So this winter I resolved to just order myself a package. I am also now on the hot line to assist with swarms, but I wanted a guarantee. So I bought a package. It arrived on Tuesday, and our weather has been crazy lately, so we arrived to get them at a house where snow blanketed everything all around, and I was warned that I wasn't supposed to install the ladies until it was at least 50 degrees outside.
I'd taken the BCBA's beekeepers' class when Jet was very young, and worked through the whole ten week class and learned quite a lot about what can kill bees. It's not an easy thing, especially learning from all the professionals about their 50% die offs each winter for the last several winters. And even before ordering these bees there were rumors that many of the queen rearing companies were having difficulties filling full orders of three pounds of worker bees to go with their queens.
The Northern Colorado Beekeepers' Association was assured that their California Supplier was capable of doing the full packages, no problem and they were right.
Each of the "packages" is that wooden box, there's a can of sugar syrup in there hanging down, and there's small holes poked through the bottom so that the bees can feed from them. The small metal tab to the left of each of the cans is connected to the queen's cage, which hangs in the midst of the ball of worker bees. They take care of her, feed her, keep her cool, and ball around her to protect her while they're without a home. The box makes it really easy to hold them, no protection necessary, and it's an amazing thing to just stand there and hold ten thousand bees at once, hearing them hum.
Watching some of the videos of people keeping bees, it always seemed like magic that they could go out there and do what they do with minimal protection and maybe just a veil. Going into a cloud of bees seemed to incredibly crazy, there's this visceral reaction to that sound of insects buzzing. But it was amazing, with the cage, to see that there were five workers who had clung to the outside of the cage and just stayed there. Even when I picked it up and walked around with it and stuck it in the truck of our car, they just stuck with their sisters. No problem. I tried blowing them off, and all of the bees started to hum at a higher pitch. So I just left them.
We took them home and since it was going to be in the lower twenties that night, we kept them in our basement to stay warm. There was still plenty of syrup, so I let them just be, and when they were in the darkness of the basement after the sun went down, they went utterly quiet. I'm starting to realize what "domesticated" means with these creatures.
I had to keep them in the house the next day, too, as the next night was going to be freezing as well, but not quite as bad, and Thursday was going to be really warm, so it would be easy to install them then, and the next four days and nights were promising to be really nice. But I fretted for most of the day as it felt like the syrup can had been emptied and I was supposed to spray sugar syrup on them, but didn't have a great idea as to how often and then what were they going to do about water? *laughs* I worried a lot, but John and Jet put up with me.
One of the intriguing things was realizing that honeybees have a unique smell to them. It's sweet, heavy, a little musky, almost like how "golden" should smell. It was most noticeable in the garage with all those bees, but after the ladies had stayed in a small room in the basement for a while, it was easy to distinguish from other scents.
Then lots of stuff happened to land on Thursday. I was signed up for and had a lot of fun fun working a stint at the church rummage sale. I got called to meet with the publicity director for Longmont Safety in order to interview for a 4 hours a week volunteer position with their 911 group, and I realized I had a dentist appointment, too. So between the rummage sale and the interview, I decided to install the bees!
with a YouTube video with a keeper who did the whole installation without any protective equipment whatsoever, but I really wanted to use the suit and veil since I had them. I figured if I was more confident, it wouldn't hurt and I'd still be able to move carefully. I did, however, consciously decide not to use any gloves. I didn't want to fumble the queen, and was ready to risk a few stings for the control I wanted to have.
It turned out to be a good choice, and it was kind of amazing how easy it was. The video will give you a sense of what it was like, live, as they were buzzing pretty good in the warm sunshine on the gravel in front of the hive. I jiggled out the syrup can and then the air was filled with bees!
With the tab as far along the slot as it was with these boxes, there was no chance that I was going to drop the queen into the mass of bees the way he did. I gently lifted the tab, worked it along the slot, and got her and her cage out with no problems. There was a mass of attendants around her, and I gently shook them off so that I could see her.
She was fine. Alive, looking around, and touching the mesh. There was mesh on just one side of her box, so I turned that toward the open space between frames, and rubber-banded the box in so she'd stay near the top, and gently put the frame back into the box. There were a good number of bees already in among the frames. Since there was beeswax on all the bases, they were already feeling at home in there, so I just tipped the box they came in on its side over the frames, and set another empty deep around the cage.
