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Bees for the Maasai Project


Earlier this year, I began a fundraising campaign entitled Bees for the Maasai.  This project was designed to assist a group of Maasai beekeepers in the southern region of Kenya, in an area known as Kuku Ranch.  Kuku Ranch is a group-owned area, similar to an American Indian reservation, where the Maasai can live their life, practice their traditions, and use the land for their own purposes.

Working with the non-profit organization Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, and a local lodge called Kampi Ya Kanzi, we were able to raise a total of $1,626 USD to purchase beekeeping equipment to bring out to my contact and friend, Mutuku Mutua (AKA Wilbur).

The money raised went a long way and we were able to get an enormous list of supplies out to this remote area of Kenya.  I was worried about losing some of the items along the way (especially the oxalic acid powder, bundle of electronic sensors, and smokers), but it all made it to the final destination.

When arriving at the camp where Wilbur is stationed, I was greeted the happiest beekeeper in Kenya.  Wilbur could not believe the quality of all the equipment and the generosity of the many people who donated towards this idea.  Wilbur immediately donned one of the new suits and said that he could never find anything close to this kind of quality, even in Nairobi!  Much of the Kenyan equipment is hand-made by other beekeepers in the area, and it’s often difficult to find high quality equipment.

Jon and Wilbur with all the equipment

The suits that I brought are made by Mann Lake, and are full body, vented suits.  Being vented was a huge requirement for Kenya because of the heat.  When you work with bees, you tend to sweat a lot anyway, and having a canvas suit in 90 degree weather is not going to be comfortable.  The vented suits help a lot by being made with a sandwich of rubber webbing and netting.  Although bulky, and spacesuit-like, they also double being completely “bee proof” by creating a pocket of air that stings cannot get through.

Once the equipment was unpacked and inventoried, we gathered Wilbur’s new team of beekeepers.  Each beekeeper was responsible for a small apiary in a different location within Kuku Ranch and this was their first beekeeping experience.  Until that point, Wilbur had the only beekeeping suit in the area, so he was the only one to maintain all 11 hives in their apiaries.

The Kuku Ranch Beekeeping Team

We started the day with some basics about bee biology and beekeeping techniques.  Since a PowerPoint deck would probably put the team to sleep, I kept things very simple, and used pictures and drawings to demonstrate things that I couldn’t show in person. My drawings were pretty terrible, but I think this worked well, and was a very effective learning technique for the group.

Learning all about bees

Before we all suited up I walked everyone through the most difficult part of beekeeping, starting the smoker.  Unlike in Seattle, the ground is chock full of useful burning materials for the smoker.  We found that the best smoke was produced with some dried Zebra poop, which was plentiful.

Hardest part of beekeeping is lighting the smoker
The team inspects a hive

With smokers lit, we were ready to enter the hive.  At least, I thought I was ready.  Nothing could really prepare me for the angry wrath of bees that were about to be unleashed upon me.  This was a new experience for me!

European bees don’t do this.  The bees I have come to know and love will look up at me from their frame and sit patiently while I muck around in their hive.  The “African Bee” is a different story.  These girls are the most aggressive bees I have ever seen.  As soon as I opened the hive, there was a signal released for “All hands to battle stations!”.  Nurse bees, field bees, young bees, old bees; No matter their role, all bees are now guarding the hive.  Smoke does pretty much nothing to calm them, and they are out to stop whatever is attacking their hive.  I quickly learned why these were nicknamed “Killer Bees”.

So many bees!
Super full of honey…and bees

Thankfully the suits, boots, and gloves all provided use the maximum amount of protection against the onslaught of bees.  We all got stung at least once, but only when we would bend over, causing the mask to briefly brush up against our faces.  That is exactly what the bees were waiting for and would get you every time.  We made a game out of reminding each other to be careful every time we bent over.  I only got one sting in the neck, but out of the tens of thousands of attempted stings, I’m pretty happy with that outcome.

In our hands-on beekeeping session, the team and I were able to open each hive and look for signs of disease and harvest any honey that was ready.  In the end, it turned that there were at least 50 frames of capped honey that needed harvesting, so we had quite the bounty on our first day.

Frame of capped honey, ready for processing

With all the harvested honey and comb we had a lot of processing work to do in the kitchen.  First we had to get all the bees off our suits, so we could take them off.  To do this, we walked around for about 20 minutes, smoking one another, to try and get all the bees off.  This was mildly effective and we eventually got all our suits off without any straggler bees coming after us.  This was an unexpected challenge of doing beekeeping with these bees.  Had we gone directly back to the camp, there would have been a lot of upset staff pulling stingers out and giving us dirty looks.

