It was over a year after I attended the Rhode Island Beekeepers’ Association’s “Bee School” before I was able to get my first hive and 3 lbs. of bees. Of course, I live in Connecticut (RI native and, at the time, working a corporate job in RI), so I was not eligible for a mentor from the RI Beekeepers’ Association and I opted to simply “wing it” (no pun intended) for my first hive instead of contacting the Connecticut Beekeepers’ Association for a mentor. This was probably not the best choice. However, I was confident (or maybe over-confident…) that I knew what I was doing.
I ordered my hive equipment and, a couple of weeks later, I ordered my first queen. In the weeks preceding delivery of both, I spent time pouring over my notes from Bee School and reading books on beekeeping. The equipment arrived first and I spent a few days painting all of the supers, the base, the bottom board, etc., with a good outdoor primer.
When the call came from the RIBA that the bees had arrived, I was ecstatic. The pick-up point was only a short drive from a second part-time job that I was working and it was located behind my old junior high school so I knew the neighborhood fairly well. The property I went to was situated at the end of a dead end street in the middle of suburbia. The property, itself, once you crossed the opening to the driveway looked completely incongruous in this setting as it was wild with undergrowth and looked more like the setting of a country abode. A man named Roger greeted me at the door. I had to wait a few minutes while he finished with a phone call but then he led me outside to a large garage. As we approached the dwelling, an almost ominous hum was echoing out of the open double doors. It was almost deafening due to the multitude of bees contained within it. There were several rows with stacks of little cages measuring approximately a foot long, about 6 inches wide and maybe 8 inches tall each (roughly, the size and shape of a shoebox). I can’t even tell you how many cages were in a row because the rows extended back quite some distance. The cages themselves were made out of a heavy-duty window screening set in plywood frames. In the center of each was a dark funnel of bees. I was told that in the middle of this cluster was the queen in her little cylinder and a can of sugar syrup. Roger placed a cage in my hands and asked if I wanted to purchase some of his protein patties if I hadn’t made any of my own. I hadn’t and the price was fair so I did. I thanked Roger, gently brushed aside some lone workers who were attached to the outside of my cage, and set the cage on the floor of my car on the front passenger’s side. I thanked Roger, again, and headed home.
My first “mishap” occurred at the very first traffic light. I slowed to a stop and the cage tipped over with a loud thud. The gentle hum became a very angry buzz…and I had to drive a good 45 minutes home like this! Needless to say, I had promised my Aunt Cheryl that I would try to stop by for a little while so the trip home was taken in stages. And I found a way to prop up the cage so that it wouldn’t fall over again in transit.
A couple of hours later, I got back in the car. Night had fallen and all was quiet in the cage. I could see some movement in the moonlight but, as I started to pull away from the curb, I kept hearing this occasional “peep”. At first I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Then I realized the bees were making this noise. It was the cutest thing! It sounded like a little snore. (Maybe it was…) I drove home to this “snore”, grinning like an idiot, content in having my first bees.
It rained the next couple of days. I kept checking on the bees in their cage as I had left them in my garage-turned-workshop the night I brought them home. Finally, the rain stopped and I gathered together all of my notes and beekeeping books, pages earmarked for important information. I had made more sugar syrup and put it into a spray bottle per the instructions in my manual. Then I took the cage of bees out to the ready and waiting hive.
The somewhat angry buzzing from the cage should’ve been a warning. With the end of the rain had come some rather unseasonably warm temperatures and the garage-turned-workshop had been a little stuffy. I attributed this to the bees agitation and rightly so. However, I probably should’ve waited until morning when the temps were a bit cooler to introduce them to the hive.
