Suburban Beekeeping With Peter Hawkins

In this episode of The Thoughtful Cooking Podcast, I stopped by my brother-in-law’s home to learn about suburban beekeeping, look inside of an active bee hive, and maybe have a sip or two of his homemade mead.  Peter learned about bees at an early age, when a high school teacher introduced him to the subject, and he currently has two active hives in his backyard, so he seemed like the right guy to talk to when I wanted to learn about beekeeping, more as a hobby than a large scale commercial enterprise.

Topics Covered:

  • how Peter got involved with beekeeping
  • home gardens and bees
  • $140 mistake
  • starting a hive
  • swarms
  • decline in bee population
  • queen bees
  • top bar bee hive
  • honey
  • how to make mead


Greg Fleischaker in a beekeeper suitWelcome everyone to The Thoughtful Cooking Pod Cast. This is Greg Fleischaker and today I’m talking with Peter Hawkins and we’re going to be talking about bees, beekeeping and more focusing on residential beekeeping than large scale commercial beekeeping. Full disclosure here, Peter is my brother-in-law, so I have had the pleasure of seeing his bees in person for a number of years now and partaking of some of the products that come from his hobby as a beekeeper. Peter welcome.

Peter:    Hi Greg, thank you. Appreciate you expanding on the world of the bees.

Greg:    My pleasure. I’m particularly not fond of bees. I am allergic to bees, but a huge fan of honey. So it seems like maybe I need to loosen up a little bit and appreciate the animals that make the honey that I appreciate.

Peter:    We’ll work on that over the next few years.

Greg:    Alright, sounds good. How long have you worked with bees?

Peter:    I started back in high school, one of my teachers in high school kept bees and he would allow some of the boys to come on a specific afternoon of the week. We would go help him keep the bees, and look after them, bring down the swarms,  put them in hives, and clean them and do all of the necessary things and then extract the honey. He enjoyed making mead too, so once in a while we were allowed to sample some of his product.

Greg:    You have provided me a little glass of mead here as we talk.

Peter:    Indeed.

Greg:    If someone hears us sipping on the mead, we’re just doing our homework for the discussion today.

Peter:    Its addictive.

Greg:    That’s right. You got into it in high school. How about more recently. You were not I don’t think, beekeeping when you met my sister, you had not been beekeeping for 20 some odd years. Recently, more recently, how long have you been beekeeping.

Peter:    I think we’ve had our bees for 3 or 4 years. We started really, my goal was not really to have honey per say, although obviously that’s a great byproduct of keeping bees, but the bee population was suffering, still is suffering. I wanted something to populate the vegetables that we grow in the back yard and I had the background knowledge to be able to keep bees. It seemed, it’s not a great time intensive hobby, so it seemed fairly easy to provide them with a home and let them do what they do best.

Greg:    The home garden came first and then the bees came as a tool to help with the home garden.

Peter:    There you go.

Greg:    I probably should, why don’t you give me a quick rundown of your home garden. I’ll say you guys are something of a … there’s probably a word for it, Urban Homesteaders, Suburban Beekeeping or something along those words. You have a few chickens out back, you harvest your own eggs…

Peter:    We’re good at guessing at what we want to do, we try different crops. We put them in the ground and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I guess our staples, we’ve had green beans, we’ve had tomatoes which have done fairly well. I think anybody that has a home garden grows tomatoes.

Greg:    Absolutely.

Peter:    We’ve tried some different varieties of tomatoes, some cherries, and some slicers and a couple of different things and found some ones that we liked. We tried cauliflower, we tried broccoli, neither of which of those worked particularly well, in terms of they didn’t give us the volume that we really wanted. You might devote 10% of your space to broccoli and end up with 1 meals worth of stuff, of broccoli. Which doesn’t work as opposed to devoting 10% to green beans and ending up with-

Greg:    A bunch.

Peter:    Stuff that takes you all the way through winter.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    Because they keep producing.

Greg:    You set aside a fair amount of your back yard for your garden, this is not a patio potted plant garden. This is the real deal.

Peter:    Yeah. That’s true, we set aside an area of the yard. We’ve fenced it off. We have chickens back there which give us eggs. We have a solar watering system out there. I collect water off of the roof and it goes into a couple of different storage vats that we created around, on the side of the house. We can store water and then there’s a solar pump which takes that water and distributes it around the garden so that they, in our dirt, which is usually in threw summer and into the fall the plants can still stay hydrated.

