Book Review: The Backyard Beekeeper submitted by Frank Gibbons, Ph. D.

Book Review submitted by Frank Gibbons, Ph.D.

Title of Book: The Backyard Beekeeper
Author: Kim Flottum

3rd Edition

I believe that every backyard beekeeper should have a copy of this book, read it
from cover to cover, and then keep it as a reference guide. I found some of the
information to be material I already knew but there were many valuable new
concepts that I learned. The author, Kim Flottum presents the material in an
almost a conversational tone that makes it easy to read. Kim was the editor of
Bee Culture magazine for 30 years and is interested in providing guidance and
information to beginning, intermediate, and experienced beekeepers. The book
has 207 pages, 5 chapters, a glossary and an index. There are also many photos
and diagrams. In this review, I plan to highlight some of the points that I thought
were important and things that I learned.

The author begins the book with a chapter called “Starting Right.” He offers a
good discussion on where to locate the colony, getting and assembling the right
equipment and where to get bees. He also offers a few facts about the different
races of bees. Kim thinks that the Russian bees offer the best resistance to
Varroa mites. It is estimated that there are approximately 10,000 bees in a 3
pound package.

Chapter 2 is entitled “About Bees.” I was reminded that a queen can be
produced in 16 days, a worker in 21 days and the drone, 24 days. All the larvae
are fed royal jelly for at least part of their development. It is also interesting to
note that honey bees are not aggressive by nature but are considered to be
defensive. We need to keep this in mind when working our bees. We don’t want
our bees to believe that they have to defend the hive against us when we open
them up. With respect to nutrition, pollen is the only source of protein, starch,
fat, vitamins, and minerals that the bees have. In fact, by weight pollen has more
protein than beef and is the best food for a developing brood. The honey serves
as a source of energy for working bees and of course in the development of
queen, workers and drones. The stored honey also gets the colony through the
winter. The author writes about the importance of water to a hive. He estimates
that a full size colony will use an average of one half to a full gallon of water in
addition to the nectar it collects on a warm day. This emphasizes the need for a
good supply of water near the hive at all times.

It was stated in Chapter 2 that a colony can starve during the winter for only two
reasons: lack of food or not enough bees. In New Mexico, it is estimated that a
hive should have at least 50 pounds of honey at Thanksgiving time. If there is
ample food but not enough bees in the hive, the colony may die because when
clustered during cold spells, the fewer bees are not spread out enough to
access the honey. Another concept, I was not aware of is the Nasonov
pheromone. This is produced by worker bees, not the queen. Apparently, the
Nasonov gland is located between the last two segments of the worker bee’s
abdomen where the Nasonov pheromone is produced emitted as she rapidly
beats her wings. Each colony’s worker bees all have the same characteristic
smell which identifies them as being part of a particular hive. I think we were
taught that the queen emits the pheromone which is then picked up by the
worker bees. I will quote the following paragraph, which I found to be very
poignant:

“What you’ll notice most, though, is that when you open a colony, the natural
upward ventilation, partially driven by the body heat of thousands of bees, wafts
up the commingled, subtle aromas of curing honey, stored pollen, and a good
bit of Nasonov pheromone. This cocktail produces the distinct smell of a
beehive. This is what makes all colonies smell mostly alike, but all a bit different.
There is no other aroma quite like it or quite as attractive, to both a honey bee
and a beekeeper.”

In Chapter 3, the discussion is “About Beekeeping.” The chapter starts out with
how to not only light your smoker but keep it going for as long as you need it. A
nine step process was outlined that I am going to try the next time I work my
bees. I will summarize the process here. The author’s of choice of fuel is paper,
pine needles, and punk wood. He starts by crumpling newspaper into a loose
ball that doesn’t quite fit the smoker and lighting the bottom. He then lets the
paper ignite and pushes the paper to the bottom of the smoker with his hive
tool. He then adds a pinch of pine needles to the top, pushes the bellows and let
the needles catch fire. He adds more needles, pushes them down, pumps the
bellows, and adds a third batch of needles and repeats the process. Finally he
adds wood pulp or some other more durable fuel, pumps the bellows, and when
lots of smoke is billowing, drops the lid down. When properly lit, the smoker
should be able to sit idle for a half hour without going out. The rest of the
chapter is about packaged bee management and introduction, honey flow,
record keeping, summertime chores, inspecting the hives, fall and winter
management, and early spring inspections. This chapter is really the nuts and
bolts of beekeeping. A couple of specific recommendations was keeping the
queen in her cage for 5 to 7 days before releasing her and observing worker
behavior toward the uncaged queen. The author also recommends cleaning
tools and gloves when finished with a hive inspection. Better yet, one should
clean tools in between opening hives. Disease control is emphasized with
particular attention paid to controlling Varroa mites. The information in this book
about controlling mites is very similar to what we learned in class. The same
sampling techniques and control measures are recommended that we learned in
the certified bee program. The latter part of the chapter was on harvesting, fall
and winter management, and spring inspections. With regard to winter feeding,
I was intrigued by the idea of feeding fondant, which is a mixture of sugar and
high-fructose corn syrup. It is placed in between the frames so that is readily
available to bees in winter when they are in their cluster. It has a solid
consistency about the consistency of butter. The author says you can get it from
bakeries but it sounds easy to make.

Chapter 4 is all about beeswax. The chapter starts off with the the cardinal rule,
“Never melt beeswax over an open fire.” Instead, melt the wax in a double
boiler. There is also a section on solar melting of wax. There is quite a lot of
information on making candles, lip balms, foot cream, etc. The author points out
that there are different types of wax depending upon its age and where it came
from in the hive. One should be careful not to mix the waxes depending on what
you want to use it for. Burr and new comb creates nearly white wax. Capping
wax is lemon colored and darker wax comes from older brood combs. The
darkness comes from propolis and the debris which makes candles burn
erratically. This wax can be used in making soaps, polishes and for
waterproofing. According to the author, only the dark waxes should be melted in
a solar melter because high heat can also lead to a darker wax. Lighter colored
waxes should be melted in double boilers where the heat can be regulated.
These lighter colored waxes are then good for candle making, lotions and other
balms.

Chapter 5 details the author’s Rules of Modern Beekeeping. The rules start off
with queen’s rules: raising the queen in luxury, queen must be well mated, and
queen must be productive. Then, there is discussion on bee’s rules: adapted to
environment, selected on beekeepers management style, resistant to pests and
diseases, and well behaved. There is a rather lengthy set of rules that
beekeepers should practice ranging from being aware of all pests, to isolating
your bees from other bees, to keeping records, and being a good steward of the
hive. The author is adamant about controlling Varroa and says that every
beekeeper should consider the following steps: “1) Learn about Varroa, 2) The
best way to control Varroa is the worst way to make honey, and 3) Use IPM
treatments first, soft next and hard never.”
The author concludes the book with the following quote, “Keeping honey bees
remains one of the most interesting, productive, and challenging hobbies or
businesses that exists. I’ve been at it for more than thirty years, and I still learn
something new every season, and I’m still having fun in the process. You will
too. Enjoy the bees.”

As I stated earlier in this review, in addition to a detailed, how to do discussion,
there is also a fairly complete glossary and an index. I think this book should be
in every beekeeper’s library. I highly recommend it to my classmates and every
one interested in the keeping of bees.

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