Bees, Spring and the Magic of Smoke

First package of bees.  Three pounds and a queen!

Last Spring I started beekeeping for the first time.  I was so scared and so elated.  I had always wanted to keep bees but was so afraid of them.  It was a love-hate relationship.  I had decided it was time to face some of my fears and for me that means diving head on into whatever it is that freaks me out.  (I did this with surfing too.  So scared but just dove in.  Literally!) 
Bees it was!
I took a great once a week class at my local apiary store, Beez Neez, and when I finished I passed the test and got my apprentice bee keeping certificate from the Washington State Beekeepers Association.  Yippee!  Now all I had to do was buy some gear, and I was good to go.  I opted for buying a package deal from Bees Neez, the beginners' Deluxe, and it included almost every single thing I needed to get started.  I got 2 assembled deep hive boxes with frames, a screened cedar bottom board & cedar garden lid with metal top, plus an inner cover, The book Bee Keeping for Dummies, a top feeder, full suit, leather gloves, hive tool and smoker.  Although I had all the accoutrement of beekeeping I was still very nervous.  How would I be able to deal with thousands of bees and not pass out?

In this picture above I have, oh, probably about three full layers of clothes on.  It was hot and hard to move.  I had convinced myself that I would be safe if I wore many layers.  That way no bee could sting me.  I took no heed of the fact that bees that are ready to bee hived have been feed so much sugar syrup that they were pretty much drunk and sleepy.  When bees are hived they are typically the most gentle you will ever see them.  You dont even need to use smoke to hive bees.  Once their queen is in place they just want to stay right with her and they are too full to be too annoyed with you. 
 As a side note, it is much easier to deal with bees and piss them off less if you go gloveless and can be agile with your fingertips and less clumsy then when you have bulky gloves on.  In these photos I have gloves off and it was killing me.  I was so scared!  And to this day I have not since, ever, opened their hive or deal with them in any way without my long protective leather gloves on.  Still have progress to make!

Here I am about to take the plug out of three pounds of bees and try not to faint.  You wont be able to tell in these pictures but as I got closer to having to take the plug out, and thus potentially let thousands of bees fly around me, my knees began to shake.  And, actually, I dont just mean shake.  It was more like an uncontrolable quiver that made it so I could barely stand.  I was wobbly and completely driven by fear.  I look back now and it seems so silly.  My bees are so gentle.  And especially during hiving, they are so mellow.  I had little to be scared of but was making it a way bigger deal than it needed to be.  Next time I start a hive I will have a hiving party and invite people over to see me do it.  Its fun, instructional, informative and might help someone else be able to start a hive with having to be sweaty, nervous and freaking out inside!
You can see in this picture I have all my feeding jars filled with sugar syrup and ready to go.  In early spring, newly hived bees wont have a strong nectar and pollan source yet so you have to feed them in western Washington until the big leaf maples bloom.  After that most hives are good to go.  You will also notice I have a spary bottle and it to is filled with sugar syrup.  You use it to spray the sides of their shipping package that is all mesh and they drink it up, get full, and calm down so they can be hived with minimal uproar.  I am sure I definately oversparyed my little bees but they were OK in the end.

Oh my gosh!  Here I am with the queen package in my hands.  I have already, at this point, had to open the package of bees to get her out and I am shaking like a leaf.  Chad said later that he had no idea I was that scared and he was a little concerned about me.  He kept asking if I was OK and if I need his help.  I was so determined to do it on my own but boy was I scared.  Here I am trying to get the plug out that holds the queen in so I can let her out inbetween the middle two frames and then very quickly dump the bees on her and all over the tops of the frames.  Since she had been with her bees for many days during shipping and while they waited for me to pick them up, they were used to each others smell and pheromones so I could direct release her.  If she had not been with them long, I would have hung her little cage between the frames and let them chew their way to each other thru the candy plug and that would have given them enough time to accept each other.  Notice the marking I put on the tops of the frames.  Frames go into a hive in a certain way with a certain side facing out from the middle.  So the arrows help me know which way to put them back in as I inspect them later and the date is so I know when I started using each frame for later down the road when I have more hives to keep track of.

The moment of truth!

Here is the hiving of the honey bees!  Really you are just dumping them over their queen as fast as you can after you put the queen in the frames, and trying to shake out every last bee you can.  I was so nervouse that I ended up setting the box down and leaving it over night as the stragglers found their way into the hive entrance.  It took them several mintues to get down in the frames enough so that I could place the hive cover on top and an empty hive box on that to hold the feeder.  One of that last things you do when hiving bees is placing an entrance reducer at the hive entrance so there is very little space for them to leave or predators to get in.  Once they are established they can defend themselves better and aren't as susceptible to cold, wind, rain, mauraders, etc.

Happy little bee butt inside a fox glove flower!

Here I am, later in summer, going to check my bees to see how they are doing.  Notice I have my smoker and hive tool in hand.  And it looks to me like the entrance reducer is still on so this might be the first time I lite up my smoker and check on the bees.  Most experienced beekeepers will tell you to leave your bees alone if they seem alright.  But as a new beekeeper it is good to get in there more often to see what they are doing, and establish what normal is.  You have to know what to look for, what you are looking at, if they are making brood, storing honey, etc.  So I tried to get in them at least every two weeks or so last summer. 
I discovered the magic of the smoke.  I was still really nervous here since I hadn't used the smoker yet and wasn't sure what they would do in reponse to me getting in there and looking around. 
My bees are so sweet and smoke is magic!  Once I began to understand the magic of the smoke, I calmed down so much.  Smoke is your best friend when you are nervouse like me!  The smoke makes my bees leave me alone and start ingesting lots of honey in case they need to flee and leave home.  If they might have to leave because they think their house is on fire, or before they get ready to swarm and not know how long they will be without food, they fill up their bellies in preperation.

Just last weekend I got in my hive for the first time this spring.  I was nervous again but this time it was because I had noticed so many dead bees in the entrance and all around the front of the hive.  What happened?  I had always understood that if they are healthy they will carry their dead away because they are very tidy and clean.  Was there something wrong with them?  Was the queen gone?  Why weren't they cleaning up?!  Perhaps when we had one of those odd warm winter days they had unclustered and come out to venture but then got really cold again and many died.  It is normal for a hive to reduce in numbers for winter but I had never heard of massive bee death like this unless disease was involved. 
But they look good.  In fact, they look great!  I love my bees!  They are so easy and give so much.  At this time of year and all thru summer we will crane our heads each time we come up the driveway to see what they are doing.  We will watch in amazement as they carry pollen in the baskets on their hind legs in every color of the rainbow.  We will enjoy their honey at the end of summer and use it to make elderberry mead and give it as gifts.  With my bees I can leave and go surfing on the coast for a weekend and they wont die.  They dont need me to feed them food and water every day.  They take care of themselves and they are sweet. 
I love my bees!