Greg:    All this getting back to bees, if proof that you’re more concerned with a symbiotic relationship with your food. With creating things yourself, than necessarily turning the beekeeping into a commercial venture, or you’re gardening into a commercial venture. This is a piece of who you guys are, how you live and how you raise your kids.

Peter:    I think that as a society, a lot of people have lost their connection with food.

Greg:    Absolutely.

Peter:    I didn’t want my kids to not understand where their food comes from or how its grown. You hear people saying “I get my food from Kroger.”

Greg:    Right, obviously it comes from somewhere.

Peter:    From somewhere, to get to Kroger, what is that process, what does it look like? Yes, that’s an important part, also I just think it tastes better when you’ve put a little effort into it, you’ve grown it and you go out and pick it from the garden, bring it in, slice it up, put it on your plate.

Greg:    You know your preaching to the choir here, right?

Peter:    I do realize that, but I don’t know about all of your audience, we’ll just leave it at that.

Greg:    You guys are much better at growing food than I am, but I certainly appreciate coming over for dinner.

Peter:    You’re good at cooking it, so we work pretty well together.

Greg:    There you go, absolutely. We have done quite a few combo dinners.

Peter:    Absolutely.

Greg:    Back to bees. You have the garden going and you want to have bees to pollinate and I guess, take care of the greater good, right? That we need more bees.

Peter:    Correct.

Greg:    At the same time take care of your own garden.

Peter:    Yes.

Greg:    How do you get started in beekeeping? What comes first? How do you get the bees? Everything, what goes into waking up one morning and saying to my sister “Hey, you know what I would like in the back yard a swarm of bees.” Not a swarm, a hive, sorry. A hive of bees.

Peter:    A hive of bees. It was very, it was a relatively easy thing for us to do, just because I had a background and a knowledge that came from high school.

Greg:    Very convenient.

Peter:    Very convenient. For somebody else the best thing would be to join a beekeeping society, and they are numerous and they are very informational and they will help you get started.

Greg:    Most decent sized cities are going to have something along those lines.

Peter:    Lots of small cities have, counties, there’s county extension offices that can tell you where these things exist. The world wide web.

Greg:    Wonderful thing.

Peter:    Bad for some things, but great for this. Just go on there and Google search it. You can find something in your area that will help you to get started. There is a reasonable amount of knowledge to be had before you actually want to put your first set of bees in. If none of the above work, you can always go old school and buy a book.

Greg:    There we go.

Peter:    Go to the library and read up it. There are several good books that you can get to get you started in beekeeping. It’s not particularly complex, but you have to understand a little bit about the bees and about what they want before you can give them a house that they’re going to stay in.

Greg:    Tell me how you got your first hive, and then tell me what the bees want and how you interact with the bees.

Peter:    Here’s the horror story. I spent $140 buying bees the first time that I did it.

Greg:    Is that a lot for bees?

Peter:    No, that’s about average.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    You get about 15,000 bees, which I know sounds like a lot, but it’s not a very large hive. They come with a queen. They get mailed to you, believe it or not.

Greg:    I don’t believe it.

Peter:    The US Mail.

Greg:    I guess I believe it but that’s a little odd.

Peter:    They arrive in a box.

Greg:    I got to ask, in a UPS box, just a … ?

Peter:    No, it’s the US mail.

Greg:    The US mail poor guy or lady, walks up, can you hear the box?

Peter:    Yes, you can hear the box. They send it to you fairly quickly, it’s not like it takes 3 weeks to get here. They’ll 2 day or overnight it.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    Then, I think they tried to deliver it and we weren’t here so I had to go to the post office and pick it up. The guy looked at it and said “Its making noise, what’s in here?” I said “Its bees.” He said “Here take it with you.”

Greg:    That’s right, you did.

Peter:    I brought it back to the house I had the hive all set up, and I took the bees, opened the box and I poured the bees into the hive. It was so exciting and the bees seemed like they were doing fine. We watched them and I think that probably half way through the second day, all of a sudden one of my kids came running to me and said “There’s something going on in the hive.” So I ran outside and sure enough all the bees were leaving the hive. For some reason, they didn’t like it and they took off.

Greg:    Oh my gosh.

Peter:    I watched my $140 flying off into the distance.

Greg:    Literally.

a look into an active bee hive

Peter:    I have to say that I was grumpy and upset for a day or so after that. I even went around the neighborhood and tried to find the swarm that they would have created, but who knows where they went up in a tree somewhere. They would follow their queen and alight somewhere.

