Adventures of a First Time Beekeeper: Part 2 – Raising Bees and Making a Meadow


Part 2a – Raising Bees

By Liz Dennison

20160814_131751 600Bees exist in the wild without assistance from beekeepers. As beekeepers, we provide a healthy environment, food and water when necessary, and protection from pests and predators, so that our bees can produce the honey and beeswax they need to thrive. The mission of the first year beekeeper, or the keeper of any new hive, is to grow bees. A new hive needs to produce enough bees and honey stores to survive its first winter. That means the hive must contain a basketball size cluster of bees and about 90 pounds of honey. The size of the cluster is essential to maintaining the required temperature of 93 degrees at the center when the queen begins laying eggs in midwinter. If there aren’t enough bees or enough food, the colony won’t survive. Honey stores are important as the bees’ primary energy source but beekeepers can provide supplemental food if the stores are inadequate. This year, we’re in the business of raising bees. If we’re lucky, we’ll harvest some honey next year.

Queen Bee

Queen bee with blue mark

Several days after installing the bees in the hives, we inspected them to make sure the queen was present and laying and the bees were drawing comb on the foundation. When we purchased our package and nuc we requested marked queens. A marked queen has a small brightly colored dot on her back making her much easier to find among thousands of busy bees. One of our hives has a queen with a bright pink dot and the other with a turquoise blue dot. We usually inspected our hives in the middle of the day when many bees are out foraging. On the first inspection of each hive, we removed the top and inner cover of the brood box and then each frame, one at a time. We were able to find the queen in both hives and see that she was laying and the colony was drawing comb on the frames. All was well.


Inspecting a frame

What I found most interesting is that we can open the hives, pull individual frames, even remove an entire box and the bees pay no attention. They continue their work almost as if we’re not there. We’ve never had to use our smoker and prefer not to use it. It’s said that smoke calms the bees but the reality is that the bees perceive the smoke as a forest fire and focus on consuming their honey stores so they can carry it with them to safety. While there may be situations where smoke would be helpful, it seems counterproductive and unnecessary for routine hive care.

As the bees were able to find enough nectar and pollen, we discontinued the feeding we started earlier in the spring and removed the Boardman feeder. After several weeks, the bees nearly filled the original brood box so we added a second box to each hive. In late July, the second boxes were full with brood in the center and honey stores at the edges so we added a third box to each hive. Although we continued to inspect the hives every week, we no longer examined every frame or worried about finding the queen each time. If we saw active bees around the hive and drawn comb, brood cells and honey stores where they should be after sampling a few frames, we were confident that all was well. No need to disturb the hive any further.

We had some hot weather this summer and the bees definitely felt it. On some of the hottest days, the entire front of the hive was covered with bees. Hanging out on the “front porch” is the bees’ way of cooling themselves and the hive. Bees hanging out at the hive entrance are fanning the hive to increase air flow and ventilation. At this point a water source is very important. If there is no nearby water source, water can be provided with a Boardman feeder (a mason jar with small holes in the lid inverted and fitted into a wooden holder at the entrance of the hive). If entrance restrictors are in place to help bees defend the hive against invaders, they should be removed to improve airflow. If the hive has a solid bottom board it should be replaced with a screen bottom. If necessary, shade can be provided with a pop-up awning. Our bees have shade from trees for the hottest part of the afternoon which did seem to help. We certainly appreciated the shade when inspecting the hives because long pants, long sleeves, beekeeping gloves, hats and veils can be uncomfortable on a hot summer afternoon.

20160831_150325 600

Boardman feeder with syrup

By mid to late July the nectar flow was low and we saw that honey production had decreased so we resumed feeding a one-to-one mixture of sugar water and a small amount of vitamins and essential oils with the Boardman feeder (the same as for providing water but containing an appropriate concentration of syrup) and saw increased honey production in the honey super (third box). This will be the bees’ winter food supply. Some bee keepers don’t use this type of feeder because it can encourage “robbing” by bees from other hives but we haven’t seen any robbing activity so far.

