Bee-Handling: Being Better With Bees

Honeybees are counted as members of the family here at Chickadee Gardens! Yes, well, we don't actually count them, way too many to count, but we regard our dear honeybees as important, contributing residents. And we needed to learn how to make them happier and healthier. 

Hello, Facilities Manager here. After 2018's experience with the bees (visit a post here), where in October the bee colony simply absconded, i.e., left without so much as a fare-thee-well or a note. Gone, Bees! Gone!

I figured I may have success if I knew more about beekeeping. So, since I purchased in May my latest package of bees from Bee and Bloom, I signed-up for a "bee-handling" class at their site on Sauvie Island last weekend. 

Bees be bees. They really know what they're doing and I needed to learn just what that may be.

Here is the "About" statement from Bee and Bloom: 
Bee and Bloom was founded by three bee-loving friends (an entomologist, a beekeeper and a pollination ecologist) in 2017. We are educators and pollinator advocates in Portland, OR, empowering our community to support the environment and all of the pollinating critters within it! We promote native bee conservation and sustainable, bee-centric beekeeping through hands-on workshops and ecotourism experiences at our pollinator sanctuary on Sauvie Island.

More information can be found at

Time to sign in when I arrived at the Bee and Bloom site. Funny, I was so intent on taking the picture and collecting a sticker (I stick them to my riding lawnmower) I forgot to sign the attendance sheet. 

The class began with Bekah leading the 11 of us through some general details about honeybees. I've met Bekah before at a similar class. That was at a storefront, though, while this class featured hands-on bee-handling. That made a big difference for me. Plus, I was able to wear my unsexy bee suit.

Once winter is finished, honeybees have a busy year. A typical hive can reach a population of 50,000 or more in June. That is a lot of baby bees as the worker bees live only four to six weeks. Thus, they call the queens "ovaries with wings"! 

Because our 2018 bees left for better parts (?) we were not able to harvest any honey. Oh, I did remove a block of honey-laden honeycomb in August (it was tasty), but normally one does not harvest a first-year hive. 

Fun Fact: Honeybees make honey to store to eat during the cold months. No, they don't make it as a hobby or as a favor to humans. I had this wonderful revelation last year. Never thought about it before. So beekeepers must ensure the hive always has enough honey for several months for the bees. How about that?

Emma shows the class how to get a smoker afire and then making smoke. The smoke -- just a few puffs into the hive entryway and top of the hive -- works to cover the "Something is wrong!" scent the bees produce when the hive is opened. That smell, which smells like bananas, seriously, puts the bees into a defensive mood, which means its time to close the hive. Smoke mitigates that.

After all, this was a bee-handling class, and we did tear open, in a polite and measured way, several hives just see what was going on in there. So we used the smoke a little bit, but the bees were very friendly and docile. Which made standing in the middle of several hundred buzzing bees do-able.

Here's about half of Bee and Bloom's collection of hives. Right beside a wall of blackberry bushes, these bees did not fly far for the good stuff.

Bekah in a bee suit. Oh, the sun did shine and we all roasted a little in our suits. Anyway, we started with a Langstroth hive, which is the stack of pink boxes to Bekah's right. Please note her gloves. Nice and thick. But, you know, some beekeepers do not wear gloves or suits.

We were not so brave, we students!!

This hive had four boxes. After removing the top box, we found the bees busy at work on the eight frames inside. 

Bekah pulled out a frame and passed it around. On this frame, the bees were making broodcomb and honeycomb. The former is for bee production while the latter is for food.

I must admit that it is freaky holding onto a frame covered with moving and busy bees. But that is the point of the class, i.e., experience with working with bees. 

Everyone had a turn at holding the frame. 

On the left side of the frame you can see the honeycomb. It has the light-colored cells. Just below and to the right and carrying across the frame are brood cells. In these are new bees in various stages of development. We found eggs, larvae and pupae. The worker bees are tending to the cells. 

This frame features two new honeycombs currently under construction. The wax is produced by the worker bees. With enough bees, a frame can be completely filled with comb in one day. 

Bekah re-assembles the hive with the goal of arranging it to assist the bees with enough space to create tidy combs. Also, this allows the beekeeper room to monitor the bees and their activities.

