“Take me to your leader,” I want to say when I step out in my bee suit.
I feel compelled to move in slow motion, like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.
But for all that it looks dramatic, a bee suit is really nothing more than a stiff jumpsuit made of canvas. The gloves and headpiece are all you truly need to work with bees, and even then, you end up taking the gloves off because the thick leather fingers make it hard to get a hold of the closely spaced honey files in the hive.
I’ve been working with my bees for a year now and I’ve yet to be stung. They get plenty mad, mostly because I am clumsy and slow when working in the hive, due to my lack of experience. The bees swarm around me and make a racket, but they haven’t successfully stung me. A few have tried, but I’m a weenie who suits up before doing anything serious with the bees, so they can’t get to me. Occasionally, I sneak a peek or walk over to feed them wearing shorts, but I don’t open the hive without being prepared for attack. I suppose, the more familiar you get with your bees, the less likely you are to bother with the suit – then you are bound to get the occasional sting.
I received the 6 pounds of bees I ordered in January this week. There happened to be another double order at the post office awaiting pickup . I thought it remarkable that someone else had placed the exact same order from the exact same company. There are hundreds of bee supply companies to choose from and people usually order one swarm, not two. Apparently I have a neighbor who is toying with bees at the same speed I am. Wish I would run into them one day.
When I drove to the Post office to pick the package up, the post master, Vicki, said, “I thought you’d come in a truck. Few people pick up bees in the car.”
“Oh?” Of course, I didn’t know that. This is my first bee package after all. I sort of shrugged like I was brave and cool and loaded the box in the back of my van wondering if I would regret it.
Driving home, several loose bees swooped around my head. I wasn’t bothered by them. Ever since I began working with the insects, I’ve felt calm around them. I trust nature and feel very in tune with my animals, no matter how small. Mark says they are my surrogate students, and I think he’s right. I lay in bed worrying about their health and happiness in the same way I used to loose sleep pondering my student’s successes and failures. I get frustrated with my animals but because I care, it passes quickly. Yes – I see the similarities.
Anyway, I got the bee package home and set up my two new hives. I had planned to set the new bees in a different area, but as I was situating the concrete blocks to hold the hives, I noticed my guineas hanging about. Guineas will eat bees and they can clean out an entire hive in two days. Obviously I had to rethink my plan, so I ended up putting the new bees with my established hive out near my blue berry bush . I’ll move them all in the fall (which is a big ordeal, because you have to move the hives 5 miles away and keep them away for a month before returning to your land even if all you want to do is move them a foot from their original position. If you don’t, you’ll have a bucket of dead bees on the ground where your hive once stood.)
Mark would prefer my bees not be situated at the entrance of our land, because no one will mow around the hives and we have this nice cared for lawn area except in the corner where the hives are nestled in overgrowth. It looks as if the forest is trying to swallow the boxes whole. If he would teach me to use a weedwacker, I’d go take care of the area myself. Gee wiz, bees are only quarter inch insects with feet sweetened by honey. Why is everyone so worried about them? They are far too busy gathering pollen to want to mess with humans.
I was slightly frustrated getting my bee package into the hive, because I couldn’t figure out how to open it.
I first had to jam on it with a hammer to separate the two packages. Then, I pried open the top of one and there was a can wedged in the opening. I wasn’t expecting that. I pulled on a tag thinking that was going to lift the can, but it simply pulled away and I heard a thunk in the cage. Oops. Turns out this was connected to the queen’s cage and now she was laying at the bottom of 40K bees. I had to lift her out without squishing her soldiers, which I couldn’t do with my clumbsy gloves – so I ended up taking off my gloves and picking up the cage with my bare hand. This had about a hundred bees crawling on my skin in a second. A gentle blow and a shake the bees fell back to the hive, but dozens were flying about my head. Now, I had no way to secure my queen’s cage in the hive. Dammit. Meanwhile, the buzzing of thousands of bees growing ever more agitated grew deafening. I wedged the queen cage between two frames and hoped it wouldn’t fall to the floor again.
When I got the can wedged out of the opening, which turned out to be bee food. Of course, I had no can opener to actually take advantage of this. I shook 3 pounds of bees on top of the hive. I had sprayed them with sugar water, so they wouldn’t just fly away. They fell from their cage like rice pouring from a package and huddled on top, then crawled in after their queen.
I’m afraid I squished quite a few as I put the lid on – again, lack of experience. For all that learning new things is gratifying, it always comes with some degree of frustration, because being a novice makes you feel like a bumbling idiot. I feel that a lot in my life now.
The second package went smoother. I knew what to expect now. I didn’t pull on the tab, so this queen’s cage came out intact and could be hung center as it should be. I shook the bees up good to make them dizzy and plopped them onto the hive. I waited longer for them to crawl inside so I wouldn’t squish them unnecessarily. By now, I was feeling very comfortable working with the hive and I swear they could sense my calm. They were not nearly as buzzing mad as the first group.
The next day, I went to check to be sure my bees were inside the hives. Occasionally, a new swarm will simply fly away. But when the queen is secured in a cage, the bees will stay to care for her through the cage’s screen. The bees are supposed to eat the candy plug that holds her inside and free her within a day. When I checked, both my queens were still captive. So, I took a screwdriver and popped the cork so she could crawl out into the hive. In one night, the bees had made a good start of building honeycomb, so I’m convinced they plan to stay. Neva stood a few feet away to watch. I held several frames up to show her the new comb and how it was swarming with bees . She was fascinated. I’m guessing she’ll be needing a bee suit soon. I know that look in her eye – curiosity will override her fear before you know it – especially the more she sees me working with the bees without incident.
I paid an extra dollar to have my queens marked. They are painted with a little red dot. This allows me to locate my leaders easily whenever I open the hive. A queen is a bigger insect and not too hard to spot, but when you have 80K bees crawling around and eyes as old as mine, it is nice to have a cheat sheet dot. I carried the cage over to Neva so she could see the queen before releasing her. She reached out as if she wanted to touch it, then drew back. Yes, it is only a matter of time before my curious little nature lover joins me.
It will be a year before these new hives will be established enough to provide honey to harvest. The bees will work hard, but their efforts this season will be towards building new comb and storing food for the winter. In the fall, I’ll make my first awkward attempt at taking the honey from my established hive. I should harvest about 10 pounds – more than enough for this family. This will be my practice year – next season, when the three hives are all in full swing, hopefully I’ll be better at honey harvesting – for I’ll be seasoned as well.
Here is my little bee apairy – not so impressive, but it’s exciting to me. Each hive will grow taller as the season progresses and I add supers (the boxes that hold the frames) for the hive to expand.
Keeping bees doesn’t take much time and it’s a really unique experience. When I discover things like this (like making wine) I always wonder why I didn’t do it in Florida. I could have made the time and it may would have given me the diversion from dance I so desperately craved. Of course, it never occurred to me to diversify my life then. Would have been good for me, though. Might have stalled my cracking up.
I guess, everything has its time. You have to trust in that. . . or else go crazy.