20160717_120230 600

Mite board showing dirt, honey, and other debris but few mites

Around this time, a few local bee keepers reported large numbers of Varroa Mites in their hives. Even though we had treated the hives in the spring, we decided to do a 24 hour mite count on each hive. We waited for a day that would be a little cooler and inserted a foam board coated with Vaseline to make it sticky at the bottom of each hive. The board reduces ventilation in the hive so waiting for a cool day puts less stress on the bees. After 24 hours we removed the boards and counted the number of mites on each. We found only one or two mites so there was no need to treat the hives. Since we’re not harvesting honey this year, we can treat with Apivar which doesn’t harm the bees and is very effective. There are other non-chemical methods of mite control, including sifting powdered sugar into the hives to coat the bees. The sugar causes the bees to groom themselves and remove the mites along with the sugar. While many beekeepers swear by the sugar method, it does require ongoing treatments and should be started before there is a significant mite infestation.

The bees were very active in August and filled the third box on each hive with honey so we added a fourth box to each hive. We also started feeding pollen patties that we make ourselves. We no longer inspected individual frames but simply opened the top of the hive to peek in and see how much comb and honey there was in the upper box and to add the food patties. The hives sounded wonderful, activity around them was energetic with bees flying off and returning loaded with pollen, and there were already good honey stores. We did another mite check and again found only two or three mites so decided to hold off on treatment. All was well at the end of August.


Hives with Meadow in the Background

We made it through the summer with healthy hives. I’ve been fascinated by bee behavior both in and out of the hives. I’ve enjoyed watching them leaving and returning. I can only follow them a short distance before they disappear into the background of our pines. I wish I could follow to see where they forage. We’ve become much more confident in handling the frames and feeders so hive care has become much more fun and less stressful.

Check back soon for Part 3 – Preparing for Winter

Part 2b – Making a Meadow

20160823_180354 600I’m sure all Virginia Master Naturalists are aware that pollinators need our help. Loudoun County is one of the fasted growing regions in the country but this growth comes at a price. Much of the farmland, open fields and forests in the eastern part of the county have been overtaken by urban and commercial development that replaces green space with concrete. Even in suburban neighborhoods, native grasses have been replaced by manicured lawns. Native trees and wildflowers have been replaced by exotic varieties. Non-native invasive plants are rampant along roadways and other areas disturbed by development. The result is a landscape that’s inhospitable to our native wildlife, including the pollinators.


There are several excellent programs that provide education and support for removing invasive plants and replacing them with natives. Soon after we moved to Philomont, we contacted Audubon at Home ( This wonderful organization brought experienced naturalists to our property to help us identify plant species and make an improvement plan. Although we still have some work to do we met the criteria for certification as a Wildlife Sanctuary. I also completed an online course on Woodland Options for Landowners through the Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment ( ) that helped me better understand how to manage my wooded acres. But, as a beekeeper, I still wanted to do something for pollinators so we decided to create a meadow.

We selected a grassy area of almost 1/3 acre along the road at the entrance to our property. It’s close to the bee hives and gets sun most of the day. There are natural ways to go from grass to meadow gradually over a period of years but we wanted to do it more quickly. We decided to seed the area with native flowers and began investigating sources for the seed. We settled on a bee friendly pollinator mix of annuals and perennials from American Meadows ( ) but there are many other options depending on your soil type, amount of sun, amount of water, and the type of wildlife you want to attract. The people at American Meadows were very helpful in making recommendations about how much seed we would need and how and when to plant. All seeds from American Meadows are Non-GMO and Neonicotinoid-Free.

20160508_200936 600

Tiller attached to tractor

20160508_201025 600

Enough wildflower seed for 1/4 to 1/3 acre

We ordered the seed in March and got to work on preparing the land. We borrowed a tiller attachment for our tractor from our beekeeping mentor. That meant driving our tractor with the attachment on Snickersville Turnpike. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go very far. We used the tiller to turn the soil just a few inches deep. It wasn’t necessary to kill or remove the grass. When the nights were warm enough to be sure there wouldn’t be a frost, we attached a small seed spreader to the tractor and spread the seed as evenly as possible. The spreader was too light to work properly so we enlisted our son to sit on it for extra weight. After seeding, we drove the tractor over the area to push the seed into the soil. Then we waited.

