Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bee More Cool

On Friday afternoon, I picked up this lovely package of three to four thousand Italian honey bees. They'd had a long journey, driven out from California, where a centuries old family-run farm raises bees and separates them into these packages for beekeepers. The bees are huddled around a coffee can of sugar syrup, and also around their queen, who is in her own little queen cage, hanging from the top. She can't reach the syrup, but--don't worry! The bees will feed her and keep her cool.

I was so excited to get them into their hive that I baffled the girls' teachers by pulling them out of school an hour early because "the bees are here". The girls were fascinated and not too scared. Here's Indy, spraying the bees with a mist of sugar water. It calms them down and gives them something to do. By the time I got the bees home, they were resounding a pretty loud hum. After being misted, they went quiet and busied themselves, happily cleaning the sugar syrup off one another.

And here's me, so proud of these little beauties! Beekeepers call these Italian babies (package bees are young bees) "the blondes", because they are so lovely and yellow. More on that in a minute.

I was determined to do the whole thing without a veil, because I'm hardcore (don't say 'or stupid').  So here I go, prying the sugar can out and getting ready to shake the girls into their new home.

Well. The moment I got that feed can out, there were bees everywhere, even though I'd blocked the entrance. They were buzzing quite loudly. Since I had done this before, you know, never, I wasn't sure if I was hearing industrious buzzing or "We would like to kill you now" buzzing. I like to think they just didn't know me yet. Also I want to add that it is difficult to grasp the meaning of FOUR THOUSAND bees until they are buzzing about your head and covering your back. So I went and donned my veil. Later I would realize that one bee was in my veil with me. But she didn't mind.

 Here I am shaking the bees into the hive. You just take the package and knock it once on the ground so the bees fall to the bottom. Then you turn it upside down and shake them out, Florence style (somebody stop me). They fall out like raisins. They are very docile at this point.

But alas! Before you can shake out the bees, you must remove the queen. Here she is surrounded by bees in her cage. Although my babies are Italians, the queen is a Carniolan. Carniolan bees are better suited for our climate. They cut back on brood-rearing in the early fall, so there are fewer bees that have to be fed over winter. Italian bees do better in warmer climes and raise brood late into the fall. They're not impossible to keep here, but more difficult for a novice such as myself. Unfortunately, the Carniolans lack the pretty yellow color. They are dark grayish-black. In a month or so, all my blonde beauties will die off (summer bees live about six weeks only) and and I'll have a hive of Carniolans. Like any mother, I worry that I might love my prettier babies more. (Don't tell the Carnies).

This is what a hive full of four thousand bees looks like. The ziploc in there is a syrup feeder. It's a good idea to feed new bees because they don't even have any comb drawn yet, let alone bee bread (a sort of enzyme-treated pollen) or honey.

The queen cage, with Queen Carnie. Sorry you can't see her, husband had a camera, no veil, and might have been feeling too edgy for a close-up.

The girls checking out the queen. That is sugar syrup spilled down my trousers, lest you think I wet myself in terror. One bee landed on the spot and hung out happily for awhile.

The queen's cage comes with a cork in the bottom. I popped the cork out and replaced it with a marshmallow, then hung it in the hive between two top bars. This ensures that the queen won't fly off, and makes the bees less likely to abscond, as they won't leave their queen. (Such loyalists!)

On Sunday, the second day after installing the package, I went in to remove the queen cage. I used my veil and it's a good thing, as the bees covered my arms and back and were in no hurry to leave (when I was done, I had to sit in the yard for about ten minutes, waiting for them to buzz back to the hive.) The bees had eaten the marshmallow and freed their queen. I was shocked to see they'd already begun drawing comb on three bars. Sadly, they had started attaching comb to the queen cage and I knocked a hand-sized portion of it down when I removed the cage. I felt terrible. The bees had worked so hard for that beautiful comb. Luckily Ayla was there to remind me that this was my first time, and it was ok to make mistakes. 

 Aren't they gorgeous? Yesterday afternoon I was watching the hive and noticed the bees were coming in with bright yellow and orange pollen packed in their pollen baskets, little compartments on their back legs. The pollen looks like cheery saddlebags.

I'm so proud of them. And I haven't been stung once. All beekeepers get stung eventually, but honey bees really are very gentle as long as they aren't experiencing a nectar or honey dearth.

Love from the hive,


  1. This. is. awesome. YOU are awesome. I look forward to many bee-keeping stories. :)

  2. They're so BEE-utiful! And yes. Yes, I am going to keep making "bee" references.

    Get used to it.

    (But seriously, I think you're the coolest for keeping bees, Bea. You're the bee's knees. Bea is the bee's knees...okay, I'll stop. For now...)

  3. I want so much to sit and watch your bees work. Thank you for sharing these pictures so I can drool and dream.

  4. That is so cool! I'ma bit jealous except that I'm afraid of bees. :)

  5. Thanks, everyone. I hope the bees do well. They are beautiful.

  6. So excited for you! I'm taking a class this weekend, just to dip my toes into the beekeeping waters. Best of luck with your new hive!

  7. Thanks, Meryl! Fair warning, these beauties are addictive. I hope you get some bees. They are so good for your soul.


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