It was six years ago that we started beekeeping and welcomed our first honeybees to the farm. After the first hive was successfully established, we took splits from the first hive to establish two more hives. Our beehives did very well until the winter of 2017-18 when we lost one hive, and this past winter we lost the other two. Moisture in the hives over the winter can be a big challenge to beekeepers in the Pacific Northwest. Although I had taken efforts to prepare the hives to survive our wet winters by installing a special cover (called a Vivaldi cover) to help vent moisture from the hive as well as leaving plenty of honey in the hives as a winter food source, sometimes our best efforts are not enough. Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby and very rewarding too, and it’s also one in which we are continually learning how to become better beekeepers as we go along. I have ordered a package of bees which will arrive in April, and we will start again. In order to prepare myself for the big day, as well as helping any new beekeepers out there who are just getting started, it seemed like a good idea to revisit the blog I wrote after setting up my first hive.
Flashback to April 2013 – On Saturday morning the bees I had ordered arrived at the bee store, and we picked them up and went immediately to the farm to install them into their hive. I purchased the bees in what is called a bee package, which is a small wood and wire mesh box that contains 3 pounds or approximately 10,000 bees. In preparation for setting up our first hive, I took a beekeeping class from the store where I purchased the bees. The process of transferring the bees into the hive sounded easy enough in the class (there was only one slide in the Powerpoint presentation after all!), but there are lots of steps in the process and all the while you can’t help but think about all that could go wrong with 10,000 angry bees on the loose! Actually it went pretty well, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how tolerant the bees were of my actions and to realize that they really just want to go about their own business.
The first order of business was to put on the protective bee gear, which included a jacket and veil (which is the screened hood) and long leather gloves – which worked great except for the slight decrease in finger dexterity due to the gloves (more on that later). While the bees are being transported in their package to the bee store, they feed on a simple syrup mixture in a tin can that hangs in the middle of the box. The first step in transferring the bees to the hive is to pry the tin can loose and quickly lift it out of the box, stick your hand in the box, and remove the tiny cage (called the queen cage) that the queen bee is contained in that hangs from the top of the box. Then you have to quickly put the tin can back in the box to keep the bees from escaping. Since the queen bee meets her colony for the first time when they are packaged for shipment, the queen is confined in a very small cage, about the size of a lipstick tube, to allow her colony to be exposed to her pheromones and learn to identify her as their queen before they are allowed to interact with her. If the bees are allowed contact with their new queen before they have learned to recognize her as their queen, there is a possibility that they may kill her, hence the reason for the queen cage. Before transferring the queen cage into the beehive, you remove a tiny cork at the bottom of her cage and replace it with a miniature marshmallow, then attach the queen cage with a thumbtack to one of the frames inside of the hive (did I mention that you’re wearing kind of thick gloves during all of this?!) Over the course of a couple of days, the queen and the other bees will eat through the marshmallow which frees the queen from her cage to join her colony. Doesn’t that sound just like a romantic fairytale!
If you thought that first part of setting up the hive was a bit nerve-wracking, just wait until you hear about the next part. Working quickly, you give the box containing the bees a quick bang on the ground to knock the bees loose so that they fall onto the bottom of the box, then you remove the tin can again and pour the bees through the relatively small hole in the box into the bee hive. Again, this sounded easy enough when it was described in the class that I took, but let me tell you as soon as I whacked the box on the ground and I heard the loud buzzing of 10,000 bees I got a little freaked out! After several whacks and repeated pouring and shaking of the box, I was able to get the majority of the bees into the hive. You don’t have to get every last bee into the hive, just most of them, and then you leave the box propped in front of the hive entrance and they are supposed to find their way into the hive by following the pheromone scent of the queen. It didn’t seem to me that the bees were all that interested in leaving their box and going into the hive, so I came back a couple more times during the afternoon to whack the box and shake them into the hive, and I’d say eventually all but probably 100 of them went into the hive. After a couple hours of excitement of transferring the bees into the hive, I was more than a little ready to close the hive up and be done with it. The last steps were to put a pollen patty and an inverted jar of simple syrup in the top of the hive. These are both needed to feed the colony until there are plenty of flowering plants blooming later in the spring for the bees to feed on.
I did forget to do one thing which ended up causing a bit of a problem later, and that was that I forgot to slide the frames (which are what the bees build their comb on) closely up against the queen cage to maintain proper bee space in the hive. Bee space is the gap the bees need to pass freely between and around the frames in the hive, with the ideal bee space being between 1/4 and 3/8 inch. If the gap between two frames, or the gap between the edge of a frame and the hive box is greater than the desired bee space, the bees will build what is called brace comb or bridge come to fill the larger space, making it very difficult, sticky and messy to remove frames during hive inspections. When I went back to inspect the hive a week after installing the bees to make sure that the queen had been released and that the hive was successfully established, I realized the importance of maintaining bee space right away. As I said earlier, beekeeping is a hobby that is constantly teaching you something new. One of the best parts of having a beehive is the feeling you get after working with the bees and inspecting the hive. I always feel exhilarated the rest of the day, and the smell of beeswax that stays with you is one of those simple pleasures that you’ll just have to experience for yourself. Happy beekeeping!