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.

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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.

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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.

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Tiller attached to tractor

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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.

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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.

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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.


Newsletter article and Facebook submission guidelines


By Leslie Ashman / Someone asked me recently about article submission guidelines.  I thought it might be helpful to share how the Communications Committee, VMN Banshee Reeks Chapter views its current three media outlets.

First, just want to note how we view the distinction between posts to our Facebook group and newsletter content, about half of which is drawn from submissions to our website.  We view Facebook, as the platform is intended, as sort of up-to-the minute grab-and-go content on nature news, volunteer activities, Continuing Education opportunities, personal pic sharing and other timely information pertinent to VMNers – a format to create community.  No one’s writing content and one can simply post an article from elsewhere without even commenting, if so inclined.  (And yes, it’s monitored. 🙂 )

For the website and the newsletter, we’re actually writing articles from various source materials that relate to Virginia and surrounding areas (e.g., the Piedmont or Chesapeake Bay watershed) and whose subjects can be generally categorized within the ‘three pillars’ of the VMN program – Education, Citizen Science and Stewardship.  Our latest edition is a great example of that – Sheila’s article about the Ovenbird is educational, Bryan’s about the Breeding Bird Atlas covers a great Citizen Science project, and his and his wife Allison’s Stream Buffer Planting is a wonderful example of Stewardship.  I include my own article on Nature and the brain as falling within the Stewardship category, since I believe that simply getting more people outdoors fosters a deeper sense of stewardship within them, hopefully moving them toward action.  If you’re interested in contributing an article to the website, please email Bryan Henson at  Bryan can set you up as a contributor and also includes those articles in each newsletter’s first draft, some of which may be cut or edited for length.

Each issue also contains a Member Spotlight, Committee Corner and President’s message, and we try to include topical info on what’s going on at Banshee Reeks, since it’s our home base; but articles on relevant activities at any local park are welcome.

We welcome content on any of the topics in the program, which run from geology and ecology to Interpretation skills and the full biological taxonomy.  If it helps, the topics in our Class Schedule are a great guideline, in addition to what the Commonwealth’s site provides.

We publish quarterly, trying to pull each edition’s first draft together in the first week of the first month of the quarter, targeting publication around the 15th.  Things like vacations and volunteers’ schedules can impact that.  Because the dates vary, we like using website contributions as a great way to funnel content to the newsletter.  People can post to the website as the inspiration strikes them…and certainly we can accept newsletter articles at any time.  As mentioned, email Bryan to get set up to contribute to the website; you can email newsletter contributions to me directly at

And last, but not least, everything published must be within the volunteer program guidelines:

How May The [Certified Master Naturalist] Title Be Used?

…  The Virginia Master Naturalist program is a public service program operated by the State Program Sponsors to provide accurate, unbiased natural resources information.  The Virginia Master Naturalist title may not be identified with any particular political viewpoint and may not be used by groups or individuals as they participate in political advocacy.  The title is to be used only when doing unpaid volunteer work associated and approved by the program.  Any implied commercial endorsement resulting from use of the VMN title is improper. Therefore, the title may not be used for commercial publicity or private business. Participating in a commercial activity, association with commercial products, or giving implied VMN endorsements to any product or place of business is a violation of VMN policies. VMNs may only identify themselves as such while volunteering in conjunction with official/approved VMN programs or activities, NOT for business or personal gain.

For any new class members (and interested current ones), we’ll be making a pitch in the first class for interested individuals to join our committee, and offering an invitation to our monthly meetings to test the waters (meet us, see how we operate, etc.) without actually making a commitment.  (New recruits won’t officially be asked to choose a committee until December.)  Anyone is welcome to check us out.  We do more than these publications – as events are scheduled, we can provide press releases and promotional materials as well.

Remember…research and writing articles can be counted as volunteer hours!


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


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 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



Red-footed Cannibalfly


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!


Get your free trees! – Stream buffer planting


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


Bluebird box monitoring


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 .


I just found this fantastic article on the main VMN website about Clark Walter building bluebird boxes –

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