Adventures of a First Time Beekeeper: Part 1 – Getting Started

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By Liz Dennison

Queen Bee with Blue Mark

Queen Bee with Blue Mark

When my husband and I moved to Philomont, we knew we wanted to do something useful with our property. We considered raising goats that could be leased to clear brush but the cost and effort of fencing, shelter, food, transportation and veterinary care were more than we wanted to take on. We considered raising chickens but most of our neighbors have chickens. The supply of eggs exceeds the demand and I think our two big dogs might like the chickens a little too much. So we considered raising honey bees.

 

We knew that pollinators need our support and that pollinators in turn support our local gardens, farms, vineyards, and orchards. We also knew that keeping two hives would allow us to put our 10 acres in land use and save on property taxes. We could sell our honey and look into other products like beeswax candles. But we didn’t know anything about keeping bees. To get started we joined the Loudoun Beekeepers Association. This wonderful organization holds monthly meetings on a wide variety of interesting topics from environmental concerns to how to keep bees in an urban setting. The meetings are also a great way to meet other beekeepers and share information.

The next step was to take the beekeeping class offered by the association each year beginning in late February. The class meets once a week for 8 weeks and covers everything a new beekeeper needs to get started. We learned about bee biology, colony activities, managing the hives throughout the seasons, pathogens, parasites, and pests, hive products and beekeeping equipment. We weren’t experts after the class but we had the basics and access to the club’s resources. Best of all, we were assigned an experienced beekeeper as our mentor.

Along with the class, the club brought local beekeepers together to demonstrate beekeeping equipment. This hands-on opportunity helped us choose the equipment options that were right for us. It was also a chance to talk with beekeepers about their successes, failures, and lessons learned. I left the event with one valuable insight. Regardless of the equipment, placement of the hives, or beekeeping philosophy, sometimes “Bees are gonna do what bees are gonna do”. I’ve heard this phrase over and over from experienced beekeepers. Often a hive will succeed or fail in spite of what we do to support it or any mistakes we make. The bees themselves are best at managing the colony. Sometimes it’s best to leave them alone to do what bees do.

Hive Body with Frames and Tools

Hive Body with Frames and Tools

There are many options for the hives, accessories and protective clothing. The hive boxes can be homemade, built from kits, purchased complete but unpainted, or purchased complete and ready for setup. For convenience, we ordered the latter. Hive boxes come in various depths (deep, medium or shallow) and widths (8 or 10 frames). All have pros and cons. For us, weight was the deciding factor. A deep frame with honey weighs 10 pounds, so a 10 frame super (box with 10 frames) would weigh 100 pounds! That’s more than I can lift easily when inspecting the hive so we decided on medium boxes with 8 frames. There are just as many options for protective clothing. The helmet, veil and gloves are essential so we bought a set for each of us. We’re comfortable wearing our own light colored, loose fitting clothing around the bees but if you’re very sensitive to bee stings or uneasy around the bees, you can choose from a wide assortment of jackets and coveralls that provide excellent protection.

Protective Clothing & Smoker

Protective Clothing & Smoker

The training ends at about the time new beekeepers receive their bees so we worked backward from that date to be sure we would have the hives and all accessories in place and ready. We decided we would start with two hives to improve our chance of success and qualify to put our property in land use. We ordered enough hive equipment to build 3 complete hives. The extra equipment could be used if we had the opportunity to capture a wild swarm or to split one of our hives if necessary.

 

In March, for each of the 3 hives we ordered:

  • 3 medium 8 frame boxes (brood chamber and two supers)
  • 24 sheets of beeswax foundation (this is where the bees will build their honeycomb)
  • 24 frames to hold the foundation
  • 48 pins to stabilize the foundation in the frames
  • 1 inner cover
  • 1 outer cover
  • 1 screened bottom board
  • 1 entrance reducer
  • 1 front feeder bottle
  • Apivar (treatment for Varroa Mites)
  • Shim wood to level the hive
  • 5 cinder blocks (4 to raise the hive off the ground and one on top to keep predators out)

We also ordered some accessories and protective clothing:

  • 1 bee brush
  • 2 hive tools (to separate boxes and frames when bees “glue” them together)
  • 1 smoker and smoker fuel
  • 1 frame hanger (to hold frames temporarily removed from the hive during inspections)
  • 2 helmets
  • 2 veils
  • 2 pairs of beekeeping gloves
  • 1 extra helmet and veil for guests who want to see the hives

Our total equipment cost for this first year was about $800. Costs can be reduced by building or painting the hives yourself. But this doesn’t include any equipment for harvesting, storing or selling honey because the goal of the first year of any bee colony is simply to grow bees.

