I don’t know exactly why I wanted to become a beekeeper, but you know you want to when that little switch inside your head speaks to you and says, “I can do this.”
Beekeepers are the kind of people who have backyard chickens, collect rainwater, garden, stash a bit of cash in a mattress, and probably secretly consider a vote for Ron Paul. They are often an independent and quirky sort.
If you’re the kind of person who shrieks and wildly flails your arms when a bee or a hornet lands on the rim of your Coke can, you don’t fit into the beekeeper category. If you are allergic to bee stings, you're not going to want to do this.
Also, if you are the type who wears high heels with shorts, you probably can also safely cross beekeeping off your list.
Why is it appealing? I suppose it is the thrill of contributing to the Earth’s ecosystem. But it might have something to do with witnessing awe-inspiring cooperation within an organized society. And I get a kick out of having my hands open in a hive of 25,000 plus insects who have weapons, having them walking on my skin and gently brushing them aside as I need to.
Or maybe it is because they make honey, that wonderful sweet concoction composed of hundreds of ingredients including vitamins and minerals, and some ingredients still a secret to us humans.
Now is the right time of year to hive your packaged honey bees in Connecticut. They come in a wooden box with mesh screening about the size of a bird house with a smaller cage inside that carries the queen; there are about 3,000 bees in each box.
The bees meet their new queen this way and the cage protects her from their fickle devotion until they get use to her pheromones and choose her as their sovereign. And a queen knows she is nothing without her followers. She is there to serve them as she herself is served by the others. There’s a mutuality there.
You can hive bees in several different ways. The most traditional method is to spray sugar water on the bees before opening their box; the bees are preoccupied with the process of licking syrup off of themselves long enough for you to open them up and wrap and shake them into the hive.
Another method is to empty out a bottom box of its frames and hang the queen in her cage in the box above, allowing the open box of bees below to exit on their own to find their queen. You wait a few days and then remove the old box and hang the frames.
No sugar spray; possibly a kinder gentler method. It's the method I used the first few times when I was concerned about what the bees would do if I sprayed them them wrapped and shook them.
Both methods have worked for me but this time I did the “spray and wrap and shake” method.
Once you open the bee box, remove the can of syrup which has sustained them in their long ride in a truck from a honey farm, probably from somewhere in Georgia. When the can is removed from the bee box, out come the bees. But they don’t fly away and they don’t sting you. They want to stay close to their queen. They do begin to check you out and decide if you are friend or foe, however.
This is when keeping your confidence and your wits about you is paramount. If they get an inkling you are afraid of them, they sense it and begin a warning process of banging themselves against your head and body. If you start getting banged by the bees, hurry up but keep your cool. Your pheromones need to be telling them, “I’m safe for you; I’m here to help; I’m a friend.” Use your telepathy and they can sense it and will calm down.
Honey bees are highly civilized creatures. Just remember, they are smart and they are gentle and you are stupid and clumsy. Talk to them in your head and body and they will listen. Move slowly and be graceful as a human can be.
Keep your good vibes going and gently remove the queen cage; many of the bees will follow the cage. Move some of the bees out of the way of the cage and check to be sure your queen is alive. A hive without a queen is an island of Lost Boys (or girls). They cannot thrive; they will meander aimlessly without purpose or meaning until they die off leaving no prodigy.
Remove the cork plugs; there's a candy plug underneath so the bees can slowly meet each other. In a few days, you are going to re-open the hive again to make sure your queen is out and ok, and to remove the cage you hung between the frames. Sometimes I give the bees a head start and carefully poke a hole through the candy plug. But be careful not to harm the queen.
Hang the queen cage between two frames in the lower box of your hive. If humans live in a horizontal world, the bees live in a vertical world running along frames that are like Rolodex hanging file folders hanging inside a file box. They build octagonal comb and fill the cells with either baby bees, royal jelly, or honey. Someday, each of the hanging frames can eventually be scraped down pulling sheets of gooey honey and beeswax off of them.
Once the queen cage is hung, wrap the box of bees so they drop like a clump into the hive between the frames. You have to wrap the box and shake the box several times to get most of them out. You do all of this and you usually don’t get stung. It is an amazing thing that the honey bees let you do this to them, as if they know you are giving them a good place to live.
A fee bees linger behind but just set aside the bee box and they’ll eventually figure out where they need to go.
Once most of the bees are out of the box and in the hive box, put another hive box full of frames on top of the first one. Sometimes the bees are running along the straight edges of the boxes; brush the bees away or use your hive tool to move them. Sometimes one or two of them gets squished in the process. I find this is when you’re most likely to get stung.
Some beekeepers wear gloves; I don’t. I’ll wear a bee suit and a veil but I have small hands and the gloves are usually too big and they hinder me. I find I am more graceful and less clumsy without them. But I did get stung once this time on the palm of my hand when putting the top box up.
It hurts a little when a honey bee stings you but not as much as a hornet or a wasp sting. If you flick the stinger out of your skin to stop the venom from pumping, it stops hurting quickly. Plus it helps if you think of bee venom like medicine — that’s what I do. I read somewhere a long time ago that bee venom can be used to keep arthritis at bay, and even though I do not have arthritis, I think of bee venom as medicine and it helps me manage the experience, if it happens.
Put the lid on top of the hive. Traditional bottom-entry bee hives also have an outer telescoping cover; I’ve been using a top entry hive with smaller, easier-to-handle boxes and they only have a top lid and no cover.
The hiving is done; give your new bees some syrup for a head-start. A bee feeder is filled and placed at the entrance to the hive off to the side.
Now the best thing to do is leave your bees alone for several days until they have met their queen and begun to establish themselves inside the hive. Don’t open the hive for at least three days.
Collect your tools and leave them alone. Watch them from a distance and you’ll know the hive is doing well when you see little bees darting purposefully in and out of the hive entrance like race car drivers.
The slight discomfort of my single bee sting on the palm of my right hand was a satisfying reminder to me that keeping honey bees is a pretty cool thing to do. I am not an expert beekeeper but I keep trying and I can’t imagine a summer without their companionship in my garden. Maybe give it a try yourself.
Disclaimer: The hiving instructions here are not perfect and you should get a good bee book and watch a lot of YouTube videos before you try to hive your own bees. This article is only intended to entertain you and give you a general idea of what the experience is like.