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Good morning, gardeners, and welcome to the Saturday Morning Garden Blog!

Many lovers of gardening are lovers of bees as well.  We’re grateful for their pollination of our flowers, fruits and vegetables.  We’re inspired by their tireless work ethic; fascinated that they're capable of making wax combs in the hive.  We’re tantalized by the sweetness of their honey in our teas and cakes.  And who among us isn’t attracted to the fantasy of a benevolent queen?

Aganetha Dyck, The MMasked Ball (2008), Photo credit:  Peter Dyck

Contrary to popular belief, Einstein may have never actually said that if bees were eliminated from the planet, mankind would quickly perish.  But in recent years, colony collapse disorder, the abrupt disappearance of honeybee colonies throughout the world, has alarmed everyone who recognizes the vital role bees play in our survival and quality of life.  Now more than ever, it seems bees could use a helping hand.  With that in mind, my husband and I decided to add more “bee friendly” plants to our garden.  We also decided to set up two top bar honeybee hives in our back yard.

Top bar bee hives are foundationless hives that contain many wooden bars at the top (hence, the name top bar).  It’s on these wooden bars that the bees construct their comb.  Our hives were ordered as an unassembled kit, and this is what they looked like when they arrived:

With a few twists of a screwdriver, the hives were fully assembled and ready to be placed in our yard.  Since sunshine and wind protection are important considerations, we chose to put our hives in a recessed, Southwest corner that receives many hours of direct sunlight each day. Here they are, leveled off on pavers, and ready for our bee colonies to take up residence:

After researching various options, my husband and I decided Italian honeybees would be molto buono for our yard.  Italian honeybees are both gentle and productive, resistant to disease, and have the distinction of being the most popular type of honeybee in North America.  In the spirit of Limoncello, Italy’s much beloved lemon liqueur, we added a few drops of lemongrass oil to our hives before we picked up our bees in the hopes that it would make their new homes seem especially welcoming (the aromatics of lemons are so attractive to bees that lemongrass oil is often used to bait feral swarms).

It’s a bit unsettling to travel 30 miles with 20,000 bees in the car.  Fortunately, our bees were very well packaged and there were no successful escapes in transit.

Once we got our honeybees home, we donned our Valentino inspired bee suits* and set about the admittedly daunting task of uniting bee and beehive.  There's a bit of disagreement regarding the best way to accomplish this task, but generally speaking, there are three basic steps:

Put a feeder in the hive so the bees have something to eat while they're establishing their colony;
Secure the queen; and
Pour the remaining bees into the cavity of the hive and close the lid.
All things considered, the installation was a success and the majority of the bees fell with a thump into their new homes.  The bees that were less inclined to cooperate began to slowly make their way through the hive entrances.

Did i get stung during this process?  Why yes!  Yes i did.  But each sting taught me a valuable lesson, the most important of which is to never seal yourself inside of a bee suit unless you're absolutely certain there are no bees sealed in there with you.

Since it was raining fairly heavily on "bee installation" day, there are very few photographs of the experience (and if anyone claims they saw me running frantically through the field, clawing at my bee suit, i will deny it).  Suffice to say it was nothing short of exhilarating, and we went to bed with a sense of great eagerness about what we'd find come morning.

Over the next 2 1/2 weeks, we checked on our bees numerous times to monitor their progress and well being.  The morning after the installation, we were relieved to see through the observation windows that the bees were festooning beautifully around the queens in both hives.

On day three, we confirmed that the queens had been freed from their cages, and the bees were beginning to build combs for brood and honey.

We also placed a stone filled bee bath between the two hives so our bees would have a safe, clean water source.  A smear of Vaseline and cinnamon was applied to the hives' feet in an effort to keep the ants at bay.

On day six, we were pleased to see our bees carrying baskets of pollen into both hives ...

... and they apparently found one of our apple trees.

Also on day six, we were pleased to see a "come-hither" bee poised under the entrance, bearing its abdomen, releasing its precious Nasanov pheromone so the other bees in the colony could literally "smell" their way home.

On day twelve, we did our first bar-by-bar inspection, and were astounded by what the bees had accomplished in such a short period of time.  Within each hive, several fully drawn, perfectly straight combs were a bustle of activity.

In the first hive, we were relieved to see evidence of tiny, shrimp-shaped larvae and covered brood, both of which are sure signs of a healthy, laying queen.

If that wasn't proof enough, we also spotted Her Majesty, attendants circled around her, catering to her every need.

The queen in the second hive seemed a little smaller.

But she, too, was obviously healthy and laying, since an abundance of larvae and covered brood surrounded her as well.

And we may have spotted some honey cells!

Amazingly, the girls didn't skip a beat after their first inspection.  The moment the hives were closed up, they immediately took to the fields again to gather pollen and do what bees do.

And with that, our adventures in beekeeping are solidly underway.  Hopefully, our hives will continue to thrive.  If all goes well, our next great challenge will be to keep our honeybees warm and happy throughout the winter.  Next Spring, if there’s any honey left in the hive, we’ll harvest our very first vaso di miele (pot of honey) from our own backyard.  Meanwhile, if any of you experienced beekeepers would like to share tips, tricks, or other words of wisdom, please feel free to post your advice in the comment section.  I promise it won’t sting.

*Note:  Our bee suits were neither inspired nor designed by Valentino.

Additional links:
WikiHow On How To Attract Honey Bees

Bee Friendly Plant Suggestions

List of Crop Plants Pollinated by Bees

May 2, 2013 USDA/EPA Report on Honey Bee Health

Aganetha Dyck Web Site

Originally posted to Saturday Morning Garden Blogging on Sat May 10, 2014 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots.

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