Greg:    Start over.

Peter:    Then be a ball of bees for the next probably 48 to 72 hours before they actually found a home that they liked. Then they would go to that new home.

Greg:    We’re going to bounce around here if that is all right? This swarm that is all the bees hanging out together, until, I guess there are a few sentry bees going out to looking for a suitable place.

Peter:    Yes.

Greg:    They come back and basically tell the swarm, “Okay, we found it, and we’ll go.” Then everyone goes to that new place.

Peter:    Correct.

Greg:    They’re just waiting, that 48 hours roughly that they’re this ball that you’re talking about, they’re just waiting to go from ‘A’ to ‘B’.

Peter:    That’s correct, that’s when you see a swarm, a swarm of bees is not an aggressive things, that’s them moving house.

Greg:    Okay. I’m still not going to mess with them.

Peter:    Actually, your least likely to get stung at that time because they’re not defending anything.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    They’re not defending their home, they’re really very, very passive. Most beekeepers who have been around for a while who go out and collect swarms, won’t wear bee suits, they’ll just cut the branch.

Greg:    We are not encouraging anyone to approach a swarm without a suit on. Trained professionals only.

Peter:    Yes exactly.

Greg:    Back to your, you lost your $140, you watched it fly away, penny by penny.

Peter:    Yes.

Greg:    They didn’t like your bee hive?

Peter:    For some reason they didn’t like it, and I don’t know why.

Greg:    Still haven’t figured that one out?

Peter:    Nope, still haven’t figured that one out. Don’t know why, I followed the instructions, I put them in there. It has to be said that, I had installed bees in a beehive before, but not ones that had been in the mail for a couple of days.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    Whether that had anything to do with it…

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    They’re wild animals basically.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    We give them a house, we ask them to stay, if they choose not to.

Greg:    You can’t do too much about it.

Peter:    All my bees are free to leave at any time.

Greg:    They do, daily right?

Peter:    Right.

Greg:    Some of them do. Hive number 2 for you, same physical structure?

Peter:    Yeah.

Greg:    You went out and how did you get your second hive?

Peter:    I think I probably decided that spending money on bees was a bad idea, so I think I waited until I heard of a swarm that needed collecting, and I went and collected it.

Greg:    You had already connected with the local bee group? You were on some list when there’s a swarm this guy’s crazy enough to come take them off our hands?

Peter:    There’s several of us that are crazy enough to do that.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    Its really, especially with the internet now, it’s very easy to hear when there are swarms. People like yourself will know that I’m into beekeeping and you’ll call me up and say, “There’s a swarm in my back yard, come and get it.” Because most people are afraid of a swarm.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    They want it gone. They don’t realize that it’s going to leave in 48 to 72 hours anyway. They think that they’re there permanently. There’s a lot of bad information out there about the bees and about their process of moving house and their process of living.

Greg:    Right. Actually before we started talking here you took me out back to your hives and you took the top off and I’m allergic to them and I wasn’t threatened, I wasn’t worried, I wasn’t scared. It was not an anxiety producing moment at all.

Peter:    Right.

Greg:    It’s not like the movies. It depends which movie you’re watching, but…

Peter:    They are very, very passive. Again, I wouldn’t suggest that you try this at home, but if you chose to go find a honey bee on a plant, on a flower, that was collecting the nectar or the pollen or was just going about its business, and you gave it a gentle flick to make it move on to the next flower. It would not turn around and come sting you, it would move onto the next flower. If you followed it again to another flower and you gave it another flick, it would go on to the next flower. They are not aggressive in the way that we thing of small flying insects being aggressive. Most of the things that we should truly be afraid or are wasps, not bees.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    The difference is that wasps are capable of stinging you multiple times, and they will sting you multiple times and they do that at very minor provocation. Whereas, honey bees are generally a very passive creature, they do have a sting in their tail and they will use that to defend their life, or the life of the hive.

Greg:    What are precautions you can take, what you are guiding me, approach from this angle, at this time of day and at this temperature. There are things that you can do, right?

Peter:    They are like us, they have good days they have bad days. It’s generally weather and temperature related. If it’s the middle of a sunny day and it’s above 70 degrees outside, most of the bees, the worker bees will have left the hive to go collect pollen and water and nectar, which are the 3 things that they’re really truly interested in. They go off, they collect that, they come back, they put it into a cell of bees wax that they have created in the honey comb, then they leave again to go do that. That’s their job. That’s what they do. The ones that are left are the nurse bees and there’s a few guard bees on the door, which is why we didn’t go around the front, because you don’t want to provoke the guard bees that are on the front. Because they can be aggressive if they feel threatened.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    If you come in from the back, you can take the lid off you really shouldn’t have any problems. I would not suggest that you do that to anybody else’s hives. If your walking down the street and you see a hive in somebody’s yard, leave it alone.

