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bees

beehive prepped for my home kitchen garden

I scraped every inch of wood on the inside of this hive body, and put a fresh coat of paint on the outside. Each slat of wood inside the box is the top of a “frame” that will hold a sheet of beeswax called “foundation.” When I received the phone call this morning telling me I could get a package of bees, I mounted foundation in the frames, and assembled the beehive out in my yard.

I had very low confidence that I’d have honeybees in my home kitchen garden this year. As I reported about six weeks ago, I rebooted my effort to get a beehive started (Beekeeping at my Home Kitchen Garden) after last year’s discouragement. However, because of budget constraints, I was planning simply to bait a beehive and hope to capture a wild swarm of honeybees.

Shopping for Beekeeping Gear

In the past six weeks, I cleaned up a hive body (called a brood chamber) and the component frames that will eventually hold honeycomb made by bees. So, on Saturday I decided to visit a local apiary to buy foundation. Foundation is a sheet of beeswax pressed with a pattern of hexagons that bees will happily build upon to create honeycomb and brood comb.

The apiary was closed on Saturday, but its operator told me there’s a beekeeping supply store just up the street. This was news to me, so I drove out to see what the store had to offer.

A Truckload of Bees

bees headed into New York City

The folks I found filling their car with bees at the beekeeping supply store had driven out from New York City. They have been campaigning to legalize beekeeping in Manhattan, and the beekeeping ban ended in March! Apparently, there are a lot of beekeepers in the city; these packages were going to folks all over the island.

While I wasn’t paying attention last October, a company called Brushy Mountain Bee Farm opened a branch store about five miles north of where I live. The store sells everything a beekeeper needs to succeed. Coincidentally, on that Saturday, the store had received a truckload of honey bees customers had ordered.

I browsed, I chatted with the staff, and I watched a customer load a station wagon with about sixty packages of bees. I don’t know how many packages had passed through the store that day, but some people who ordered failed to show during the scheduled pickup time. It became apparent that there might be unclaimed packages of bees… and here my reclaimed, ancient beehive was ready for occupants.

I left my phone number, and this morning I received a call. Some bees had, in fact, been abandoned by the people who ordered them. Yep! I bought a package of bees.

Bees Installed in my Home Kitchen Garden

three pound package of honey bees for my home kitchen garden

The package of bees I bought sits on my porch as I suit up to prevent bee stings when I install them in the hive. It was so cold that the bees could barely move much less sting me. This three pound package of bees held at least 10,000 bees, including a queen in her own container. The queen’s cage is inside with the rest of the bees… but she’s in her own room in part so the beekeeper can make sure she makes it into the hive.

It was raining and miserably cold today by the time I had the beehive ready to receive its new residents. It was so unpleasant that I didn’t even try to take photos of the procedure. The bees were sluggish because off the cold, and they got a bit wet. Not one tried to sting me, and I’m afraid several hundred didn’t make it into the hive.

Of the more than 10,000 bees that made it into the hive, the livelier workers immediately started examining the beeswax foundation. I hope they quickly find the food I provided for them. As they mill about and feed, they’ll warm the inside of the beehive… and that will make them livelier still.

The rain and cold will continue for another day, but by the weekend, it will be warm enough to draw the bees out so they begin exploring their new neighborhood. I’ll keep an eye on the food and replenish it when it runs low (which I hope it does quickly) and I’ll check inside the hive in ten days to make sure the bees have settled in OK.

I’ll share more about the beekeeping experience in coming posts.

 

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I rescued beehives from the mess in my dad’s barn and stacked them in the mess in my garage. Then my enthusiasm plummeted. My wife wants the hives gone; minimally, I’ll move them out of the garage, but I hope to have at least one ready for occupancy by mid-April.

Your Home Kitchen Garden blog has suffered from significant neglect for many months. This is partly because the blog is about growing food—something I pretty much don’t do during the winter. On the other hand, last summer and fall I wandered the neighborhoods of Lewisburg and surrounds, photographing kitchen gardens that I figured to share with readers during the cold months… and then I didn’t share them.

Spring is upon us in hardiness zone 5b, and I’ve started excavating rows in my home kitchen garden for cool-weather crops. This means there’s something else I didn’t accomplish during the non-gardening winter: I didn’t get my behives in order.

