The time had come. I could not ignore the task at hand any longer. The honeybee project that Venus and I have been working on for a solid six weeks was about to come to a BUZZING conclusion.
Yes -- that's right. It was time to GET STUNG!
Actually, it was time to introduce a new colony of bees to their new, and custom, Hello Kitty beehive. I've been dreading this moment for quite some time.
WHY you ask? Do you relish the thought of being the "center of attention" in a swarm of bees? Because, that's exactly what happens when you "hive" a new colony of bees. You're the center of attention. And the invited guests are royally pissed off at some rough behavior.
Venus and I picked up our new colony of bees from Sacramento Beekeeping Supply on Saturday. Although many beekeepers had advised me that I would probably get stung during the hiving process, the fine folks at beekeeping supply reassured me that it probably wouldn't happen.
You see, I'm mortally afraid of getting stung by a bee. Come to think of it -- I'm mortally afraid of just about anything. I'm a 6'2, 300 lb. wuss in sheep's clothing. I cry when I watch Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, or whenever I hear a good song. I'm not one of those tough guys. I'm as soft as they come. I haven't been stung by a bee since I was four or five. And the thought of getting stung now -- well -- that made me nervous.
But -- as it turns out -- the fine folks at Sacramento Beekeeping Supply were dead on RIGHT! I just didn't know it then. I do now. The Italian Honeybee is a fairly gentle creature. I know it doesn't seem that way when you're stuck in a swarm of them, but they are.
The first step in hiving a new colony? Getting dressed up in an outfit that would make any trick-or-treater proud with envy. In short, you take every possible measure to look as dorky as possible. And, in my heavy 49'er sweatshirt -- cap and faceguard -- plus gloves that extend up to the elbow -- well -- I looked as dorky as possible. It was a good 90 degrees outside during this hiving project, plus I was as nervous as a teenager on a first date with a Playboy model.
The time had come.
The bees were in that box that you see pictured to the right -- and they instinctively knew that "something was up." You could hear them buzzing lightly from time to time, but the moment I picked up that box and carried it near the hive, they just knew something was about to happen.
Placed on that box is a sprayer bottle of equal parts sugar and water. That's very helpful when you're dealing with honeybees. They're attracted to that stuff like young kids are attracted to grape snowcones. In short, they're not paying attention to the buffoon with an oversized 49'er sweatshirt on -- they're after that sugar water. Lastly came the "hive tool" and a standard smoker that I'd filled with torn up pieces of paper, dead weeds from the garden and pieces of bark.
My job was to first spray the bees with sugar water, then give the box a couple of good whacks. This would hopefully dislodge them from the lid that they were hanging on at the top of this box. At least, I thought it was a lid. It sure looks like one, right? But, upon removing it, I realized it was the top lid to some canned product that was still very full! It actually felt like a can of pumpkin or tomatoes -- and it wasn't easy to lift out.
After slapping the box a few times to dislodge the bees -- I removed the can, then place a piece of wood over the box to prevent the bees from escaping. Some do, of course, and guess what happens? You're the center of attention in a small swarm of about 15-20 bees.
"OK," I thought. I can handle that. Not a problem.
The next move? Removing the Queen from the hive of bees. The queen is placed into a smaller box -- think box of matches -- to protect her. She is relatively new to the hive. If she's added to a mix of bees too quickly, the other bees just might tear her apart. And that's death to a hive. Without the queen, it's just a box of bees that will soon disperse in search of new homes. The queen keeps them together.
I had been advised to keep that queen in her small cage after retrieving her -- which means I had to remove the wood from the hole in that box opening. I did retrive her easily enough -- a few more bees escaped, and I hung her cage against one of the many slats in the beehive. There are bees all over this boxed queen that you need to be very careful of. One wrong move and POW! You invite a stinging party.
But -- remove the queen I did. And I managed to place that cage exactly where I was supposed to place it -- and secure it as well without maiming a single bee. Keep in mind that, by this time, even though the box was covered again, I had bees all over my gloved hands, all over my 49'er sweatshirt, and buzzing all about.
But this was nothing. Nothing can prepare you for the moment of truth that was about to come. It was time to take the rest of the bees in that box -- who were terribly anxious to get out -- and introduce them to their new home.
You'd like to think that this is as simple as "Hello Mr. and Mrs. Bee, please come out and aquaint yourself with your new home and surroundings." It would be nice if the hiving process worked like that. It doesn't.
The next step was to take that box of bees -- remove the wood covering the top -- turn it upside down -- hold it over the open hive and slap it silly. Two or three good whacks was all it took for the majority of bees in that box to fall out -- and go SMACK into the bottom of the hive.
What happened next was truly the "Come to Jesus" moment in hiving a new colony of bees. That low hum of buzzing? It suddenly jumped exponentially to an excited scream of annoyed honeybees. Finally freed from their cage, they began to swarm. The pictures simply do not do any justice here. You cannot see this rather annoyed swarm of hundreds of annoyed honeybees, but trust me, they were there. And they were highly agitated.
But, this is precisely the point where you remain calm. There's work to be done. It's 90 degrees outside. You're covered up like it's the middle of winter in Montana. You've got lots of new and very agitated friends and you've got to look right back down into the innards of that hive.
It's not easy. But it had to be done.
The next step was to replace the four or five slats I'd removed from the hive several hours earlier. You'd think this would be an easy task, except the slats were leaned up against the hive. And -- as you might guess -- they were covered with agitated honeybees. But, each one had to be picked up and lifted back into the hive, taking special care not to crush any of the bees milling about on the bottom and on all sides of the hive.
I managed to do this, and put the cover of the hive back on, without much of a problem. At that point, I leaned the original box against the hive (some bees did not spill out with their brothers and sisters), picked up my tools and walked away.
Job completed. Colony of Bees hived. No bee stings. Time for a beer.
But, we're not done yet. Remember the Queen? She is still caged. At some point -- probably tomorrow night -- I will be forced to don my dorkish gear and open up that hive to get the queen out of her cage. This is, again, not an easy task. The queen will be agitated. Hopefully, the bees who have accepted her by this time, will be agitated as well.
There is only one proven way to find out if the queen has been accepted. I must open the hive back up, which will bring bees welling to the top. I must remove the queen cage, which is at the top of a slat. I must take one of the gloves off, and run my bare finger along the queen cage. If the bees covering this cage move out of the way of my finger -- the queen has been accepted. If not, I can't remove her just yet.
Should she be accepted, here comes another tricky job. There's a hole at the end of the queen cage covered with a cork. If I just remove the cork, the queen will fly away and the rest of the bees will follow her wherever she goes. She might come back to the hive. But then again, she might not. Lose the queen, and you lose the hive.
So -- one of the jobs will be to plug a small marshmellow into the hole that is currently covered with cork. And it must be done swiftly and delicately, before the queen can react to an open escape route.
Should I react quickly enough to plug up the open hole with a marshmellow, I'll place the queen cage back at it's original spot on top of a slat, and the worker bees will eat away at the sweet treat, freeing the queen from captivity and ready to take her rightful place in the hive.
But, keep in mind tht I am neither swift, nor delicate. This should be an interesting job indeed. Stay tuned for the next edition of "The Birds and their Bee Farm."