Package day 2011

Today Stedman’s Bee Supplies handed out packages to people who pre-ordered them. West Sound Beekeepers had the club hives out to show people how to install the bees. Ted and I showed up for the noon demonstration featuring alternative hives. Paul Lundy opened three packages, one into a top bar hive, one into a Warre, and one into a western. We were really glad we got a chance to see someone do it before we tried our hand at it ourselves. Everyone in the club was just wearing street clothes; Paul had donned his veil after being stung once that morning, but that was the only gear he wore.

When I heard “bee package” I thought something like a big pouch. These packages were actually big wire cages with a queen in a box and a can of sugar water feeding the bees. A club member drives to California each spring to pick up the bees from a bee breeder. Having a caring person shepherd them home is easier on the bees than being shipped in the mail.

To install the bees in the hive, you first have to pry out the sugar water can. The queen box has a metal tab attached and is slotted into a slid cut into the top of the box, so the next step is to work the queen box out. Our first package was tight and took some time to work the queen box free, a worrying moment. There’s a cork in a hole in the box. You pull the cork free, quickly sliding a finger over the hole so the queen doesn’t escape, then replace the cork with a small cocoa-sized marshmallow (the club even provided the marshmallows!) The club members assured us the workers will eat the queen free of the marshmallow in a day or two.

Getting that cork off is an immersion experience, the bees climb all over your fingers and hands while you’re doing it, but they’re very gentle, and Paul did this with his bare hands. Ted had a pin to pull the cork with and an idea how to do it easily, so he did both of the corks with his bare hands too.

Next you shake the bees out of the box and into the hive. I did that for both the packages. It’s a different kind of immersion experience because this is the part where you actually upset the bees. I was wearing just light-colored clothing, gloves and a veil, and not a full bee suit. If I had had the sense to tuck in my shirt I wouldn’t have gotten the one sting I got when a bee slipped up the shirt. Fortunately I had a box of sting wipes handy, I just swiped it and kept going.

Installing bees - photo by Alex Williams

Installing bees - photo by Alex Williams

Displaying the queen box

Displaying the queen box

When most of the bees are out of the package, you suspend the queen box in the hive, by crimping the little metal tab and securing it between two bars. As soon as we did that a bunch of bees crowded the entrance of the hive and began fanning furiously, spreading the queen’s pheromones on the air to call all her bees to the hive, an eruption of sound. Fanning stopped pretty quickly. The workers clustered around the queen, keeping her warm. They also pushed some of the dead bees to the door of the hive. I kept the hive door clear by swiping them out with a hive tool. There are quite a few dead bees on the floor of the hive, shaken out of the box along with the live ones. The trip from California looks to be pretty hard on them.

After a while we started seeing live bees heading out of the hive to forage and defecate. People don’t talk about bee poop much, bees have to fly to defecate, and little brown splotches covered the hives and my gloves. One of the wags at the club quipped that it’s a long trip from California!

We’re worried about how cold it is. These California bees have just had the shock of their lives, they’re out there tonight in 45? temperatures. The natural beekeeping method is to feed the bees only when necessary and only on honey. In this case though as they’ve been living on sugar water, they’ve lost a lot of bees, and it’s a late cold spring, we decided to do as the club recommends and put out a feeder. Ted made a shallow feeder with a frame to give them access and we filled it with sugar water.

Periodically through the afternoon we popped out to check in on the hives. This is their first night out and I’m worried about them of course. I’m sure I’ll get more relaxed with time, but this is my first set of hives, and I want to be a good beekeeper and get them off to a good start.

While I was out there I checked on the mason bees. The males have hatched out but the females are still in their tubes. Experienced beekeepers tell me this is because the weather is still pretty cold, but the males will be okay out there until the females hatch.

Ted built the hives from the golden mean plans from Back Yard Hive. He made all the top bars and painted the hives lavender. They are built with windows so you can look in on the bees as often as you like without disturbing them. I think the hives look just lovely, and with the bees installed I expect we’ll be spending a lot of time with them. It was certainly an exciting and eventful first day!

Stedman’s Bee Supplies
West Sound Beekeeper’s Association
Back Yard Hive

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