My First Contact with Actual Honey Bees

It’s November 2018. I’m revisiting everything I wrote on this blog since 2010. When I’m embarrassed by what I see, I delete it or rewrite it. (I also don’t want to mislead anyone with idealised beliefs or half-baked ideas.) While there are a few things in this post that seem kind of silly now, I won’t change much. I’ll keep it as a record of where my thinking was before I had bees. But I’ll tell you right now what’s embarrassing. #1: “I could probably write a book about beekeeping…” I thought that probably because I spent a few too many years in university researching and writing and believing that that skill set qualified me to write a book and give advice about beekeeping. Oh, the ego.

This is the big one that many people seem to fall for. Zero experience with taking care of bees, but if I talk to other beekeepers and read enough about it and work it all out in my head, then of course I can advise people about beekeeping. Man, I could even write a book about it. Demonstrations of that kind of conceit are common in online forums, in beekeeping groups, in casual conversations with new beekeepers. And I wasn’t immune to it. I was wise enough, I hope, to eventually back off from it before I rubbed too many people the wrong way.

The few mentors who have made a difference to my beekeeping usually answer my questions by first saying, “Well, I don’t know, but this is what I do and sometimes it works.” I’m embarrassed by the general “Don’t worry, I got this” attitude in this post, saying idealised things like “let the bees be bees” and going out of my way to explain everything — like one does when one has little to no experience, sort of a beekeeping version of mansplaining. What a funny phenomena, one that I don’t think anyone fully escapes from thanks to the automatic adoration that comes with being seen as a Beekeeper with a capital B, as if it requires some kind of mystical connection to the universe to go out and buy some bees. But we have to play the part, right? Beekeeping is a peculiar dance with a siren song.

In any case, I’d much rather delete everything I wrote in this post, but let’s just go back to 2010 when I said…

I’ve researched everything I can about honey bees for the past year. I could probably write a book about beekeeping (or at least a series of detailed blog entries). But until now, it would have all been from a theoretical point of view because I hadn’t had any practical experience handling honey bees. And I’m beginning to think that after all the time and effort I’ve put into this, beekeeping is not going to happen for me this year. It’s been almost two months since I’ve heard from the one beekeeper in Newfoundland who might be able to supply with me some bees. I don’t know what’s happening, and subsequently I’m imagining the worst: they’re going to tell me tough luck, no bees for me this year. My beautiful bee hive may be collecting dust until next summer. I sure hope not.

At any rate, I got a little itty bitty bit of practice in last night when Aubrey Goulding at Paradise Farms let me take a peek inside one of his honey bee hives.

That’s me smoking the bees. The smoke makes the bees easier to handle. They react to the smoke as if the hive is about to catch on fire. That is, they gorge themselves on honey in case they have to evacuate and build another hive elsewhere. The smoke also disguises the pheromones the bees use for signalling alarm. Some beekeepers spray their bees with sugar water instead, which apparently has the same effect. Either way, it’s probably better to leave the hive alone most of the time and just let the bees be bees.

The frames on the left in this photo are loaded with bees.

I knew everything I had to do to inspect a hive. But my mind went blank and I stood there like a dummy. I got stung on the back of my ankle because I was standing in front of the entrance to the hive, getting in the way of the bees. I knew not to stand in front of the entrance, but I wasn’t thinking. I ignored the sting, didn’t tell anyone, and the pain went away after about a minute.

Here I am pointing at what I thought were swarm cells at the bottom of a frame. A swarm cell is a type of cell that’s constructed for creating a new queen. The old queen will leave the hive and take enough bees along with her (in a swarm) to start up another colony. Aubrey told me that some queens produce workers that tend to build swarm cells. Some don’t. Usually the hive will create queens like this when the hive gets crowded and there’s enough bees to start up a new healthy hive elsewhere. The other type of queen cell is called a supercedure cell. It will sometimes show up at the centre or the top of a frame. It’s big and shaped like a peanut (similar to the swarm cell), but the hive produces a new queen in this manner only when the current queen is sick, old or not laying as well as she should. Man, those bees are smart.

Now check this out. This is what I’m talking about!

Nice brood pattern. Those are capped (or sealed) brood cells on the right half of the frame. Many of the open cells are filled with honey, eggs and larvae ready to be capped. Eventually most of the frame will be filled with capped brood cells. That’s why the big boxes at the bottom of the the hive are called the brood chambers. All the honey produced down there is for the worker bees and the rearing of baby bees. You wouldn’t want to try to harvest that honey, anyway, because you’d get a mixture of honey and eggs. Yuck (though I’m sure it would still taste sweet).

Now it’s my turn to pull out a frame. I used a frame grip. All the bees just got out of the way of the grip. I was a bit nervous about dropping the frame, especially if the queen was on it. Studying beekeeping for the past year is one thing. Doing it was a whole new ball game. I knew what to do, but it definitely takes practice to get a feel for it.

The hive was humming (really). But then we banged it a bit and the hum transformed into a buzz. Still, the bees just went about their business like we weren’t even there.

The frame I pulled out was packed with honey bees.

Aubrey showed me some drone cells on one of the outer frames too. The drone cells, which are larger and bulge out compared to regular cells, are constructed for the rearing of male bees whose sole purpose is to mate with the queen — which happens once during the queen’s life. A drone is produced somehow from unfertilised eggs.

I could have stood there watching the bees all day, but we only had about 5 minutes and Aubrey had to go.

Aubrey can’t supply me with bees this year because his populations are down due some crappy weather that kept the bees stuck inside their hives early in the spring. I hope I can get some bees from the beekeeper on the west coast soon (from The Newfoundland Bee Company). I’m ready to move to Nova Scotia just so I can start something up this year. I would hate to wait another year after all the work I’ve put into it.