20160508_200723 600

Meadow immediately after seeding

I was worried that birds would eat all the seed. I was worried that invasive species would take over in the disturbed earth before the seeds had a chance to germinate. I was worried that the grass would overwhelm the flowers. None of that happened. After a few weeks we started to see little seedlings popping up everywhere and growing quickly. The result has been a beautiful and ever-changing display, from tiny white flowers in the spring to magnificent sunflowers in August. This little 1/3 of an acre is buzzing with bees (not always our bees), butterflies and, a surprise to me, dozens of goldfinches. We’ve had lots of compliments from our neighbors. Some have even stopped to take pictures, one neighbor brings her children every few days to pick flowers, and a few high school students used it as the backdrop for their senior pictures.

Meadow 20160723-1

Meadow Bee August 9-2


This was easy to do and maintenance free – no watering or regular mowing. It supports our wildlife and is beautiful to look at. Next year we’ll expand this meadow a bit and do the same in some of the shady areas. The people who owned this property before us called a small, secluded, clearing in the pines “The Secret Garden”. By next summer, “The Secret Garden” will be full of flowers.





As Fall approaches


By Anne Owen

As Fall approaches, many of us will be thinking about ‘tidying up’ the yard ready for Winter – and for most, that will mean cutting down dead flowers, raking up fallen leaves and piling up bags of yard waste at the curb for pick up. Then, we can settle back into our warm homes to wait things out until Spring.

But spare a thought for the many critters that live in our yards. Mostly, we won’t see them, but they are there and they too need safe habitat to survive the winter. The insects and arachnids that overwinter successfully will the ones that provide food for hungry fledgling birds in the Spring. They will pollinate the early flowers, providing fruit and seeds later in the season and some will even assist in keeping other destructive insects under control.

Many butterfly and moth species over-winter as pupae in leaf litter. When the caterpillars emerge in Spring, they provide critically important food for birds feeding their young. Ladybugs and Lacewings like to nest in dry, sheltered crowns of native grasses and spiders hide at the base of old stems. Different species of bees use hollow plant stems, or small holes just below or on the ground’s surface.

Swamp Sparrow foraging

Swamp Sparrow foraging

Even species that are active in the winter months, such as birds, need food and shelter. Birds will greatly appreciate the seed heads of grasses and forbs, especially Coneflower. Standing stems and grasses will also provide safe spaces for small birds to escape ever-present predators such as hawks. Visiting Juncos and White-throated Sparrows love the brush piles in my yard!

Here are some suggestions:

  • Let leaves lie where they fall (or just blow them off the lawn and onto beds). Natural leaf litter will provide shelter for many species and is a great natural mulch.
  • Leave perennial stem and seed heads standing through the winter months. If you are not comfortable to leave it all, consider cutting down only a half or two thirds and leave just a section standing. Stems left standing can protect the plants themselves in severe weather by collecting insulating snow.
  • If you do cut down some or even all of your perennials, think about leaving the cut stems in a loose stack on the ground, to form a small brush pile that can provide winter habitat.
  • When planning your garden, include plants that actually look great in winter, such as coneflower, yarrow and native grasses – then enjoy the artistry on frosty mornings when the leaves and seed heads are accented with halos of ice.


Because many of the critters that will benefit from this approach are very small, it may be hard to see the changes that are taking place in your garden, but you will be making a difference and those changes will happen!


Book Review: Feathers, the Evolution of a Natural Miracle


By Sheila Montalvan

Feathers, the Evolution of a Natural Miracle. By Thor Hanson. New York, NY: Basic Books. 2011, 336pp.

Recently I heard about an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York called Dinosaurs Among Us that features a 23-foot- long feathered tyrannosaur (Yutyrannus huali) and a small dromaeosaur with “four wings and vivid plumage.”

Information on the exhibit states that, “the boundary between the animals we call birds and the animals we traditionally called dinosaurs is now practically obsolete”, and that “many dinosaur species sported primitive feathers—precursors to those birds use to fly, court mates, and more.” This information would have astounded me, except that I happened to be reading Thor Hanson’s well-informed book, Feathers. Dr. Hanson, a biologist and author, won the American Museum of Natural History John Burroughs Medal for Feathers, and was nominated for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize in the UK.

According to Dr. Hanson, it all started in the German countryside in 1861. A quarryman, who “worked in a world of dust, the fine grit of limestone powdered by blasting, chisel work, and constant hammer blows”, had a very bad cough. Unable to afford a doctor, his “method of payment was a delicate, crow-size fossil he had found that would change science forever.” The fossil was Archaeopteryx lithographica –a fossil of a reptile with the feathers of a bird.

