Warning: This is a long one and probably pretty boring for those of you who aren’t obsessed with beekeeping.
When I was taking my beekeeping classes, our teacher, Jim Tunnell of Beez Neez Apiary Supplies, frequently made the distinction between “bee-havers” and beekeepers. “Bee-havers” have bees, but can’t keep them because they don’t properly take care of them. Beekeepers keep bees, and keep them happy. I have decided that it’s far too early to tell whether or not I am a beekeeper – so I will be a “bee-haver” until next spring. If my colony emerges from their winter cluster alive and well then I can consider myself a beekeeper. Anyhow, here’s how I became a “bee-haver” just last week.
The bee packages – screen-sided boxes containing inverted cans of sugar water, a queen and a few attendant bees in a smaller cage, and two to six pounds of worker bees – came in last Wednesday. I had paid for my three-pound package (the recommended size for a newbie) about a month before and ordered (almost) all my other gear from Western Bee Supplies in Montana. I had spent the previous weeks assembling my gear and carefully taping off, priming, and painting my boxes and stand and covers. As I stood in line for my package, all the assembly was complete and the final coat of paint was drying.
The traditional method of installing a package involves tucking the queen’s little cage in between a few frames in the hive and letting the workers gnaw their way through the candy plug in her cage to let her out. The guy in line in front of me asked the question I wanted to ask – how long it had been since the bees were packaged. The answer was Tuesday morning, which meant that my workers had been sniffing their queen’s pheromones for a day already. I was set on doing a direct release – which meant that I would let the queen out myself instead of waiting for the bees to do it for me. The weather has been downright abysmal lately Cliff Mass said on Weekday recently that it has been the wettest April on record) and direct release meant that I would not have to reopen the hive for a week instead of a few days. My hope was that the weather would have improved in a week.
The ride home, half an hour of windy backroads, was largely uneventful. At every stoplight and on several straightaways I craned around in my seat to look at the dark, somewhat menacing, but largely quiet box of around 10,000 live stinging insects in my back seat, just to assure myself that it was really happening. I can’t quite describe the feeling – it was a jumbled-up mixture of “This is fantastic!” and “This is insane!”
I put the package on Matt’s desk in the back room, where it’s cool (but not cold) and dark all day. Several times over the next two days I would sneak in with my hive tool (the indispensable, all-purpose beekeeping tool that looks like a miniature demo-bar) and lever the sugar syrup jar up about an eighth of an inch to evaluate its weight. It always felt very heavy, so I was sure they weren’t going to starve before I could hive them. Good thing, too. The morning after I picked up my package it snowed. Nope, not a typo – we got half an inch of snow on April 21 in between two absolutely beautiful days. When I picked up my package the temperature was in the high fifties. On Friday, when I finally hived them, it was climbing into the sixties, with the slightest of breezes.
Hiving is best done in the evening because it doesn’t give the bees much time to wander around – they just set up shop right away. By two o’clock in the afternoon I was mad with anticipation and the weather was at its peak, so I decided to get it over with. I had expressed regret to Matt that no one would be there to take pictures of the process – but now that it’s over and done I think I’m glad no one was there to watch my less than graceful maneuvers.
The hive itself – which in this case consisted of a hive stand, bottom board, one deep super (for the bees to live in), one shallow super (to surround the four-pint-jar feeder), an inner cover, and an outer cover) had been standing outside on its little concrete pad all day, getting warm in the sun. I put on my hat and veil, tucked in my shirt, pulled on my gloves, grabbed the package, and headed out to the hive, where my bee brush, hive tool, and smoker awaited. I lit my smoker, which was stuffed loosely with old burlap, and gave the package two good puffs of smoke. The buzz level, which had steadily risen since I picked up the package in the dark back room, became decidedly angry. As the underarms of my blouse darkened, I suddenly understood why other beekeepers always said that working bees was hot work. Not only is it a chore best done on a nice day, but the mere presence of 10,000 bees that I was about to piss off was raising my temperature considerably. I jacked up the sugar syrup can, which does double duty as the door to the package, and attempted to give the angry mass another puff of smoke. Nothing. The fire in the smoker was smoldering but not burning fast enough to give me smoke. Bees were beginning to escape around the can and had filled the area under it, too. If I dropped it now, a dozen or more bees would be crushed, which would release a banana-scented pheromone that would put my bees in a murderous mood. I felt suddenly like I had just crested a long hill in a high-stakes race and discovered that my brakes were failing. I was committed and unable to back out, so I took the wheel and just tried to keep her between the lines.