Greg:    Leave it alone. You said something earlier, I don’t think we were talking on the microphone yet, that you felt comfortable with your bees and your bees felt comfortable with you. Is there a connection between the bee hive owner or the person who actually works it. Can they tell you from me?

Peter:    No.

Greg:    Is it that I would be more anxious and I would do something stupid, whereas your practiced you know what you’re doing and you’re going to be a little bit smoother?

Peter:    Yes, the second one.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    They’re not going to be able to tell me from you. I would be gentle and careful with them and I would know what I could do, and I would take, I would be able to read the signs of the bees if they were getting upset at me and I would know to back off.

Greg:    I would be more likely to miss that and aggravate them even more.

Peter:    That’s correct. Because they’re only 1/2 an inch long, the signs are fairly subtle as to when they’re getting, interestingly enough its generally a buzz a noise that you hear, that makes them …

Greg:    Alerts you.

Peter:    That you get the feeling that they’re getting agitated. Then you can back off, or put them back together, or whatever it is that you need to do.

Greg:    I’ve gotten you really far-a-field now. Take us back to your second attempt to getting a working hive in your back yard.

Peter:    I got a swarm, I put it in and they stuck around.

Greg:    ‘I got a swarm”, I don’t even know what that means. I’ve seen a couple swarms. To me it’s a basketball sized moving blob of bees in a tree.

Peter:    Right.

Greg:    Okay, what does ‘I got a swarm” mean? You didn’t go up and grab that blob, I’m assuming you didn’t, with your hands or your gloves or whatever.

Peter:    I probably just went out and cut the branch that they were one and just put the entire branch into a cardboard box and then set the cardboard box on the ground fairly close to where the bees were swarming, then allowed the bees that I didn’t get, the ones that were flying around to come down into the cardboard box and get back into their bunch again. Anytime you move them there’s going to be bees that are going to fall off.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    Because the ball, is not them glued together, it a moving mass of bees. They’re just holding onto each other with their legs. They are free to let go or they can fall off if you shake it a little.

Greg:    Shake it.

Peter:    There’s a strong breeze, or whatever it is. Of course it’s not usually truly a ball there’s a tear drop effect that comes off the bottom where there’s, bees can come off. I just take it, put it in the box wait for the other bees to come down, 5-10 minutes, close up the box, tape it up, because when I’m putting it in my car…

Greg:    It’ll shake it and really…

Peter:    I don’t really want bees flying round in my car, although that’s happened too.

Greg:    Awesome.

Peter:    Duct tape is really good. Quick shout out to duct tape there. Duct tape it up put it in the trunk of the car, drive it to where ever you’re going to go, open it up put it in the hive. Literally that’s a fairly violent process which basically involves turning the box upside down, letting them all fall in, where there’s a lot of bees flying around the place. If the queen is in there, and you can tell whether the queen is in there is you go through and hunt although I usually don’t bother, because, where ever the bees come to that’s where the queen is.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    You put them in there, if the bees that are flying around start to come down into the hive and find the hive entrance, then you will know that they’re doing that. The other way you can tell, which is kind of interesting is, when you put the bees in the cardboard box, or when you put them in the hive, there will be a couple of bees that will come up to the top of the cardboard box, or they will sit at the entrance to the hive and they will be flapping their wings but they won’t be going anywhere. They will be holding onto the cardboard box or the entrance to the hive and flapping their wings, and what they’re actually doing is they’re actually blowing the pheromone out into the air that’s telling the bees that are flying around this is where our house is, this is where our queen is and you need to come here. The other bees will follow that pheromone down to the entrance to the hive or the entrance to the box, and that’s how they know where they’re going.

Greg:    You want those guys when you bring them back from where ever you pick them up, you want those at your hive to tell everyone else this is the right place. You want to make those guys happy.

Peter:    Yeah. That’s all based on where the queen is.

Greg:    Your second hive, did it stick?

Peter:    Yes.

Greg:    Is that one of the ones out back?

Peter:    No.

Greg:    You have two out back right now, correct?