Hives

Hives in Fenced Area

Once everything was ordered, we had to pick a location for the hives. The site should be fairly level and sheltered from strong winds (i.e. not on a hilltop). There should be a water source nearby (we have a small creek) and some shade during the hottest part of the summer days is helpful. We visited our mentor’s hives to see an example of a good site and he helped us select a place along our driveway that was good for the bees and convenient for keeping an eye on the hives. We installed the hives and found that the ground wasn’t quite as level as it appeared but some shimming fixed that. We installed a coated wire mesh fence to form a 12 by 12-foot area around the hives to keep pests (both four legged and two legged) away from the hives. We were ready for our bees.

Honeybees in a "Package"

Honeybees in a “Package”

 

Beekeepers get bees in three ways, packages, nucs, and capture of wild swarms. Since capture of wild swarms is unpredictable, new beekeepers order packages or nucs. A package is simply a screened box containing 5 pounds of bees and a newly mated queen in her own cage that are released into a new hive. It also contains sugar water to feed the bees on their journey. A nucleus, usually called a nuc, is a small established colony of bees, already on frames that are inserted into the center of the brood box for the new hive. To learn as much as we could, we ordered one of each through the club.

 

 

Opening Package of Bees

Opening Package of Bees

The package arrived first and our mentor helped us move the bees into our hive. It was actually very easy. The bees moved right in and made themselves at home. When the nuc arrived several weeks later, we put the frames into the hive and those bees settled in as well. To give them a good start, we used a Boardman feeder to provide sugar water to both hives and treated them with Apivar to avoid an infestation of Varroa Mites, a common cause of hive failure. With the bees safely in their hives, we were officially beekeepers.

 

Releasing Bees into Hive

Releasing Bees into Hive

 

Bees in Hive with Feeder

Bees in Hive with Feeder

 

Check back soon for Part 2 – Raising Bees

 

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Red-footed Cannibalfly

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I’ve been taking a lot of pictures of dragonflies recently;  Not only are they beautiful, but it really helps to have a picture when trying to ID them.   Recently, I was a Horsepen Run, when I came across what I thought was one dragonfly eating another one;  I had heard that it is not uncommon, but I hadn’t seen it in person before.  I just got a quick look before the eater flew off and the ‘dragonfly’ doing the eating didn’t look right.  I snapped a picture and figured I would try and ID it when I got home.   Here’s the picture:

Red-footed Cannibalfly

Red-footed Cannibalfly

As you can tell from the caption, it wasn’t a dragonfly, but is actually was a very large robber fly called the Red-footed Cannibalfly (Promachus rufipes).  That’s one heck of a fly!  The genus Promachus‘s greek translation is ‘who leads in battle’ – it certainly seems appropriate for such a giant fly that can take on dragonflies.  Robberflies get their common name because of their aggressive nature and tactics – they generally wait for their prey to fly by and then stick them up – well, they stick the prey with their proboscis.  Through their proboscis they inject a neurotoxin (to paralyze) and digestive enzymes.  There have even been reports of them trying to eat hummingbirds!

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Get your free trees! – Stream buffer planting

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One of the places that we visit frequently is a private 370 acre park, called Horsepen Run.  It’s part of the Countryside HOA, so to visit you need to be part of the HOA or a guest of a member of the HOA.  It’s a wonderful property sitting on the Potomac River and abutting Algonkian Park.  It’s full of a variety of different habitats, including meadows, wetlands (with vernal pools), and mature forest.  There is a good variety of birds, butterflies, herps (Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy has held a couple herp walks there in the past), and mammals (including possible sightings of bobcats!).

As the name implies, Horsepen Run contains a watershed that runs into the Potomac.  A little over a year ago, the HOA took advantage of a fantastic program to do a riparian buffer planting.  Allison had attended a seminar like this one and presented the idea to the HOA.  In the early spring, after some deliberation and meeting with the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District experts, a plan was put together.  In the late spring of 2015, the HOA paid (and was fully reimbursed by the county through the stream buffer program) a landscaping company to come in and plant 156 trees:

  • 19 Hackberry
  • 24 Black Gum
  • 24 River Birch
  • 18 Sweet Bay Magnolia
  • 12 American Hophornbeam
  • 12 American Hornbeam
  • 12 Redbud
  • 12 Blackhaw Viburnum
  • 13 Loblolly Pine
  • 10 Eastern Red Cedar
Buffer Stream Planting (day 1) at Horsepen Run

Buffer Stream Planting (day 1) at Horsepen Run

Trees - a year later

Trees – a year later

The trees that were chosen are all native to our area and as such provide a lot of value in terms of wildlife.   Allison added some labels (laminated to protect them from the weather) to some of the trees that described the tree species and what benefits it provides to wildlife.

