First of all, everything you do will be wrong, at least according to someone, and that’s OK.
Take, for example, when you choose what kind of hive to get – by “hive,” I just mean the wooden box and the pieces inside, as you have to set that up before you put the bees in. All of those modern square hives come in two models, one smaller and one larger, and since every piece is made for a hive of one size or the other, beekeepers stick religiously with one model and swear by it. I picked the smaller version, thinking it would be easier to lift when laden with wax and honey – but when I told a local beekeeper, he talked to me about my decision in the delicate but grieving tones usually reserved for a terminal illness.
Then you need to decide where to put this wrong hive, and your spot will also be, according to someone, wrong. Most books, for example, recommend placing your hive where it will be warm and dry, protected from wind and rain. Those books were not written for people in Ireland. Who live in a bog in Ireland.
Thus, we make do – I chose a place in a corner of our woodland, facing the bog-land and its fields of wildflowers, but wove trimmed stalks of elder between tree stumps to form a wattle-fence around part of it, sheltering it from our fierce winds.
Next you need to fill the hive with wooden frames, those rectangular slices of honeycomb that beekeepers remove to get the honey. Most hives come with slides of wax to help get the bees started, and you have to delicately slip the wax into each wooden frame and secure them in place. When you have done this for all 10 slides, you set the hive down gently, listen to the sound of several wax slides come crashing down, and do it right the second time.
You will also need a smoker – basically a cross between a watering can and an accordion – to slow the bees down before you open up their home. Despite being the smallest animal we’ve domesticated, bees are the only ones we have to sedate before approaching.
The bees will need sugar-water to get them started, before they figure out where all the flowers are in relation to their new home. This is easy to make on the kitchen stove – a kilogram of sugar per litre of water – and most hives, like ours, have a feeder attached. You don’t need to feed them continually – that would rather take away from the point of getting honey – but it does help them through the early days and again through the winter months.
You also need a bee suit, a one-piece outfit that will seem to consist mostly of zippers. Do try to seal all the zippers completely, or the neighbourhood children will see a strange, white-clad figure flailing and dancing the hokey-pokey out of the forest.
Now comes the intimidating bit: You need to buy bees and put them into their new home. You will probably do this by buying a swarm nucleus, or “nuc,” a mini-hive filled with a queen and skeleton crew of her staff to get a hive started. Whereas a full hive will have 10 to 20 frames of honeycomb, a nuc will have four or five, which you remove and place in your hive. The rest of your hive will be filled with empty frames – empty but for those wax slides you put in – ready for the bees to use as they expand their population.
Remember those two basic models of hive I mentioned earlier? Since the honeycombed frames of the nuc have to be removed and placed in your hive, the nuc’s frames must be cut the same size as your hive’s. This is why beekeepers stick with only one model – I had to find someone else with the same kind of hives, who was also ready to sell nucs.
Eventually I found an old beekeeper in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, and drove out to his farm. He cheerfully plopped into my arms a wooden box, secured all around with duct tape and with a wire mesh at the top, and right under the mesh, a swarm of bees writhing like a single organism.
“How long will they be safe in there?” I asked, looking up at the threatening sky.
“Oh, they’ll be OK for a few days,” he said, “Just make sure they don’t get cold and are kept out of the wind and rain.”
The freezing sideways rain began on my way home over the mountains, the box in the back seat buzzing ever more irritably with each bounce. If you must drive over mountain passes in near-zero visibility, I learned, it’s better not to hear an angry swarm of bees behind your head the whole time, box or no box.
When I got home it was completely dark and still lashing rain, and I learned that most bee suits are not waterproof. Nonetheless, I set up the nuc next to the hive, their entrances parallel. Bees have amazing sense of direction, but they don’t use landmarks like we or most mammals do; they use the position of the sun and moon to create a kind of GPS. With it they can track and find the positions of hundreds of thousands of flowers each day and communicate them to the other bees – an amazing skill far beyond our abilities – but everything hinges on having the right starting point. Move the hive 20 metres to the left, and they are like cars following Google directions from a slightly wrong street – everything will turn out very badly.
Through the next few nights of lashing rain I sprayed sugar-water through their mesh to keep them fed and made sure that no rainwater was draining into their box, then giving the thumbs-up signal to my waiting family inside, to let them know that everything was OK. If you do this yourself, do remember that you are an unrecognisable figure in a bee-suit peering in the window at night, and it might take a few moments of screaming before they realise it’s you.
Finally, the sun came out and I was ready to put on the suit again, smoke the bees and put their honeycombs in the proper hive. That was Plan A. After smoking the nuc well and removing the duct tape, I realised that the box was actually held together with screws that would require some tools and tugging to remove – Plan B.
Through all this the box was wobbled around a lot more, causing the bees to get quite agitated when the smoke wore off. Plan C was to smoke them again, until the burning material in the smoker suddenly ran out; Plan D, to stuff more in and re-light it, failed when the lighter jammed.
Plan E, finally, worked – for my daughter to run in, get matches, run to a nearby stone, leave the matches and run the other direction while I, trailing a cloud of bees, retrieved the matches, ran back, lit the smoker, and finally calmed the bees down while I moved them. Last I checked, they were settling in fine, and my 10-year-old and I have taken turns putting on the suit and checking on them.
Perhaps the most important thing to learn, though, goes beyond beekeeping. Many of us are trying to learn a lot of new skills, often with little proper training and limited supplies. Everything you do will be wrong, at least compared to the ideal scenarios of how-to books and videos. Don’t worry about it: you’ll learn as you go, and most of the time, you’ll come out OK in the end.
Photo: Fotolia/Steve Oehlenschlager