A new home for our girls!!! (or how to put a few thousand honeybees into their hives)

I used to keep bees through my teenage years. After I left home we had to sell them, it would have been impossible to keep them in my college dorm. Over the past decades, I’ve always wanted to get back into beekeeping but decided to wait until I was at a place where I was fairly sure I would stay long term.

Since I had gotten out of beekeeping, there have been many new challenges faced by beekeepers: deadly parasitic mites, colony disappearance disorder, cheap imported (and often adulterated) honey  from Asia bottoming out the price of honey in the US. These are all in addition to all the previous difficulties to overcome such as pesticides, poor honey flow, bad weather, bee diseases, etc.

However, there is nothing quite like going out into your apiary (yard where the beehives are kept) in the summer, listening to the contented hum of the hives, and smell that pleasant aroma of nectar being ripened into honey.

Yes, I do love honeybees!

Honeybees are amazing little creatures. In every hive there is only one queen, thousands and thousands of workers, and in the summer, a few hundred or more drones.

The queen has only one purpose: lay eggs to produce more bees. She may lay anywhere from hundreds to over two thousand eggs per day, depending on the season.

Interestingly, a queen can “decide” the gender of the egg she lays at the time she lays it. A fertilized egg will become female (worker bee.. or if needed another queen), while unfertilized eggs become males or drones.

The worker bees are all sterile females. Workers are all sisters or half-sisters to each other. As their name suggests, they do all the work in a hive: care for the young and the queen, make wax to build into comb, turn nectar into honey, clean the hive, keep the hive cool in the summer and the cluster of bees warm so they may survive the winter, guard and protect the hive from intruders and go out to forage and collect pollen and nectar.

Honeybees will sting if necessary but  unlike wasps and hornets, are not aggressive. Rather they are defensive, if the hive is threatened by an animal such as a bear or skunk (or a human) they will defend it. But honeybees will not seek out humans to sting for no reason. Whenever a bee stings, she dies, the ultimate sacrifice of the individual for the good of the colony. As all bees in a single hive are related, and thus are basically one large family, it makes sense.

Of course, if a bees accidentally gets stuck in your hair, or you step on one sitting on a flower, she doesn’t know it was an accident; she will sting then too, and you can’t really blame her.

The drones are male bees. They do no work in the hive at all. Drones have only one purpose: mate with virgin queens. If a drone is fortunate to find a virgin queen to mate with, it will be the last thing he ever does as drones die immediately upon mating.

Most drones never get a chance to mate. Once autumn arrives, the bee breeding season is over. As there is no longer any reason for a hive to have drones, the worker bees kick them out to starve or die from exposure.  It sounds pretty harsh, but why feed precious honey over the winter to drones who do absolutely no work?

Another little known fact: only the female bees can sting. Drones cannot.

I showed this to Nathan and here he is holding a drone proving they can’t sting.

When I was a kid, I once took a bottle containing a few dozen drones to school once to demonstrate this fact. I told some of the other kids that they were special “stingless bees” I had bred. Luckily when one of the other kids reported me to my teacher, he was  more curious rather than angry or threatened.

But he asked me to please not bring a jar of bees to school again, as other teachers might not be quite as understanding.

When wanting to start some new hives, there are a few ways to do it: divide an established hive, capture a wild swarm or order packages of honeybees from a breeder. We ordered ours from a breeder in California.

There are several types or “races” of honeybees. The most common is the Italian race. They are known to be producutive honey producers but not quite as well adapted to rigorous northern climate. The are the classic honeybees with alternating orange and black stripes on their abdomen.

I chose a Russian-Carniolan  hybrid. The Russian bees have more resistance to parasitic mites than do many other races and not surprisingly do better in northern areas than strains which developed in more southern areas. The Carniolan race evolved in the moutainous areas of Austria and Yugoslavia. Not only are the Carniolan also well adapted to places with long cold winters, they have a reputation for being the most gentle and least aggressive races of honeybees. A hybrid of the two races should bring out the best of both.