The Beehive Story

Last spring, I got very excited to revisit beekeeping. My dad had managed honey bees, and I had participated. He offered up his old gear, and I made a trip to the old family farm to bring home some beehives. I blogged about these experiences in several posts:

Home Kitchen Garden Beekeepers

Have You Bought a Beehive?

Install Bees in Your Home Kitchen Garden

Scrounging Beehive for my Home Kitchen Garden

As excited as I was to start bees, my enthusiasm took a nosedive when I saw the condition of my dad’s old gear: mouse nests, dried up wax, broken frames, missing components (a bee bonnet, gloves, and a smoker are crucial for me as I swell up like a bo-bo doll when I get stung)… I needed a focused weekend to bring dad’s old gear back to life.

The greatest busy-work in reviving my ancient beehives will be in scraping dried-up was from these wooden frames, replacing broken parts, and mounting sheets of beeswax on the frames. A hive box, or “super,” hold nine or ten frames, depending on how you pack them in.

So, weekends passed and I made no progress on the beehives, and pretty soon it was too late in the season to start a hive… and that’s where things stand. I’ve a large stack of wife-annoying gear in the garage, and I must reserve a day to scrape wax, repair frames, mount beeswax foundation, and assemble a hive body and a super.

My Beekeeping Hope

Last year I approached beekeeping with great enthusiasm… but it was already kind of late in the season before I realized fully the challenges I’d face. This year my enthusiasm is back and my eyes are wide open. At the very least I’ll move the beehive components out of the garage.

Still, I have every intention of setting up a hive body in April so it’s ready for occupation in May or June. I’ll evaluate whether I can afford to buy a package of bees with a queen. If bees are too pricey, I’ll set some bait honey in my hive and hope to capture a swarm.

However my beekeeping efforts play out this season, I’ll report here.

Become a Beekeeper

My renewed intent brings me to re-raise the call: If you have a garden and a little extra space, please consider seriously starting your own bees. With Colony Collapse Disorder still puzzling specialists, every new hive provides a smidge of added hope that our honeybee population remains vital.

I’ll provide encouragement… and I’ll try not to let down the honeybees this year. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

 

 

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The milk house sits at the end of the old barn. When my parents bought the property, the barn was already very old. My dad made windows for it, repaired missing and broken boards, built storage rooms, and created space for the horses to come and go. Horses still come and go at the far end of the barn, and I imagine the loft holds hay. Other than that, I don’t think the barn sees much action; my brother’s family focuses attention around their house.

Way back in February, Your Home Kitchen Garden started cheerleading for kitchen gardeners to take up beekeeping. While I promised this blog would not become exclusively about beekeeping, I also vowed to install a beehive in my own home kitchen garden some time in May.

I’ve been a bit quiet about beekeeping lately, but I have been pursuing the dream. In May, I made a day trip to Ithaca to pick up my dad’s beekeeping equipment. I began my trip with high enthusiasm. And, while the trip got me much closer to the goal of starting a bee hive, it was also a significant setback.

The Old Farmstead

I grew up in the city of Ithaca in upstate New York. When I say “city,” I mean I lived in a house in the city. Ithaca is a small city, and things turn rural quickly when you drive away from city center. When I was in my early teens, my parents bought a farm about 15 miles from our house, and we commuted to the farm on weekends and occasional weeknights.

The home kitchen garden of my youth was a masterpiece painted by tractor, plow, and disc. We hauled horse manure, my mom planted and hauled water, and we mulched the whole thing with black plastic. The garden now hosts impressive stag horn sumac trees and some underbrush.

The farm has about 100 acres of mostly wooded land, with only about four acres of fields. A stream cuts through the property and passes within about thirty feet of a big old timber-frame dairy barn. There’s a tiny shack we referred to as The Milk House at the street end of the barn. This used to house a refrigeration tank to hold freshly-harvested milk where a truck could pump it out and transported it to a processing plant.

We had converted the Milk House into an intimate bunk house with a tiny coal stove (in which we burned wood), had fenced the fields and some of the woods to serve as horse pasture, and had established a large in-ground garden bed along one side of the barn. There was no electricity, no running water, and only a portable chemical toilet.

