Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Beehosting

Our honeybees in their "travel" case, prior to installation.

Installing our honeybees into their new home.

My partner and I are not beekeepers.  We are beehosters.  When we moved to Oklahoma we had every intention of being beekeepers.  It sounded like the perfect complement for our new orchard, flower beds and the vegetable garden we envisioned.  Like expectant parents we bought piles of books and read everything we could about keeping bees, harvesting honey, Colony Collapse Disorder and planting the right flowers to attract our bees to the garden.  We read about the different varieties of honeybees and their various strengths and weaknesses.  We built hive boxes.  We bought the smoker, the hive tools and the white suits with the screened hats.  We loaded up on antibiotics and special beeswax sheets so our bees would have fragrantly familiar surfaces on which to build comb.
 
Finally the big day came: the day we took possession of Our Girls.  On a beautiful April day, late in the afternoon we drove to a nearby town and picked up two boxes of bees sent to us from a Texas apiary, motored carefully home and after letting the bees rest in the dark and cool of our garage we were ready to “install” our bees into their respective hives.  We tried hard to follow the directions on encouraging the bees into their new homes, but we were clumsy and panicky, not realizing that the bees were smarter than we were and would do exactly what they were supposed to do, in their time, without interference from us.  The experience was traumatic for us and also to the bees, I’m sure.  But the process mostly went well.  All of the bees were in by the next morning, and we congratulated ourselves for accomplishing our first beekeeping task.

After that, we visited our bees frequently throughout the day to marvel at their activity, their petite size and their complete disinterest in us.  We would let them crawl on our hands, disdaining the suit and veil.  We were the big, benevolent creators bringing them thick sugar syrup to get them through those first early days as they got accustomed to their new digs and before their pollen and nectar gathering reached full swing.  A few weeks in we noticed a suspiciously heavy amount of activity around the entrances to the hives.  Dark brown bees, not the color we remembered our bees being, swayed and swarmed around the entrance.  Having read too much but learned too little, one of us sounded the alarm:  ROBBING!  A beekeeper’s nightmare.  We were certain we would lose our bees to a barbarian hoard of “wild” bees determined to steal the stocks of honey.  We drenched bedsheets in water and draped them over the hives (as one of our books recommended); we constructed small mesh frames designed (we’d read) to deter robber bees but that would be no challenge at all for Our Bees who were following trails of scent into the hive.  It was a tense time, but eventually it appeared that our efforts were successful.  Later we realized that the robber bees were actually new bees doing their orientation flights around the entrance of the hive so they could fix in their little bee brains where home was.  How confusing it must've been for them having wet sheets blocking the entrances!

Then three things happened that turned us from beekeepers to beehosters.  1) While hanging about one of the hives, admiring our handiwork and noting how much pollen the bees were carrying on their back legs, an ominous buzzing sound swelled and grew and suddenly a guard bee dive bombed my partner and stung him square on the forehead, sacrificing itself for the apparent safety of the remainder of the hive.  Mission accomplished: we quickly gave the bees their space.  2) A few days later, after my morning run, I decided to visit the Girls and say hello.  As I peered into the opening of the hive, two angry bees flew at my head, sending me careening down the driveway as they kept pace, pinging the back of my head.  They did not sting me but they did hustle me, arms flailing wildly, to a PR in the 50 yard dash.  FYI: bees do not like the smell of sweat (or other harsh scents).  And 3) the day finally came when we absolutely had to do a hive inspection.  These are supposed to be regular affairs so that the beekeeper can monitor the health and activity of the hive and of the queen.  We’d been avoiding it for various valid but also entirely ridiculous reasons.  We suited up and after struggling for an hour to get the smoker going, we gulped and faced the hives.  Giving them thick whiffs of smoke (which is supposed to put them in mind of a forest fire; the bees get busy ingesting honey to carry off with them in the event they need to rebuild somewhere else and supposedly don’t notice us cracking open their home) and gathering our prying tools, we began lifting off the topmost hive box.  Honeybees do not like cracks or drafts so they fill them with a formidable cement-like substance.  After much exertion, the box began to give and we lifted it off - - only to discover that the bees had filled every nook and cranny with honeycomb.  Honey poured everywhere, dripping onto the ground, onto us, onto the bees crawling frantically around their newly destroyed home.  It was a horrible sight; complete devastation.  As quickly as we could, we scraped away the damaged honeycomb, rescued the bees that had gotten mired in honey and closed everything back up again.  Reluctantly we performed the same task on the second hive.  After that, we were especially loathe to inspect the hives again.  It just seemed like way too much stress on us, but more importantly, on the bees.

About this time I ran across a beekeeping site that espoused the “lazy man’s” method of beekeeping.  Sounded like it was just what we needed.  The site recommended a very low maintenance plan for caring for honeybees – essentially set them up, feed them when nature’s stores get low, but then let them do what they’ve been doing (and doing well) long before humans started poking and prying and harvesting.  Henceforth it’s the plan we’ve followed and our bees are thriving.  We still bring them water on hot days and make sure they have sugar syrup in early spring when their reserves get low but they are otherwise beautifully self-sufficient, pollinating our fruit trees and melons and busily visiting the crape myrtles, the catmint, the salvia and the lowly dandelion.  We have never harvested their honey, but let it remain so that they have the stores to get them through the long winter.  On warm and sunny winter days they come out and somehow sniff out pollen or nectar to bring back to the hives.  When it’s rainy or cold they stay indoors like the sensible creatures they are.  When it gets very hot, troops of them hang out on their porch, turn their backs to the entrance and fan their wings, sending cooler air into the hive to help their toiling sisters.  We still stop by the hives to admire Our Girls; we just do it with a lot more respect (and after we've showered).    

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