Installing New Bees (In a Kid-Friendly Apiary)

The girls at Hutchison School love their bees. Not only is it their mascot, but the school's resident honeybees play an integral role in the academic programs. Harvesting honey is everyone's highlight, and the girls are fascinated by the intricacies of bee colony life. 

When I started at Hutchison, there were just two hives. The boxes were starting to fall apart, and the bees were showing signs of aggression. I knew I wanted to expand the apiary, help calm some of the bee aggression, and update the bee's lodgings to make it more kid-friendly, but I wasn't sure of the best way to do this. Luckily, my dear friends Rita and Richard Underhill of Peace Bee Farm are bee experts and consultants. Richard is a Master Beekeeper. They came over to Memphis a few weeks back to help me come up with a plan. 

First, we decided to get rid of the ten-frame medium hives and switch the existing colonies over to eight-frame medium hives. Each medium frame of honey weighs about six pounds, so the smaller and lighter we can make our equipment, the better it is for our kid-beekeepers. We also decided to get two new packages of bees, and we ordered eight-frame equipment for them, too. 

The hives arrived first, and one of our third grade classes signed up to come help put the hives together. The girls installed beeswax-coated plastic foundations into wooden frames and painted the hives. 

Next, the bees. We ordered two three-pound packages of Italian honeybees from Bemis Honey Bee Farm in Little Rock, Arkansas. Last Saturday, we drove to Little Rock to go pick them up.

When you order bee packages, they usually come in a small box, like you see below. There's a little cell inside for the queen and her attendants, and a can of corn syrup with holes punctured into it to slowly feed the bees during their journey to their new homes. 

On Sunday, Richard and Rita met me at Hutchison to help install the bee packages and try to diagnose what was going on with those aggressive bees. (More on that later.) Richard also moved the frames from the existing ten-frame hives into the eight-frame hives. 

Here's how we installed the bee packages:

First, we placed the bottom boards of the hives on their platform and then put one box on top of that. We sprayed down six of the frames with a spray bottle containing sugar water, then placed them in the box, leaving a gap in the middle.

Richard spraying new foundation with sugar water

Richard spraying new foundation with sugar water

Leaving a gap to install the bee package

Leaving a gap to install the bee package

Next, we turned our attention to the queen. She was in a little wooden and mesh wire box with a sugar candy plug, topped with a cork. She was definitely sending off some strong pheromones, because her little cage was covered with layers of attendants. We pushed them aside gently to make sure she was okay. She was plump and marked with a yellow dot. 

Richard inspecting the queen cell (covered with attendants!)

Richard inspecting the queen cell (covered with attendants!)

Then, Richard showed me how to place the queen cage in the new hive. We took the cork out of the end of the cage that had the sugar candy plug. We gently probed the candy to make sure that it was soft and pliable enough for the bees to chew through it. Then we placed the cell snugly in between two of the frames at an angle, with the candy facing up. Richard explained that you keep it facing up so that if an attendant bee dies, it doesn't fall down and block the queen's exit from the cage. 

Installing the queen cell at an angle

Installing the queen cell at an angle

Richard removing the sugar can

Richard removing the sugar can

Shaking three pounds of bees into the new hives.

Shaking three pounds of bees into the new hives.

Once the queen was safely ensconced in the hive, we took the syrup can out of the bee package, turned it upside down over the gap in the hive, and shook it like a bottle of Heinz 57 ketchup. The bees came tumbling out into the hive. It took several good shakes!

Then we placed the final two frames into the hives and placed a feeder on top of the hive. We filled the feeder with sugar water to help nourish them while they expend lots of energy building out their new honeycomb. We placed plastic mesh floaters in the sugar water to help the bees access the syrup without drowning, then placed the inner and outer covers directly on top of the feeders. And voila! A new hive is born. 

I'll feed them once a week until they've drawn out their comb. Over the next few weeks, I'll add another brood box, then a queen excluder and a honey super. I opened up the hives today to check and make sure they got the queens out. They did. I noticed an unusually high population of small hive beetles in one of the hives, so I'm keeping an eye on that as well. 

Do any of you keep bees with kids or students? What do you do to make it kid-friendly? 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Richard Underhill, Master Beekeeper, and the Hutchison Apiary

Richard Underhill, Master Beekeeper, and the Hutchison Apiary

Beneficial Insects

As growers, so much of our time is spent scouting for harmful bugs in the garden that sometimes we neglect the good guys. The truth is, there are lots of insects that can provide valuable services to you, from pollination to pest control. With just a little bit of research to learn what good bugs are out there, and a little bit of patience to wait for them to get to work, you can save yourself time, energy, and money. There are lots of beneficial insects out there, but I'm just going to go over a few of the more common ones today. 

Lady beetle eating an aphid.

Lady beetle eating an aphid.

Lady beetles are well-known garden friends, because they have a voracious appetite for aphids. As I've written about in a previous post, releasing ladybugs in greenhouses or other enclosed areas is a good way to fight aphids. While their larvae also like to snack on aphids, adult lady beetles can eat up to 50 aphids a day, so you want to make sure you release them in an area with a heavy infestation. It's not a method to use if you have a mild aphid outbreak. Lady beetles also eat pollen and nectar, so inter-planting your vegetable garden with flowers is a good way to attract them naturally. Planting several different kinds of flowers helps ensure a nectar and pollen source over a longer period of time. This may encourage lady beetles to stick around. 

