Ready? Okay. Here’s the truth about honeybees…
They are in no way terrifying. They want nothing to do with you. They will only sting you when they feel that their queen is threatened. The only stings I have received since keeping bees have been entirely my own fault; those times when I’ve approached the hives without a smoker because “I just want to do _____ real quick…”
I learned early on that the first rule of beekeeping is to have a clear plan before opening your hive. Know exactly what it is you want to see/do in there and have everything you need to do it close at hand.
Before I got my hives, I spent a weekend in Lincoln, Vermont, at an organic beekeeping seminar. I got a truckload of information during this time, but it was all theoretical. I didn’t have my own hives yet and so I had to file all the information for future use. At the time, that seemed reasonable. I learned very quickly, however, that the information didn’t really translate when I was standing with two hives in front of me and I couldn’t determine what was going on after all.
I got one package of bees (pictured) and one nucleus of bees. I thought it would be a good idea to get one of each to see the difference and have the full inaugural beekeeping experience. Most beekeepers are anti-package bees. The main reason is that the bees aren’t local and aren’t necessarily sustainable when transplanted into a totally different climate. Another reason is that package bees aren’t a natural hive. They are assembled, with an introduced (rather than created) queen. Still, I wanted to give it a shot.
I had the good fortune of receiving a nucleus colony from a nearby beekeeper. A nucleus is a hive that is made by splitting a thriving hive and re-queening it. A local bee guy took one of my supers (one of the boxes that holds bee frames) and returned it to me about a month later full of local bees, complete with a queen they “made” themselves.
These two hives stand side by side and have totally different temperaments. The package bees are smaller and louder. One day, I came outside and saw that the package beehive was covered with bees on the outside. I couldn’t figure out why this was happening and immediately assumed that what I was witnessing was robbing behavior. I thought that the stronger nucleus hive was robbing the weaker package hive and didn’t know what to do.
I called a beekeeper friend, told her that it looked like my hive was being robbed and, trusting that I was assessing the situation correctly, she suggested that I shut down the victimized hive. This meant I should close off all the openings to the hive, leaving only a bee-sized hole at the very bottom. This would allow the weaker bees to defend themselves properly while still being able to go about the business of being bees.
So that’s what I did.
But I was wrong.
They weren’t being robbed; they were just really hot.
And this is why the information I got in the seminar wasn’t helping me when I needed help. What I needed was an actual beekeeping human person to come look at my hive, see what I wasn’t experienced enough to see, and help me fix the problem.
Ellen is in her third year of beekeeping. This means she has made most of the mistakes already and can more quickly determine what is happening. She is also not afraid to open up the hive and look at what’s going on up close. What I needed more than anything was someone like Ellen to come help me stop being scared and know that it is okay to manipulate the hives.
Almost immediately, Ellen saw that what I interpreted as robbing was really bearding. Bearding happens as a result of a hive being either overfull or too hot (or both) and is not unusual, but is frequently misdiagnosed. Others have told me they thought their bees were getting ready to swarm, but were simply bearding, which is how bees regulate the temperature of their hive. While they use their wings and bodies to warm a hive in the winter, their vibrating wings collectively act like an air conditioner in the summer. If it’s crazy hot (as it has been here), the adult bees simply go to the outside of the hive which cools them off as well as dropping the hive temperature on the inside. This interior temperature drop is essential to the survival of brood (the developing baby bees)–if it stayed too hot for too long, the brood would basically cook.
So, by shutting down what I thought was a victimized hive, I was just making it even hotter and even more difficult for the bees to come out and cool themselves down.
We went through both hives and found honey, brood, and eggs. All the signs of a healthy, thriving beehive. The package hive which I had thought was weak was, in fact, substantially stronger than the nucleus hive.
Despite my best efforts, I did not seem to have killed off any bee brood, nor did I manage to do any permanent damage to the hive colony itself.
All I needed to do was open it up all the way, removing screen covers and bottom boards. The bees just needed some ventilation and fewer obstructions. Once the hive was opened and we were sure that each one had the space it needed to expand, the difference was immediately clear. We went from having a hive that was covered in hot, unhappy bees, to having two hives that are simply doing what bees do.