With our suits removed we went into the kitchen to start processing all the honey we harvested.  Using the buckets and strainers that we purchased, we were able to use the “crush” technique to harvest the honey, so we could keep all the wax.

Honey extraction

As we waited for the honey to strain, we moved on to processing the beeswax.  This is a similar process to straining the honey and involves melting it down, and running it through a strainer to remove the impurities from the wax.  At home I use a crock pot to melt my wax, but here they use a wood-burning stove for all their cooking needs.  It was interesting to see how they use this stove and how they are able to control the heat from it.  Once were able to get a block of pure beeswax, we could start use it in other recipes.

Melting wax with a wood-burning stove

Tourism is a huge industry in this area and it provides an opportunity for this group of Maasai to sell local honey and wax products.  Having experimented with these recipes before coming to Kenya, and coming along with a digital scale, I showed the team how to make lotion bars and lip balm from their beeswax.

Making lotion bars

This was a huge eye-opening moment for the team.   I could see the gears turning in their heads as they realized how easy it was to turn honeycomb into various products.  Wilbur mentioned that processing the wax is an excellent job for some of the women in the community to get involved with.  They could invent different scents to add into the products, design packaging, and come up with new wax recipes that utilize the local available resources.  The new opportunities discussed among the team started to flow like honey.

All in all, the project was a huge success, and everyone went home that night with a new beekeeping suit, new knowledge, and new opportunities.  As I left, Wilbur personally thanked me for everything I had done for him, his team, and his community.  This meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to me to be able to do this.  I felt as though I learned just as much about bees as Wilbur did on this day, and I now have a new appreciation for how calm and gentle European bees are compared to African bees.

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A day at the Bee Maven Nursery

The new hives that I installed earlier this year have been hard at work creating a new wax comb to live in.  The workers between the ages of about 5-15 days old will excrete wax from their abdomen, which they will form into the hexagon shape of the comb.

Honeybees have somehow figured out that this shape is both structurally sound, and takes the least amount of wax out of any other shape to create.  The bees use the cells they create in the wax to store honey, pollen, and young eggs and pupa, as they mature into adult bees.

As a beekeeper, you can learn a lot about your hive by taking a quick look at a few frames.  By looking at a frame and seeing how the bees are using the various cells, it call tell you whether they are focusing on making new food, increasing the size of the hive, or if there is a problem.

If you’re lucky, the queen will present herself to you on a frame you have removed.  This is not something a beekeeper should expect each time they go into a hive.  The Queens are wiley and elusive, so it can be very difficult to find her when you want to.  When you finally do get to see her, it’s quite a treat!

She is often found freely moving about a frame of freshly laid eggs, and sticking her head into cells to examine it for cleanliness.  If she deems the cell to be clean and polished, she will stick her abdomen in, and lay an egg.

When she lays, she decides whether she wants to lay a fertilized or an unfertilized egg.  The fertilized eggs will create new female worker bees, and the unfertilized eggs will create new male drones.  Typically the queen lays the drone cells on the bottom of a frame, in larger cells that resemble bullets, rather than the cells that are more flush with the comb, which baby worker bees live in.

The queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs in a day, and about 1,000,000 in her lifetime!  That’s a lot of bees from just one mother, so it’s important to have strong queens that can live 4 or more years, and lots of good food to feed all those new mouths!

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The Varroa Destructor

Mite next to bee

The Varroa Mite is currently one of the biggest contributors to hive death over the winters.  The mites weaken the hive by attaching to individual bees, and sucking hemolymph out of them.  Similar to the way a tick can transfer West Nile Virus to a human, the mite infects the bees with various diseases and viruses.

The impact of a weakened hive is that they do not survive the harsh winter season.  Typically, a “skeleton crew” of bees are left to keep the queen warm, and fed over the cold winter months.  If these attendants become sick and die, nobody is left to care for the queen, and she dies too.

The mite problem is so bad, that every hive in North America is expected to die from Varroa Mites within 3 years.  This means that if a beekeeper is not proactive and vigilant with their fight against Varroa, they will inevitably lose the hive.

One technique to fight against them to use chemicals that specifically target a bug, on another bug’s back.  There is some crazy chemistry involved, and once a frame is treated, it is a permanent process, and the honey from that frame should never be consumed.