Peter:    Yes, they come and go. The bees have very hard time over, I don’t really want to give it a time frame, but they have been declining in number.

Greg:    Yes, especially through the Midwest.

Peter:    Right, bees are not actually native to the US. Bees are native to Europe and we brought them over, 1700s something, maybe it was earlier than that.  Most of the bees that we have here are Russian or European bees. We have breed them to produce the things that we want them, to be the way that we want them to be. There are various traits that you can breed in and there are some things that bees just do. We want bees that behave themselves, that stick around, that are clean, that produce lots of honey. There are certain traits that we have tried to breed into the bees, in the same way that we have tried to breed dogs to come when we call and hunt and do all those things that we have done. My opinion is that we are partially responsible for the decline in bees, because we have, anytime that you make the genetic material smaller that you are breeding from you weaken the entire society.

Greg:    Right. It’s like a Bulldog that can barely breathe because we have over done the face and it suffocates.

Peter:    Exactly right. It used to be that queens would last 7 years, now you’re lucky if you get 2 years out of a queen. This is, I think it’s down to us. There are various other reasons that we may or may not understand as to why the bees are not lasting as long, why they’re in decline. Buzz words in beekeeping recently have been CCD, which is colony collapse disorder. We’re not even really understanding exactly why that happens.

Greg:    Aren’t some people also blaming some of the sprays and the chemicals and the pesticides?

Peter:    Yes.

Greg:    That and there’s certain kinds of pesticides that inhibit bee’s communication skills.

Peter:    Yes, and that’s very true as well. I don’t think that we really understand exactly what these pesticides do to the insect population. Bees pollinate a huge amount of the fruit and the vegetables that we eat. Alternatively, there are certain things that we want to keep off of the crops and so I’m sure that the pesticides have something to do with that.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    Of course, there’s people on both sides of the argument.

Greg:    You think it might be more multi causal than …

Peter:    There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is multi causal. There is not one thing that we could stop doing or do to make the bees come back.

Greg:    Even in your back yard, you’re not spraying pesticides, you’re not using Round Up and…

Peter:    Correct, we don’t use anything on our crops that are on our garden.

Greg:    Your hives are not lasting as long as you suspect they would have a generation or 2 generations ago.

Peter:    Yes that’s true.

Greg:    Okay, so you get a couple years out of a hive, then you got to go find another swarm and bring them back.

Peter:    The bees are supposed to be self-replicating. That’s what we’ve come full circle back full circle to our swarm again. In the spring time the bees will want to spread. What happens is, nobody really understands how or why, but it just happens in a swarm or in a hive. The queen lays eggs and the workers will turn those eggs, or the nurse bees will make more queens from those eggs. They will make anywhere from 15 -20 cells that will become queen cells. It takes a little longer for a queen cell to develop. Then the hive at that time starts to make preparations for half the hive to leave.

Greg:    This happens every spring?

Peter:    For the most part. I won’t promise you that every hive will swarm every spring, because it depends on how they have over wintered and a couple other factors as to whether it actually happens. They have to have the numbers in order to be able to do it.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    There is a critical mass, just a quick aside, there’s a critical mass to how many bees can actually survive. Once you get down below 10,000 bees chances are that hive is going to die out at some point because there’s just not enough there to work.

Greg:    They wouldn’t split.

Peter:    I can’t tell you exactly what that number is. When you order a package of bees you get between 10,000 and 15,000 bees so they stand a pretty good chance of-

Greg:    On the other end you said there’s a number that’s too high, that the bees are uncomfortable with and they just naturally say “Okay, it’s time to split into 2.”

Peter:    Actually, no, it’s not really like that. It’s more like “We’re going to swarm, so we’re going to create the numbers that we can in order to swarm.”

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    It’s an interesting thing. Everybody thinks that bees are autocracy, with the queen telling everybody else what to do, and that’s really not true, it’s a hive mentality where all the bees communicate and the bees collectively decide what they’re going to do, and they may or may not leave and the old queen will go with them. The old queen actually leaves and goes with half the hive and she will go find a new place to live. In the meantime the first thing that she does is she will leave the hive and she will swarm. Timing is critical on that. She will leave about 3 days before the eggs are due to hatch.

Greg:    Then the new queen gets to stay put and be queen.

Peter:    Yes, there is some fighting that goes on.

Greg:    Because you said there were 14 or some odd.

Peter:    That’s correct. She will leave, the reason the timing is critical, is 3 days is enough time for the pheromone that that specific queen’s pheromone to leave the hive. After 3 days the bees inside the hive are looking for a new queen, because they are lacking a pheromone. They’re lacking cohesiveness.