Sweetbay Magnolia sign

Sweetbay Magnolia sign

As you may recall, that summer of 2015 was hot and pretty dry, so watering needed to be done to help the trees through their first year.  A pump and a really long hose allowed us to pump the stream water to take care of the tree’s needs.  The first summer we also had to add a little extra dirt to some of the trees, but the watering was the bulk of the first year care.

As the winter came, we worried when the big heavy snow came that the trees wouldn’t handle the weight, but they did fine.  The program requires that a year later that more than 75% of the trees are still alive – we met that easily with more than 95% surviving the first year.  The trees came with a warranty, so for the small number of trees that didn’t survive (some just didn’t ever really take to their new home), the vendor replaced them.  So in the spring, we got a few new trees and added a few new species (Chestnut Oak, Pin Oak and Tulip Poplar) to our burgeoning forest.

Sweetbay Magnolia a year later

Sweetbay Magnolia a year later

As summer approached, some of the trees were out-growing their deer fencing and needed some weeding, so a few volunteers have replaced a couple dozen deer fences and weeded about a third of the trees so far.  We hope to weed the rest in the next couple weeks.  Fortunately, there has been good rain for the spring and early summer, so we haven’t had to manually water them yet this year.  We’re hoping that by the end of the summer, we won’t have to do much more maintenance at all.

We’re very excited about the benefits to water quality and the benefits to local wildlife of converting what was once just a field of turf grass into a forest of beautiful native trees!   It is likely that the program will be offered next year if you want to get some trees of your own and help out with water quality.  You can visit the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District website for more information.

Loblolly Pine a year later

Loblolly Pine a year later

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Bluebird box monitoring

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For the last several years, we have been monitoring a bluebird trail in Loudoun.  It is a great volunteer opportunity.  It gets you outdoors on a regular basis;  you get to watch the whole lifecycle of birds;  you get to help out local native birds;  and sometimes you get access to some great habitat.  For example. one of the monitoring sites is the Dulles Greenway Wetlands Mitigation site – where it requires permission to visit and the bluebird monitors have permission to visit!  In Loudoun county, there are currently about 50 trails – so there is probably one near to you.

Our trail has not been very successful with respect to bluebirds.  We haven’t had any bluebirds nest in our boxes, but we have had other wonderful native birds species – Tree Swallows and House Wrens.  It’s a lovely experience to think that the Tree Swallows flying overhead are the ones that you played a part in their survival.

House Wren babies on a nest

House Wren babies on a nest

Boxes are generally checked one a week over the course of the spring to the fall.  Most trails probably take an hour or less to visit and inspect.  In the spring and fall, you clean out the boxes making sure they are ready for nesting – occasionally you need to fix something about the houses (replace a screw or noel guard) or move them based upon the previous season’s successes.   Then during the breeding season, you mostly just watch and record the nest state, number of eggs and number of juveniles.  You get to see the different nest materials and the eggs up close and you take some pictures of adorable little babies now and again.   All in all, it is very rewarding.

The program in Loudoun County is run by Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy.  You can find more information at http://www.loudounwildlife.org/Bluebird_Monitoring.htm .

 

I just found this fantastic article on the main VMN website about Clark Walter building bluebird boxes – http://www.virginiamasternaturalist.org/home/on-the-wings-of-bluebird-diplomacy

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2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas

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Today, we attended a workshop at Riverbend park sponsored by the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia that trained us on survey techniques for the Breeding Bird Atlas project.  The breeding bird survey is a 5 year “survey of all bird species breeding in the state. Data collected will help map the distribution and status of Virginia’s breeding bird community in order to better inform our natural resource and conservation decisions.”  A previous Virginia breeding atlas was done 25 years ago, so this new atlas will help us understand how birds’ behavior and their environment has changed in that time.

For citizen scientists it provides a fun and easy way to help study and conserve birds.  Birders often think of the spring and fall as the highlights of the years for birding – migration brings many more bird species temporarily into the area;  because of this birders often don’t spend as much time birding in the middle of the summer.  This project provides a great opportunity to focus on the birds in the heart of the summer.  For most birds, the middle of the summer, June and July, are the time when most breed and so therefore it is also the best time to visit the field.

at Morven Park

Eastern Kingbird on nest at Morven Park

Participation is super easy – get out and watch birds!  Watch them to see if they are exhibiting breeding behaviors and then report the results.  There are many more details to the protocol as shown on their website, but here are some useful things to know:

  • the state has been divided into blocks, so you need to pay attention to your location and report which block you observed the behavior in
  • there is a set of codes to describe the behaviors
  • the data is entered into a specialization of eBird website called the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas Portal
  • the goal is to upgrade as many birds to ‘Confirmed’ breeding in each block as possible, thus ‘completing’ a block
  • anyone can contribute to any block during breeding season in next 5 years.