Unlike the more common Italian bees, our bees are dark gray or even black. It will be nice in the future to observe a dark honeybee on a flower and say, “Hey look! She’s one of our girls!”

We ordered our bees to come by UPS Next Day Air. Although you can also have them sent through the US Postal Service, than can take 3 or 4 day and be extremely stressful on the bees. The extra cost of UPS Next Day Air is worth it.

Our five packages arrived Tuesday morning. Jeanne met our UPS driver so he could drop them off with her so they wouldn’t have to ride all day in the back of a UPS truck.

Yes, Jeanne is amazing… how can she not be? She puts up with me and all of my interests. How many spouses would be willing to pick up packages of bees from the UPS, bring them home and then put them in a cool entry way INSIDE their house? Not many.

We took Nathan out of school that afternoon, feeling he would learn a lot more observing how to put bees in their new hives than spending an afternoon in his classroom.

Packages of honeybees have mesh sides so the bees can breath. Inside the package is a metal tin of sugar syrup for food and water en route. By the time they arrive most of the syrup is gone.

We sprayed some sugar syrup onto the sides of the package to provide sustenance after their long journey. Like people, bees with a full stomach are calmer and less irritable compared to ones who are hungry and thirsty.

I made the sugar syrup the evening before out of white granulated sugar mixed with warm water in a 1 to 1 ratio. My beer brewing equipment was very handy for making the 5 gallons of syrup (1 gallon per hive).

After I demonstrated how, Nathan helped by spraying the mesh of both sides of the package so the bees could drink their fill. We did this outside because sugar syrup is very sticky.

Jeanne, Nathan and I worked together building and then later painting the bee hives earlier this year. A hive consists of wooden boxes (hive bodies or supers, depending on their depth), frames where the bees will build their comb out of wax, a bottom and a cover on top.

During the winter, honeybees do not hibernate, rather they form a cluster and generate heat by shivering all winter long. It might be below zero outside but inside the cluster it may be over 90 degrees. An individual bee is cold blooded and like any other insect will die if it freezes, so the bees take turns which will be on the out side of the cluster during the cold winter. In really cold weather, it might be only for a few seconds before they trade places. To generate this heat bees need a high energy source: honey.

I located the hives in a sunny area protected from the wind and built stands to keep them the ground. I put up an electric fence to keep away the horses and skunks. Our horses may be just dumb enough to graze near or even rub on a hive.

Skunks feed on insects and will scratch on a beehive feeding on the bees which come out to defend the hive all night without hesitation. If you want to experience one grumpy hive, just go near a hive that has been raided by skunks all night.

We do not have a resident population of black bears living here in the Black Hills. If one just happened to wander over here from Wyoming, however,  the electric fence would protect the hives from a bear too.

As Nathan and I put on our bee suits, he was excited.  I was too. I had been looking forward to this day for years and years.

As you can see, I chose to go without gloves today.  I did duct tape up my sleeves. A confused bee could crawl up my sleeve and sting when pinched accidentally.

After I explained to co-workers what I did the day before, many asked, “So did you get stung?”

Most were somewhat surprised that neither Nathan or I was.

Although I do own gloves in case I need them, gloves make one less dextrous. If you understand bees, you can often work them without gloves. Bees will only sting if they have something to defend.

As the bees in a package are homeless and without a hive, they will only sting if they have a reason (such as you not paying attention and putting  your hand directly on one). Package bees are basically frightened and confused.

Yes, beekeepers do get stung occasionally but it is not as often as you might think.  Stings are part of the territory.

However, before you think beekeepers are crazy, remember that some people grow roses even though  the thorns sometimes draw blood, other people keep pet cats even though they occasionally get scratched (and the scratches get infected)  while others raise large livestock knowing there is risk of possibly serious injury.

