You know that feeling when you meet a family for the first time and you instantly hit it off with them, knowing you will fast become good friends? Well, that happened to me while at the NCGE conference in San Juan last week. I met Theresa Blain, owner of Visualize World Geography, which teaches students to visualize nations by turning the world into memorable shapes. Theresa and her husband Gregg, homeschool their two talented sons, Hunter (age 14) and Gregory (age 12). The family lives on a sprawling ranch in Western Texas, and the boys recently took it upon themselves to start keeping bees on their property. Naturally, I was curious about this and just had to ask them all about it. Beekeeping is fascinating!
Gregory (left) and Hunter (right) Blain suit up for their beekeeping duties on their Texas ranch
What made you decide to become beekeepers?
Hunter and Gregory: We were talking to our parents about multiple land uses of the ranch. Beekeeping came up as a possibility because it is compatible with cattle raising – our main use of land. Also, wild hives were infiltrating some of our barns, and had to be moved. This indicated that the ranch was a good bee habitat, and if we did become beekeepers, we could then have better control of where the hives would be located, and also receive the benefit of collecting honey.
How did you figure out what you needed to do to get started keeping bees?
Hunter: We read books on the subject, like “The Hive and the Honeybee,” and we asked older beekeepers for advice.
Gregory: I read a lot of descriptions of products in bee catalogs.
What kind of equipment is necessary to keep bees?
Gregory: I wouldn’t go without a bee suit—which includes gloves, a veil, a hat, and a full body suit. Plus you need a smoker, and a hive tool (a hive tool is just a strangely shaped pry bar). Each apiary has a couple of large hives, some smaller ones on top called supers, and a queen excluder between them to keep the queen from laying eggs in the honey comb. Also, make sure to bring an extra empty hive with empty frames to store good honey for transport and processing.
Hunter: You need an extractor to spin the honey off the frames, a capping scratcher to remove the wax caps from the cells, bottles, and a sanitary work environment. We use a hot plate, two stainless steel filters—one fine, one coarse, and different stainless pots, trays, and funnels. We wrap our extractor with heat tape to make the honey flow faster. A comb cutter is helpful if you are packaging the honey with the comb.
The beekeepers hard at work
How many apiaries do you have?
Gregory: We have two completed apiaries, and another area fenced off and ready for bees.
Did you attract your bees or purchase them?
Hunter: The two completed apiaries have purchased bees, while the other bees will come from a wild hive that is in a bad spot, and must be moved for safety reasons.
Gregory: You can domesticate a wild beehive by moving the queen bee into a man-made hive.
Do you have any idea how many bees live in your hive(s)?
Gregory: We have tens of thousands, round about, but it would take a while to “bee” exact and count them.
Hee, Hee. I am glad to know that beekeepers have a keen sense of humor! Do you need permission from your town or some sort of a permit to keep bees on a residential property?
Hunter: Because our hives are outside city limits, they have no jurisdiction over our operation. However, we do report our hives and honey production to the USDA for statistical purposes.
That is so cool that you do that! I’ve read that bees need a large water source to make honey and keep their hives cool. How do you provide your bees with water?
Hunter: Although water is not a major factor in cooling the hives (bees use their wings like cordless, portable fans), water is very important to make honey. Currently, the bees obtain their water from ponds about a quarter mile away. However, we decided that for this upcoming season, we will put 55 gallon drums of water next to each hive, making sure to cut just a small hole on top of each drum so that not much more than our bees can get into them. Giving the bees a water source right next to their hives will mean less of the bees’ time will be spent retrieving water, and more bees can be dedicated to gathering nectar, and producing honey.
That’s brilliant! Where is the pollen source coming from for your bees?
Gregory: Bees gather nectar from flowers—for the bees, moving pollen around is accidental. Our bees gather from wildflower patches that vary from year to year. Another important source is mesquite trees.
How long does it take your bees to make a jar’s worth of honey?
Hunter: Our honey production is rising as the hives become more established. This is because the bees do not have to re-make the wax cells from scratch. This year, we harvested about 110 pounds of honey.
Yum. How do you safely get the honey out of the hive?
Greogory: Make sure you zip your bee suit up completely. Use smoke to keep the bees calm and off the honey; use the hive too—check for honey content and bee larvae called brood. Honey comb with brood must be left in the hive. The hive contains a number of wooden frames—separate pieces on which the bees construct their comb. We put the good frames in an extra empty hive and drive away. The wandering bees eventually head back to their own hive.
Does it look the same as the honey we buy at the store?
Hunter: It looks about the same, except the color may vary depending on which flowers are predominant that year. Our honey tends to be sweeter because it isn’t made from a single flower type, or an agricultural crop.
What do you do with the honey?
Hunter: We bottle it, and then we eat it, give it to friends; we even sell some too.
Hunter proudly displays the honey collected from the beehives
Have either of you ever been stung?
Gregory: One time, my veil was slightly unzipped, and 6 or 7 bees unexpectedly got in. It was fine for a while, until one crawled into my left nostril. That’s when I started running. The quick reaction disturbed the bees and I found myself at a curve in the road about half a mile away, just about lost. As I mentioned before, always make sure your bee suit is completely zipped!
That must have been rather scary! What have you learned about bees that surprised you since you started doing this?
Hunter: The Africanized bees are amazingly aggressive. They form a dense black cloud and sting everything in sight.
Gregory: Bees can sting multiple times on most animals. Human skin traps the stinging organ, which is fatal for the bee.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about bees with our readers?
Hunter: After the initial set up costs, and the first year’s experience, beekeeping is easy and inexpensive. It is true that building fences and assembling hives require hard work, and that a good extractor can be pricey, but if you are going to raise bees, you have to think of them as a long-term deal.
Gregory: Dadant and Sons, a beekeepers supply company, has good, introductory books and a lot of the things you would need to get started.
Hunter and Gregory, I cannot thank you enough for sharing all your knowledge with us. I learned so much about keeping bees. Please keep us informed about your progress with the beehives and any other fascinating new projects you take on. With curiosity such as yours, I am sure there will be many other exciting adventures in your future!