Eileen mentioned at dinner one spring; I would like to get bees.
We should get bees.
No. Wasps are annoying.
Bees aren’t like wasps.
They look the same. No.
Well, the third spring she asked she wore me down. Eileen had found the local Backyard Beekeepers Association and we had been attending the spring workshops, held almost every weekend, where one of the old timers would open a hive and show how things are done.
Ok, but you have to take care of them. No problem. You have to help me put the hive together though. You know carpentry, I don’t.
So, Eileen ordered a standard hive, a package of bees and one full bee suit.
The hive came in kit form. All of the pieces were already cut so assembly was easy especially with an air nailer. It was fun working together building the hive, and I thought that would be the end of it for me. But the more I learned the more fascinated I became with the bees and everything about them.
The package of bees came about 2 weeks after we assembled the hive so everything was ready when they arrived (a package is how you buy bees to populate your hive. It consists of a small wood and screen box containing one queen in a smaller box and about 7,000 worker bees). By this time I was getting fairly used to being around the bees so when it came time to hive the package I agreed to help out. It was fascinating watching all the worker bees simply walk out of the package and into the hive, simply because that’s where we placed the smaller box containing the queen.
During travel from the bee yard in another state to us, yes the bees simply come standard mail, the workers were getting used to their new queen. This queen is not their mother so if she was loose with the rest of the bees she would be considered an intruder and killed. There is a hole in one end of the queen box that is plugged with wax. The workers further get used to the new queen over the next day or two while they chew through this wax plug and release the queen. By this time everybody is happy and they then get to work either building wax onto new frames or collecting nectar to make honey to fill the frames.
While hiving the bees, Eileen wore her full bee suit. The guys doing the demos didn’t wear a suit so neither did I. Just a hat to keep any stray bees out of my hair.
Over the next month or so, I did more with the hive than Eileen did. Eventually, the bees became more or less mine. So much for No bees.
As part of the club we also visited other people’s apiaries besides the club yard. During one particular visit I noticed an odd looking hive.
Normally you cannot have two queens in one hive. One will kill the other. But in this odd looking hive were two queens. The bottom few boxes were divided into two sections, a wire mesh called a queen exluder prevented either queen from moving to the other section (the queen is slightly bigger than the others) and then honey boxes on top of that where all but the queens were aloud to mingle. This setup seemed to cause a competition between the two colonies and the two colonies together would produce more honey than two separate colonies.
Turns out, although the manufacturer was no longer in business, the local bee equipment dealer still had a complete hive in his store. I borrowed a couple of boxes, took a lot of pictures and measurements and came up with a more modern version of the hive. I called it the Harvey Heritage Hive or H3 hive. They sold like hotcakes. This is the business I had to close when I contracted the Lyme disease.
During that time I ran a couple of these H3 hives myself. After all, I needed to know how they actually performed rather than just building a theory. I also was looking into other hive designs. The simplest is called a top-bar hive, which does not use frames like normal hives, but just a row of special wood bars for the bees to build their wax combs on. I hadn’t built one since I hadn’t yet had a use for another hive. But then a friend mentioned a swarm in a tree not far out of town. I had never caught a swarm before, but I saw it done in a movie. Didn’t look that hard.
The swarm was high up in a tree so I rented the tallest step ladder they had, borrowed an extending branch trimmer with a nipper end from a neighbor and a five gallon bucket. Standing on the very top of the ladder (not recommended) with the bucket taped to the top of the branch nipper pole, I could barely reach the swarm and get the nipper on the branch. But it worked.
So I had a swarm, now what? I didn’t have a hive to put them in. Time to build my first top bar hive. It took me under 2 days to build the hive but already they had started to build comb. That hive thrived.
Eileen is no longer the queen bee.
When I moved from New York to southern California there was thousands of acres of park land right beside the village. The unique rock formations in the mountains in the area made for great hiking. These rock formations also provided many places for natural beehives.
Just like any other honey bee colonies, they swarm once in a while when the space they are in gets too crowded. I had told a few friends in the village that I used to keep bees in NY, so when there was a swarm spotted at the edge of the village, they called me. I went to check it out and decided to catch them. Problem: I didn’t have a hive or anything else to put them in. I went to the dump to see what I could find and sure enough, there was a wooden box just the right size. After drilling an entrance hole and finding a piece of plywood suitable to be used as a lid, I went to catch them.
Now, the breed of bees I was used to dealing with in NY where either Italian or Russian – both are of fairly calm temperament and easy to deal with, as long as you know how to read their mood (you can tell the mood of a hive by the tone of their buzz). But the wild bees in the southern States are what is called Africanized, having the genetics of African bees (long story), making them VERY aggressive. Catching swarms in NY was a piece of cake. I never got stung once catching a swarm. These guys though, nasty! I was stung four or five times while trying to get them into the box. Fortunately for me, a bee sting is little more than a horsefly bite.
It was November. A very bad time to swarm because winter is just around the corner which doesn’t give them much time to build up their population and food supply to last the winter. Sure, it may be just three miles from the Mexican border, but it’s 830 meters (2723 ft.) high in the mountains. It usually snows at least one or two days a year. I didn’t expect them to survive, but wanted to try.
I left them alone until spring. When I opened the box there was a small comb started, maybe enough to make a large birthday candle, but nothing in it and all the bees were dead. Oh well. They were nasty anyway.