Sunday, May 3, 2015

BEE - utiful!

Yesterday, the Boyo and I drove up to Hackensack, Minnesota to pick up our package of bees. It was a four hour drive to get there, filled with great conversation and lots of anticipation. We arrived at the Mann Lake LTD store/factory at 1:00 and were greeted by a swarm of people.

Employees made up about half of the crowd, and people picking up their bees the other half. We were given a receipt and sent to a different part of the property to pick up our package.

There were tables stacked with packages of bees, but surprisingly absent was the loud buzzing I was expecting to hear. Mostly it was the rustle of wings that sounded like softly crinkling cellophane. We were given our package and got on the road. The whole thing took about twenty minutes.

This is our package at home, ready to head up to their hive on the hill. I was quite shocked to learn from the nice people at Mann Lake that our single package contained anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 bees! Never have I had so many pets, although to be fair I will probably not cuddle them too much.

When we got them home we gave them a spray of sugar water (in the blue topped bottle there in the photo) and got our bee suits on to get them into their hive.

Now. In the grand scheme of things, I don't fear bees. At least not in the ones or twos I usually see them in. And I know full well that they probably, more than likely, almost certainly will not sting me while they are out and about foraging for pollen and nectar and such. But I have never been in the presence of 15,000 of them all huddle together before, and as the Wife and I were on the hill getting ready to introduce them to the hive, my heart was thumping madly!

We uncapped the swarm and pulled out the little queen box. Inside was our Queen, Her Royal Majesty Queen Beatrice Blue. She has a blue dot on her back, making her much more recognizable to new-bees like me. She went into my pocket to keep her warm. Then came the rest of the girls.

My heart was flip flopping as my lovely wife gently poured the mass of buzzing into the hive box. I was skeptical at first when I heard that there were upwards of 15K of these little things in that box, but they poured out like clowns from a car. A seemingly never-ending stream of bustling, buzzing nightmare fuel. Yeah... I had some nerves hitting me at that moment. Even though we had sprayed them down with sugar water to both give them a snack and wet their wings (wet bees don't fly), a small cloud still rose from the box surrounding us as we worked. I believed there were fifteen thousand at that moment, because the bottom of the hive box was awash in little bees, and thousands seemed to be buzzing around us.

My amazing Wife was remarkably calm through the whole thing. She has no fear whatsoever of them. I was truly impressed. So we efficiently closed up the hive and I tried to think what else we needed to do before we left them alone.

Then it struck me... Queen Beatrice was still in her box in my pocket. So we opened the hive again and I carefully hung the queen cage from one of the frames. I had replaced the cork in the end with a marshmallow, giving the workers something to eat while they freed their monarch. We closed it up again and walked away, leaving a great many (to my mind) buzzing around outside.

We put a little grass plug in the "entry reducer" as instructed, to give the queen time to feel at home without leaving. I felt a little nervous about the bees left outside for the night, but when I checked on them this morning they were still bunched up where they are in the picture and seemed pretty happy.

Today it was time to remove the grass plug, check to see if the Queen was free of her cage, and check on their sugar water and pollen patty. I went out by myself this time and as soon as I opened the hive my heart went into overdrive.

Bees. Everywhere. The cloud around me made last nights group look pitiful and weak. The bees seemed to be buzzing quite loudly, and I was certain that they were signaling each other to attack.

As I removed the pollen patty (plenty left, by the way) I watched in dismay as the queen cage sank slowly into the mass of bees between two frames.

I was barehanded, as I had been the evening before, because I can't seem to grasp things well with the gloves on. But I did have the smoker fired up. So I squeezed a few puffs of smoke into the hive, as I've seen others do on TV and YouTube videos I had watched. The bees buzzed louder, but didn't seem to do much of anything else.

I took a deep breath and figured if they were going to sting me anyway, I might as well get the work done. So I carefully removed two frames, checking each one for Beatrice, and set them aside. Then I looked down into the small space and spotted the queen box lying on the bottom of the hive. Between it and me was 9 and 5/8 inches of bee covered frame, just wide enough to stick my hand down into and grab the box. My bare, bare hand. Which looked unnaturally pale and pasty. Which shook ever so slightly with a mixture of adrenaline and fear.

I held my hand over the gap and peered in again. The bees were making chains with their bodies across the gap. Other bees crawled busily across these bee bridges from one side to the next. The gap would be filled with bee bridges in minutes, I thought to myself. So I took a deep breath and held it, prepared for the stinging of my poor hand, and gently pushed my fingers into the breech.

I don't know how many people have felt the sensation of bees on the front and back of their hands. Covering every centimeter. Wiggling and jiggling. Little feet and wings setting off every nerve ending in my outstretched appendage. But let me tell you, it was all I could do not to run screaming. But I did it. I got that little queen box trapped between my two middle fingers and slid it gently out of the hive.

It was empty! Queen Beatrice was loose in the hive somewhere! I peeked in again and by sheer luck of the bee-ginner, I spotted our little queen bustling about on the frame, surrounded by her court who were following her every move. She looked content. The bees around her looked content. I was feeling relieved to have seen her.

I rebuilt the hive and closed it up. Then I went a few feet away, to the stairs leading from the hill, when something amazing happened. (Amazing to me, at least)

Not a single bee followed me, and I had not been stung or attacked the entire time I was on the hill. I pulled off my hood and sat down on the stairs to watch the bees.

The hive was covered. Bees everywhere. There were bees flying in great circles above the hive. Bees crawling at every angle on the hive. Some even buzzed around me. But none attacked.

I have read a LOT on bees since this project started becoming a reality. I read time and time again about how gentle honey bees were, and watched videos of people working bees in short sleeved shirts and hoods. Now I am finding out for myself that the bees are pretty gentle. It is one thing to read about it, another thing entirely to experience it. I am in awe of those little machines. My respect for them, I imagine, will only grow as time goes on and I gain more experience with them.

For now, my job as a beekeeper is to wait a week and let them settle in, then check to see that they are making comb and that Beatrice is laying eggs. The first of many thousands, we hope, that will lead to a strong, healthy colony.

Welcome to our yard little bees! We are glad to have you share the land with us! PS, the garden will be going in soon, so if y'all want to hang around there and pollinate all the veggies, I'd be completely OK with that!

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