Greg:    From the old queen.

Peter:    Correct, the old pheromone is gone. What the pheromone does is, in the hive it really gives the hive a sense of collectiveness. It binds all the bees together. They are all working for the same common cause, which is this pheromone.

Greg:    The hive, right.

Peter:    Right. The old pheromone is gone, they are looking for a leader. They’re listless. You can actually tell when you go to hive they don’t have a purpose, they’re all walking around like bees that don’t have anything to do. The first hive or the first queen cell that will hatch then comes out and she has a pheromone and so the bees will start to go “Hey this is our new queen.” Then the fighting starts because she will actually go to all the other queen cells and she will sting through into the queen cell and kill the queen which before it hatches, so she is the only one who can then lead that hive.

Greg:    Is the queen the only be who can sting repeatedly?

Peter:    No, an interestingly enough that’s the only time that she … I’m sorry, yes, she is the only one. She will take care of those bees, those potential new queens instantly, but it is the only time that she will ever then sting anything.

Greg:    Sting.

Peter:    Then basically after that she is an egg laying factory.

Greg:    Right, she stays put and everyone revolves around that.

Peter:    Her life cycle, then is that she will come out, she will take a few days to mature, and then she will actually go on a mating flight, where she will leave the hive and this is an extremely dodgy time for the hive. They have no queen for a period of time, the queen is very young, if she goes out and get stuck in a thunder storm, she has already killed all the other queens.

Greg:    All the other queens.

Peter:    It’s a very dangerous time for the entire hive for that population. She leaves she will go on a mating flight, she will find drone bees, hopefully from other hive, so she has a lot of genetic material that she will get. She mates on the wing, then she will find her way, hopefully back to that same hive, then she will spend the rest of her life, inside laying eggs.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    That’s her job, until, either the bees don’t like her anymore, which can happen, there’s a mutiny possibly or she is becoming weak, they will sense that then they will start the process again, but without the swarm this time. They feel like she is becoming weak, they will turn some of her eggs into new queens, or a potential for new queens. Again they’ll do more than one, just to make sure one of them hatches into a good queen.

Greg:    Right, I think we’re going to wrap up here before too long. I want to get a couple questions in about what it’s like to be a beekeeper in a residential, a suburban area. We went down and I would say we were, you have a nice sized yard, but it’s not acres and acres.

Peter:    Absolutely not.

Greg:    Your neighbors are right there, they’re right there, they’re right there.

Peter:    Yeah.

Greg:    Do neighbors care? Is there something that is cool about having bees in a residential area? Is there something, is it no one actually knows unless they come over and you actually point it out?

Peter:    Most people probably do not know. My neighbors know because I was upfront with them about what we were planning on doing. If they were interested and were concerned, we brought them over and showed them what we have, and showed them the lack of threat. The fear is born out of ignorance. There is no evidence what-so-ever that honey bees are aggressive at all, only in certain situations where you and I would become aggressive, bees become aggressive. Like defending their home.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    We talked a little bit about that earlier. If somebody came to my front door and tried to beat their way in, I would do just about whatever it took to stop that from happening, and the bees are going to do the same thing.

Greg:    Same thing.

Peter:    Up to and including laying down their life. When they sting you, they die. They get one sting. Half of their abdomen comes out and they die. They are not about to give that up unless they have a good reason to do it. The good reasons are, defending their life or defending their hive life. That’s what they do. My neighbors don’t have any problem with me having bees. They come look at them, just like you did, we stand there with no bee suit on and the bees are fine.

Greg:    Check them out. How much time do you think you spend on a week taking care of your bees?

Peter:    I am an extremely lazy beekeeper.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    This is anybody, who is into beekeeping will tell you, will ridicule me very, very much for being as lazy as I am. One of the reasons that I got a Top-Bar hive, was because they are easier to take care of. I think they are more typical of a bee’s actual home, as opposed to a Langstroth hive, but its square and it has more levels to it.

Greg:    The second one you said, I don’t know how to spell it, the second one you said are the stacked white ones that we see in, I forget, there were a couple movies, those are sort of the romanticized. They’re out in the field, and they put them in the back of the truck and they drive them around and move them out to the next field.

Peter:    That’s correct.

Greg:    Then the Top-Bar that you were talking about. You tool the top off and it’s a long rectangle and there were, those are the bars, they go across and the bees make the hives that hang down from those bars.

