...sometimes even a single feather is enough to fly. (Robert Maclean)


becoming a beekeeper

 Two weekends ago I was a nervous wreck.

The package of honeybees I had ordered in January from Honeybee Headquarters 
was finally on its way, after many delays due to weather... 

The bees had been packaged up in an apiary in Georgia 
and had been on the move in the back of a truck non-stop 
to get them to beekeepers all throughout the northeast.  

We met our bee delivery guy at the drop spot,
which was going to be about 40 minutes away,
but it ended up being 4 miles away.
Trust me, 4 miles with 10,000 bees inside the car with you still feels like a loooong way
especially if you're a scaredy cat like me thinking of the worst case scenarios like
what if someone rear-ends us and the bee package gets jostled / crushed open
and they all come rushing out angrily and we're trapped in the car?

Luckily Boo was driving and I just sat there tightly gripping the oh-shit bar,
rambling about all of the things that could go wrong
and turning around every 5 seconds to make sure no bees were escaping.

Sometimes I really am such a piece of w.
That's what we call a real piece of work.


So, I'm here to report that actually holding
3 pounds of honeybees (about 10,000 of them!)
in a rinky dinky box
buzzing between your bare hands 
is utterly thrilling and amazing.

They feel like such a life force.
Because they are.

Here's the box they went into.
Boo got me this beautiful top bar hive from Bee Thinking for my birthday this year.
It has lots of great features that I'm coming to love even more with time.
 By far and away the most fun thing is being able to see
what the bees are doing through the viewing window.

 I was feeling overwhelmed at what seemed to be a daunting task:
how to get the bees out of that little box and into the hive.

I read books.  I surfed the net.  I watched videos about installing packages.
Once you research too much, you see that everyone does it a little differently.
Plus top bar hives are outliers - the majority of folks keep bees in Langstroth hives.
And beekeepers are folks with strong opinions.
For every person who talks about a great way, 
there is someone who feels very strongly about why you shouldn't do it that way.
This did not instill confidence.

Thank goodness for our friend Wendy (those of you who have been following my blog
might remember Wendy as the source of all things garlic).
Wendy also happens to be an entomologist
who spent some time working at at a bee lab.  
She knows a thing or two about bees.
Wendy always has a can-do attitude and doesn't easily get intimidated.   
She's even captured wild swarms hanging from electrical pole wires.
 She talks about these things as if it's like getting the mail, 
or making a cup of coffee.

With Wendy's assistance,
I went from being totally terrified to feeling fascinated in a matter of moments,
even with hundreds of bees flying right past my face.

We were so caught up in the experience of "installing" the package of bees
that we don't have any pictures from that process.
Installing the bees, in retrospect, is not that scientific.

Beekeepers joke about "bonking" the bees into the hive, 
which is exactly what one does.
You bonk the box.  
You shake them out.
You tilt the box this way and that, and give it another whap.
There will be A LOT of bees flying around.
The bees will be buzzing what sounds like an almost decipherable
"Hey lady, WTF?!"
But very soon they will forget all about it 
and be happy to be in their new digs.

The queen cage is the trickiest and most important part.
We put it in the bottom of the hive, 
and had to remove it a few days later 
after she had been released from the cage by the workers.

(In the future, I think I will follow Michael Bush's advice and direct release the queen 
if the workers have accepted her.)

 The older worker bees who leave the hive to forage come and go through this entrance hole.
(I was a little nervous that it's such a big hole...
but it seems to be fine so far, and it can be closed down with a reducer.)

The girls have been hard at work...
Look at the rows of comb they've been drawing!!! 
Every day it gets bigger and bigger in there.  
This picture was after the first week.
Now, almost 3 weeks later - they've built out about 12 bars of comb!

 They're little mathematical geniuses with wings.
The geometry of it all is mind-blowing.
Bees build hexagonal cells because they are the most efficient and have the most tensile strength 
for all of the purposes of the hive (raising brood, storing heavy honey, etc.)

If you want to be able to "work" the hive and harvest honey,
one of the most critical things is that the bees are building STRAIGHT comb
 (i.e. one comb hanging down per bar).
If they start cross combing, that is -- if they attach portions of a single comb
to spots on several other bars -- it has to be corrected right away.
Otherwise there won't be any way to get in the hive
without destroying comb and having bees die as a casualty...)

The main ways to ensure you get straight comb in a top bar style hive are to
- get your hive level
- use top bars with a wedged shape to encourage them to build down from the wedge.


So, why did I decide to embark on this adventure?

 In retrospect, I've romanticized the idea of being a bee "charmer" 
ever since I saw Fried Green Tomatoes.
If anyone out there remembers that movie,
Idgie Threadgoode could make even someone
who has to carry an epi-pen feel excited about the adventure 
of stealing a little honey.

It's about more than stealing a little honey for the honey pot, though.
(more on the medicinal aspects of the hive in a later post...)
The main reason I decided to do this is because
I want to help the bees.

The honeybee population is in trouble,
and we'll be in real trouble without them.
Their pollination is critical to large amounts of our food supply.
Not to mention that they are amazing, amazing bee-ings.  :)
Even if our bees started cross-combing like crazy and we couldn't fix it in time,
and even if we never got a drop of honey from the hive,
I am so happy that we did this. 

A friend of ours who is a permaculturist / farmer
spends practically every waking hour outside on his land
and he has not seen a single honeybee yet this year.
Things are so deeply wrong with our biosphere 
and we have to turn it around.
So, we're doing our part here, to help keep the bees going.
And we'll do our best to do right by them.


If you don't have the desire or the means to get your own natural hive going,
there are plenty of things you can do.
First and foremost, if you ever see a swarm of honeybees,
or a nest built in an inconvenient location to you (soffets, barns, trees)
 please don't call pest control to exterminate them!  
Post an ad to Craigslist or call your local beekeeping organization 
and a beekeeper will be SO HAPPY to come and 
take your honeybee swarm away for free.

Besides the obvious of not killing any honeybees,
you can also:

- eat organic foods as much as possible 
(non-organic farming using pesticides that are very dangerous to bees, 
not to mention your body!)

- don't use pesticides in your lawn / garden

- plant flowers that the bees love! (there are sooo many!)

- buy honey from local beekeepers who keep their hives as naturally as possible

- when your dandelions come into bloom, remember that they are major bee magnets!
If you can tolerate a little wildness in your yard just for an extra week, 
let your grass grow a little longer when the dandelions are flowering 
so the bees can get a good nectar flow.  They will make so much honey and be so happy with you. 
You can mow your lawn back down to size the next week.

While you're at it, you could even try to make a little dandelion wine.
The bees don't mind sharing with you.

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