A less harsh method is to use “soft chemicals” such as Thymol or Formic Acid.  These softer chemicals leave little, to no residue on the comb and honey, making them usable for consumption.

A third technique, which we use a Bee Maven, is to use natural methods of treatment.  This idea is based on the knowledge that the mites reproduce in the male, or drone cells of the comb.  If you purposely create a break in the cycle of drone cells, then it can severely decrease the number of mites in the hive.

Regardless of the technique used in mite treatment, the most important step you can take as a beekeeper is to observe and document what’s going on in the hive.  Knowing the right timing and frequency of treatment is critical to the survival of a hive.

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2014 Social Purpose Corporation Annual Report


The state requirements for Social Purpose Corporations is to file a yearly report to discuss the actions taken by the corporation towards the social purpose that the company was founded upon.

In the case of Bee Maven, we were founded with the social purpose to help the honeybees by finding homes for them within the community.  This idea benefits the bees, the customer, and the community as a whole.  The bees get a safe place to forage from, the customer gets honey from the hive, and the community gets pollination for all fruits and flowers in a 3-mile radius of the hive.

For 2014, Bee Maven was just starting up.  Most of the time was spent researching about beekeeping, and finding the best business model to support this new type of service.  In addition, Bee Maven made a large purchase for beehive equipment in preparation for the creation of a new apiary in Gig Harbor, during spring of 2015.

Other activities included participation in local non-profit beekeeper association meetings (PSBA), mite research, overwintering research and bee data analysis, using cutting-edge analytic software, Qlik.

For 2015 Bee Maven intends on building an apiary in Gig Harbor that will be used to create the hives to be adopted into the community in 2016.  Although a slower process than ordering bee packages from California, this will ensure that the hives in the community are stronger, and able to last through the wet winters of this part of the country.

Although the 2014 report is a short one this year, we have a lot planned for 2015 and I am very excited to see what’s in store!


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The Queen is dead! Long live the Queen!

Queen Cage

Honey bees live and die for their queen, but what happens when the queen is dead?

They carry on.  They continue to work, build, and forage for the hive even though the outlook is bleak.  If they have eggs that are young enough, the workers can fill a cell with a special type of honey called “royal jelly”.  This royal jelly can transform a normal worker bee egg into a queen.

In my situation, the hive is brand new, and there are no eggs available to make a new queen.  Thankfully, Mike Radford from Northwest Bee Supply was in the area and was able to meetup with me to give me a new queen.

I met Mike just down the street, and he pulled a queen out of his breast pocket and handed it over. Mike always keeps a queen in his pocket, just in case a situation like this happens.  A good guy to know as a beekeeper!

The queen comes in a queen cage (seen above) that must be put into the hive for at least 4 days before releasing her.  This is so the hive has time to accept her as their new queen.

A technique I use in this video is to crush the dead queen on the new queen’s cage.  This is to simulate a fight to the death with the old queen and the dead queen’s pheromones are left on top of on the new queens pheromones.

The idea is that the workers assume this new queen showed up and killed the old queen, so they should now follow this new, more powerful, queen.

I’ll return in 4 days to pop the cork out of her cage and release her.  By that time, the pheromones she releases will have had time to propagate throughout the hive, and she will be the new queen.  Long live Queen Sunny II!




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What is Bee Maven?


Bee Maven is a new type of service that will bring the joys and excitement of beekeeping to your home.  You will have your own honey beehive placed on your property and cared for by an experienced beekeeper.

In exchange for providing a healthy home for the hive to prosper, the hive will provide to you a source of local honey and wax products.  Keep it for yourself, or or share your personalized honey with your close friends.

By having a beehive on your property, you are helping  the entire community by allowing all plants in a 3-mile radius to be pollinated by one of the most efficient pollinators on the planet.   Supercharge backyard gardens and fruit trees each year with abundant blooms and bountiful harvests with a year-round a pollinator source.

The service guarantees the hive, so if yours dies, we can replace it at no additional cost.  Normally a dead-out can cost upwards of $130 to replace each spring. 

In order to make this guarantee work, Bee Maven hives must be maintained and documented by a trained Bee Maven Beekeeper.  Each hive inspection is thoroughly documented using cutting-edge beekeeping technologies, and is used to create a Bee Health Plan that will keep your hive healthy and prosperous each year.

The service cost is still being finalized, but there will be an initial deposit for the equipment and bees, followed by a recurring monthly payment for the maintenance.  Upon launch of the service, I will be looking for customers in the Southern Puget Sound area that are willing to adopt the first hives in 2016.