Saturday, June 4, 2011

Jennifer Tyler: The Beginner Beekeeper, Part Three

To read Part One in this series, click here.
To read Part Two, click here.
On my 30th birthday I officially became a beekeeper. Inclement weather here and in Georgia caused “bee day” to be pushed back a week. Really, it wasn't so nice on pickup day, either: overcast and misty with patches of heavy rain. All weekend long I followed the progress of the bee packages as Stuart of Stonewall Apiary drove them from Georgia to Connecticut, posting on Facebook along the way. It doesn't get any more inspiring than this post: “I definitely have the best job in the world.”
Driving back home with two colonies of bees in the trunk of my car, I was overwhelmed and excited. I know that the bees largely take care of themselves, but there is husbandry involved on my part. I can't freak out and decide this isn't for me. The bees are ultimately my responsibility now, come what may.
Though I went to bee school and read the books, I was feeling unprepared. I couldn't sleep; I was too busy going through the steps. But I was stuck on the step where I was to “pour the bees into the hive.” I can't even imagine 10,000 flying insects being poured. Pouring is how orange juice gets from one container to another. Bees? Pouring?
When I picked up the packages at Stonewall Apiary in Hanover, Connecticut, I had a chance to practice on Stuart's colonies. Stuart (my apiarist friend and mentor) had a few colonies that didn't make it through the winter, and after I watched him install a package, he talked me through installing one myself.
Everything went perfectly. The bees behaved in textbook fashion, and they really did pour into the hive. I was covered in bees — it's hard to brush them away from a wool sweater — but I wasn't stung, and I didn't freak out. I left the apiary feeling confident and collected.
Then I arrived at my little beeyard. My two hives — pretty in the colors “custard” and “teacup” — stood waiting for their denizens. To savor the experience I set one package on top of each hive and stared at them for a while. The bees clung together and hung in a mass around the sugar syrup feeder. Gently shaking the box made the whole mass swing and move as a single organism. Oh, finally, I was ready.
Right away things didn't go quite as smoothly with my own hives. Bees started escaping. I dropped my hive tool. More bees escaped. I set the feeder down upside down so the sugar syrup was leaking out. But when I pulled the first queen cage from the bigger package, I nearly cried with a peaceful joy.
The queen ships separate from the rest of the colony in her own tiny cage fitted with a candy plug at one end. Having come from different hives at their parent apiary, the worker bees in the package are not yet completely devoted to their new queen and matriarch. It will take the workers a few days to eat through the candy and release the queen, during which time they become tuned in to her pheromones, and the colony is ready to grow and thrive together.
Carefully, I taped the first queen cage to the wired foundation and slid the frame into the hive. Success! One bee inside one hive!
As at Stonewall I removed the feeder can (more escaped bees), thumped the box on the ground, and flipped it upside down over the hive to pour the bees. It wasn't as pretty or as easy, but three or four more thumps and dumps and most of the bees were in the hive.
Sometime around then I saw the lone bee inside my veil. Shortly after that I felt the lone bee inside my veil: my first honeybee sting. It wasn't so bad, except that I had my hands full and a cumbersome veil over my head. I retied the veil to avoid further breaches of security, covered the first hive, and moved on to the second.
Installing the second package was nearly perfect; these bees poured properly on the first thump and went right down into the hive. Easy peasy.
I left for an hour or so to let the rest of the bees find their way to their respective homes; I returned to find near-empty packages and two hives of buzzing activity. I let them have 4 or 5 days to sort themselves out in peace — there is so much work to do: recognizing and ultimately releasing the queen, eating the pollen supplement and sugar syrup, drawing out comb from the empty foundations.
The installation having gone smoothly and the first sting having not been so bad, I have no regrets about my decision to keep honeybees. I am filled with excitement for all that lies ahead during this inaugural season!
Jennifer Tyler works for Bank Square Books, an independent bookstore in southeastern Connecticut. When not reading or writing, she's playing with horses, dabbling in the fiber arts, or tending an organic vegetable garden with her boyfriend. Beekeeping and spinning are the latest projects in her effort to “homestead” on less than a quarter acre of rented land. Her search for authenticity is like a bottomless well.

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