As I mentioned in my very first post, I did not jump into beekeeping lightly. I did
way too much a lot of preparation beforehand. I went to beekeeping workshops and club meetings, talked to apiarists, read a honey bee biology textbook cover-to-cover, picked my mentor’s brain, and consumed countless blog posts and YouTube videos.
So when I woke up Wednesday morning and got in my car for the two-hour drive to pick up my bees, naturally I realized I have no idea what I am doing.
That’s what it felt like, anyway. My single hands-on experience with someone’s established colonies didn’t seem at all sufficient preparation for working with my very own live bees. Over the past few months I’ve had plenty of anxiety dreams about this endeavor – my brain is talented that way – but none of my trepidation really measured up to the imminent reality of what was about to happen. I was excited too, of course; it isn’t an exaggeration to say that I’ve been waiting years for this to happen! But the more I’ve learned about beekeeping, the more I have developed a vast appreciation for the knowledge and skill it takes to successfully manage a hive.
And I am about to do that?!?
The drive was uneventful, except for eating a doughnut that I really didn’t need. (Let’s call this consumption of sugar an act of solidarity with my new bees, mmkay? Hey, ladies, you like sugar? What a coincidence! So do I! We’ll get along great!) When I reached the apiary, I discovered – to my delight – that I got to choose my very own package of bees.
The sound of buzzing from dozens of packages of bees was hypnotic and soothing. It’s just as well for my driving safety that I couldn’t hear my single package at all, after it was stored in the back of the car underneath the sun shade.
I’m very pleased to report, incidentally, that this box was indeed 100% bee-tight. There were no escapees, as Highway Patrol between Nashville and Memphis can attest. I was a little more careful than usual to stick to the speed limit, because while a part of me would love to find out if, “Sorry, officer, I didn’t mean to speed, but my car is full of bees” will get you out of a ticket, that’s also a conversation with the potential to turn a little awkward.
When I got home I gave the gang some time to settle while I set up my bottom board and hive bodies. I intended to use a no-shake method to install my bees in the hive, but I discovered pretty quickly that I had a little problem. Not a big problem, but… in the fall, I made a strategic decision about my equipment that now mattered.
Time for a digression.
In a Langstroth hive — the type of modern beekeeping hive I think it’s safe to say most Western beekeepers use — hive bodies are the boxes used by bees to raise their brood. Ideally, the queen stays here, laying eggs in empty cells. (There are a couple of different approaches to keeping the queen in the hive bodies. Which method is best is one of those things experienced beekeepers seem to genuinely enjoy arguing about.) Workers will store some honey and pollen in the hive bodies too, but mostly, these frames are full of developing bees. Hive bodies are distinct from honey supers, stacked on top and only accessed by workers for honey and pollen storage storage. Keeping the queen out of the honey supers is really, really important, unless you like bee larvae in your honey. (Tequila worms are one thing, but honey worms? No, thank you.)
There is no actual structural difference between a hive body and a honey super. The difference is purely in how the bees are utilizing them. However, these boxes do vary in their width and their depth. Eight-frame boxes are wide enough to hold (as the name suggests) eight wooden frames of honeycomb suspended vertically within the box. Ten-frame boxes…. well, I’ll let you guess. There are four depths available, conveniently named “deep,” “medium,” “shallow,” and … okay, “comb super” is the shallowest box, because somebody had to be a rebel and buck the trend.
All of my boxes — what will become hive bodies and what will become honey supers — are medium 8-frame boxes, which puts them on the small side, compared to what a lot of beekeepers choose to use. This was a deliberate decision on my part – related largely to how many pounds I’m confident I can lift, especially when some of those pounds may be covered in bees. However, here’s where this information becomes relevant:
In the no-shake package installation method, you remove the queen and deal with her, and then simply close the open package box into your hive body with some frames, and let the remaining 11,999 bees1 (give or take a few thousand) make their own way out of the package. You come back a few days later and remove the now-empty box.
However, a three-pound package of bees is taller than a medium hive body.
You can’t put a lid on that.
So my options were:
- Add a second medium hive body, leave the open package in that, and leave the bees with a whole lot of empty space. Bees left with empty space move to the top, and start building comb.
- Make like Taylor Swift, and shake it off.
Always be yourself, unless you can be Taylor Swift … and then, always be Taylor Swift. Right?
Although – truthfully – I don’t like the term “shake” for this process. It’s a lot less violent than that sounds. It turns out that when you spray them down with sugar syrup, honey bees take on surprisingly liquid properties: They are pourable. So… yes. I turned a box full of bees upside down and dumped them unceremoniously into their new home. I could describe this process, but I will instead refer you to this video of Trevor Qualls installing package bees2. He is a lot more graceful about the whole business than I was, and the video really illustrates how laid back the bees are about the process of being tumped into a strange box.
