A Brief Beekeeping How-To for Hobbyists
The bees were late. A truck-load of honeybees, including the box ordered by my friend Sue, was being driven to Chicago from Beeweaver Apiaries, an established honeybee breeder in Navasota, Texas. Once they arrived at Chicago Honey Co-op, a 60-hive apiary and training center where Sue had taken a beekeeping class with dozens of other aspiring beekeepers, the boxes of bees would be dispersed, off to their individual Chicago or suburban hives—where, with a lot of work and a bit of luck, the honeybees would help pollinate flowers, rebalance the eco-system, and produce some delicious honey.
Chicago-area beekeeping is an increasingly popular hobby, so anticipation was running high over the arrival of the bees. But first the truck had to stop in Oklahoma, then Arkansas, northern Missouri, and downstate Urbana before hitting Chicago. That made the bees a day late, so Sue and her fellow beekeeper Holly were at their jobs when the bees finally arrived. Jeff, another friend’s husband, was sent to collect the bees.
“Where are your gloves?” the guy at Chicago Honey Co-op asked. Uh, back with Sue. “You’re on your own, buddy.” The bees were housed in a wooden box with a wire-frame side. There was a syrup dispenser inside the box to entice the bees to stay put, but some were escaping—checking out the new situation or just buzzing around, stretching their wings after the long truck ride. Still, Jeff managed to wrestle them into the trunk of his car and unload them in Sue’s backyard without getting stung.
First rule: Have the appropriate equipment, which can be purchased from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, preferably before you start dealing with bees.
By the time Sue and Holly got off work and ready to transfer the bees from the box to the cute white chalet-style hive that Sue had ready, it was dark. They used the light of a phone to guide them. That’s also when they discovered that Sue hadn’t ordered 500 honeybees, as she thought, but more like 15,000 bees. Plus a queen who came in a separate package with 50 attendants.
It got a little crazy, with bees flying under their clothes and into their hair (yes, they had netted hats but they didn’t wear them because they thought the temperature was so cold). They were wearing beekeeper gloves which, they quickly discovered, immediately became covered with energetic bees trying to protect the queen. So neither Holly nor Sue could reach into their pockets for needed tools. Second rule: Once you’ve ordered the appropriate equipment, use it. Then try to think a few steps ahead of the bees.
It took awhile to complete the bee transfer. In part, because when they first thought they were done, some bees had actually followed them into Sue’s house (where, curiously, her husband and dog were nowhere to be found). Every time they thought they’d rounded up the stray bees, they felt another one crawling on their necks, inside their tops, or down the inside legs of their pants. Total damage: 4 bee stings.
But now the bees are ensconced in Sue’s new hive, the queen is alive, and there are bound to be great stories ahead all summer.
Photograph: Holly Richards