This is a very very long post, so please grab a cup of tea and join me as I tell you about our latest venture. I'll start by telling you a little story.
Many years ago when we lived in Oregon, I worked as a seasonal field biologist. I spent much of my summers tramping through the woods surveying various critters.
It was inevitable that occasional accidents would happen in the woods. My turn came during one of the worst yellow-jacket summers on record. I stepped on two yellow jacket nests about a week apart and was stung a total of sixteen times from those encounters.
Thankfully I didn't have any allergic reactions to the stings, but I developed an enormous phobia toward any stinging insect. I panicked whenever a yellow jacket or wasp got in the house. It was hard to pick fruit because there were yellow jackets or wasps all over the place.
Over the years that phobia has calmed considerably. I'm still wary, but I no longer panic.
This is a roundabout way of explaining why, for so long, I've avoided the idea of keeping bees. Academically I know bees behave totally differently from wasps or hornets. I know that. But I was still juuuust nervous enough about stinging insects in general that I didn't want bees.
Until last year.
With our gardening efforts improving, and as part of our preparedness efforts in general, bees started looking like a better and better endeavor. Pollination, honey, wax -- it's a triple-win situation... if I could get over the phobia.
Because I am so ignorant of these remarkable insects, I decided to maximize our chances for keeping our hives successfully (bee die-offs have become legion lately). So I registered for a beginning beekeeping class put on by the Inland Empire Beekeeping Association.
It was an intense eight-hour class, purely academic, which took place in mid-February. The Association also sponsors four "field days" scattered throughout the year, where participants get hands-on experience caring for hives.
The class was packed with about 100 students from all over the region. I was pleased to see the intense interest in beekeeping from so many people.
The class left with the expectation we would meet again on "package day." A "package" of bees is three (or sometimes four) pounds of bees and a queen, packaged in a special screened box. Before getting our packages, of course, we had to have the equipment in place for the bees.
We found a beekeeping supply store called Sweet & Simple Apiaries about an hour's drive away from us. We visited and purchased all kinds of equipment (cha-ching!). We knew in advance we would be experiencing sticker shock, and made sure we had enough "sticker" with us.
But this place had everything we needed to start the two hives we had planned (including ordering two four-pound packages of "Carny" bees). We got the basic amount of equipment for two hives: "deeps," frames, supers, a smoker, a bee brush, a hive tool, a bee suit and gloves, etc.
Then we waited for our bees. Rather than join the "package day" on April 11 through the class, we opted to wait two weeks longer and did a "package day" on April 25 through the Apiary where we ordered our bees and purchased the equipment.
Meanwhile Don built a rock-solid platform just the right size to hold two hives...
...which he painted white.
As Package Day got closer, we prepped the hives...
...and moved them into position in the garden. (We later took the supers off since they aren't needed yet.)
At this point the hives and frames were squeaky-clean.
At last came the Big Day when we went to pick up our two "packages" of bees. It was very wet on the way there.
We arrived around 3 pm and were among the last to pick up our bees. Some 200 people were before us, arriving in groups of about 20 at staggered half-hour intervals throughout the day. Each hour, the beekeeper would transfer another package to one of his own hives in order to show the novices how it was done. Here are some of the hives.
Here's what a "package" looks like -- one queen (in a special little inside cage) and about about 10,000 workers. There's a can of sugar-water inside the cage as well, to feed everyone.
There were bees everywhere. Because nobody was attached to a hive, none were aggressive.
Here are our two four-pound packages of ladies, in the back of the truck.
With a cluster of about ten novices around him, the beekeeper demonstrated how to transfer a package to a hive. He started by removing all but two or three frames from the hive.
Then he pried off the metal can of sugar water inserted into the box and withdrew the queen cage, capping the box with a small piece of wood to keep the rest of the bees from coming out.
This is the little queen cage, complete with a small metal hook.
He inserted the queen cage so the hook hung down between frames, and the cage was tucked (facing forward) against a frame. The cage is plugged and the bees feed the queen through the mesh, becoming familiar with her scent (since she isn't related to them).