Once outside I read and re-read everything that I had earmarked for the occasion. According to the instructions in the manual, I was supposed to gently spray the bees with sugar water and then, also gently, tap the box on a flat surface to get the worker bees to drop away from the queen to the floor of the cage. I then had to give them another spray of sugar syrup to keep them on the bottom for a minute or two. This would allow me time to pry open the flat piece of plywood holding the sugar syrup and remove it. Once the sugar syrup was removed I could also remove the queen’s cylinder and quickly replace the plywood, keeping the worker bees, momentarily, in the cage. I was to pull the tab off the end of the queen’s cylinder (The queen is kept in a separate cylinder so that the workers have time to get used to her scent. In case there is any hostility towards her, the cylinder will protect her), poke a pinhole into the piece of candy stuck at the end, and place the opened cylinder into the bottom of the hive. Then I could take my cage, pull up the plywood again and tip the cage upside down over the hive. What happens next is that the workers all migrate down to where the queen is and start eating the candy keeping her imprisoned. By the time they have eaten it, it is hoped that the workers will have accepted her as their queen and release her to start laying eggs. Otherwise, if they reject her (i.e. kill her), a new queen may have to be ordered.
So, I read the manual one more time, took a deep breath and sprayed the bees with sugar syrup. I tapped the hive and heard an angry community “buzz”. But the bees did drop to the bottom of the cage. I sprayed them again and stuck my hive tool under the plywood and pulled out both the can of sugar syrup and the queen’s cylinder in one shot.
A word of caution here, folks: Bees do NOT read manuals!
Instead of staying obediently at the bottom of the travel cage, approximately 600 worker bees came flying up and out of the opened cage. It was a giant swarm all headed straight for my face! This is the lady who admitted in a previous article that I used to be so afraid of bees I’d pull over to escape sharing my car with a lonely little yellow jacket. According to Bee School, honeybees were supposed to be docile. But these gals seemed not to have read this piece of Banbury tale either!
So, here I am, in the middle of my yard, in the middle of a circle of angry honeybees. It was the first and only time that I totally outfitted myself in protective bee clothing. And, the reason I say the “only time” is because a couple of those little ladies managed to get up and under the veil—and couldn’t find the way back out. I’m trying very hard to remain calm but, when you have angry bees buzzing and flying about your face, calm tends to desert you. That hat and veil—and half of my clothing, too—were whipped off faster than you could bat an eyelash. I’d take my chances without it! To make matters worse, in my attempt to escape the angry mob of bees, I never got to pull open the cylinder and pierce the piece of candy in it and I had dropped said cylinder into the hive. Half of the bees that weren’t flying around me had dropped into the hive and the queen was buried beneath a swarm of them. If I were going to open that cylinder, I would have to stick my hand down into that cluster of bees and pick the cylinder back up again. It was then that I seriously reconsidered whether beekeeping was something I really wanted to get into.
Before anyone asks why I didn’t use the smoker, the manual said I would not need it for this adventure. The sugar syrup would keep them docile. Needless to say, I ran inside and lit the smoker.
The smoke worked much better. I managed to brave a trip with my hand down into the hive and pull out the queen. I got the tab pulled off but there were simply too many bees trying to get to her to allow me to stick a pin into the candy (the purpose of this is to release more of her pheromone) so I placed the cylinder back into the hive. And the workers followed. I placed a new can of sugar syrup upside down atop the inner cover, put a super over it and placed the roof on the hive.
What few bees were still flying about started to migrate into the hive via the hive entrance. Despite having many of the bees still flying around me, I decided to stay and watch them as they marched inside. It is an amazing sight! And, even more amazing, despite how angry they seemed to be and all the chaos that followed when I opened the travel cage, I never got stung. And, as I sat quietly by the entrance, watching them find their way inside to the queen, they seemed to accept me, too, and, instead, a few of them gently landed on my sleeve or a hand then flew off again. Two weeks later, despite not having pierced the candy, the workers had eaten the candy and the queen was released. She spent the summer laying eggs while her workers made honey.
It is the end of the season and I have just finished readying the hive for winter. This time I did get stung once for invading the hive as it was a chilly day but, mostly, they simply checked me out again. I still get a little nervous if a huge amount of bees all come flying at me at once but over the summer, I have spent many hours pausing in the middle of yard or garden work to watch my little friends gathering pollen. It is a very peaceful thing watching them work. The amount of pollen attached to their tiny legs seems miraculous that they can even fly with such a load and they never stop. Their little bodies are always in motion—hence, the expression “busy as a bee”.
I hope my little friends over winter well; I will be looking forward to seeing them at work again in the spring.