In January Matt and I took a class with the local beekeeper’s association. Slides presentations and talks but not exactly hands on since bees don’t come out in the winter. They like to huddle in the hive to keep warm. There were over 100 people taking the class. Beekeeping has become the trendy hobby.
After we graduated, I started to have second thoughts. This seemed like a lot of work and, as Matt says, around here it is very much survival of the fittest. If you can’t survive on your own, good luck, because I have been known to forget to feed the cats, water the plants and generally ignore my duties. If the bees were not able to fend for themselves, it could get ugly pretty quick.
What do bees need? Feeding mostly. Spring is great. For a month or two, they can feed off the land until the dearth comes. In about July when it gets hot and nothing is really blooming, they get mighty testy because they get hungry. So they need to be fed sugar syrup, a mixture of sugar and water of varying proportions depending on the time of year. A sated bee is a happy bee.
As you have all heard, bees are also very fragile because of various pests that can kill them, primarily varroa mites. To counter it, the hives need to be treated with fumigants to chase the bugs away. There are other diseases as well. But the mites are the big killer. They can kill off a hive in a matter of weeks.
Then there is the queen. She also needs to be happy or there will be no bees to keep the hive alive. If she fails, she needs to be replaced by the beekeeper buying and introducing a new queen to the existing hive, or, if you have patience, by letting the bees take care of it by producing a new queen. They know how to do this but some people do want to wait for them to figure it out. If the hive is too large or just wants to move with the queen, they split and swarm looking for a new place to hang out. A lot of beekeepers try to prevent this. Some chase down swarms to add to their colonies.
Honey harvesting occurs during a very intense period in June when they are just storing nectar like crazy.
Other beekeepers do a lot more but these are the basics. We talked to a lot of beekeepers and some of them are very hands on. Others really just let the bees do their thing. We were assured that if we took off on vacation for weeks, the bees would figure it out. I still hesitated. If we took them, then they were our responsibility and I am not big on that either. The cats are the most I can tolerate on the caring-for-animals front. I don’t even want to be burdened with a dog to walk.
We went to some hands on classes in the spring for me to get a little more used to the idea of bees and to see if I really wanted to do this. To determine if we could remain calm and find joy in bees, as every beekeeper does, we went to a bee yard and just followed a beekeeper around as he opened up boxes and showed us bees on the frames. There is nothing quite like standing in a cloud of bees. The noise and energy is quite exhilarating. But I felt pretty confident. I had the protective gear, bee jacket with protective hat and veil, and gloves. And I have been stung by a bee so I knew what to expect if it happened.
The most important thing to remember with bees, and indeed with any animal, is that they sense your feelings. So if you are in a tizzy, they will be too. With bees, you have to go into Zen mode. Calm and quiet. Slow movements. They get riled up after a while but you can keep them fairly calm if you don’t get too excited yourself.
There is also smoke. We learned how to use a smoker. The smoke keeps the bees calm by making it difficult for them to smell the alarm pheromones being emitted by the bees who are guarding the hive. I could write a completely different post about bee behavior but basically the most important thing to a bee is to protect the queen and the honey stores. They will die stinging someone to protect their hive. So they take it pretty seriously when a beekeeper opens up the hive for any reasons.
After the visit to the bee yard, I said to heck with it. Let’s do it. They can take care of themselves for the most part. We just check on them and do a little maintenance. By the time I made this decision, it was May and that is very late to start a hive. But we bought some bees anyway and hoped for the best.
What is it like to drive bees home in the back of your car? Kind of weird but the beekeeper told us the box was quite safe and they could not escape. We had bought all the equipment we needed—things like wooden boxes, frames for the bees to build up wax comb and store the honey. We were as ready as we ever could be I guess. So we took our little nucleus of bees, moved the frames into the hive boxes and hoped for the best.
Beekeepers are an odd bunch. You know, bees sting and that sting hurts, don’t let anyone tell you different. But for some reason there is this macho code that beekeepers can wear a veil and maybe a jacket but never gloves. Beekeepers don’t wear gloves. I could not understand this but they swear that it is better to work with bees if you can feel what you are doing. Hey, if you get stung, so what? I have seen pictures of beekeepers wearing shorts, short sleeves and no veil at all. I think they are idiotic.
I decided to compromise and buy a pair of leather gloves but cut off the finger tips so I could still have some feeling of what I was doing. Matt said, no way, I’m wearing gloves.
On the second visit to the hive, a bee stung my exposed knuckle and the finger blew up. It turned a lovely shade of red and resembled a small sausage. It also hurt. A lot. It itched too. It took about a week for it to clear up but I moved on. Then I was stung again and I said, okay, forget it. I’m wearing gloves. I’m no lemming.
The beekeeper group really let us down in terms of giving us a mentor so we ended up having to read and read and read to learn what to do. We also watched some videos. At this point we are kind of muddling through. We have a strong hive and the bees seem happy because we keep them fed. We treated them for mites and now we have to see if they will make it through the winter. That is the big test. Then we will need to figure out how to harvest the honey. We have the winter to figure it out.