My First Contact with Actual Honeybees

I’ve researched everything I can about honeybees over the past five months. 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 honeybees. 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 practice in last night when Aubrey at Paradise Farms let me take a peek inside one of his honeybee 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.

(Note: There are no close-up shots because Jenny, who was taking the photos, didn’t have any protective gear, so she had to stand back a bit. We’ll have to get her a suit if we ever do this again.)

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 some 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 new old queen will leave the hive and take enough bees along with her (in a swarm) to build another hive. 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 five months 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 honeybees.

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. Every hive will have at least 20 or 30 drone bees at all times, even if they sit around and do nothing. A drone is produced somehow from unfertilized 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. 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.

This may be the last time I post anything about beekeeping until I know for sure whether or not I can start up some hives this year.

This is Phillip, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off…

AUGUST 31, 2015: It’s interesting to hear me talk about swarm cells, etc., at a time when I had zero experience with honey bees. That’s my enthusiasm overriding my experience. It happens.

PHOTOS NOTE (AUGUST 2015): The photos in this post may not display properly because they were uploaded through Google’s Picasa online photo album service, a service I no longer use because certain updates created more work for me instead of streamlining the process. I will eventually replace the photos with ones hosted on the Mud Songs server. This note will disappear when (or if) that happens.

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