Despite the inconveniences, we spent nearly every weekend visiting the farm to ride horses and do chores. My mom took control of the home kitchen garden—or can I call it that since technically it wasn’t at our home? My dad oversaw maintenance, and he managed beehives.

The Farmstead Today

Many, many years ago, one of my brothers installed a mobile home at the farm and lived there until his significant other’s job took them both to Boston and later to Maryland. Then another brother built a modular home where the mobile home had been. There, he’s raising two daughters and a menagerie of domestic critters.

To illustrate the passage of time, the spruce trees in this photo were between three and four feet tall when my parents bought the property. We fenced in the hillside on which the trees grow and referred to it as the lower pasture. When the horses were bored, they’d eat the spruce branches. The trees have put on close to 40 years’ growth since I first saw them.

My mom died 12 years ago, and my dad’s interests shifted from the barnyard area to the woods. He’s trying to grow various hardwood trees, I guess so he can harvest and sell them to lumber mills when he reaches 145 years of age. My brother’s priorities have never quite matched those that drew us all to the farm when we were kids, and the kitchen garden and the beehives have received no attention in many years; my mom’s garden bed is now home to a stand of sturdy sumac trees.

The Cost of Free Beekeeping Gear

I get back to Ithaca, perhaps, three times a year, but I rarely poke around the barn: I park in my brother’s driveway, and visit inside the house… or I stay with my dad in the city. It was a bit surprising to see that my brother’s horses have kicked a hole in the side of the barn. Other than that, things looked a lot as they had when I was involved with the farm twenty years ago.

Actually, it was uncanny that so many things in the barn seemed to be exactly where I’d seen them 20 years ago: the workbench, some trash cans, saddles, tools… all still in place, but now covered with a thick layer of dust. These are things that, understandably, offer no utility to my brother.

My dad stacked most of the hive bodies, supers, frames, covers, and bases in the barn many years ago where they’ve remained untouched by human hands. Unfortunately, mice had colonized the hive boxes, destroying old honeycomb and building nests in its place. It made me sad, but not in a judgmental way: Priorities change. I’d paid no attention at all until Colony Collapse Disorder emerged and bees were all over the news.

Main components of the beehives stood in several stacks to one side of the barn. Some components hung on hooks over the workbench, and others were in the drawers of the workbench. I began sorting through the stacks to find enough parts to assemble two hives. Essential components of a hive include:

  • A base
  • A hive body or brood chamber
  • A second brood chamber
  • Supers—as many as four or five by the end of a good season
  • An inner hive cover
  • An outer—or floating—hive cover
  • Frames to fill the brood chambers and supers

I also wanted to find the following items:

  • Queen excluders
  • Adjustable hive entrances
  • Bee escapes
  • Hive feeders
  • A hive tool
  • A frame lifter
  • A smoker
  • A pith helmet
  • A bee veil

For this post, I’ll leave you with the “shopping list.” I’ll explain what these things are in a later post.

A single brood chamber had broken away from the stack and tried to escape the barn. Apparently, it tripped on its way toward the exit and spilled its insides on the floor. The brood chamber’s attempted escape saved it from contamination by the mouse colonies, but it still needs a serious cleaning before I set it up as a bait hive.

The point of my story is that I found nearly all of these items. However, the essential components were in especially bad shape. As I removed brood chambers and supers from the stacks, I found two mouse nests inside the chambers. The mice had climbed to the tops of the stacks, chewed old honey comb from within the frames, and built large nests in the mined spaces.

At least one mouse nest had been there long enough that a whole bunch of mouse litter had sifted down through the lower hive boxes, contaminating everything with poop and pee. When I lifted the super containing the newer-looking mouse nest, a mouse fell out onto my foot, scurried up a cement wall, and disappeared under a heap of frames, hive bases, and hive covers.

Not a Great Start

I spent several hours sorting through hive bodies, pulling frames, busting the old (contaminated) beeswax from them, and stacking them in my car. Amazingly, my dad still had boxes of foundation—prepared sheets of beeswax or plastic that you mount on the frames and place inside brood chambers and supers. (There are hexagonal impressions pressed into the foundation sheets that provide a blueprint the bees follow when they build honeycomb.) Not so amazingly, a mouse had spent some time messing with the foundation; many sheets were stained with urine. Still, I found enough usable foundation to fill one brood chamber and one super; perfect to get started before having to buy any.

