Thursday, June 23, 2011 ~

The (Mostly) True Confessions of a First Year Beekeeper by Carol Cook

My husband and attended the Bee School this past spring.  It has always been a vision of mine to raise bees.  Actually, that’s not strictly true.  It’s always been a dream to have my own honey.  The fact that bees make it and one has to keep bees in order to make that happen has always been something of a show stopper.

Bees and I are not typically on speaking terms.  Given that they are all ‘packing heat’ as it were, I tend to keep my distance.  But knowing that I had to get past dealing with the manufacturer to get my hands on the product, I decided that this was the year.

This was an extremely informative class.  Here are some of my favorite fascinating bee facts and myths:

The Bee Dance

Bees forage for nectar and pollen.  In nice weather, they fly out mid-morning and return mid-afternoon laden with the stuff.  Here is the amazing thing.  Once inside the hive, where, mind you it is PITCH DARK, they do a series of dances to communicate the specific location of the flowers from where they have just returned.  In this way, other bees who have not been there are able to return to the same location the very next day.

I actually witnessed the bee dance up close and personal at an observation hive in Nebraska.  To me it looked more like a few bees had stuck their little legs into an electric socket and what they were really trying to say is “Somebody call 911.  NOW.”  Good thing I am not a bee.

You will not be shocked to hear that all of the foraging bees are female.  This is probably because the bees learned early on that while the returning bees were in GPS dance mode, all of the male bees were looking over their shoulders at BSPN or whatever was on at the time.  As a result, none of the male bees had the remotest CLUE the next day as to where it was they were supposed to be going.  Naturally, and since they were too proud to admit this, they just took off with the rest, made a wrong turn and spent the rest of the day not asking for directions.  Eventually there was a gigantic all-male hive full of empty honey cans and a bunch of confused bees wandering around scratching themselves at which point the females put their collective feet down and told them to get back to the hive and that they would “just take care of it”.

Actually, some males do leave the hive once when a queen makes her one ‘mating flight.  Surprising, not a single male bee gets lost on the way there.  Unfortunately, there is no return trip.  The queen mates, and I’m quoting here “with 10-20 drones, each one dies, the queen returns to the hive with the last drone’s male apparatus with her, then discards it and goes about resting till she is completely mature”.  That’s what I call a commitment.  Plus, Mother Nature does not mess around.  (Yet another reason Tiger Woods and Charlie Sheen would not have made it as bees.)

“Installing” the Bees

When I saw this on the Bee School syllabus I could not even begin to imagine what this meant but here’s what happens.  New hives need new bees.  So you order them.  About THIRTEEN THOUSAND of them per hive.  Then they arrive and here’s where the ‘fun’ starts.  (Actually, Tony, the Bee Whisperer, used the word ‘fun’, not me.)  You have to pick them up.  THEN you get to drive home with a box full of THIRTEEN THOUSAND bees in your car.  If THAT doesn’t sound like the beginning of your very own horror movie starring YOU, I don’t know what does.  So you get them home safely without making the 5 o’clock news and you have to put them in the hive or ‘install’ them.  And by ‘install’, I don’t mean to imply that this is something as benign as say, installing a fridge or a new dishwasher.  Unless of course your new dishwasher has THIRTEEN THOUSAND angry little parts bent on exacting revenge for boxing them up, sticking them in your car and driving them around like a crazy person for an hour and a half. 

This process involves you suiting up in full bee regalia – you’ve seen the hats, you get the picture – and I’m not making this up – opening a little cage-full of a gazillion bees, banging it on the ground and dumping it into an open hive.  Hey – that would piss ME off.  It was at this juncture that reality set in like a cold Gatorade bucket over the head.  Up to this point in my life, I can honestly say that I have never, and I repeat NEVER made any plans which involved me and THIRTEEN THOUSAND bees. 

So that we can have a leg up on the installation process, the bee school teachers were going to arrange for us to practice with little pieces of Styrofoam.  This was an EXCELLENT idea because as it turns out, I have NO FEAR WHATEVER of little pieces of Styrofoam.  In fact, if it wasn’t for their somewhat dubious ability to produce honey, I probably would have a hive full of THEM.

