Many people have asked me, “Whatever made you want to keep bees?”
My answer has been, “I just always wanted to.”
Of course, if I were really honest, I’d confess I had a romanticized idea of what beekeeping would be like. I envisioned myself out in a meadow of flowers, the wind softly blowing my long blonde tresses. (A real stretch, since I have short, salt and pepper hair.)
My bees would be buzzing sweetly around me, as I harvested my honey. I’d be dressed in a garb straight out of “Little House on the Prairie” – white cotton apron over a long calico skirt, and straw bonnet covered by a flowing veil.
In reality, today’s beekeeper is dressed in something akin to a haz-mat suit.
My adventures in beekeeping began this past January when I signed up for an 8-week course in beginning beekeeping, given by the Northern Neck Beekeeping Club. The Northern Neck is a rural section of Virginia. I tell folks, we’re located where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay. I’m surrounded by farmland, small villages, and lots of creeks and rivers.
After the completion of the course, I waited impatiently for my three-pounds of bees and a queen to arrive. The arrival date was postponed five times. Something about cold, rainy weather and a tornado holding up bee production. Well, after all, bees are an agricultural product and do have a mind of my own. This was something I was soon to experience on a more personal level sooner that I expected.
Finally, the day arrived. The “bee wrangler” in Georgia, which is were most bees are raised on the east coast, made his trek up Route 95, dropping off packages of bees to expectant beekeepers all along the way. Our beekeeping club sent a duly-deputized member to pick up our order and distribute the boxes of buzzing bees at several geographically-strategic pick-up locations.
There are a number of different desirable breeds of bees in existence. Mine are Italians. They are by far the most common honey bee raised in the world, and are known for their quiet, gentle nature. I must admit, they do hum sweetly. At least that part of my romantic notion about beekeeping was true.
So after several days of letting the queen and her many “subjects” get to accustomed to each other, my bee “mentor” and I “shook” my bees into their new home.
My hive consisted of two hive boxes, each filled with eight frames of “foundation” comb. Foundation is a type of honeycomb-shaped mesh with a layer of beeswax brushed over it. It’s kind of a “starter” honeycomb.
On top of those two filled boxes, I placed an inner cover, which has a small opening cut out in the middle. On top of that, I put two empty boxes and some sugar-water in a jar to provide supplemental food while the colony established itself. An outer cover went on top, left slightly ajar by a small twig for better ventilation.
The queen comes in her own small cage, along with several bee “attendants,” who take care of her. On one end of the cage is a chunk of fondant candy and a plug. You pull out the plug and gently place the cage in the hive between two frames.
If all goes well, the bees will eat through the candy to release the queen within several days. This gives the colony even more time to accept their new queen. All the while, the queen gives off what’s called “pheromones,” a chemical substance released in the air. It is this substance that helps bind the colony together as a cohesive unit.
I’d like to say that all has gone well since that day, but it hasn’t. The queen successfully emerged from her cage, but when I went to check on my hive several days later, I took off the outer cover to a big surprise. Most of the bees were in the top empty boxes where the food was, building their own comb hanging off the top of the lid.
“What are you doing?!” I asked my bees. “You’re supposed to be in the lower boxes, full of the nice comb I gave you!”
Apparently, my bees had started coming into the hive through the “back door,” the slightly-ajar outer cover. I could just imagine them saying to themselves, “Woo-hoo! Short-cut to the food!”
My bee mentor and I checked the rest of the frames, and saw the queen. Marked with a blue dot, she’s was fairly easy to find. But not much work was being done on the frames to “draw out” the comb with additional wax, and that’s what you need for the queen to lay eggs and honey to be stored.
So, we scraped the errant comb off the inside of the lid, removed the food and two empty boxes, and put the outer cover securely back on top of the two lower hive boxes. Then we placed the food on a box about two feet from the hive entrance.
It was a week later that we went back to inspect the hive and see how things were going. But search as hard as we could, we couldn’t find the queen. And there was no “brood,” beekeeping lingo for bee babies. This was not good.
“Where is she? What could have happened?” I whined.
All my bee mentor could suggest what that my queen suddenly felt cramped by the loss of the two upper empty boxes, and “swarmed.”
Swarms are the bane of a beekeeper’s existence. That happens when the colony decides they don’t have enough room, and half of them head out with the queen for new digs. My colony was now queen-less and half its original size. The remaining bees listlessly flew in and out of the hive.
What was I going to do? It’s not like you can go to the corner “queen bee store” and buy a replacement. And without a queen to lay eggs, my bees would soon die off, and all my time, money and effort would have been for naught.
But luck was with me. Several weeks earlier, a small batch of queen bees had been ordered by our club’s master beekeeper and instructor. They had just arrived THAT DAY! And there was ONE EXTRA!
By the next day, my new queen had been installed, and that’s where I am right now. I expect to go out and inspect my hive later this week. Hopefully, the queen will have eaten her way out of her cage, and is well on her way to laying eggs.
I’ll keep you posted!