We shifted over to a top-bar hive. Some beekeepers prefer these because they are more accessible and easier to manage. Instead of stacking boxes up and up, the bees dictate the space they need, and that is accommodated by adding new frames. 

The bees enter at a hole on one end.

This hive had a glass window so of course we all had to look in. I wonder what the bees thought of us big, white space-suited humans looking into their home? 

Bekah opened it up and found kind of a mess. 

Several combs had fallen together and made a mass of comb, both honeycomb and broodcomb. 

So we watched some hive surgery. The combs were separated gently, so gently. 

Prying a little. Gentle. Gentle.

And the slumping combs were placed  at the other end, the unoccupied part of the hive, for the bees to eventually clean and move the honey to the front half of the hive. Hey, there is more to bee-management than smearing honey on your toast in the morning!

I should report the bees were very calm during this upheaval. Oh, they were buzzing around, but the slow, kind and steady pace did not ignite any mass defensive measures. 

On this comb you can see the different cells, including several open cells that may or may not have eggs in them. I am not sure if the white specks are eggs or reflected sunlight. But, as always, the worker bees are busy taking care of things.

I really enjoyed the chance to work with an open hive. I confess that last year I was timid about opening the hive because the bees scared me a little and I did not want to cause havoc in their well-ordered world. I learned a great deal from the class, although I know it is just the basics. Now, however, I shall feel confident when I check the hive every three or four weeks. 

Whew! Those bee suits are hot! After 30 or 40 minutes of classroom-time, so to speak, we had an hour with the hives. I recommend this class or such a class to anyone interested in honeybee beekeeping. I was pleased to see the majority of the students did not have hives, but were interested. I suspect nearly all will eventually have a hive or two.

That's it for bee-learning here at Chickadee Gardens. I am a more confident beekeeper, for sure. So confident, in fact, I am not too proud to note I have my bee suit on backward in the photo above. Sigh. Details. It's all in the details!

Any other readers out there beekeepers? Give us a shout, we'd love to learn more!
Thanks for reading and commenting, we love hearing from you all! Happy gardening, everyone!


  1. Fascinating - and more than a little daunting. Kudos to you for taking up the task!

    1. Hi, Kris. Thanks for enjoying the blog. I sure love my bees and I will be a much better keeper. It certainly is daunting with 500 bees whizzing around you as you take apart their home. But the bees seem to trust me, so we should have a successful year ahead.

  2. You are braver than I. I am not really scared of bees but the commitment to bee keeping is more than I would ever tackle. I wouldn't know what to do with all that honey! Best of luck with your new batch of bees. I enjoy reading about your adventures into beekeeping.

    1. Thanks, Lisa. All in all the commitment is light, but it is, yes, something one must commit to. After all, they are living creatures and, like our kitties, we must be accountable for them. Thanks.

  3. Love your post. I used to keep bees when I was younger and it was nice to see all your pictures which brought back some fond memories.

    1. Hey, thank you, Cindy. If you have some good stories about your beekeeping, please share! As this is only my second year, all I have to talk about it are my mistakes! Ha ha, there have been a few! Cheers.

  4. We had bees for several years but had very little luck overwintering them in our climate. However, your pictures of the inside of the hive brought back memories of how fascinating the machinations of an active hive are. After I discovered I was allergic to bees never went anywhere near them without the Hazmet suit and yes I agree they are really hot! Good luck with your hives.

    1. Thank you, luv2. Am sorry you had such sore luck. I am hopeful our bunch will decided to winter at home. Thanks again.

  5. We (my husband) took the beekeeping class last winter and I have been his assistant and photographer this year. There is a lot to learn about the beekeeping. I think everyone should take a class. I am curious about the top bar hives, think that would be an interesting comparison with the stacked boxes. As we get older I think the top bar hives would be easier to manage. So far we have two hives, everyone is happy during the winter- foraging on some of our warmer days.

    1. FM here: Hi, Queen Janet. Good to have more rookies on the bee map. My hive is very quiet right now. And that is how it should be. We did see a honeybee on a dandelion last weekend, so 2020 looks favorable. I like omens! Ha! As to the top bar hives, I do not have much experience with them. I like the stackability of our hive. Cheers and keep on bee-ing!


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