A brood chamber stands empty with a few pieces of useful gear on top. The bent metal object is a hive tool. You can use either end to pry frames from the hive, and to adjust frames once they’re in the hive. You can also use the tool to scrape off honey and propolis that the bees lay down in inconvenient places. The round metallic items are lids that fit on canning jars. Fill jars with sugar water, invert them in the wooden blocks you see holding the covers, and slide the blocks into the entrance of a beehive: you’ve just provided food for a young hive that hasn’t yet built honeycomb. The wooden sticks on the left are adjustable hive entrances. I’ll explain how they work in an upcoming post.

I scored two of everything on my list but a smoker, a pith helmet, and a bee veil. Except for foundation, I have enough essential components to start two hives, and can return to Ithaca to pick up more supers and frames should my bees require expansion space.

Here’s the rub: dealing with fifteen or more years of neglect was discouraging. I remember my dad assembling new, clean hive components when he started beekeeping, and that memory is way more romantic than the reality of working with dozens of mouse-damaged pieces caked in old, dried-out beeswax.

I estimate it will take a dedicated afternoon to clean a brood chamber and frames, mount foundation, and situate the hive near my garden. I’d have started this project in January had I anticipated the condition of the gear; there were no pressing gardening tasks to deal with in January.

So, I’m getting around to my bee operation about a month later than I’d wanted to. I still have inertia from my visit to Ithaca. There’s one more extenuating circumstance: my gardening budget can’t support the cost of packaged bees this year. So, my new goal is to set up the hive and bait it to attract a wild swarm. Conveniently, my dad offered up a partial frame of comb honey I can use as bait. Here’s hoping it attracts honey bees without also attracting bears.

 

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There are not yet blossoms on my apple trees… and if there were there’d be no bees to pollinate them. This year, my bees will miss the apple blossoms, but next season, they’ll be first in line.

Some weeks ago I started this discussion about getting beehives for your home kitchen garden. Then, I posted a video that describes a starter beekeeping kit and I promised more videos that show fine points about assembling parts of a beehive, and that show how to install a mail-order package of bees in a hive.

If you’re in hardiness zone 6 or below (farther North), plan to start bees in May. Unless there’s a local retailer who sells hives, you should order gear now so you have time to assemble it in April before your bees arrive.

I’ve browsed dozens of videos on YouTube in search of some to help explain beekeeping and show how easy it is to do. There are plenty, each with its own quirks. The two I’ve embedded here show typical steps to starting hives. I’ll be starting at least one hive in May, and will share my experiences as they unfold. But this blog isn’t about beekeeping, so, as the growing season approaches, I’ll present other topics of use to all home kitchen gardeners.

Whether you’re starting bees in May along with me, or visiting to learn more about growing, eating, and preserving your own produce, please visit often, leave comments and questions to move the discussion along, subscribe to my RSS feed, and bookmark to show your support. I’m looking forward to a productive season in my home kitchen garden as I hope you are in yours. In the meantime, please enjoy these videos about beekeeping.

A Frame and Foundation

This video shows a man assembling a frame and installing foundation on it. You’ll see such assembled frames in the next video as the beekeeper there fills a hive body with them.

Low-Impact Installation

I like the installation technique in the following video. Traditional beekeepers often bang the bees around severely and shake them into the hive. This video shows a gentle aternative: putting the shipping container into the hive box and letting the bees emerge from it in their own time. If you use this approach, you’ll need to go in in a week or two, remove the shipping box, and insert frames to fill the space.

If you don’t like to get stung by bees, WEAR PROTECTIVE GEAR! There’s no shame in it, despite the daring beekeepers who work without gloves and bonnets. I’ll be dressed heavily when I work my bees!

 

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Bees become active in the spring even as the very earliest flowers blossom. However, in zones 5b and colder, it’s best to wait until May to start new hives. A young colony will grow quickly when there’s plenty of food to gather nearby.

