Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Bee Calm

6/19/2011 3:28:07 PM

Tags: calm, smoking, covers, , Kim Flottum

You’ve heard it a hundred times…learn to work your bees without gloves. It’s so much easier because you have a better feel for where your fingers are and you crush and injure far, far fewer bees. You know it’s true, but maybe next time…

And then you watch the instructor or that experienced beekeeper work that colony without even a veil on…not even a veil! And they almost never have a sting to deal with, and when they do, they just whisk it away without missing a beat. How do they do that?

The truth of the matter is that when you are working your bees, the first thing is, you have to have confidence in yourself. That confidence comes, in part, from having reached a comfort level when you have a colony open because you kind of know what to expect, in part from knowing why you are in the colony in the first place. And, of course, in part from having done it enough that not only do you know what you are doing, but you know what you will do next.

Let’s first look at getting that confidence level up to where you want it.

For most folks it takes a bit of doing to get used to insects buzzing around your face and walking on your hands.  Most of us grew up shooing away buzzers – mosquitoes on the patio, horse and deer flies while on the beach, wasps and hornets at picnics. All of these can cause harm and we early on develop a survival response – we wave, slap, swat or spray.

So to invite a bunch of similar insects into our backyard may seem to go against the grain. It usually takes some getting used to.

Here’s a good starter to help build confidence, even if you’ve been working your bees a bit already this season and have checked them a few times.

 Noonish on a warm, sunny day put on your protective gear, light your smoker (practice, practice, practice that skill), grab your hive tool and head out to your hive(s). Approach from the back if you can but it’s not necessary. Stand by the side, maybe between two hives if you have more than one, and…stand there. Puff your smoker once in awhile, just to make sure it is still lit (if it goes out now it won’t be a problem, but a lesson in lighting you still need to learn), and stand there.

Just stand and maybe take notes 

But don’t waste your time day dreaming. Watch the bees on the landing board leave and arrive, look for pollen on the back legs, watch the guards, see the drones, look for other insects trying to gain entrance, watch bees land on you…your suit, your hands or gloves, even on your veil, inches from your face. Listen to the buzz the bees make, the zipping away when they leave empty and ready, or the lower buzz as they return, laden with nectar, propolis, water or pollen…it’s a different sound if you listen carefully. Do this for about 15 minutes if you can, maybe 20 if you have the time. Just stand there, watch and listen. Puff the smoker…not into a hive or at bees, just a random puff…and see what happens. Most likely, nothing. Nothing at all. Do this three or four or 10 times. You will get to the point where you don’t even notice all the bees…just the ones you are watching. That’s where you want to be…that’s a comfort level to seek.

OK, time to move on. Let’s remove the cover. Here’s how that works.

Again, put on your protective gear and get your smoker going. You should have that down now…that smoker thing. Make sure you do. With your gear on and your smoker lit, and some time getting used to all those harmless bees just buzzing by, you should begin to have some sense of calm, and even control. Not complete control, but intimidation shouldn’t be part of the experience anymore. If it is, go back and do the standing for a few more times.

Here’s a simple 5 step process to remove a cover…you can count it out every time you do this…you can count it out if you think it necessary…sometimes that helps.

Before you start…do this. Standing by the side of the colony, put a couple of small, light puffs in the front door. Hardly any at all, but a little. You don’t want to over power the guards at the front, but you do want to get a little smoke into the colony from top to bottom. It takes a couple of minutes for this to happen, but when the smoke is everywhere, everybody is a bit confused, and messages don’t flow as fast, or as far…you’ve engineered a bit of confusion into the works…and that’s way you wanted to do. Now…begin.

  1. Pry up one end of the cover just an inch or so and blow in a couple of small puffs of smoke and gently replace the cover. Wait a minute.

Cover - Lift, puff, replace 

  1. Lift again, puff, remove the cover, setting in place on the ground or hive stand to receive the inner cover and boxes to come. Wait a minute

Cover - Lift , puff, remove 

  1. Puff a couple of times in the inner cover hole. Wait a minute and let the bees retreat.

Inner cover – puff, leave in place  

  1. Lift one end of the inner cover, puff a couple of times and remove the inner cover, setting on the cover at a bit of a cross angle to hold boxes to come.

Inner cover – Lift, puff, remove 

  1. Waft a couple of light puffs across the top bars, just so the bees retreat an inch or so below the top.


 cover and inner cover ready for supers 

This may seem over simplified, but it is a good way to imagine getting into the colony…count it out each time, and after only a very few times it will become second nature…and you won’t have to think about it again…it is a good habit to have.


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Post a comment below.


8/16/2011 3:39:19 PM
We're so happy to have found this blog! We've been keeping bees at Sunset Magazine for the last 3 (going on 4) years. We have never gotten used to going without gloves, especially having seen two members of our staff develop severe bee sting allergies. So, while we love our bees, we hate to be stung, and we take every precaution. We have found that, since we are small women, child-size gloves work well for us. They fit snugly and we still have a lot of dexterity. You can read about our beekeeping adventures at

Tom Allen
7/31/2011 3:04:41 PM
Beth, your beekeeper was correct. The bees have a buildt-in GPS of sorts. If you move them a short distance, they will return directly to the house where you just removed them from. If however, you take the queen and as many of the worker bees, drones, etc., at least 3 (three) miles away, the workers will take an orientation flight to reset their GPS to the location of the sun in their new location. Leave them for several weeks and then you can transport them back to where you want them at home. Quirky, but just the way it is with bees!

Beth Bowers
7/6/2011 7:42:09 PM
For the last 7 years, I have had a wonderful, busy hive of honey bees living between the plywood and the joists of my house under a high porch (on stilts). There is a lot of room to spread out (17' by 17') but I really don't know how far they have spread throughout the joists. The plywood looks damp in some places as far as 6' out. I wanted to move them to a hive because they are so good natured and healthy. I bought a box hive and frames and was ready to go. I got a beekeeper over and he said that for a hefty charge, he would come and tear out the plywood but that he needed to take the queen ("if he could even find her", he said) and take her 5 miles away and then bring her back in 3 weeks. He also said he only had a 35% survival rate moving bees. I didn't want to take the chance of killing them and I didn't understand why he couldn't put the queen and comb in the hive I bought. Wouldn't the bees follow her? He estimated a 4000 bee hive. Is there any way I can get the bees from under the house (I can hear them through a heating vent in the living room above the porch in the winter) and into a regular hive other than having the queen taken away and risking the hive? Do I just have an uninformed beekeeper? I love the bees and will just let them continue to live in my house if the odds of moving them are too high. Any suggestions?

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