A wasp eating a cabbage worm

A wasp eating a cabbage worm

There's a great beneficial insect that has a particularly bad reputation due to its mean sting, but wasps also provide a great pest control service. Wasps feed on the bugs that feed on your plants, so think about that next time you want to spray one of their nests! (Side note: if anyone in your household is allergic to stinging insects, or if there is a wasp's nest in an a high-traffic area of your household, I always recommend getting rid of them. Safety first!) 

There's another species of wasps called parasitoid wasps, or parasitic wasps, that are probably the creepiest of all beneficial insects. Parasitic wasps feed off of nectar from the plants in your garden, but when it's time for them to make babies, they temporarily paralyze unwitting caterpillars with their venom and lay eggs in or on them. The host caterpillars remain alive while the wasp eggs develop, but when the wasps pupate, they eat their way out of the caterpillar to emerge into the world. The caterpillars are eaten alive. It sounds horrifying, but once you have a few too many Tomato Hornworms destroy your beautiful Brandywines, you'll start to feel less sympathetic! If you've got the stomach for it, you can check out these cool photos of parasitic wasps emerging from caterpillars over at this NC State Extension page.  (Side note: you should follow that page anyway, because it's run by Extension Agent Debbie Roos, and she's a genius.) 

There are some bugs that are both good and bad. Praying mantises are some of the coolest insects you can find in your garden, but they don't discriminate when it comes to their meals: they'll eat good bugs and bad bugs alike! They'll even eat other mantises if they get hungry enough. Generally, though, they're good for a garden, so I like to keep them around. They're especially great to have around for the hard-to-kill hard-shelled bug infestations like Colorado potato beetles or harlequin beetles. You can even order egg cases online and hatch them into your garden.

Last but not least, pollinators! If you're growing any kind of vegetable, you should definitely be planting flowers to attract pollinators. At my school's farm, we have an entire bed dedicated to perennial flowering plants for pollinators, including milkweed, coneflower, Joe Pye Weed, elderberry, salvia, and more. 

Hutchison pollinator garden 

Hutchison pollinator garden 

It's a pollinator party!

It's a pollinator party!

Pollinators are essential for ensuring a stable food supply. One third of our agricultural products depends on them! We have over 4,000 species of bees in the United States. Most people know about the plight of our honeybees, but there are dozens of native pollinators with vulnerable populations in rapid decline, too. Planting diverse flowering crops that bloom throughout the growing season is critical for supporting pollinator populations. A diversity of flowers also supports a diverse pollinator population. I love sitting out in the garden and seeing the honeybees, bumble bees, mason bees, sweat bees, beetles, and even flies visiting bloom after bloom.

I also love watching the butterflies in the garden. Many people know that milkweed is essential for monarch butterflies. Attracting other kinds of butterflies is easy. They like nectar sources from flat-topped broad-petaled flowers that they can land on, like zinnias, coneflowers, and dahlias. Planting just a few of those flowers will attract beautiful butterflies throughout the warm seasons. Many butterflies and moths need to warm up before they take flight, so if you head out to your zinnia patch early in the morning, you can often see them soaking up the morning rays on top of the flowers. 

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Your garden is an ecosystem of all kinds of six-legged critters, and if you plan ahead and have a little bit of patience, you can put the good ones to work for you.

If you're not sure if a bug you're looking at is good or bad, take a look at NC State's great visual guide to beneficial insects here

Do you have a favorite garden bug? Let me know about it in the comments, or by hopping over to one of my social media pages

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle

Photobombing the bees! 

Photobombing the bees! 

International Women's Day with the Hutchison Honeybees

I spent International Women's Day with 50,000 of my favorite ladies. 

Well, lady bees anyway. 

I love working at an all-girls' school. I get to celebrate the work of bright girls and strong women every day. This International Women's Day was especially fun, because three classes of Hutchison Honeybees (our school mascot!) joined me for an early spring inspection of our school apiary. This time of year, there are only female bees in the colonies, and we cracked open the hives to see what they were up to.

The first thing that we noticed were the small hive beetles. According to Master Beekeeper Richard Underhill, the honeybees don't actually kill the small hive beetles that invade their hives. Instead, they build little jail cells out of beeswax to keep them isolated. They even feed their prisoner beetles. Isn't that incredible?

Girls with a frame of capped honey

Girls with a frame of capped honey

This is the time of year that many bee colonies die from starvation, because not much is in bloom yet. To keep their population levels strong, I brought along a couple of frames of capped honey that I saved from the fall to put in their hives for the bees to eat. The girls passed around a frame of capped honey, and we took out a partially-emptied honey frame from one of the beehives to examine the differences. One thing is for sure, honey is heavy. 

I showed the girls how the bees communicate danger to their fellow bees. They raise their backsides up in the air and release an alarm pheromone. The girls were amazed at the different ways that animals can communicate. Honeybees don't have mouths and tongues to form words, they observed, but they can communicate through scent. 

The bees seemed a little agitated, so we closed the hives up early and didn't inspect their brood. (I'll do that some soon time when there aren't a bunch of kids around!) We're going to be adding new colonies to the apiary soon, and the girls will get to help with that process. Seeing the girls' excitement as they learn about honeybees is one of the sweetest parts about life at Hutchison.  

Bees cleaning up an old honey frame.

Bees cleaning up an old honey frame.

Mary Riddle Memphis apiary