Until yesterday, there were just two hives of honeybees that living in our backyard, tucked between the compost pile and the back rows of the garden. While the bees live there year round, even through the coldest winter nights, there still is a seasonality to beekeeping.
It’s finally time again where we meddlesome keepers can stick our paws in there and try to assert some control over the organic nature of bees. Most often, April has been a month of waiting for the new bees to arrive but not this year. Last weekend, the beekeeping three got to suit up and visit the surviving two of the original five hives.This weekend, we grew our collective apiary by six hives, bringing the current total to eight.
The three of us are rather a nice team, consisting of my mom Sally, our good friend John, and myself. Each of our respective spouses/fiances have varying degrees of disinterest in cozying up to thousands of stinging insects but we do not hold it against them. The flyboy likes to take photos of the bees with longest zoom lens he has. My father (let’s call him Mr. Claus) mows a wide berth around the hives in his backyard and frequently enjoys honey in his tea. John’s wife is very comfortable remaining on the other side of town while we stir up the bees and is quite tolerant of his new found love (perhaps verging on obsession) of beekeeping and building hive components by hand all winter long.
Between the three of us, we bring a balance of knowledge, hands on experience, and resources. While I’ve got a few extra seasons of beekeeping under my belt, John has read so much more and is quite competent when it comes to building hives. We’ve come up with a barter for this season, trading plant sitting and summer vegetables for winter built hive parts. It’s a perfect trade, because I am positive I’m getting the better end of the deal and I think he might say the same as well. Sally (whom we will NOT call her Mrs. Claus, because if we do, she may administer a smack to the head or kick to the shins) has been the willing host for tens of thousands of bees for the past four years, enabling me keep bees even while living in an apartment in town. She’s also our un-official logistical coordinator and allows us to make a sticky mess in her kitchen twice a year when we extract the honey. And we, my mother and I, look nothing alike, as demonstrated below.
Back to suiting up for a hive check: Each of us wears a bee suit or various parts of one. I have full coveralls with a veil that zips over the top of my head. I typically wear gloves, but went gloveless for the first time on bee install day (with much success!). Most often when I tell someone I am a beekeeper, the first question they ask is if I get stung. The truth of the matter is I’ve only ever gotten stung three or four times over five seasons. Given that there are between 30,000 and 80,000 bees per hive, I think that’s a pretty reasonable rate. I do try to avoid it, as it doesn’t feel too great and the bee does not survive.
While checking on the two hives, we found solid brood patterns in both (telling us the queens have been laying well) and some small stores of honey. The one that was strongest going into winter is still healthy, but only filled out one of the two brood boxes. The weaker hive (that was actually two queenless hives combined with my weak hive with a queen last fall) seems to be super charged, as the bees are visibly more active and take up both brood boxes with bees, brood, honey, and pollen. We added a super to them already, and I have high hopes for early honey, with fingers crossed for no swarming.
Yesterday, Sally and Mr. Claus drove down to Long Lane Honey Bee Farm and carefully stowed six new packages of bees into the trunk of the their car. Each packages is about 10,000 bees and one queen.
The queen is kept in a separate cage, as the workers she is with are new to her. The cage allows them several days to get used to her scent and accept her as queen. In the above photo, the bees are gathered around her, and are festooning (explained here by bee-blogger Rusty) a bit as we removed the queen cage from the package.
There is a small cap on the end, with a candy plug below. To give them a head start, we poke a hole with a nail through the plug. Over the course of several days, the workers will release the queen by eating the candy plug. Each package is also equipped with a tin can of a rock candy like substance for food during travel.
The fun part comes after the can and the queen are removed. Next, the box is knocked firmly against the ground to gather all the bees, then inverted and shaken. The honey bees tumble out into the hive body, without much fanfare. A few final shakes and the lid goes on. All six hives were installed without a hitch. I’ll report back in five days or so, when we’ll meddle some more to make sure the queen found her way out of the cage and into the hive.
Just to be clear, the garden isn’t entirely neglected, only a wee bit. We had another, sigh, mouse-related setback. This was more frustrating than the first because I didn’t see it coming! I spent the better part of an afternoon seeding out all the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and tomatillos only to have it turn into a seed bar buffet. Since then, my greenhouse co-conspirator Kim did find the mouse house, nestled in a forgotten jacket. Without hesitation, she booted them from their cozy dwellings. I did not ask if there were any survivors. The trays of starts that are well on their way were unaffected and are flourishing. The lettuces and the onions are looking the best by far, and have been begging me to get them out of the greenhouse and into the ground. I have high hopes for transplanting early this week, though the recent thunderstorms have left things rather mucky.