beekeeping honeybees

Diving into the Deep End

For anyone that has ever thought of facing their worst nightmare, may I suggest two things:

1) Have a mentor of some sort.

2) Make sure you actually want to go through with it.

I was lucky to have half of that going for me. Thanks to the wonderful folks at BANV, I was assigned a fantastic mentor who is about the best you can ask for. P, for short, has been keeping bees for over 30 years and lives about 10 minutes from my apiary (aka bee yard). She’s smart, funny, and can zip through a “brass tacks” inspection in record time. (Brass Tacks, by the way, refers to going all the way to the bottom of something, in this case the hive, where the “brass tacks” would be located. Don’t worry, we’ll scrabble a glossary together at some point).

The main reason why P is such a great mentor, however, is her willingness to allow me to baby-step along the way. Soon after being assigned to her, she asked if I wanted to help her inspect the three dead-out hives which, as we discovered, had died due to a combination of varroa mites (evil incarnate) and starvation. Apparently a lot of keepers lost hives this past winter to starvation because during the sudden cold snaps, the bees refused to move off the comb where the brood (babies) were to get more food. It’s like a catch-22 where if they’d moved, the brood would have died, yet not going into the upper stories of the hive where the honey was meant death. It was quite a site to see thousands of dead bees on the bottom of a hive and hundreds of corpses more head-first in a honey cell especially since it meant they had chosen to starve rather than leave the larvae to freeze.

As morose as inspecting a dead-out hive may sound, it’s actually a perfect first step for a near-phobia-wanna-be-beekeeper. After the initial uneasiness of approaching and opening the hive, I became fascinated with how it was put together and all the inner workings that made it tick. Since the inhabitants were dead, there was little threat and, sick as it sounds, that put me at ease. P let me practice pulling out frames (individual wooden slats with beeswax foundations that the bees use for babies, honey, pollen storage, etc) and practice cleaning beeswax and propolis (the bee’s version of caulk) off the wooden ware.

By the time we got to her live hive, I was feeling a little better about things. We did a brass tacks inspection, weighed it (it was on an industrial sized scale), and boogied out. I may have smoked them a few dozen times too many, but I was pretty proud of myself for not screaming. P then asked if I wanted to help her install the new bees whenever they arrived. Without thinking, I said yes.

A few weeks later, she invited me over to help her install two new packages of Italians. At that point, I was enjoying the beginner beekeeping course, but still unsure about whether or not I was going to pull the trigger on becoming a keeper myself. Since I was waffling, it made sense to assist her. If there was ever a test to see if it was something doable, this was it. Better to jump into the deep end and sink or swim than never jump at all.

I’ll say this now, The Girlfriend surprised the heck out of me when I told her what my plans were for that Saturday. Not only did she encourage such a hair-brained idea, but begged to come along and watch. It took several times of me asking, “Are you suuuuure?” before I realized she really was. And so it was on a bright, chilly March morning (my birthday, in fact) that The Girlfriend and I headed to P’s to play with her B’s.

(see previous post regarding puns)

When we arrived, P had a bunch of her spare hive parts around her garage which we were able to inspect and tinker with. Then P pulled out her spare gear and The Girlfriend asked to suit up as well. What’s great is that even though she only had a veil, she was fine with it. So there we were, P in her bee-Kevlar, me in a half-jacket, and the GF with only her “going out” outfit and a veil. Without missing a step we sauntered out into P’s apiary.