Peter:    The best way, the morbid way to describe it is, that it’s a small coffin.

Greg:    Yeah, it looked like it.

looking inside a top bar bee hive

Peter:    That sits up on legs about 2 feet off the ground. It has ventilation in the bottom. It has a roof on the top that sheds water. You take the roof off, and there are bars that you just described in side. The bees are supposed to make their honeycomb underneath those bars so you can take one bar out at a time. They often tend not to do that, they’ll make then at an angle across several bars. I’m a lazy beekeeper so I don’t go in there and straighten that out, but some people would. You should be able to take one bar out at a time and it should have a perfect little coffin shaped bee.

Greg:    Okay. Hive. The Honeycomb

Peter:    The honeycomb on it, you can take that out and look at it.

Greg:    Do you collect the honey from your beehives or do you basically keep your bees for their sake and they get to keep all the honey they make?

Peter:    We will be taking some from them this year.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    I don’t like to take honey from them their first year, because I feel like I want them to be established in a strong hive first, and I want them to make it through the winter. The way that most beekeepers do it is, they take the honey and they feed sugar water to the bees so that they can survive.

Greg:    That was going to be my questions, if the honey was meant for food for the larva and all the bees.

Peter:    Yes.

Greg:    What happens to them if you take all the honey, which is delicious.

Peter:    Most beekeepers will take honey in August, and then they will leave, They don’t necessarily take all of the honey, but they will take what they want in August and then they will hope that there is a fall flow of nectar which is what the honey is made from. If it’s very dry around here, which sometimes it can be in the fall, there isn’t much of a fall flow, and then the bees are in trouble and then you have to feed them. If there is a good fall flow, the bees will take the nectar make it into honey and then they will have enough to live on through the winter.

Greg:    If someone harvests to much you’ve basically damaged?

Peter:    Yes.

Greg:    Okay. How do you feed bees? I’m thinking about the little hamster …

Peter:    Like a pippette, you just take a bee at a time and squeeze a little… No that’s not true.

Greg:    Yeah.

Peter:    You will put, there’s something you actually put in the hive that has sugar water in it, that stops the bees from falling in and drowning.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    Because they will fall in, they will drown. It has basically a ladder like thing to allow then to get back out again. They want to go down in and suck the nectar.

Greg:    Okay. Yes exactly. How many, you have two hives right now?

Peter:    Yes.

Greg:    Is there, I assume there’s not a problem with having more than one or else you wouldn’t have had it. I would have guessed that you want to keep them far away from each other, but that’s not correct.

Peter:    No, you can put them right next to each other. There’s no problem with that. The bees know by the pheromone that we talked about earlier, from each individual queen, which hive that they belong too. They want to leave from one exit and come back to the same exit entry to get back into the hive.

Greg:    They’re not interested in seeing what’s over in the other hive?

Peter:    No, they’re actually, if they go over there, if a bee that smells a certain way, with a certain pheromone goes to a different hive and tries to come in the guard bees will actually attack that bee. They feel like they’re there to rob the honey. There are robber bees that exist. There are hives that will try and rob honey from another hive.

Greg:    Is that a different species or just a swarm’s gone bad, a hive’s gone bad?

Peter:    If they’re without…

Greg:    The dark side?

Peter:    Yes the dark side, if you will or they’re lacking in their own resources.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    They feel like their resources are …

Greg:    Forced to do it.

Peter:    It comes back to animal nature, again, humans do the same thing.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    If you were forced into a situation where you don’t have food what are you going to do?

Greg:    You’re going to find a way to get it.

Peter:    You’re going to find a way to make it happen.

Greg:    Okay.

Peter:    Bees are no different.

Greg:    I know you got to go soon, but I wanted to finish up with, as we’ve been talking I’ve been sipping on some mead…

Peter:    What do you think Greg?

Greg:    It’s not the first time I’ve had your mead. It’s very nice. You can get more things out of a beehive right? You can do more things with the honey than just the honey?

Peter:    Sure.

Greg:    These bees populate or pollinate your garden.

Peter:    Yes.

Greg:    You’re helping the larger social farming community. You’re getting honey, which, I’ve had some of your honey before. I love it.

Peter:    It does taste different, I have to tell you, than if you go to a store, any store and buy honey. Unless you buy local honey, or something where you know where it came from.

Greg:    That’s the only kind I buy anymore, after reading some articles about what’s actually in honey that imported.

Peter:    Right.

