The bee’s knees please
I fell in love with bees over a long period of time.
What you might call a “swarm” landed on my good-neighbor fence. My neighbor couldn’t do yard work, and I couldn’t go under my tree because they were too fierce to ignore. I called Keith, my friend and beekeeper.
I was afraid of bees then, had never been stung, and feared dying from a sting.
When Keith came, he assessed the situation, suited up, moved a hive box in with some frames of honey, put the lid on askew and left for the night. When he came back the next day, the bees were out of the box, they had eaten all the honey, and they were still “balling” on the fence. (Forming a ball of bees)
There was no queen and these weren’t swarm bees.
These were angry bees displaced during walnut season. We could hear the walnut machines shaking trees down the road. They must have dislodged a hive and part of the angry bees came here.
Those bees were doomed. Keith was gentle, cautious, and really in tune with the bees. I found his manner intriguing. Could a person really have an intuitive relationship with a hive? Fascinating, I thought.
Early the next spring, I saw the bees out just when a storm started. The bees hid inside the petals of open flowers. I went inside and found honey and a toothpick, and went on to feed the bees. They were happy to get the benefit of some energy while they held on to weather the storm.
Later that spring I threw myself into learning about bees. My friend Katja and her husband Chuck built me a top-bar hive. I ordered bees. I volunteered to catch swarms, I worked hard on keeping my bees healthy, threw money at each problem as it arose, and in the end, made a lot of mistakes.
First, when I ordered bees, the package took six days in the mail during the hottest week of the year. Half were dead. I should have never accepted the package, but I did. That was stupid. I felt pressure from the post office to get them out of there. The post office had them in a plastic mail bin, set sideways so that none of can of syrup could drip for the bees. They were starved to death and overheated.
For the top bar hive, everything went well, even with the small amount of bees, until I lined the bottom with Styrofoam sheeting. The girls built comb and collected nectar, but after getting advice that I should take the Styrofoam out, moths overwhelmed the comb and only a tiny fist of bees were left. I didn’t know the size of the screened bottom would be so crucial. If bees can fly out of every hole, they can’t defend the space and moths can fly in. I was saddened by my own mix of good intentions and ignorance.
I met a commercial beekeeper with hundreds of hives. For a fee, he installed a hive with 10 full frames of bees. They were doing great. I say were, because they didn’t survive the winter. They didn’t survive the winter because the cheapo hive box had a leak and cold water dripped inside during freezing weather and froze the bees.
The only good thing about the commercial box is that I learned a lot about a healthy pattern to comb. I can spot a healthy laying pattern, good pollen storage, and when to move in the honey supers. I might have lost most of those bees, but I didn’t lose out on learning.
The one bright thing I did was buy some new equipment. I spent my husband’s money on a sexy “ garden hivery” style hive with a brass roof. All it needs is gingerbread molding. It is so pretty! When the box came, I thought I was going to move the remaining top bar bees inside, but there weren’t enough. It was July, and my bee problems were getting desperate. I took two frames of brood with nurse bees from the successful hive and placed them in my hand-painted garden hivery. I added the tiny fistful of bees and the beautiful queen from the top bar hive. I wished them luck, added empty frames, reduced the entrance and left them alone. They survived the winter! They now have 10 frames of brood and 30 frames of honey.
I fell in love with bees because they were such a mystery to me. They are even a greater mystery now, but now I understand their importance. Our very health and future connects to their health and future.
My front yard garden houses pollinator-supporting plants. I watch the feral bees and the honey bees zing about in the garden. If I have a little wine, I generally hug the hive at night to listen to the hum. They work all night on comb building, fanning of the nectar to create the specific gravity of honey before capping. I find their work fascinating.
Recently, I agreed to catch a swarm. It was my first attempt with catching bees in the “wild.” It was easy except for one thing… I caught the swarm and didn’t move it to my hive yard. Instead, I placed the box on a wagon in my yard with the intention of moving them in a week. This was a foolish plan for a number of reasons. The first reason is that they are very position sensitive. When you move them a few inches or a hundred yards, some will continue flying back to the original location. Oops.
Then the swarm decided to swarm. DOH! I had scented a cardboard “nuc” (nucleus) box with lemongrass oil and sugar water. I forgot to keep it inside the shed and with the wind kicking up, moved it to my porch with the best of intentions to put it away. After a little sleep, I woke up and looked outside. Bees were everywhere. They were bearding on a table next to my door. They were on my garden tools and draped all over the cardboard nuc. I gently raised the lid and they moved in like army ants. They filled all five frames and only about 30 flew around the front door.
After texting my friend Keith and bugging my internet bee friends, I decided to place the nuc box in the wagon and wheel them to the back of my property. I fed them and tucked them in. Well, I use “tuck them in” loosely. I placed a heavy rock on the lid to keep the top on in the wind. The next day, they were in and out, collecting nectar and pollen, but formed another smaller ball of bees in my garden. I got the ball of bees and walked them over to the other and added them to the box.
I either had a group that couldn’t find the back group tucked in the nuc, or I had another swarm. So far, they can sense a tense handler or a calm handler. They are the best next step for me as a woman in transition as I go from empty nest to bustling hive. It is amazing to feel so happy about small creatures, but suffice it to say, they are small and fierce, organized and gentle. And when life is burdensome, I hang with the bees and think about the nectar, the honey and the hard work of something so small, the humble-bee.