No, I don’t like getting stung one bit. On the other hand it doesn’t happen very often and it’s not as bad as you might expect. Often fear comes from ignorance or misunderstanding. Fear of getting stung is the same.

A sting from a wasp or hornet hurts much worse than that of a honeybee anyway. What many people call is a “bee” actually isn’t  a honeybee at all but something else much different.

The next series of photos go through the process of actually putting the bees into their hive. Nathan was the photographer/videographer. He did a great job, didn’t he?

I put links to the video clips with audio of me explaining the process further at the end of this post.

I do talk to the bees when I work them… I don’t think they care one bit what I say or the tone of my voice (actually bees are deaf, but they can sense vibrations). I feel it puts me in  the proper calm and respectful frame of mind for working with them.

Yes, I am strange. Of course, if you have been reading this blog I am sure this is not a surprise for you,  you already knew that. Heck, I’m the same guy who runs ultramarathons because regular marathons are too easy.

Why try to be like everyone else…that’s BORING… when you can be unique and different instead?

Anyway, back to the bees.

The first step after spraying the packages with sugar syrup and setting up the hives, is to pry up the feed can and remove the small cage with the queen in it.

Sometimes the feed can is hard to get ahold of with your fingernails; a tool called a hive tool has a flat end that can help with this.

Because the bees and the queen usually come from separate hives, the queen is kept in a separate tiny plastic cage inside the package. At one end of the queen cage there is some firm candy.

After being together a few days, they get to know each other and the bees accept the new queen as “theirs.”

The queen cage is attached at the top of the package need the tin feeder. There often will be lots of bees clustered around her- that’s a great sign- the bees have accepted her.

Hey, Mommy what’re you doing in there?” must be what they’re thinking.

The queen releases a special scent or pheromone to let her bees know where she is at all times. the bees cluster around her to feed her and keep her safe.

You can see the bees walking around these cages and over my fingers and hands.

Just thinking about this I am sure would give a lot of folks the creeps.

Even though the these bees are clustering around her, they aren’t mad or defensive.

Trust me they WILL NOT STING unless you’re  just being careless and you pinch or squash one with your finger. You deserve it then.

However, for some reason three out of our five packages had the queen cage fall from its attachment at the top of the cage during transportation down into the mass of bees.

I had to reach down there… get this…..WITH MY BARE HANDS… to fish out those cages with the queen in it.

The feeling of thousands and thousands of curious bees crawling over your bare skin is amazing and hard to describe.

Yes, if they had wanted to, the bees could have all stung me at once…  but there was no reason for them to sting… so they didn’t.

There’s no reason  to be afraid as long as you understand.

After brushing off the bees from the outside of the queen cage, I put her in my pocket where she will be safe and warm while I attend to the next step: emptying the bees into the hive.

First, you need to make space for where you will dump the bees into the hive out of the package. Take out four frames and set them aside.

Then, you shake the cage firmly on the ground a few times. The bees are all clustering at the top of the package and you want them to fall to the bottom. The bees don’t like this, but it doesn’t hurt them or make them mad.

After that, you remove the feed can. A few bees will start flying but they are for the most part confused. They have no idea what has happened these past few days, they don’t know yet where their new home is going to be.

You then tip over the package and dump the bees into the space where you have removed the frames.

You don’t have to get every last bee out of the package.

Almost immediately some of the bees will go the entrance of the hive and start fanning.

They stand up high on their legs and release a scent into the air that basically is a signal to the other bees, “Here we are! Come on in to our new home!”

As I said, bees are amazing.

After most of the bees are dumped into the hive, you put the package at the front entrance so the remaining bees can crawl into the hive.

I have seen this before, but it really is miraculous every time I see it.

The frames must be replaced… carefully… so you don’t accidentally squish anybody. If you do so slowly and gently, the bees will move out of the way.

After all of the frames are in place, the last step before closing up the hive is to hang the queen cage in the middle of the hive.

