Honey bees are incredible. They are so industrious, organized, and community oriented. Even after two days of travel by post, refreshed by a few squirts of sugar water, they will happily make themselves at home in the human equivalent of a FEMA trailer. A disheveled group of refugees, under the rule of a new queen with absolutely no leadership experience, they work together to build themselves a sanctuary.
It’s an understatement to say I admire them. Awe might be a better word. Unfortunately, I failed at three previous attempts at providing them safe haven. My first two hives died over winter. Our next two failed inconspicuously – so for lack of any evidence as to the cause, I’m going with colony collapse disorder. We went big our third try and started with four hives. Two froze right after installation due to extremely cold temperatures in late April. One that seemed super strong – as in two supers of honey and a nearly full brood comb in the first year, got taken out by wax codling moths. That’s not supposed to happen to strong hives, but apparently my hive didn’t know this. And our final colony was colonized by Japanese wasps.
After those unfortunate experiences, we took a year off and did more research. We made a few modifications to the top bar hive plans we had followed like reducing the size and number of bee openings and tightening up the top bar spacers. We also decided to hedge our bets and put one package in a Langstroth hive and one a top bar hive that Matt built. Finally, we went with Carniolan bees.
Carniolans are supposed to be more aggressive defenders of their hives which we thought was important after our last experience. They are also supposed to be able to gather more pollen even in bad weather and forage later into fall and winter so they go into winter with lots of food stores. They are famed to have good resistance to Varroa mites. Finally, they make more honey than Italian bees.
Now, for the cons. They take more management to prevent swarming. Oh, and they are not quite as gentle as the Italians – so that means more apitherapy for me!
Karen, our awesome postal person, called me at 7:30 this morning to tell me our little ladies were in. I had warned her a month ago that bees would be forthcoming, when I picked up a batch of chicks, and she had promised to let me know as soon as they arrived. The heap of dead bees piled on the bottom of each box affirmed that their journey had not been an easy one. The survivors, though, were still numerous and clustered like an impenetrable phalanx around their new queens (or maybe the sugar water – hard to tell for sure).
I prepped my gear – face cover, hive tool, spray bottle of sugar water. I also filled some sugar water feeders to give the bees a head start. I am not a fan of the idea of feeding sugar water. But even I eat a little junk food now and then, particularly when I’m in a new place where I don’t know my options. We won’t make a habit of this, but it seemed OK for today.
Then, veil in place, I used my hive tool to pry out the sugar water can in the bee package. This is always the hardest part since the rim is so narrow, it’s hard to get your fingers around it.
Next up, I unstapled the queen cage from the package and removed the cap from the sugar tunnel. The queen needs time to earn the trust of her new crew, so a rock candy barrier separates her from her attendants. As they gnaw their way to the queen, they also get accustomed to her smell and come to terms with her rule. Theoretically, by the time she’s freed, they’ve accepted her.
The other queen cages I’ve opened have been wood and wire mesh with obvious corks. The queen cages today were like dishwasher baskets and I actually had to call the bee company and double check which cap to open on this cage since I couldn’t see the candy (covered by black tape in the photo). The long side turned out to be the right one and it has a cover similar to a Chap Stick lid. One queen came with a pinkish lid (shown) and the other was a clear lid.
After rubber-banding the queen cage to one of the frames in the center of the hive body, I gently shook the rest of the bees into the hive. I’ve seen people beat the boxes to get out every last bee. And that’s what I did my first two tries. Two years ago, though, I watched a bee keeper very gently shake the box to slide the bees toward the center opening and let them fall out. It takes longer this way and it’s impossible to get all the bees out. But I feel a whole lot more comfortable giving them a soft entry than beating them out of the box.
When using the gentle method, I leave the package near the entrance to the hive to make it easy for the remaining bees to find their way home. I also sprayed the entrance holes with sugar water to tempt the late arrivals inside.
So the question everyone always asks is “did you get stung?” And the answer is “kind of”. I stuck my hand on an already dead bee when shaking the package and stung myself. Every time I’ve been stung, I’ve deserved it. As most bee keepers will tell you, if you get stung, that means you did something wrong. For example, you moved too fast, partially crushed a bee, and in a noble effort to save their hive from a dangerous bee killer, the broken, mangled bee gives her life to dissuade you from harming her family.
Honey bees are such noble self-less creatures. If only we could all be so sweet!