The Business End

Most of the teachers talked about working with the bees and sprinkled their lectures liberally with the phrase “when you get stung.”  So let’s stop right there.  I have bought every possible piece of bee clothing from the beekeepers catalog.  I have a hat, a veil, a complete suit and long gloves.  I am shooting for zero exposed flesh here.  My target number of bee stings is, well, ZERO.  (You have to take my word for how serious I am about this because the temperature on the inside of a full bee suit on 90 degree day tops out around 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  I’m pretty sure I could bake a pan of brownies in there with me if I were out long enough.)  I am generally not averse to “taking one for the team” but at the very least I would like to know that the opposing team doesn’t have 13,000 players on its bench.

There are actually a large group of people who sting themselves on purpose.  This practice is known as “Insanity”.  No wait, I remember now -  it is called “Apitherapy”.  (When I get a minute, I’ll look up the difference.)  Since I have spent a significant amount of thought, time and effort ensuring that I would not get stung, I’m a little lost on the whole concept.  Much like the concept of thong underwear.  Most rational people devote their time to keeping their underwear out of unwanted locations.  The concept of buying some whose specific function is – well, I don’t need to spell it out . . .

When bees sting, they leave their stinger inside the sting-ee.  Along with some major organs, without which apparently, bee life is just not worth living and so after stinging, the bees die.  I can’t help thinking that this is a design flaw.  Picture what would happen if every time you slammed the car door, the handle fell off and the car was totaled.  Just sayin.

Feeding and Sugaring the Bees

In the Spring and since your new hive hasn’t got much in the way of food stores, you feed sugar syrup.  Every batch requires a five pound bag of sugar.  In addition, powdered sugar is used to ‘dust’ the bees to keep the Varroa mite count down.  By my count, I have bought something in the area of sixty pounds of granulated sugar this year and 5 bags of powdered, leading the clerks at the grocery store to look at me somewhat askance.  There’s almost no good way of explaining this in the roughly two minutes it takes you to go through the checkout line.  Trust me.  And if you think telling someone you’re “feeding bees” makes you sound like a whackadoodle, try telling them that you’re “dusting” them.  It’s better to let them think you have some kind of sugar jones and leave it at that.

Smoking the Bees

In order to facilitate working with the hive – read: not getting stung like a billion times – you employ a smoker which wafts smoke into the hive.  I am told that you don’t always have to smoke the hive and that bees are pretty docile.  Here is where I’m pretty sure the Bee School teachers were just playing us.  It must be some bizarre rite of bee-passage.  I have at my disposal a simple, harmless mechanism for getting all of the bees to go grab their most precious belongings before the hive burns down instead of going after me and I’m not going to use it?  Trust me.  I will be smoking the bees every time I work with the bees.  Possibly even when I am thinking of working the bees.  Maybe the smoke will calm me down.  Possibly.  Guess it depends what you’re burning.  It’s a thought.


This is a process by which the queen, having been told repeatedly by her foraging sisters (‘Realtor Bees’) that there are far nicer hives out there decides to hop it.  She rounds up a goodish quantity of the other bees in the hive – sometimes all of them – and they leave your hive.  Yup, they turn their back on your investment in all of your equipment, hours of study and go off in search of roomier quarters with a better view.  It is useless to make a counter offer because by the time you realize they are going to swarm, they have probably already left.

Again, more “good news” for the first year beekeeper.  I must have missed the “Oh – and by the way, after you go through all of the classes and lay out a bunch of cash, someone else might wind up with all of your bees” speech.  Because I would definitely have remembered that there was an even chance that I would wake up one morning to an empty box full of no bees.

The Real Thing

So now we have three hives with actual bees in them.  Whether or not there will be any honey for us in this, our first year, is as yet uncertain.  I was pleasantly surprised by a number of things and not so pleasantly surprised by others.

First, the good news:  Not every one of our bees is out to sting me personally.  Not planning on reducing my bee-wear any time soon, but nice to know.

And the bad news:  Both our hives swarmed, leaving us temporarily queenless.  Sad to say, I took this personally and would not even look out the window at them.  I mean seriously.  After all I’ve done.

So that’s where we are so far.  I will keep you updated on our progress.  According to National Geographic, bees have been around as many as 15 million years.  I can only assume that they will survive my momentary interference and go on for 15 million more.


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