Unlike Trevor, I was in a full suit. I also don’t mind admitting I was shaking a little with nerves the entire time. I was anticipating the possibility of being stung, of course, but I was a lot more nervous about killing my queen by accident. The queen is shipped in her own tiny queen cage (suspended in the center of the big package) with a couple of attendants. If you order a marked queen like I did, she arrives with a colored spot on her back that matches all other queens hatched and mated that year. For 2018, that color is red.
The white stuff in the left-hand side of the cage is sugar candy, and beyond the candy is a tiny cork, which I removed before installing the queen cage in the hive. The idea is that once the cork is out, the queen will eat the candy from one side, the workers from the other, and over the course of several days, she lets herself out. By that time, the rest of the hive is used to her scent, and (usually) everybody gets along.
I suspended the queen cage by attaching a couple of nails to it with rubber bands, to make sure it won’t fall and block her exit. I didn’t take any pictures of that, but it looked like this:
So in she goes…
and in the bees go on top of her…
And then… I made my first tactical error.
I’m using a hive-top feeder, which is essentially another hive box that holds sugar syrup in a big reservoir. The bees can access it right from inside the hive by crawling into a wire mesh cavity, so they can’t get into the liquid and drown – at least in theory. Some beekeepers swear by them, and others don’t like them at all. (I’m not sure I’m going to love them, either, but we’ll see.) The hive-top feeder sits on top of the hive body, and then the inner cover and outer cover sit on top of that.
I should have filled the feeder and put a cover on it before I was standing in a cloud of bees. Yes? Uh. Yes. Very yes. Unfortunately, the best way to minimize the damage was to go on and cover it up. To the handful of bees I consigned to a sugary doom: This clumsy new-bee humbly apologizes.
In fact, my activity-to-crushed-bee ratio was, in general, higher than I’d like. It’s certainly a reason to go into the hive only when necessary, with a clear plan and as little extra disturbance as required to get the job done. I trust the collateral damage factor will decrease with time. Every little life lost saddens me, even if there are
11999 11980 more. Y’all may really just not want to read this blog when I have to destroy my first queen. I can’t promise there won’t be a Viking bee funeral for my tiny warrior queen, with a matchbox-sized pyre floating in the birdbath…
(Did I just waste five minutes reading about Vikings and beekeeping and mead? You bet I did.)
Ahem. So, anyway: Within a few hours, the flying bees had settled, and the remaining bees that I hadn’t gotten out of the package had migrated from there to the hive. And that’s where I left things last Wednesday. Next time, I’ll talk about my three-day check on Saturday (which, yes, has technically already happened – but I’m playing blog post catch-up). No spoilers!
But I will say this: I keep going out back to marvel at the box of flying, stinging insects that I have willingly placed in my yard. Sometimes I’m a little scared. So many things could go wrong… heck, so many things will go wrong. That’s part of the learning process. I’m not looking forward to that bit! But mostly, what I feel is awe and happiness. Bees are amazing, and they just get more amazing as I learn about them…. and there’s a hive full of them in my yard. A few times a day, I go watch them with fascination. I listen to the low, soothing hum that I can hear early in the morning, when the neighborhood is quiet and they’re all still tucked into the hive. I’m facing what’s ahead with trepidation and a healthy respect for the amount of learning I have to do. I’m terrified! And so, so excited.
I am officially a beekeeper!
1Credit where credit is due: My friend’s son heard I was getting 12,000 bees (a generous estimate of the contents of a three-pound package) and immediately envisioned bringing them home and counting them. “…Hey! There are only 11,998 bees here! I want a refund!”
2Fun fact: Trevor’s video – and the forty-five minutes Trevor generously gave me on the phone last November – are what convinced me that not only could I install a package of bees instead of ordering a nuc3, but that bees operated by an often-predictable set of biological rules, and that learning bee biology is the key to predicting bee behavior. (Bee-havior?) “Wait,” I said to myself. “Beekeeping is biology? I can do biology! Okay, I’m in.” Thank you, Trevor.
3A “nuc” is a nuclear hive. Instead of installing a package like I did, which means the queen and workers have to start manufacturing new bees from scratch, you can buy a tiny, tiny five-frame hive with a small population of workers, a laying queen, and brood already developing. To install a nuc, you just move the frames into your full-size hive bodies. Nucs are simpler and get you a quicker start than package bees, but are more expensive and must be ordered well in advance.