekeeper’s meeting years ago, and he asked the group a question about a hive of his that had died after some particularly wet weather.  One of the old-timers spoke up indignantly, almost accusingly, as if Jack had failed as a bee parent:  “You drowned them bees!!”


Dearly departed

Today my brother brought the remnants of a failed hive to my house.   He wanted to put the dead bees in my compost pile.   He wasn’t sure what was their ultimate demise, but he was definitely somber and a little quiet about it.   It was almost funereal as he unloaded the white square box containing the hives from his truck, pulled out the racks and held handfuls of the dead creatures in his hands.  He looked at them as he held them in his hands and said “they were really good workers…..”.  I sensed that he was feeling some guilt, like he could have saved them.

My almost-4 year old and our almost-5 year old neighbor were intrigued.  My son picked up a few of the light, fuzzy little bees and checked them out.  The neighbor girl was wary, not sure if they were indeed incapable of stinging, so she observed.  Intently.


Shaking the bees off the honeycomb

Next we took the hive  to the compost pile and started shaking the bees off the racks.  I swear, I felt like it was a burial.  My brother kept saying that dead bees in compost were really good fertilizer, but I wonder if he was also thinking that they were going to continue working, feeding the dirt as they faded away.  A proper burial of sorts.  At least I was thinking that.  Busy bees, working on into their apiarian afterlives via the compost pile.

Then the party started.  I found a small area of honeycomb, still full of honey.  It was some of the best honey I’ve ever tasted.  My son dug right in, beeswax and all.  He’s got some Pooh Bear in him.  Never met a PB&Honey sandwich he didn’t devour.


Continuing with the celebration of the bees’ life, the neighbor girl said, “We should thank the dead bees for the honey.”  Not in a sentimental way, just using good manners, reminding us why were were all gathered in the garden right then….

I called Dad tonight and told him we put the bees in the compost pile.  His first comment was, “Did you notice how they’d all died facing the queen?”  I told him we didn’t see the queen….but I realized he was trying to impart some of that beekeeper sense to me that I’m still trying to understand. “Didn’t you see how they were in the exact same spot on each rack, the exact pattern?”

It’s beyond anthropomorphizing, what beekeepers do when they talk about their bees.  It’s big respect for these tiny creatures who, despite being — well, insects — behave as though they know an awful lot.









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