Hiving Day

Young Italian Honeybee

After that brief relapse into winter, spring seems to have returned. And good timing that was, too, because package bees arrived this week, and time and bees wait for no man.

Package bees: this is a commodity that might be unfamiliar to some of you. Time was, you could buy honeybees from Montgomery Ward and have them delivered by the postman. They came in wooden boxes with screened sides, and apparently the postal department was willing to live with this arrangement. No more! Post offices still accept ducklings and chicks, but not honeybees. It was probably pretty hard on the bees, being handled like parcel post and delivered to post offices, and then waiting for the call to go through to the beekeeper who came to pick them up. These days they’re trucked by bee haulers instead of sharing the trip with the mail, and picked up at bee supply houses by local beekeepers. Not as accommodating a method as delivery by postal carrier, but it still makes delivery of package bees possible to small-yard beekeepers. The big boys usually expand their holdings by dividing colonies within their apiaries. Hobby folks, being only lovers of the hive and not so driven by economics (and usually not having so many hives they can divide them), buy packages.

Because of losses the last few years, we went beeless last summer. I didn’t think it would be such a big deal to have no hives, and we had a lot going on, what with the beginning of the house project and all. But I felt unhappy about it. Nothing is so sad as an abandoned bee yard. The hives stood out there empty, a housing project without all the families. So I ordered bees for a new start-up this spring. On Wednesday I got the call: packages had arrived.

The bees still come in a screened wooden box. It holds three pounds of bees. Bees sell by the pound, odd as it may seem. So does honey, for that matter. You might think bees would sell by the each (only queen bees do), and honey by the liquid ounce, but it is pounds of bees that arrive, and pounds of honey that go out at the end of summer. Here are some of the boxes, empty after I have installed the bees into the hives.

Empty bee packages

A three-pound package contains something like 12,000 eager young worker bees and a bred queen. The cans hanging from the tops contained sugar water, feed for the bees during their journey. Scattered on the floors you can see some empty queen cages. All this will be explained.

Here is a video of how to get the packaged bees into the hive. Look what I’ve learned to do! I can stick the video right here into the post!

Each beekeeper, it seems, develops minor variations in the routine, but for the most part, that’s how it’s done (I try not to drop the queen cage into the package, however…).

Like beekeepers, honeybees are most happy when the sun is shining. On the day the bees arrived, it was pouring rain, and by the time I got home with them, it was dark. So we held them in their packages until Thursday. It was still not such good weather then, and late in the day by the time I was off work and returned to the bee yard to get them into their hives. This is why you have no pictures of them in their packages. They were, shall we say, grumpy, and I was in a hurry to get them hived. It does them no good to be held in those little boxes overlong, but neither do they really like being handled in the dusk. Yes, beekeepers get stung. Yes, it hurts. But not that much.

True to its nature, spring weather comes foul one day and fine the next. When I went back to release the queens from their little cages, the sun was high, and the bees were singing. Now, here’s the truth of the matter. There is nothing like the song of a sweet hive. You can tell from the sound when a hive is at work, when it’s ill, whether it’s queen-right, or if it’s not. When bees are busy, they are happy.

Here’s a shot of a queen cage just pulled from the new hive as I am about to release the queen. It’s covered with attendants who are there to feed her. Even though she is captive in the cage, they take care of her.

Queen bee in cage with attendants

And bees love housework. Here they are tidying up.

Bees cleaning house

All that rubbish on the landing board is stuff the bees have found inside that, in their opinion, does not belong there. They will take an old messy comb that has spider webs on it and broken cells, and whisk it right up into sparkle and shine.

A hive is very quick to divide up the tasks of building a colony. The workers who are feeding the queen are not the same ones who are cleaning house and performing mortuary duties to remove perished bees from the hive. Nor are either of those the ones who go out into the world and bring home supplies. The colony wastes no time getting to work. In this shot, you can see a bee disappearing into the hive with pollen in her baskets while others are on their way out (Good shot of the sting-y part, too!).

Bringing home the groceries

They have no time to waste, these members of a new household. It will be 21 days before newly hatched workers will augment the population of the hive. For those 21 days, the bees who arrived in the package are the entire future of the hive. They must build a nursery and fill it with eggs laid by the queen, they must feed the queen and the larvae in the nursery, they must keep the hive clean inside, they must bring food to the hive, and they must do it in the chancy weather of spring. See how they keep the new nursery warm:

On a spring day when it’s not quite warm enough to go in a shirt alone, the temperature inside the hive is about 95F. (Click the image if you want to be able to read the scale.)

Honeybees on a hive frame

It’s a big job for little girls, but they seem to know how to go about it.

Nothing makes me much happier than working a yard of healthy bees on a fine spring day. The sun is up and the hives already have a distinctive scent made up of wax, pollen, warmth, and activity. There is magic in a beehive, and it’s starting to happen now.

So I feel we have broken the back of the cold old season and are on our way into the warm, sweet one.

Here I am in my spring bonnet:

Bee bonnet!

The bees are in their hives and all’s well in the world.

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Published in: on April 27, 2008 at 3:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

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