Packages of bees tend to come in wooden boxes nearly double the size of a shoebox. There are screens on either side, a large can of food (generally a sugar syrup mix), and a small, separate box with the queen and her attendants. In the middle of all this is approximately 11,000 buzzing, hungry bees.
Some people have packages mailed to their local post office, which I’m sure is a lot of fun for the postal clerks, but the majority pick them up from bee wranglers. These ladies and gents drive down to places like Georgia with large trailers and pick up hundreds of packages to bring back to beekeepers in their area. The sight, and sound, of a truck full of bees is pretty amazing.
There’s plenty of literature out there for how to install a package of bees, so I won’t bore you with the details. I do, however, highly encourage anyone interested to either help or, at the least, watch. You’d be surprised how easy it is and how gentle the bees really are.
You’ll also be surprised at how quickly your heart can beat, especially when your mentor tells you to bang the corner of the package of bees on the ground in order to “knock all the girls to one end.”
Me: “I’m sorry. What?”
P: “Bang the corner. It’ll knock them all to one end so you can shake them into the hive.”
Me: “You want me to slam a box of 11,000 bees, with stingers, on the ground and then shake them into the hive like I’m sifting sand?”
P: “Yup.”
Long story short, I did as directed. It was not only a whole lot of fun, but also a gigantic eye-opener to the personality of bees. One thing I learned is that once you spray them with sugar syrup, it’s a whole lot easier to shake them into the hive. And yes, shaking 11,000 bees into a hive was probably the best part.

What’s interesting is that it took us a lot less time than I thought and before we knew it, we were done and headed back to P’s garage. The GF had participated in a lot of the evolution, had taken some photos, and generally enjoyed an afternoon of laughing at me while I whimpered and cursed trying to get bees into the hive. P, for her part, had been great with her advice and guidance, always offering help but allowing me to slowly complete a task.

Below are a number of important lessons I learned which are worth noting:

1) Packages of bees are easy to install, but take longer to “grow” than a nucleus colony. Beginners may want to think about a nuc for their first hive(s) since it is essentially a mini-hive worth of bees and queen already hard at work. I wound up choosing a nuc and have had zero hiccups. And it was even easier than a package.

2) Packages tend to consist of a queen and 10,000-12,000 bees, many times from different hives. Bees are shaken into the box from hives and a queen box with attendants added. Because of that, sometimes the bees refuse to accept the queen since she doesn’t smell like “mom”. They may kill or roll her (kick her out), in which case you have to get a new one in asap. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with package bees, though, because most times they accept her, but the chance exists that they may not. Just keep it in mind.

3) Bees are the most gentle when you’re installing them. Since they don’t know the hive is home yet, they are less interested in defending it. That’s not to say they still won’t sting you if you crush one (like P did), but they are very passive and easy to handle. And, if you spray them with sugar syrup before shaking them, there will be less bees flying around you. Just don’t over do it.

4) Packaged bees tend to take “cleansing flights”. This is because they have been “holding it” for several days and really need to “go”. If it’s chilly, they will land, and subsequently defecate, on your nice, clean, bee suit.

5) Bee poop stains.

6) Bees are not aggressive nor do they want to sting anyone. Although they can sting another insect multiple times with no adverse affect, stinging a mammal is fatal. Because of this, honeybees will run from you in the wild and will normally only sting while defending the hive (i.e. during a major honey flow) or if you crush them. Be careful and watch where your hands are while handling them to avoid this.

7) Bees willingly die trying to protect their young. Ask almost anyone who lost hives this last winter and they’ll tell you about it. There is something awe-inspiring about an insect that is willing to starve to death in order to keep the babies warm.

8) Beekeepers are odd. They fall in love with bugs that carry weapons, swoon over and care for them like babies, and cry when they leave or die. They talk incessantly about their passion to anyone who will listen and worry constantly about their “girls”. Given the short period of time I’ve had with a hive of my own, I completely understand.

9) Girlfriends that support you even though you are one of those odd beekeeper types are worth their weight in gold.
10) Childhood phobias are both debilitating and 100% worth getting over.

In then end, I had a lot of fun, learned a ton about bees, and felt a lot better about tackling the backyard science of beekeeping.

It was one of the best birthday presents ever.

(Author left, GF right)

(Author about to pull the food can out of the package)

(The GF and Author with the package fully installed. Victory!)

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