I proceeded with the increasingly mad-sounding steps of the procedure: smacking the package against the hive to knock the angry phalanx to the bottom; removing the bee-encrusted syrup jar; sliding out the queen cage; overturning the package and smacking it again; this time to knock the bees out. Everything has to be done in slow motion, like you’re on the moon (an impression enhanced by the absurd headgear and white, elbow-length gloves). You have to remember, despite the dense cloud of several hundred bees circling your body, to set down the (mostly-empty) package and syrup jar with extreme care to prevent crushing one of the dozens of bees clambering over their surfaces. Something I hadn’t realized until I was standing in the middle of this mess was that the slow-motion also serves to preclude (though it can’t prevent) the crushing of a clothing-clinging bee in the crook of your arm, behind a knee, or (and given that I had a lot of equipment on the ground, this was the one with which I was most concerned) at your waist as you bend over.
With the bulk of the bees now teeming on the top bars of the frames in the hive, I dislodged the cork in the end of the queen cage (which turned out to be an actual cork, and not a piece of candy, so the old-fashioned release method would have surely failed since I forgot to pick up one of the free mini-marshmallows Beez Neez was handing out) and dropped her onto her subjects. Now I had to try to ignore the cloud that was (literally) buzzing me, and all the bees climbing on me, to watch the queen crowd surfing over the surface of the hive. She was as hell-bent as me on her getting down into the frames, but the colony was definitely in mosh pit mode. I wondered if I was seeing a preview of the crowd at the Rammstein concert we’re attending next month. After five minutes of almost unblinking staring, I broke eye-contact to resurrect the fire in the smoker. A few puffs of smoke got enough workers out of Queenie’s way to let her down into the dark safety of the hive proper. I was finally able to walk (slowly) away to let a frustrated worker bee out of my veil, where she had been crawling over my glasses and bangs and buzzing against the veil unhappily, and causing me no end of distraction and perspiration.
What followed was more snail-speed work. Lowering the four-jar-feeder into the hive was the hardest part – it needed to go right where the crowd was thickest and the smoker was just about smoked out. My attempts to clear the way with my bee brush were fruitless – just as soon as I had cleared an area it was filled again. So I lowered the feeder – jars and all, to save a step – in an excruciatingly slow descent onto the frames, using just the tips of my fingers so that they didn’t wrap under the feeder, so slowly that the bees had time to squeeze out from under it at an unhurried pace – but fast enough that they couldn’t change their minds, turn around, and march back into certain death. That done, I spent a good minute and a half sliding the inner cover over the top of the super, watching bees begrudgingly get out of the way.
There was only one step left: the telescoping outer cover. Unlike the inner cover, which fits flush to the boxes, the outer cover telescopes down over the inner cover and top box, hanging over them a few inches to keep out the rain. I wasn’t sure how I was going to accomplish that – even in super-slo-mo – as I wouldn’t be able to see if the bees were getting out of the way or not – so I elected to worry about it at dusk, when everyone would be inside and I could just drop it on.
I don’t know which surprised me more when I finally got to the picnic table (100 feet that felt like a mile) and pulled off my gear – that I was shaking or that I hadn’t been stung.
It is now Tuesday the 26th Every day that has been remotely clement – even if only for a few hours – I have seen my bees zipping in and out of the top and bottom openings of the hive, working the few dandelions that constitute pretty much the total available nectar at the moment, dumping debris off the landing area, and drinking from the water that pools on the metal top of the telescoping outer cover as dew drops from the branches overhead. On Friday I suit up and crack ‘er open for my first hive inspection. I know my queen is in there, but now I have to determine that she is laying.