The Bees Won’t Wait for Fair Weather…

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Hiving packages of honeybees is arguably best done “quick and dirty”.  Essentially, it involves dumping 3 lbs (about 12,000) of flying, stinging insects from a shoebox-sized container into a new hive. There are less dramatic ways of doing it, but this is how I was taught.

A few weeks ago, packages of bees were carted up to NYC from Georgia overnight. I gathered with about 30 other people at a community garden in Ft. Greene to pick up about 6 of them for myself and a friend. It was cold, damp and really not an ideal time to be handling bees but with limited food stores kept in tin cans in each box and very cool temperatures being forecast for the next few days it was now or never. The bees had to be placed in their permanent homes.

One by one I visited the sites where I would be keeping bees or assisting new beekeepers. I started at home first, introducing a new companion to my already thriving rooftop colony. I moved on to the hives of my friend who was regrettably out of the country the day the bees came.. Their cheerfully painted kelly-green and butter-yellow homes waited silently for their new tenants in the backyard of a generous couple who volunteered to host them. I know my friend was sad to have missed the introduction but she would have plenty of time to bond with them when she got back to Brooklyn.

From there I went to Eagle Street Rooftop Farms to home three new colonies, one being placed in a Top Bar Hive which Ross Conrad kindly assisted in hiving. He had a more civilized and kindly way to do it: put the lidless package in the hive, place the queen cage between the top bars and then close ‘er up. The bees could, at their own pace, exit the package and proceed to release the queen and build comb. I would just have to come back to remove the box the next day. Lovely! Through all of those hivings, it was raining down hard. Neil, my faithful and brave boyfriend, held an umbrella over me while I worked. If the bees had known any better they may have felt gratitude towards him as well. Thanks to the help of some friends I was six packages in and had not a sting to report.

Things got a little hairy toward the end of the day when I met up just Justin from BK Farmyards to pick up orphaned packages that Stacey Murphy (founder of BK Farmyards) and I had struggled to find a site for. Justin works on some sweet cars on the weekends in Crown Heights at a garage in the backyard of a beautiful duplex home. Generously, the owners of the property offered one of their rooftops as a possible permanent location. The roof of the garage turned out to be a perfect home for the bees. It gets loads of sunlight, is inaccessible to children, but is still fairly easy to get onto. The homeowners agreed to the placement and seemed excited about the prospect of getting a sampling of the harvest. Who wouldn’t be?! We all climbed a ladder onto the garage, setting up the hives so that they face south-east. We tilted them forward to ensure that moisture rolls out of the entrance. We tweaked everything to make sure it was just so and then I proceeded to spray down the package with sugar syrup in preparation for the “big dump”. I did not put on my veil, which I would normally do, as it was wet and sticky and very hard to see through. I had good luck with the other hives though so I felt comfortable risking it. I tied my hair up in a scarf and prepared myself. I pried open the top, removing the queen cage and can of sugar syrup and then swiftly turned the box over and started shaking it. It took a fraction of a second to regret it. These were some very unhappy bees! I got about 4 or 5 angry bees in the face, neck and scalp. I stepped away briefly to pull out stingers, light my smoker and put on my sticky mess of a veil. I was not excited to resume but I had to get the rest of the bees out of the package. I went back in for more. No less than 5 minutes later, the two packages were safely in their homes. I was inside now, our hosts painting my face and neck with baking soda paste while I sipped children’s Benadryl and chuckled about the experience. “This is what you sign up for when you become a beekeeper!” I tell them. And it’s true…as a beekeeper, you will get stung from time to time and you have to be ok with it. This does not mean you should not try to prevent it. From now on I will be carrying an extra clean veil for emergencies.

I had only two more hives to complete in Carroll Gardens the next day and we had another angry bee situation then too, but I learned my lesson and brought a windbreaker and clean hat and veil. As before, I opened the package and ended up with about twenty bees on me, bodies curled in anger, determined to get their stingers sunken in. A few flew up my pants legs and stung me in the ankles and calves but I kept working. I had endured enough stings and I just wanted to get it done so I could enjoy a week of downtime before I’d have to make the rounds for first inspections. I could be dealing with bees with a grudge! A week later was inspection time. The weather was much more pleasant and the bees seemed to notice. All of the queens were released from their cages and were laying eggs. The colonies were building comb at a nice pace. The sting-y hives seemed to have mellowed out and forgotten all about their traumatic homing. All was well, and I was relieved. It’s going to be really interesting to see how this season progresses. I plan to keep detailed records of each hive that will include harvests, super dates (when honey supers were added), requeen dates and details regarding temperament and number of stings associated with each inspection. The hope is that next year I will be able to split the colonies that overwintered well, have good “personalities” and foraging ability so that the bees I am maintaining are well suited to this area and to regular handling. Wish me luck! I think I have my work cut out for me! More pictures of hives to come…


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