While they'd been waiting in the basement, they'd hung onto each other around the can and the queen cage. With both of those gone, they were a little upset and looking for a way out. The beauty of putting the cage in on top of the frames was that I didn't have to shake them all out. It's a gentler way of letting them get out on their own. I put all the sugar syrup I had into the feeder, and put it on top of the top deep, and then added the telescoping lid. The feeder has an opening directly to the rest of the hive, and with the lid other bees and wasps can't get at the syrup. The amazing thing to me was that the bee in my bonnet never stung me, and when I finally let her go, out of the veil, she hung around me for a little while longer, as if to check me out and then finally flew off.
The adrenaline rush was pretty amazing, when I finally got to sit down and shake a little. *laughs* John was pretty impressed with the whole thing, and enjoyed taking his pictures, and realizing that he could walk into the cloud of bees and not even get touched if he moved slowly enough.
After all that, I aced the interview with the police department. The lady doing the gating pretty much talked with me for ten minutes and decided that I'd be perfect for what they needed. Most of their volunteers are a little too afraid of the computers, and this was a lovely station with five screens and more machines underneath than I had the time to count. I also got to meet the head of the department and shake her hand and that was pretty much good enough, it seemed. It's a pretty simple job, but one that requires time and concentration, and just half a day about once a week. So it should be pretty straightforward to do.
It costs eight dollars a pound at Pappardelle's, and this morning we stored a pound, dry, after eating half again as much the night before. It probably cost us a little more than a dollar to make, and when I cookied the sweet potatoes, I accidentally left the center a little firmer than fully cooked, and grated the insides with a box grater to skin them easily (the skins don't like going through the grater). So there were small pieces of sweet potato in the pasta. The wonderful thing about that was that it really intensified the flavor in the noodles!
There was one big ball of bees on one side between the wall and the box. They'd started to dot the whole box with wax, and inside the box all there were were the bees that had died traveling and one leaf of fresh bees wax. This one.
It was gorgeous and so very light. But as you can see in this picture, the sunlight went right through it and you can see the intersections of the walls so that each cell most strongly supports the other, front and back as well as side to side. The piece was surprisingly strong.
Since the feeder was completely empty, I cooked up more sugar syrup and after it had cooled enough, went out to put it in. The sun had gotten much higher and it was much warmer and the bees were out in force. I was a little frightened to open the thing up. But I told myself I was a wuss, and just barehanded and headed, I got up the telescoping lid, and poured the syrup into the feeder.
A few of the bees were underneath the raft, cleaning up the last of the sticky syrup of the day before, and they rolled out with the flood of syrup, grabbed the wood of the raft and pulled themselves out. Other workers rushed over to help clean them off, and it was kind of funny and amazing, too. All of them were pretty agitated and even more so when I tried to brush a few off the edges so that I could put the lid back on. I really should just find one of those windshield brushes to gently brush them off with that instead of trying to use the hive tool to take them off. The hard tool crunched one a little, and the whole cloud suddenly started buzzing at a much higher pitch.
It took a gut check to keep going, but I really wanted to get the lid back on, and it took a few tries before it was on straight and I didn't think I was crushing any MORE workers. So I just stood there, in the midst of zinging bees that were bouncing off of my sweater, and just swallowed the fear and did it. Again, none of them stung me, and I was forcibly reminded that these are domesticated bees. Still... I think that I'm going to put more syrup in tonight, after it's dark, when they're all in their sleeping ball and out of the feeder, instead of doing it mid-day again. And when I actually free the queen from her cage, it's going to be in full gear. Probably no gloves again, just 'cause I really don't want to crush her and I'm going to have to use something to get that cork out. The two or three days are so that they can get used to her and so that they know that this is home and their hive. So I think it'll be fireworks one more time, I can put another brood box over the one that's there, and then I can leave them for another five days to a week before checking to see if the queen's laying and doing her thing.
Afterward, John checked the internets and figured that we have about ten thousand bees out there. Three pounds of bees is anywhere from ten thousand to twelve thousand workers. That's a LOT of bees. I think that they all made me very very present in the time I was there. *laughs* If anyone ever needs a method of meditation that stops all wandering thoughts, I'd suggest going out to visit the bee box with no protection whatsoever.