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Ross’s Bee Journal, #1: Bees Arrive

April 19, 2005

On Friday we finally got a call from our bee teacher that our bees were in. They were more than a week late. We picked them up a little after 6 pm and brought them back to the farm. A few were out of the cage but they stayed with the group, hovering around and occasionally landing on the mesh-sided wooden box. They must have been fed by their caged sisters during the journey. Bees are constantly sharing food with each other.

Jeff, the guy who leads the bee workshops we attend once a month, had many packages of bees in the back of his pickup, and other beekeepers were there to get their bees. Lots and lots of loose bees, but all stayed with their hive mates. I guess it’s difficult to get all of 7 or 8 thousand bees into a container about the size of a shoebox. It’s funny to think of a truck full of bee packages coming all the way from California with loose bees buzzing around in it.

So we drove our pickup right out near the evergreen windbreak to the west where we planned to put the hive. Then we loaded the golf cart with the hive and our suits and drove that over there, too. We set up the hive, donned our suits, and then proceeded to unload the bees into the hive.

I later realized that I did one thing wrong. I forgot to remove the queen cage from the main cage before dumping the bees from the main cage into the hive. But she was none the worse for wear when I did pull her little matchbox-sized cage out, covered with concerned and attentive bees. I shook the workers off and there she was, very dark and scurrying back and forth. So happy we got a live queen. Sometimes they don’t make it.

I couldn’t get the cork out of the end of her cage, so I just peeled back the screen mesh that covered one side and she disappeared into the mass of bees on top of the frames. We’re told she should go directly down into the frames. She’ll probably start laying eggs right away. Jeff gave us one frame of drawn comb from one of his hives. It even had honey stored in it. This gives the bees a head start. They have 9 more frames with no comb on it that they’ll have to start building out.

After we finished putting the bees in, we closed up the hive. At this point you’re supposed to have the main entrance to the hive closed, and any vent holes in the hive body plugged. This protects the weak, new colony from attack by neighboring bees who may sense their weakness and try to rob them of their food.

Of course, several of our new bees were flying around and not in the hive when we closed it. Janice was very concerned about them. They can get in through a small opening under the outer cover, but she wasn’t sure they’d find their way in. We called Jeff and he said they’d be fine and would get in. Later we reviewed one of our bee books and it confirmed that this was normal when hiving a package of bees.

So the process was a little tense, only because we wanted to be sure and do it right. No fear of the bees, though, and no stings. They were really quite gentle. Jeff said they were Carniolans (apis mellifera carnica, originally from Austria) but they look like the more common Italians to us (apis mellifera ligustica). Both types are known for gentleness.

The next morning Janice was concerned about bees on the outside of the hive. One seemed bigger and looked different and she was afraid the queen had gotten out. We went and looked and couldn’t see any evidence that the queen was out. There did seem to be some struggles going on, so we surmised that the wild hive that lives in one of our hackberry trees had sent some field bees over to try and rob the new hive. Our colony was defending itself admirably.

Late in the day, around the time we had hived the bees the day before, we suited up and removed the empty upper hive body and the box the bees came in. This extra hive body is used to create a space above the frames in which to release the bees into the hive, and to leave the travel box overnight until the remaining bees crawl out of it. It still had one lazy bee left in it. I shook her out and she flew back to the hive. Some bees were still crawling around the empty hive body so we just left it and the travel box in the grass until later.

We filled their feeder with sugar syrup, covered the hive, and opened the entrance cleat to its smallest opening. Now the bees can come and go through the bottom of the hive, but still have a small opening to defend as they build up their strength. Later we’ll open it to its full width as their activity and numbers increase.

We didn’t bother to smoke the bees (this calms them) and they were fine and gentle again. We feel so calm around them, like we were made for this.

On Sunday I made pollen patties. This is a pollen substitute that you feed the bees early in the season until they have had time to gather enough natural pollen to stock the hive. It’s half soy flour and half brewer’s yeast, wetted with sugar syrup to the consistency of peanut butter. I made too much. We have about 10 patties in the fridge. I hope they store well. Wonder if it would be good on toast.

We went out early afternoon and finished filling the feeder with syrup (holds about a gallon, which they will go through in a few days) and gave them a couple pollen patties. Again we didn’t smoke them. When we start pulling out frames to check for brood production we may have to use smoke. But so far, they seem quite comfortable with us.

Probably, as with most animals, they sense fear. If you are peaceful and unafraid they will leave you alone. Still, I’m not ready to open the hive without a suit and veil. There were some beekeepers at our last workshop that wore no protection at all and were right there with their faces in the hives with the rest of us. Even among those who wear veils, many don’t bother with gloves.

We did go right up to the hive, unprotected, to observe them from the outside. We saw workers carring dead bees out and placing them gently in the grass in front of the hive. These are either casualties of conflict with robber bees, the vanquished robbers themselves, or bees that didn’t survive the journey. Bees are very tidy. Even in the winter they will leave the hive to take a "cleansing flight." This is one reason it is recommended that you not place hives near clotheslines. You’ll end up with bee poop on your air-dried duds.

Several returning field bees had their back legs packed with pollen. Many things are blooming now at the farm, so the pickins are good. We’ve placed the hive right by the orchard, and the pear trees were blooming last weekend, while the apple trees were about to bloom. Maybe the fruit will be better this summer with some help from the bees.

Ross Thompson

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