At then end of 2008, I vowed that Your Home Kitchen Garden would become an advocate for honey bees. In a recent post titled Home Kitchen Garden Beekeepers, I shared some of my childhood to encourage gardeners to become beekeepers. Since then, I had a conversation with my dad in which he agreed I could acquire some of his beehives and beekeeping gear.

I want to start a bee colony or two in my home kitchen garden in May. This means acquiring his gear, inspecting it and cleaning whatever is still usable, upgrading some parts to take advantage of improvement in bee culture over the past 30 years, and ordering bees so they arrive in early-to-mid May.

Bee Emboldened

Before my dad decided to raise honey bees, he knew almost nothing about them. He picked up a book or two and read… as did my brother and I, and he got his hands on a catalog from a company called Dadant & Sons. During maple sugar season, he assembled hive bodies and frames from mail-ordered kits, following the directions that came with them. My dad wasn’t a professional carpenter, but he made the assembly look easy.

Nearly all of our beekeeping knowledge came from those books, and from asking questions of neighbors and friends (one of my dad’s work associates was a beekeeper). You have far greater advantages. There are far more books about beekeeping available today, there are more manufacturers and suppliers than ever, and the Internet provides ready access to dozens of useful sources—including enthusiastic beekeepers who are happy to answer questions.

Did you know that an apple will form even from an unpollenated blossom? Unpollenated apples are much smaller than pollinated apples. Interestingly, sometimes a bee pollinates only part of an apple. When that happens, the pollinated lobes grow large while the unpollinated lobes remain small; you get a rather strange-looking apple as a result. If you raise bees, chances are that food-producing plants in your neighborhood will produce better.

Beekeeping References

In my youth, the standout books about beekeeping were The Hive and the Honey Bee written by L.L. Langstroth, and The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture by AI Root and ER Root. Both books have been around long enough to become seriously out of date. However, recent updates make The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture completely relevant (revision 41). For kicks, an old copy of The Hive and the Honey Bee (most recent revision was in 1992) is still a good read, but I’d look to more modern publications for serious guidance.

When you commit to beekeeping, get The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture and consult it often. But to get started, choose a book specifically written for beginners. I’ve added a section on beekeeping to Your Home Kitchen Garden store where you’ll find several appropriate books to help you get started. Also, biggerbooks.com has a decent selection of books about beekeeping.

Beekeeping Really is Easy

I’ve spent several hours in the past few weeks reviewing videos that give a clear understanding of basic beekeeping activities—and that reveal how simple beekeeping really is. I wanted a video that reviews the components of a modern beehive, that explains how to assemble the pieces, and that shows how to install a new package of bees. I couldn’t find one I like.

I did find several videos that, taken together, cover most of these topics reasonably well. The first, embedded here, is more of an advertisement for a beekeeping supply store than it is a robust do-it-yourself tutorial. Still, it shows a beehive unassembled so you have some idea of the parts you’ll need to nail together if you buy a kit through the mail.

Please have a look, and check back soon. In my next post, I’ll include a video showing the finer points of assembling components of a hive, and video in which a beekeeper installs a new shipment of bees into a fully-assembled hive.

 

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When a beehive gets crowded, the queen departs with several tens of thousands of workers. We spotted this swarm clumped on the trunk of a young spruce tree and installed it into one of our working hives.

In a recent guest post on the Northwest Garden Show blog, I suggested that if you have a Home Kitchen Garden, perhaps you should take up beekeeping. With our honeybee population beleaguered by Colony Collapse Disorder, foul brood, wax moths, and mites, every gardener should be concerned.

Please at least employ gardening practices that encourage pollinators and that protect them from harm. This means eliminating chemicals from your gardening activity, or learning to apply them so they present the least possible danger to pollinators. It means growing a variety of plants that produce flowers in all seasons. It means going easy on weeds that provide pollen and nectar to bees. It means letting your herbs and vegetables flower even when you’re done with them. It means providing places in your garden that provide shelter from wind and rain. And it means leaving dead spent vegetable plants to die, dry, and winter over in your garden. (I’ll expand on these suggestions in a later post.)