Greg:    Its scary stuff.

Peter:    Yes, you don’t really know what’s in it.

Greg:    You know what’s in it.

Peter:    Unless you know where it came from.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    It does taste better. All honey tastes different. If you want to see a great example of that. Go to the State Fair and they have a honey display. There’s different colors, there’s different taste and they judge it based on that. You can see it all in one place.

Greg:    Will your bee’s honey taste differently from year to year.

Peter:    Yeah it could do.

Greg:    Quickly run me through your mead. Just a couple minutes, how do you make it? What is mead? I’m sure a lot of people have heard about it but what have I been drinking?

Peter:    Mead is a honey wine. It’s made in the same way that you would make any other kind of wine. You would take some kind of fruit or honey, fruit obviously for wine, honey for mead.

Greg:    Something with a sugar source.

carboy used to make mead from honeyPeter:    Correct, something with sugar in it. You mix it with a certain amount of water, and you can mix it with various other things to make it taste good. For example I like to put oranges in mine and cinnamon and cloves and a couple of things that just add a little bit of flavor to it. You put it in a carboy which is a large glass vat.

Greg:    I can put a picture of yours, you have it out here, I’ll take a picture and put it on the web site.

Peter:    The carboy is sealed on the top with a one-way valve that allows expansion inside the carboy of gasses to come out, but does not allow air to come back into the carboy. Then you basically leave it for 3 months or so, then you …

Yes, then you’ll put some yeast in there at the same time. You put all of that together, then you will leave it for a certain period of time, until it starts to get clear.

Greg:    In days of old the yeast was probably naturally occurring, right? Somebody accidentally left some honey out in someone else’s water glass and some yeast sprinkled on it overnight and they left it there for two weeks and someone else drank it and “Whoa, this is awesome.”

Peter:    The history of alcohol is close to being…

Greg:    Accidental.

Peter:    Accidental, but it’s a long time.

Greg:    Oh yeah.

Peter:    If you go back and read it, the first, I think it was in China, back in before we started our new calendar system for the Christians, before Christ was born, a long time ago they were making alcohol. They figured out how to do it.

Greg:    Right.

Peter:    This is just a variation on that. Once we started keeping bees, probably even before we started keeping bees some guy said “Oh, there’s bees in that there tree, you know, let’s go take their honey because it tastes good and oh yeah it’s got sugar, put some yeast in there.”

Greg:    That’s right.

Peter:    At first it was made with something like bread yeast or something that doesn’t produce a huge amount of alcohol and we have refined that. One of the things I like to do, is to make it with Champagne yeast. I think you turn more of the sugar to alcohol, you get a higher alcohol content and I think you also get a slightly more refined taste. Now, anybody that makes mead will tell you that their mead tastes the best.

Greg:    Of course.

Peter:    That’s absolutely fine with me, no argument on that.

Greg:    Yeah.

Peter:    I enjoy that. The disadvantage is you can’t drink a lot, because it will send you under the table fairly quickly.

Greg:    I’ve noticed that.

Peter:    The good part is that you get a really good taste out of it.

Greg:    How long from beginning to end, from when you first decide. I want to make some mead, collect the honey, to bottling it, that I see over there.

Peter:    About 3 months.

Greg:    3 months, so you have to be patient, but it is well worth the effort.

Peter:    Exactly and you can make 5 gallons at a time, which in theory should keep you going for quite a while.

Greg:    Quite a while. Awesome, I really appreciate your time today. If someone needs to get a hold of a beekeeper around town, what’s the best way, should they just hop on the internet like you said?

Peter:    That’s what I would do, there are several, depending on where you live in the town, or in Kentucky even, there are several beekeeper organizations. The best thing to do is get on the web site, there’s one in Southern Indiana, there’s one here in Louisville, actually, I think there’s a couple here in Louisville.

Greg:    We don’t need people from all over the country calling you to come take care of their bees.

Peter:    Get on the web site and find one that’s local to you. Beekeeping is a fairly patient and a fairly relaxed hobby. Most of the people who you will talk to are extremely willing to show you what you should do, to be available if you have questions, to help you out. They really want to promote the health of the bees and the health of the hive, because it’s in their best interest too. To increase the genetic pool and have good bees.

Greg:    It’s in all of our interests.

Peter:    It’s in everybody’s interest.

Greg:    Awesome, thank you so much for sitting down. Obviously, I’ll talk to you soon.

Peter:    My pleasure, appreciate you coming over.

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