When I was a kid, my sister and I really liked to catch nature things, put them in containers and observe them. Our go-to was frogs, which we’d capture and keep in a kiddie pool filled with water and rocks. Each would be carefully examined, given a name, and later released. (Except for one I named Michael J. Fox. He reigned the kiddie pool for several days until my mom suggested the idea that frogs had families too. “Mom,” I said, “He’s part of our family now!” showing her the elaborate castle I built for him out of rocks. Not convinced, I reluctantly let him go).
In the Springtime, red salamanders would get stored outside in an old goldfish tank. Summertime of course meant fireflies in jars in our bedroom, which we’d sometimes remember to release a few days later.
As we got a little older, we realized we needed a more challenging catch. One day as we sat outside lopping the hair off our Barbies we looked around and saw lots of bees hopping from clover to clover. Our subject presented itself.
We went to work, cupping a Cool Whip container over a bee as it landed, then slid a flat plastic sandcastle shovel underneath, trapping it inside. Carefully, we dumped each bee, one by one, into the tank and then covered the top with a board.
Before we knew it, we had about twenty bees. Bumble bees; honey bees; a few wasps; sweat bees, and about nine hornets. It was a very rough looking crowd.
Beaming at our new pissed-off looking friends, we remembered they needed to eat. We threw in a few handfuls of grass and hoped for the best. The next day we checked on them. They were all gone and the board had been removed! Mom!!!!
Years since then, and still with a penchant for nature things, I revisited the idea of keeping bees but in a more reasonable, adult way. My interest started to unfold after suffering for years from allergies and being morally opposed to western medicine. The more I read up on the benefits of raw honey, realized that it was good for healing lot of things – not only is it antimicrobial, loaded with vitamins, and an excellent source of energy, it’s great for your skin and can also be used to treat wounds and infections — not to mention my sweet tooth! I began using honey for everything, and would add gobs of it regularly to my breakfast. Pretty soon I realized I was going through a two-pound jar every two weeks. Two pounds of raw, local honey is not cheap. Every empty jar signified I needed more (and there were always empty jars).
I realized I needed to do something to justify my addiction, so I signed up for a 3-day beekeeping course at Rutgers Environmental Complex in Bordentown, NJ. In taking this course, I learned I had some respecting to do. Honey does not form overnight. It’s an arduous process orchestrated by thousands of bees that work their striped derrieres off, risking their lives every time they leave the hive. Not to mention that honey is their food, and is their sole sustenance to sustain their hive, and get them through the winter (which in the Northeast, can be harsh!). I cut back on my honey consumption, and began treating it more like gold than Frank’s Red Hot.
I ordered my starter hive in the fall of 2012, and in between priming and painting it, read up (and nerded out) on beekeeping knowhow. For example, did you know that the queen bee can lay 2000 eggs a day? Or, if a larger insect (or rodent) gets inside the hive to try to steal honey, the bees will kill it, then wrap it in propolis and wax which hermetically seals it. That way they can just leave it in the hive, and not worry about its removal. Woah.
I ordered my ‘package’ of bees from a local apiary, and waited eagerly for its early spring arrival. The first week of April, I got the phone call that they were ready for pick up. I paid the beekeeper and was instructed to pick out whichever package I’d like. I figured I was about to drive about 25 miles with 3 lbs. of bees with me in a car (with windows rolled up I was instructed, as not to agitate them), figured I should up the ante of this challenge. I opted for the package with a good cluster of 40 chilly bees clinging to the outside. Taking this as a sign that these rogue bees decided that this was the best box, carefully picked it up, said “I’ll take this one!” and carefully rested it next to me on the passenger seat. For the most part, they stayed clinging to the box. Until I got about 5 miles from home a few decided to fly around and check out the backseat of my car. If you think driving is fun, try driving with a box of live bees!
Once home, I put on my bee suit, got my smoker and sprayer full of sugar water ready. Smoke masks the alarm pheromones bees release that signal the other bees to take warning. The sugar syrup also helps calm them by giving them something to snack on. Both help keep the bees nice and calm. I slowly removed the covering of my box of bees, pulled out the sugar syrup can (used to feed them while in transport), and pulled out the little queen cage (she was a beauté — long and golden!), and put her in my pocket for safe keeping (and to keep her warm). Then, I held my breath. I was about to dump 3 lbs. of bees into my beehive. Do you know how many bees that is? 400? 1,000? Nope, 11,000 bees my friend.
Somehow, after practicing in my mind over and over, everything went to plan. I gently shook the bees into the hive and left the package near the hive entrance so any stragglers could make it out on their own. I pulled the cork out of the queen cage and placed in between two frames, put on the lid to the hive and stepped away. Phew! Bees were excitedly flying around me everywhere, glad to be out of their box. A bunch landed on my arms and gloves and made their introductions. I noticed they were looking right at me as if to say, “Who the heck are you?”
It’s been one year now since I got my bees, and I’ve learned a ton. They’ve been multiplying rapidly and I not have a pretty good tower of supers (boxes that contain frames of bees). Each weighs about 35 lbs and is full of bees of all developing stages, propolis, pollen, water, and honey. Every time I do a hive inspection, I become wide-eyed with wonder — there are colors and smells inside that you can never believe existed until you experience it for yourself.
One of the most amazing feelings I’ve gotten to experience is how I can read them, and they can read me. If I move slow and carefully, they move slow and carefully. If I feel hurried or tense, they are too and will fly about and look at me as if to say, “chill out!” Because of this, they are teaching me the value of moving slowly and carefully, to pay attention and to remain curious. They seem to recognize me when I open the hive and lately I have not been using my smoker. I can tell by the volume of their hum if they’re having a good day, or bummed because it’s overcast. They’ve turned my sparse garden into a veritable produce aisle.
I am absolutely enamored with the treasure chest in my backyard.