June 1, 2010: I officially became a beekeeper. My bees arrived at the post office in good condition. There had been a few casualties during transit, but that was to be expected. The three of us (Ginny, Sanchez and I) got to the empty hive with the bees at about 7:30 pm. It was a hot day, but the sun was setting and there was little wind, so conditions were more or less ideal for hiving. (Some clouds would have been better, but the bees really wanted to go home, and after several weeks of delays, I was impatient to get them there.)
Having read several books and watched dozens of videos, I felt fairly confident that I knew what to do and how to do it. With the bees' cooperation, Hiving Day would be a successful little adventure that would finally start me on the road to a fulfilling and enjoyable activity for years to come. When it came time to do it for real, it was not without some measure of trepidation on my part. This was, after all, my first attempt at interaction with thousands of confused, traumatized, and possibly aggressive animals that -- let's face it -- have inspired a deep, instinctual fear in human beings for a hundred thousand years. I had never experienced a bee sting in my entire life, and I didn't even know if I was allergic.
Despite the inherent risk, I decided to wear no protection while installing the bees in their home. I'd seen it done without protection more than a few times, and I wanted to force myself to develop a comfort with and trust in my new friends, and to circumvent the irrational fear of bees that many people have. Hubris, you say? Perhaps, but many beekeeping books and manuals say that the bees, once sprayed with plenty of sugar water and released from the shipping cage into a brand new hive, are at their most docile, and with no honey to defend and relieved to finally have a real home, are very unlikely to sting. They also especially encourage the novice beekeeper to work without gloves, which cause the movements of your hands to be awkward and clumsy, further disturbing the bees. I put my faith in that reasoning and took my chances.
Once the feeding can is removed from the shipping container and the queen cage installed in the hive, the only thing left to do is to dump the bees into the open hive body, set the feeder on top, and close it up. The purpose of spraying them with syrup before shaking them out is to keep them occupied with licking the syrup off themselves, and to inhibit flying by sticking their wings together. Maybe I didn't use enough, or maybe my bees are just powerful fliers, but once I began to shake them into the hive, I immediately found myself in the midst of a noisy cloud of bees. That primal fear took hold, and it didn't take us long to decide that the suit, which I had brought along just in case, would be preferable after all.
Beekeepers like to say that you're not a real beekeeper until you've been stung. Luckily for me, I became a real beekeeper on my very first day. My ungloved hand, which was sticky with syrup, attracted the attention of one of my flying bees, and instead of just allowing it to harmlessly land on my hand, I subconsciously kept waving it away, resulting in my first bee sting ever, on the side of my left thumb. (Ginny called it my "bee mitzvah.") And for a special bee mitzvah gift, one of my girls sacrificed her life in sharing with me the knowledge that I am not allergic to bee venom, and in so doing, dispelled any worries about anaphylaxis I may have had, forever. Of course, there's also the added bonus of swelling and discomfort, but that's the badge of a real beekeeper, isn't it?
Other than that, the hiving went quickly and smoothly. The bees are in their new home, with a good supply of syrup in their feeder, and when we returned the next day, Ginny and I spent a few minutes observing them happily taking their orientation flights, slowly circling the hive and crowding around the entrance, learning their surroundings in preparation for foraging. These first couple of days in the hive will be the laziest of their lives -- a brief holiday during which all they have to do is to fly freely and enjoy their new environment.
It will take a few days for the queen to be released from her little cage. The sugar candy plugging the exit will be eaten from the outside by the workers in the hive, and from the inside by the queen and her attendants, until she is freed. During that time, the rest of the colony will grow accustomed to her scent and accept her as their queen, even though she is not their mother. The rest of the workers will be busy for the next couple of weeks secreting wax from glands on the undersides of their abdomens and shaping it into the comb, building the cells that will house the colony and the brood, and in which they will store their food supply. They'll all spend the rest of the summer working hard to ensure that they have enough honey stocked for the winter.
Everything is a learning experience. Aside from a little sting, it was exciting and we all had fun, and I look forward to working my first hive this year, and starting new ones again next year. Check back for the bees' progress. We'll be posting more next week when we open the hive for the first time!
And here's the video:
Trouble playing it, or just want it bigger?
Here's the video on YouTube: Hiving Day