Best of all, Become a Beekeeper

That’s my dad to your left, and me to your right. Yes, those are 1970s-era bell-bottom denim pants. It’s a pain to stuff bell bottoms into your socks. The white box to my dad’s right is a bee hive, probably newly-started with mail-order bees only a few weeks earlier.

Becoming a beekeeper is the most outrageous suggestion I made in that guest post. Honestly, it’s not all that outrageous a suggestion. Preparing for a honeybee colony requires a bit of do-it-yourself savvy, but an active bee hive requires far less attention than a housedog. And, while your bees won’t be nearly as cuddly as a dog, learning about how bees behave and getting to know their idiosyncrasies is both entertaining and satisfying. What’s more, with surprisingly little effort, even one bee hive can return many quarts of honey in a season.

Been There, Done That

When I was in my teens, my brother convinced my dad it would be a good idea to raise bees—though I think we called it raising honey. Being mildly allergic to bee stings, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, and I was kind of detached as my dad received beekeeping equipment via mail-order (close to 20 years before the Internet happened), and assembled bee hives in our living room.

When I learned that bees would arrive in the mail, and somehow end up in the boxes my dad built, I started to take notice. Once his beekeeping operation was in full-swing, I was hooked: those critters were fascinating. I enjoyed working the bees, and I enjoyed reading about bee culture.

We Captured a Honeybee Swarm

In coming months we’ll explore the honey-raising experience. I’ll share some memories, and we’ll look at modern beekeeping methods. Right now I want to tell you about capturing a swarm. The story touches on several details of bee culture that we’ll explore in-depth in upcoming posts.

Once the queen bee finds her way into the bees’ new home, some worker bees face the entrance and jut their rear ends into the air. The swarm flows like liquid into the hive’s entrance. The entrance here is in the middle of the bees, and you see some order in the bees’ alignment.

Bees swarm when their hive gets crowded: they manufacture some new queen bees, and the existing queen leaves the hive along with a whole bunch of worker bees. Oddly, it seems the bees leave the hive before they’ve decided where to go.

This swarm lands somewhere—often not far from the original hive—while various scouts search for a new home. The attentive beekeeper can capture the resting swarm and install it in an empty hive box. Amazingly, you can also install a swarm into a hive that already holds an active colony; the bees will get along (don’t just dump a swarm into an active hive; there are steps to take to ensure a hive’s workers accepts the new bees); the photos in this post are of a swarm that we added to an established hive.

Early in our beekeeping days, we found a swarm on the trunk of a small tree near our hive boxes. Capturing the swarm was simple: we cut the tree off near the ground (we had to run the saw through the ball of bees, but they obligingly moved out of the way), shook the bees off onto the top of an open hive box, and watched the bees move into the box. It was that easy… and watching them was very cool; I saw this phenomenon many times during our beekeeping years. It goes like this:

Honeybee Verse

The farmer who plowed my mom’s home kitchen garden each spring recited a rhyme that expressed the importance of timing for starting bee hives:

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay,

A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon,

A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.

So, use the next month to read up on beekeeping and order your first hive. You’ll want it assembled and waiting when your bees arrive for installation in May. Follow this link for a how-to manual that will prepare you for this fascinating adventure, and visit this blog as it evolves for encouragement.

For a few minutes, there’s a blob of bees writhing around on—or in front of—the hive box. (Sometimes we’d stretch a bed sheet in front of the hive and dump the bees on the sheet. The bees found their ways into the front of the hive box.) Naturally, some bees wander into the box. Scan the swarm carefully and you might spot the queen bee; her attendants will eventually usher her inside.

Bees who know where the queen is, stand in place pointing in her direction. Other bees fall into line also pointing toward the queen. (To point, the bees face the Queen and extend their butts upward.)  Soon, the bulk of the swarm is streaming into the hive past several dozen or hundred pointing bees. Finally, even the pointer bees head into the hive.

Seeing a swarm communicate so rapidly and effectively gave me a lot of respect for them. These and other bee behaviors were truly awe-inspiring, and I never got tired of seeing bees in action.

I’ll continue to encourage you to raise bees, and I’m looking forward to the day when I establish hives in my own home kitchen garden. I hope you’ll come back here to share your experiences as you get started with your own hives.

 

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