Member Highlight: Dan Pence and His Bees
Shop People is a diverse group made up of many personality types, but its members share one attribute: they are CREATIVE! Recently one of our members, Dan Pence, got creative with an unusual bee hive project.
“I make mead and need 6-9 pounds of honey for each batch; it gets expensive,” Dan explains. “So, I figured honeybees could make it for me in my own yard - for free. Bees are easy to raise: they exercise themselves, feed and water themselves, take out their own trash, are house-trained from birth and give their owners’ free honey! They are the perfect pet.”
This type of hive is a version of a Kenyan-style, Top-Bar Bee Box developed by Benjamin Clark, another Portland carpenter and rower, like Dan. The last week of April 2011, at Shop People, using leftover lumber from his fence-building projects, the bee box and its stand came together. It looked like a crude cedar and tin version of the Arc of the Covenant.
The Top-Bar design has recently become popular with amateur bee keepers. The more earthy amateur bee keepers embrace an ethic that allows the bees to work, build comb, raise brood, make honey, interrupting the harmony and safety of their hive just twice a year to collect surplus honey. Top-Bar boxes allow bee keepers to collect surplus honey, up to 60 lbs per year, without too much trauma to the bee colony.
When Dan’s bee box was almost finished, fellow SP member and beekeeper, Jeff Woodyard, was invited to find a site in Dan’s yard where the bees would have a good chance to thrive. After surveying the front and back yards, Jeff asserted the NW corner near the raspberries to be the best site. The NW area was far enough away from the house to avoid morning shade, and a nearby apple tree in the neighbor’s yard provided afternoon shade. Bees need to keep their hive around 95 degrees year-round. In the winter they perform isometric exercises to create heat, or pack themselves together in an insulated space like a tree cavity or a thick-sided bee box. They must eat honey to keep their strength up when other sources of food are unavailable, and if it’s too cold or too wet for foraging. The less energy expended to stay warm, the more surplus honey is leftover in spring.
Now, Dan just needed bees. He put himself on two “swarm lists.” Local beekeepers set up swarm lists to help establish new colonies. Ultimately, Dan got his new bee colony from a post on Craigslist. The poster was yet another carpenter, named Devon, who is a kindly beekeeper who didn’t have the heart to steal honey from his lovely bees. The bees were delivered less than 24 hours later and Devon helped get them moved into their new house. These bees now fly exuberantly in and out of Dan’s bee box in the NW corner near the raspberries. They seemed very happy.
About six weeks after getting bees from Devon, Dan noticed a decline in activity and fewer numbers of bees. An expert beekeeper stopped by and inspected the colony by pulling combs. He determined that the queen was not present and “laying workers” had taken over the job of creating eggs for the colony. Because worker bees lack a complete reproductive system, a laying worker produces only drones (males). The colony was doomed.
So it was back on the swarm lists. Dan found a very small swarm posted on Craigslist. He found and captured it, dropped it into a box, but wasn’t sure if it had a queen or was viable. It was only the size of an eggplant, just a couple hundred bees.
Then Dan remembered reading about a “bait box” in Thomas Seeley’s book. It was a small rudimentary box with a removable bottom that Seeley determined is typical of what a colony would choose as an appropriate home. Dan built one in a couple hours down at Shop People, complete with a sky blue paint job. He followed placement guidelines: 20’ off the ground, facing south, in a shady but visible spot. The old maple tree in his front yard was ideal. A few drops of lemon grass oil for scent and the bait box was ready for its open house.
In two days, a fresh colony of bees had moved in voluntarily! Introducing them into the bee box required getting rid of the laying workers so they wouldn’t attack the new queen. So Dan pulled each comb, walked across the yard, brushed off the bees, and then replaced them in the box. The new bees would use the combs and the old bees that could fly home would. Laying workers typically are unable to fly. The bait box was lowered out of the maple tree, carried around to the back yard, bottom removed, and the new colony dumped into the old box.
A week later, an inspection confirmed newly laid eggs and worker bee larvae. So a laying queen was in there somewhere. Dan and his bees are back on track.