During the workshop, we walked for a couple hours trying to find breeding behavior.  Riverbend (like several parks) is divided between two blocks – Seneca SE (a priority block) and Rockville SW.   During the walk, we spotted breeding behaviors on dozens of bird species (including the lovely Louisiana Waterthrush) and it gave participants a opportunity to learn more about some of the more subtle behaviors like counter-singing and territorial defense.  The survey coordinator (Ashley Peele) walked everyone through the data entry, useful tools on the website and encouraged us to spread the word and get others involved!

For anyone going to the 2016 Virginia Master Naturalist conference, they will be hosting another workshop at the conference.

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Sunflowers Galore!

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One of our favorite places to visit in the middle of the  summer is actually in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Just across the river, near Poolesville, is McKee Beshers WMA.  They have a wonderful set of fields of Sunflowers that they plant every year and we try and schedule a trip up to visit them in peak bloom.  This year, the expected peak bloom time is early to mid July.

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The habitat with the sunflowers is mostly open field, but surrounded by woods and close to the Potomac River, so it can be a good place for a variety of wildlife.  American Goldfinches are abundant and chowing down on all the sunflower seeds.  When we go, we typically see a good selections of butterflies.  Along with the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus), Zebra Swallowtails (Eurytides marcellus) and various skippers, we almost always encounter one of my favorite butterflies, the Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis).  It comes across as a particular social butterfly because it often lands on people.  They land on people to drink the sweat for its minerals.  You’ll also seem them landing frequently on the ground for minerals from pools of water and from dung.

While in the Poolesville area, two other great places to visit are the Hughes Road Polo fields and Violettes Lock.  The Polo fields are a common place to spot birds that love fields.  The fields themselves are private, but the road is public and you’ll often see birders out there looking for the most recent rarity.  Over the winter (in February), a Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) was visiting for several weeks.  More recently a Dickcissel has been the bird to see.  While visiting recently, we also saw Indigo Buntings, Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Kingbirds and Bald Eagle.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Violette’s Lock is one of several locks along the C & O Canal’s towpath.  Because of its accessibility, it is a favorite with hikers, bikers and birders.  The most recent uncommon bird spotted along the path is a singing Kentucky Warbler (Geothlypis formosa).  While visiting to see the Kentucky Warbler recently, we saw several natural delights, including a dragonfly dogfight, a Great Blue Heron close flyby, several turtles, a Green Snake, and a baby Prothonatory Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) being fed by its parent.

To get to these lovely places in Montgomery county, we typically take 15 North to White’s Ferry and take the ferry across the river.  We’ll take White’s Ferry Road (which turns into Fisher Ave) into Poolesville and then turn right on Budd Rd which ends into Hughes Road.  The polo fields will be on your right on Hughes Road.  To get to McKee Besher, follow Hughes Road down to River Road and turn left; there will be a parking lot on your right.  To get to Violette’s Lock from McKee Besher, follow River Road further east until you take a right on Violette’s Lock Road.

 

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Ichnology CE on Sat April 2nd at 1pm

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Saturday afternoon beginning at 1pm, there will be a CE on Ichnology , the study of Ichs!!

It will last 1.5-2 hours and the entire chapter is invited.

For those that may not know what Ichnology is, here is the official definition:

Ichnology is the branch of geology and biology that deals with traces of organismal behavior, such as footprints and burrows. It is generally considered as a branch of paleontology; however, only one division of ichnology, paleoichnology, deals with trace fossils, while neoichnology is the study of modern traces.

Should be a great class! Hope to see you there.

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Hayden Matthew BRNP Archaeological Presentation

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Friends of Banshee Reeks is privileged to have an exceptional informed speaker accompanied by subject matter experts in archaeology with displays of pre-historic and colonial artifacts discovered at Banshee and surrounding areas. A portion of the presentation will be considered continuing education for VMN members. An RSVP is required as the venue is the Education Annex where there is a 40 person limit. The presentation will start promptly at 6:30 PM, March 23, 2016. If you will be coming, please register athttp://bansheereeksnp.org/event-2167188 by this Sunday Noon so we can get a good head count.

 

In this program Hayden Mathews, current President of the Banshee Reeks Chapter of the Archeological Society of Virginia (BRASV) will present an overview of the archeological work that has been done at Banshee Reeks Preserve since its creation.  This program will discuss some of the representative archeological finds at Banshee and what they have revealed about the human presence here over the last 15,000 years and the soils, geology and topography of the Preserve and how they likely influenced human occupation on the land.  Representative artifacts from pre-colonial settlement by First Peoples as well as post-colonial European occupation will be shown in the program.

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