My husband and I had been wanting to get into beekeeping for years and years. Something always came up to prevent it, like a move to another city or country, or a job change that required his focus to change. But one day I decided that we had read enough books, attended enough bee meetings, and talked to enough beekeepers and it was time to get started. It just so happened that when I decided that, my husband was working ... in a war zone half a world away.
The hive hardware was ordered and arrived, and the protective gear was ready. All I needed was the bees!
A box of bees was ordered and was to come in the US Mail. Really, I asked? I was instructed to call the post office to make sure that they knew the box had live bees and to call me when it arrived, as the bees would not be able to handle the heat of being in the delivery truck. Who knew that you could mail a BOX of live BEES in the US Mail?
The morning the phone call came I was in a meeting, so my son went to the post office to get them. He called when he got home and I asked, "What's the box of bees like?"
"It's a screened box, and you can see them and they are MAD and really loud," he told me. When I got home from the meeting, he was right. It was indeed a box, made out of screen, and you could see the bees and they could see you. And the level of their buzzing escalated every time you got near or touched or moved the box.
I donned my protective gear, and followed the directions, which are: spray the bees with sugar water to make them docile, and then pour them (or dump them, one book put it) all into the hive. Place the queen, who resides in her special queen box, at the bottom of the hive, close up the hive and check back in a couple of days. Now doesn't that sound easy?
Apparently MY bees failed to read the book. They were not docile. The sugar water mixture that I used did slow some down, but in that relatively small box was three thousand mad bees. That sugar water was bound to miss some of them when sprayed through the screen, and it did. And those that it missed and I were not starting out with a good relationship. They stung me. Then they died. And I had swollen knots on my body.
For three days I did not bother the bees. Then, on the third day, I ventured out into the yard with my smoker and all the accoutrements that I needed. I was instructed by my husband (in a call from that war zone) that I needed to find the queen and make sure that she is laying eggs. So I looked for her. Try finding a bee that is almost identical to the other bees, save for the fact that she is a little bit bigger, among three thousand bees that are now angry at you for yanking the top off of their house! My husband's help from across the world: "She's got smaller wings!" Really? One bee among three thousand that has smaller wings? That sure narrowed it down for me, thanks.
As the days went by and I was getting used to getting into the beehive, I became more competent and calm. I didn't get stung anymore. And I still didn't find the queen. For those that don't have hives: if you don't have a queen laying eggs, the colony will not grow. Since their life span is only 3 months, without new bees hatching and growing, the colony dies out. Every day my husband would tell me to "Find the queen!" and about every other day I tried. One day after explaining that I just simply could not see her on the frames that I pulled out of the hive, he suggested that I look down inside the hive. I have to say, leaning your head down into a beehive containing three thousand bees takes guts, which I didn't have yet. So the bees and I stared at each other: I blinked and they won. Except for the ones that already stung me and died. Okay, so we're minus about fifteen.
At one of the bee meetings shortly thereafter, one of the old time beekeepers gave a speech and his advice to other beekeepers was to stay out of the hive. He thought they do better if we kept the lid on and stayed out and let them do their work. I liked that advice so I let the bees work in privacy.
One day I could not put off checking on them any longer and suited up and smoked the top and went in. Not a bee was in sight! Apparently they left. And took that dang queen with them, I guess. I broke the news to my husband. About two weeks later, my husband saw in a Craigslist ad (yes, he saw it from Baghdad!) that there was a beehive in a tree in our town and they wanted someone to go move them. He suggested that they were our bees and that I should see about going to get them. "Okay honey, I'll get on that tomorrow." And I sure did not. I know that I am an extremely competent woman: I did find my way driving around a foreign country for two weeks until we bought a map, all the while adjusting to driving on the wrong side of the road and sitting behind a steering wheel that was on the wrong side of the car, not able to read the road signs that were written in Japanese. I didn't feel that I had progressed enough in beekeeping to climb into a tree to get some wild bees, though. Heck, I not only couldn't find a queen in a hive, but couldn't even get some bees to stay in a perfectly good house for the summer. I guess I'll never be a great summer vacation-home agent!
We now have sixteen beehives and all are doing well and producing honey. I have actually spotted the queen in several of them, though it is extremely difficult for me. Again, "she's a little bigger than the rest and has smaller wings" doesn't make much sense when you have in excess of twenty thousand bees crawling around inside a very crowded box. But at least I have seen one in real life and not just in books.
I will never again use the term "Finding a needle in a haystack." I will now only use "like finding a queen bee in her hive." It is much more accurate for a lost cause, because as you know, the haystack is just laying there, not crawling or flying around like bees.
- Maura White grew up on the Pacific Coast in a sleepy beach town and has lived all over the country, as well as in Asia. What a change it was for her to move to the country and she uses humor to help her make the adjustment. She and her husband are working to make their farm, Double Star Bar Farms, a successful family farm. She keeps busy with her stained glass business, which you can check out at www.southernstainedglass.com. You can read more of her stories at whitem4.wordpress.com. She keeps saying “You can take the girl away from the ocean, but you can’t take the ocean out of the girl!”
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