Archaeopteryx lithographica fossil

Archaeopteryx lithographica fossil

Fossils are known to be fairly common in limestone, and sometimes miners would smuggle out any interesting finds to trade for necessities, such as medical advice. The doctor knew he had something special, and the fossil eventually ended up in London where its origins and meaning were debated by scientists for years. The fossil is now in the Natural History Museum in London. I was fortunate enough to see the actual fossil while in London recently. It is kept in the “Treasures” section of the museum and is their “most valuable fossil” (see photo). It is larger than I thought it would be, and even to my untrained eye I could tell it was a bird by the shape and feather detail. Seeing the fossil certainly put the author’s enthusiasm on the subject into perspective.

The book touches on a wide variety of feather trivia. Did you know that early humans probably used feathers to create paintings in caves?  Or that the metallic fins on the “massive rocket that launched Apollo 15 were direct technological descendants of the first feathers to stabilize the tail end of a dart”?  And that the “word pen is derived from the Latin penna, for feather.” Feathers were also used for dental hygiene purposes, back in the day.

The author informs us that there is a desert dwelling bird called the sandgrouse, who will fly to a water source and carry water back to its young in its breast feathers. The water source can often be 30 miles away. Sandgrouse feathers actually absorb the water – and “will hold two to four times as much water as the average dish sponge.” The sandgrouse chicks are able to get a sip of water since they are unable to fly to the water source yet.

Another section examines how feathers get their pigment, and how scientists determined that feathered dinosaurs were colorful. Did you know that the coloring in parrot feathers makes them resistant to bacteria? Perfect for life in a damp rain forest.

There is plenty of discussion on feather anatomy, too. The author provides a very detailed visual reference to various types of feathers, including their size and structure. Everything one needs to know (and more) about flight and contour feathers, bristles, follicles, filaments and filo plumes are here.

This insightful, easy to read book is consistent with Dr. Hanson’s engaging style and enthusiasm for the subject. Feathers contains a variety of biological, cultural, scientific, and religious information that would appeal to most readers. Any naturalist or bird watcher would benefit from reading this book, and you won’t want to miss a single part.

Link to Publisher’s page:


Stewardship: Where Science Meets the Heart


By Leslie Ashman

“I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” (John Muir, 1896) 1

In this, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, it feels appropriate to quote one of its earliest advocates.2  And this quote feels particularly poignant as I’ve been ruminating on our collective human relationship with Nature, what it means to steward, and the emotional connection that drives us to do so.

In our Interpretation class, we were taught the process that takes us from Awareness through Understanding and Caring ultimately leading to Stewardship, and that, according to Freeman Tilden, “Any interpretation that does not somehow relate… to something within the personality or experience… will be sterile,” that is – in order to garner action and commitment, we need to reach beyond the intellectual to connect with people emotionally.  Otherwise, the message is ineffective in soliciting active response.

I would submit that even the Education and Citizen Science pillars of the Naturalist program are in themselves forms of Stewardship (our third pillar), for whether we’re birders, beekeepers, goat-tenders, tree-huggers or inveterate counters of the creepy-crawlers, we’re in action because we care for various aspects of Nature.  We have learned that that the warp and weft of Nature weaves an integrated whole that includes us as its participants and its stewards.

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) photo by Allison G

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) photo by Allison G

More and more, I’m looking at my own stewardship endeavors as finding ways to connect others with the personal experience of Nature.  Getting children, family and friends outdoors to see how they can touch and are in return touched by their surroundings.  Drawing parallels between the new and captivating perception with the old, known and familiar; and expressing those perceptions in terms of how they make us feel and memories they evoke.  By sharing a personal story; others will listen and be inspired.  It wasn’t until I realized that the Dutchman’s Breeches I was introduced to in Botany class reminded me of Dutch dolls I had as a child and walks in a nearby Nature Preserve with my mother back then, that I understood so clearly why those flowers instantly made me smile and want to plant my own next Spring.  Stewardship might work through our words and our hands, but it comes from the heart.  This Autumn, think about ways to share those connections, memories and experiences as ways of offering the gift of Stewardship – and the wonders of Nature — to others.