Then he opened the top of the package cage and literally dumped the clustered bees into the hive. And I mean dumped. To get all the stray bees into the hive, he banged the box on the ground and dumped again, banged and dumped, banged and dumped, until most of the bees were inside the hive.
The bees stay clustered because they're disoriented, so they're easy to dump. No smoker is needed. The open package is placed next to the hive so stray bees (and there are a lot!) can find their way out of the package and into the hive.
Very carefully, one by one, he re-inserted the frames right on top the clustered bees. Because there were so many bees underneath, the frames wouldn't fit all the way down. But the beekeeper said bees are smart and get out of the way. Sure enough, as we watched, each frame sank downward as bees got out from underneath it. When it was settled in place, the beekeeper inserted another frame, until all the frames were in.
Most of the bees clustered around where the queen cage was inserted.
Then he put the lid on top.
He told us the bees should stay in the hive, undisturbed, for about two days. Then we were to lift the lid, remove a frame or two (to make room to work), remove the queen cage, remove the plug (making sure the queen doesn't escape), and replace the plug with either a sugar plug or a mini-marshmallow. Then we were to replace the queen cage. The bees will chew through the plug and release the queen. A day or two after that, he told us to remove the queen cage (making sure the queen was released), make sure the bees have food, and close the hive.
Then we were on our way with our bees, knowing we have to repeat these steps once we were on our own.
And we did. Once home, I donned the beekeeping suit, opened the hives, and did exactly as the beekeeper demonstrated.
Here's what the seething mass of clustered bees looked like, after I dumped them into the hive.
As the beekeeper showed us, I carefully slid the empty frames in on top the bees, and sure enough they sank slowly down as the bees got out of the way, until all the frames were in.
We repeated this for the second hive, replaced the covers, and left the bees alone.
By evening, there were still many small clusters of confused bees that didn't make it out of the package cage, but the vast majority were inside the hive. The beekeeper assured us not to fuss over small groups, but instead look to the hive as a whole.
It was quite chilly overnight -- a low of 31F at dawn -- and despite being told not to worry about the bees outside the hive... well, I worried about the bees outside the hive. They were frosty and miserable and I thought they were dead.
But in fact the beekeeper was right: I shouldn't have worried. The day warmed up, the bees defrosted, and most of them made it into the hives by afternoon.
Two days later, we needed to use the smoker for the first time to open the hive and replace the plug on the queen cages. I removed some of the unused frames so I could push other frames aside and make room around the queen cage.
Using needle-nosed pliers, I pulled out the small cage, which was absolutely covered with bees. These I gently brushed off with the bee brush.
The queen was alive and active. I carefully pulled the plug out...
...and covered the hole with my finger while I picked up the mini marshmallow I had ready. I used the needle-nosed pliers to stuff the hole with the marshmallow.
Then I replaced the queen cage...
...and replaced the frames. As you can see, the bees are still heavily clustered on one side where the queen is.
Then I replaced the cover, trying not to crush too many bees. I used the bee brush to scoot them away from the edges.
I repeated the process with the second hive.
Two days later (no photos, sorry) we opened the hives to remove the queen cages and confirm the queens had been released (they had). The bees were still clustered and I saw no evidence of comb-building.
We've been opening the hives twice a week and adding more sugar water to the internal feeders. New hives need to be fed until the "nectar flow" starts -- early to mid summer -- and the bees have been voraciously sucking down the syrup. The last time I opened the hives, the bees were spread out much more evenly and there was active comb-building taking place. I was so excited! I'll try to get photos next time.
So despite starting this venture scared to death of stinging insects, I must say I'm tickled to pieces to be entering the fascinating world of apiculture. We won't harvest any honey this year -- all extra stores will need to be provided to the bees for over-wintering purposes -- but our garden should benefit from the active pollination taking place.
A few weeks ago, when trimming the raspberry canes, I alluded to "an exciting new development that will boost the raspberries considerably." This new development is the bees, who apparently adore raspberry flowers.
And just look at these ladies -- aren't they beautiful?