Our first package of bees arrived tonight and we are incredibly excited!
There was a mountain of information to learn, to say nothing of the equipment we needed to acquire and build, prior to being ready to introduce bees to our little farm.
Back in late March, I went with a friend to an Organic Beekeeping Seminar in Lincoln, Vermont. The seminar was two full days and covered everything from learning bee anatomy, building frames and painting bee boxes, to establishing a queen and harvesting honey. By the end of the weekend, I felt more nervous and unprepared than I did before it started. I’d had no idea how complicated beekeeping could be–I hadn’t realized how many things could (and tend to) go wrong. Ross Conrad (pictured) ran the seminar and also wrote a very user-friendly book called Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture that has been my go-to for all bee-related questions.
A friend of mine has been keeping bees for four years. She signed on to hold my hand through this process and make the daunting procedure a bit less so. She taught me how to build bee boxes and assemble frames, helped me order the equipment that would best suit my needs, and when the time came, delivered my package of bees and introduced them into the hive I’d built.
We decided to start with two hives. Establishing a hive is no small undertaking, either financially or work-wise. Two seemed to be a doable number, so we went with that. Once our boxes were built, we needed to prime and then paint them. We found inexpensive exterior paint at the hardware store by purchasing “mis-tint” paint (paint that someone else returned because the color wasn’t right). The only really important thing about the paint, other than not using an oil-based one, is that you choose at least two different colors and vary their layout from hive to hive. Bees learn to visually identify their hive, so a distinctive paint pattern will be something that they remember and use to find their way home.
Because so many people have been losing their bees to varroa mites, colony collapse disorder, and other problems, finding a nucleus colony of local bees was extremely challenging. We will be getting one nucleus (or nuc) from a local beekeeper who is in the process of creating nucs from his hives at this very moment. As soon as the nuc is ready, we’ll pick it up and settle it in about 10 feet away from the first hive.
When nucs aren’t available, the alternative is a package. Package bees can be great, but they can also come with their own host of troubles. Because a package isn’t made up of bees that all came from the same hive, it can take time for package bees to get to know one another and then settle in to get to know and then protect the queen, create brood (lay eggs), and make honey.
A newly introduced package of bees is weak and vulnerable and runs the risk of being invaded by stronger, more established hives. We opted to try one package and one nuc so that we will have had experience with each as we go forward.
Maggie and Kelly arrived at around 8:00 tonight with our bees. What a wondrous thing it is to hold an entire hive in your hands! The weight, the sounds, the vibrations–all of it was quite emotional, actually.
Earlier today, I had made a batch of 2:1 simple syrup for the bees, to which I was going to add some Honey-B-Healthy (emulsified lemongrass and spearmint oils). Maggie and Kelly were going to bring my feeding buckets and HBH along when they brought the bees, but that box of stuff was left behind accidentally.
While not having a way to feed the bees would normally be cause for extreme alarm (these are package bees, after all, they haven’t made any honey; there is no way they won’t starve), Maggie saved the day by trading two of her frames, heavy with honey, for two of my empty ones. Quite a deal, both for me and for my bees… Well, mostly for my bees. The frames she gave looked like this:
That beautiful honey will be what the bees eat as they gain strength and create their colony. Honey is far preferable to a sugar-water mixture, so it was quite a gift to have been given. You can think of the difference as the same as eating food fresh from the garden or going to McDonald’s. Both are filling and will provide sustenance, but only one is actually good for you.
Once the frames were in place, it was time to take out the queen. The queen comes in a small wooden box with mesh sides and must be released from this packaging by the workers bees. The queen box has a small silver disc at one end and a hunk of candy at the other end. The cage is hung from this disc between two frames until the hive bees have eaten through the candy to release her. We will go in later to remove the box. If, after a few days, she hasn’t been released, we will need to open the mesh of the cage and let her out ourselves.
The package also comes with a feed can, which gives the bees an immediate place to attach themselves and assists in the transition from package to hive. Here, you can see the feed can atop the frames, starting to attract the first bees released from the package. The silver disc to the front-left of it is the top of the queen cage. Six of the frames are empty. The two darker frames are the ones Maggie gave us that are full of honey and will be the main source of food to get our package off to the best possible start.
Getting the bees to leave the package and enter the hive was harder than we expected! We sprayed them with a little sugar water to calm and distract them, then Maggie (pictured) shook as many of them out as possible. The ones that just wouldn’t come out were allowed to stay in the package which we placed right next to the hive opening. Over the course of the night, the majority of the remaining bees made their migration into the hive.
Introducing them in the calm of the evening was ideal. The bees settled in easily and will continue to settle in over the next couple of days. They are situated between wildflowers and our back garden, which will soon be filled with squash blossoms. Just a few yards away, we have planted sunflowers, phacelia, calendula, cosmos sensations, and nasturium. There is no end to the goldenrod, dandelions, and other indigenous flora available to them.