All over Whatcom County this weekend new and old beekeepers were installing packages of honey bees into their hives. As a first time bee keeper it was an exhilarating experience. A package of bees is a three pound screened wooden box that holds ten thousand bees and their new queen. There’s a tin can hanging upside down dripping sugar water to this mob. In a separate little wood/screen cage is the queen. On the top of her cage is a metal tab that fits into a slot at the top of the box. The object of the exercise is to get the queen cage out of the box, remove the little piece of cork that plugs up the hole in the queen cage and put her in the hive. There’s supposed to be a piece of candy between the cork and the queen. After you dump the bees into the hive they will cluster around the queen and eat through the candy plug, releasing her so she can get about her business. This is where our troubles started on Friday. There was no candy plug.
I had ordered a bee package through the Mt. Baker Beekeepers Association. The group sends one person down to Burlington to Belleville Honey to pick up bees for the entire group. After our hive building party Adam J. and David T. ordered bees direct from Belleville. Adam drove to Burlington on Friday morning and picked up the two packages. David and I were waiting with the hive and bee suits. We placed the hive, took off the roof, planned our attack and put on the bee suits. It was mid-day and the bees were very active. Adam got the can out of the hive and began to work the queen tab out of the slot. We had trouble removing the cork. They tell you to use a drywall screw but this wasn’t working so Adam got out his leatherman and use the needle nose tool to pull it out. There was no candy plug! The queen was running back and forth in her small space trying to escape. Panic. Adam ran to the house to try and find a marshmallow but by the time he came back I had managed to let his queen escape. He dumped the rest of the bees into the box. A great hullabaloo. A high pitched humming. Bees everywhere. And, what do we do? No queen.
What’s supposed to happen is that while the hive is eating its way through to the queen to release her from the cage they begin to get used to her. In fact, the queen’s special glands are producing a “queen substance,” a combination of pheromones which serve to harmonize the behavior of the hive. At a point, the hive begins to act like a single organism with the various castes of bees serving the queen who lays the eggs to make the brood and expand the hive.
But Adam’s hive was now queenless and his bees seemed lost and confused. We were too. He got on the phone with Hank at Belleville. Hank’s advice was to come back to Burlington to get a new queen. “She’s gone,” he said. “Not much chance she’ll come back.” Because, I suppose, the hive was not yet home. We installed David’s bees without much incident except for dropping the queen cage into the box and having to dig it out after we dumped the three pounds of bees into the hive. This time, though, we were ready with a piece of marshmallow to stuff in the hole. Again, it was mid-day and bees were everywhere. I was glad for the suit. When we got done it was dotted with little brown spots of bee poop.
Linda and I drove to Bellingham to pick up our bees. I selected a nice, quiet boxfull. They’d been sprayed with sugar water and this drew some local honey bees to the outside of the box. Hitchhikers! Free bees! Eleven of them. It was a good sign.
It was about seven o’clock when we got ready to hive our bees. A good time, I think. The bees were getting sleepy. I decided to go barehanded as Adam had found the bee gloves awkward. Our installation was seamless. It was like we had done it before (well, actually, I had done it twice that day). We got the plug out nicely, installed the marshmallow, pinned the queen cage to a top bar, banged the hive on the ground to loosen up the bee package and dumped them in the hive, replaced the top bars, laid a baggie full of sugar water on top and put the roof on.
Yesterday afternoon the sun came out. The bees, as they say, were flying. I could see them working a lilac and while I mowed was careful not to run over any bees sucking on dandelions. The main body of bees was clustered around the queen box trying to get her out. We’ll feed them for a time but they are lucky bees, located in a bountiful place with no wide-scale conventional agriculture taking place. They should have a great summer. The challenge will be to get them through the winter. But I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve that most beekeepers don’t even know about. I’ll brag and tell about them if they work.
It’s comforting to have bees in the yard. I’m aware of at least 50,000 honeybees that arrived on Lummi Island this past weekend. I believe a few more packages are yet to come. If we all do well this bunch could expand to 150,000 bees by fall.
We love those bees already.