There is a plastic cap over the end of the cage that has the candy. The plastic cap must be removed before the cage is put into the hive. Over the next few days, the bees will have to eat through the candy before they can release the queen. This gives them a few more days to get to know her.

If the bees aren’t aquainted and haven’t accepted the queen, there is a chance that they could kill her in their confusion.

Until the bees are able to collect and make honey of their own, we must feed them. The greatest danger now could be starvation, so we feed, feed, and feed the bees.

I bought a whole wagon load of 25lb bags of granulated white sugar  at Sam’s Club the week before. It is estimated that a new package of bees may require up to 5 gallons of sugar syrup until they can survive on their own.

The woman at the door asked me, “What are you going to do with all the sugar?!?”

It for our bees!” I replied and then explained how we must feed them until they can produce enough honey on their own.

She was somewhat incredulous, but then said, “Well, I just learned something…”

If I had instead told her I was going to use it to make moonshine or something similar,  she probably would’ve found that more believable than what I actually was going to use it for.

There are many kinds of feeders. I prefer the top of the hive feeder. It holds up to 2-gallons and is located where the bees can reach it, even in bad weather. Plus I can refill it without disturbing the hive too much.

We repeated the procedure for all five packages. As I was in the process of hiving the beess, I looked over and noticed that Nathan no longer had his gloves on.

I asked, “Nathan, did you take your gloves off and forget to put them back on?””

No Dad,” he replied, “I just decided to take them off. If you’re not scared of the bees then I’m not either.”

Well, be careful where you put your hands,”I cautioned, “the bees aren’t mad but if you touched one by accident, she might sting.” I wanted his first experience with honeybees to be a pleasant one.

Oh it’s OK. You know I’ve been stung before,” he said, “It doesn’t hurt that much.”

Now this is the kind of stuff that makes a father proud!!!!

 How many adults would’ve not only been brave enough to stand by while thousands of bees were being put into their new hives but also take their gloves off? Nathan is amazing.

After we were done, we took off our bee suits and packed up our gear.

Nathan sat on the back of the pickup smiling, “That was fun!!”

Yes, it was!” I agreed.

The hardest part now is to wait the five or so days before rechecking. The  bees are best left alone to settle down into their new home. After a few days I will check to see if the bees have released their queen and refill the sugar syrup.

Although many hives do produce some surplus honey their first year, I am planning on leaving it all for the bees. The first year is the most difficult; if they produce any extra honey this year, they deserve it.

We’ll have more honey than we will know what to do with next year. An average hive can produce 50 to 100lbs of honey a year!

Nathan recorded all of this on video, links to the clips of each step of the process are below:


3 responses

  1. That was a really interesting post. I had not realized that wasps were actually considered to be a bit vindictive.

    I’ll bet the honey will be really wonderful. I recently learned that most of the honey we buy in stores ins’t actually honey, that really aggravated me.

    April 28, 2012 at 5:37 pm

  2. Yes, bees and professional beekeepers have had it hard enough already. Its sad that adulterated honey is being imported from countries that have few to no regulations. It is being sold as “honey” but for much less than true honey is.

    Wasps and hornets tend to be much more aggressive than honeybees. Their nests tend to be exposed, out in the open, where European honeybees originally nested in hollow trees. It makes sense then why wasps and hornets would be more aggressive than honeybees. They had to be.

    The Africanized bees, or “killer” bees evolved in a warm dry climate and would also frequently nest out in the open at risk for predation. Thus is makes sense too why that type of bee would evolve to be so much more aggressive than the honeybees kept by beekeepers.

    April 28, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    • Tim Pruchnic

      Wow Tom! Truly an amazing opening to what i hope is an ongoing story about bees. I love learning from someone who has no fear of it. Great pictures and videos. i have to make sure that my dad sees this. Now on to the mead! Hope all is well in the northern hemisphere.

      May 6, 2012 at 4:50 pm

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