This article was originally written for Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association (SEMBA) in their February 2023 members newsletter.
Our journey in beekeeping started in the fall of 2016, when my wife Karen took a beekeeping seminar as part of her continuing education for Master Gardener. Karen came home excited, announcing we needed to take a beekeeping class over the winter and get “some bees.” And so, it began. In January, we signed up for the SEMBA beginner class, having no idea what we were getting into or how much we had to learn. The good news is that we both like to learn new things, and I had grown up on a commercial farming operation and had some exposure to raising livestock.
Before the year was over, we had 2 hives that we started from packages as part of our class, a nuc we purchased and kept at our farm, and a nuc we started from a queen cell from a hive at the class that got out of control. We loved going to the bee yard, and soon realized just how much we had to learn. Fortunately, the class was a great foundation and taught us what we needed to get all 4 hives through the first winter. Well, maybe a little beginner’s luck helped as well.
The next summer we took an intermediate class thru A2B2, and in the process met a whole new group of beekeepers and more ideas on what others had tried that worked—and what didn’t work. Now we just needed to sort it all out and decide what was best for us. We also decided to try our hand at raising queens using OTS. The importance of having good queens when you need them was becoming very apparent! We also had our first honey harvest that year and leaned just how messy that process can be. Fortunately, a fellow classmate let us use his extractor, and we learned that a hand extractor was clearly not for us. By the end of the year, we had doubled our hive count to 8. We learned a lot, and had gotten much more comfortable inspecting hives, finding the queen when necessary, and learning how to build strong colonies for winter.
We lost our first hive that winter. We were disappointed, but very happy it was only one. Now to focus on spring splits so we don’t have swarms. We also signed up for the SEMBA Intermediate class, and even took a grafting class at Purdue. Seems the more we learned the more we didn’t know. But on we forged, learning any way we could, often by making mistakes. By the end of the year, we had 12 hives and 12 nucs with queens we raised by grafting. We also harvested 1,000 lbs of honey that year.
Jumping forward to 2022, we had the opportunity of going to the Univ. of Florida summer conference. We were looking for a trip south anyway, and taking a couple of days to listen to Jamie Ellis was more than we could pass up. We also took a queen rearing class from the Kentucky Queen Bee Breeder Association early in the year. Unfortunately, it was all remote, but still a great way to learn more about raising queens. This also helped me realize that we not only need to breed from the best queens, but we also need to flood our area with drones from our own stock. So, we started learning how to setup Drone Holding Colonies around our mating yard. This required us to find 6 spots about ¾ of a mile out from our mating yard where we could set up a colony packed with drones and nurses. (Thank goodness we’ve known some local farmers for so long.) It was clearly a year to learn. Now we can apply what we learned, and hopeful with much better success. I can’t stress enough the importance of being willing to try new things, but in a way that you can compare how the different approach worked or didn’t work. Just because it works for others, doesn’t mean it will work for us. We had to try different ways, compare the results, adjust the approach, and run another trial. Being exposed to new ideas—whether from classes, a state or national conference, or by talking to other beekeepers—has been critical to figuring out what will work best for us, and helping us grow our business.
The more we’ve learned, the more we’ve became focused on bees and raising overwintered nucs. Now our goal is to have a few hives for honey production (maybe 25-30), which we sell mostly from our website and a few select stores, and then to raise enough bees to support raising and overwintering nucs for sale to local beekeepers the next spring. We really want to provide a quality nuc with a well-mated queen that has proven she can grow a strong nest, and that won’t be superseded by the colony after only a few months on the job!
We have also done a few other things to round out our business. Three years ago, we built a wax dipping tank so we can treat our woodenware. The improvement in the life of the woodenware has been amazing, and like everyone else I’ve talked to, not having to paint boxes is a really good thing! We are now offering this service to other beekeepers each spring. Each April we pick a day where others can come by to have their woodenware dipped. Details on our website.
Our daughters also helped us setup a website, www.rexapiary.com, to spread the word on what we’re doing and to provide a better way to sell our honey without having to spend our weekends at farmers markets. Besides, there are already several neighbors who sell honey there, and we don’t want to take away from their business. Instead, this has allowed us to sell our honey to people all over the state, and even about 25% all over the country. It’s amazing how it has allowed others to find us, either for our honey or for the nucs we’re raising. This has been a great investment.
Now as we start off 2023, we’re going through winter with 24 production colonies, 37 nucs to overwinter and sell this spring (depending of course on how many survive), and 20 other nucs I plan to use to replace my winter losses and produce brood to support our mating nucs in spring. I also retired in 2021 so I now have more time. Hopefully, this will allow us to raise enough queens for 70 nucs to overwinter this coming fall, and from there, who knows! We seem to have been bitten by the bug. Hope to see you at an upcoming meeting or conference.