“I’ve always wanted to raise bees.”
That offhand comment was all it took for my friend Pete to give me a beekeeping gift, complete with bee box and how-to books, for Mother’s Day two years ago. But Pete’s thoughtful present arrived a little late to order bees, so it sat on a shelf in the garage for a year.
Last spring, my daughter told a beekeeper about my failure to launch, and the next thing I knew, two enthusiastic beekeepers, Cesar Cerna and Carol Kremer, were buzzing around my yard, ready to get my hive off the ground. Beekeepers for seven years, they learned by attending beekeeping workshops. Now they pay it forward and mentor newbies like me.
The first thing I needed was a complete bee box. I had only a 10-frame super (the structure to hold the bees), but I lacked other critical items such as inner and outer covers, a bottom and a stand. I also didn’t have a protective veil or gloves. Or bees. But Cesar and Carol patiently helped me order everything I needed. Cesar also lent me a top for the box, and Carol lent her sugar water jar, which is used to feed the bees until they get comfy in their new home and start foraging on their own.
One thing I did have was the perfect sunny spot for the hive among the fruit trees and flowers in my large garden. Sheltered inside a fenced area, it’s also safe from strong winds and hungry animals.
I started my hive with a nucleus colony, which is fully established with a fertilized queen, larvae, combs and honey. The queen is larger than the others; her wings cover only two-thirds of her body. We located her nestled among the drones, which mate with the queen, and the worker bees, which guard the hive and collect nectar.
We set the five-frame nucleus colony inside the 10-frame super, added the lid, set out the sugar water and let the bees settle into their new home. After a week or two, Cesar and Carol came back to check on the queen. We needed to make sure she hadn’t packed her bags instead of producing offspring. It didn’t take much searching to find white ricelike eggs and healthy, pearly white larvae and pupae in capped cells. Things were going so well, I had to expand their home with another super to give the bees more space.
I was excited to find many of the bees visiting my flowerbeds. On hot days, I saw clusters near the hive entrance. Cesar assured me this was normal behavior during hot weather. He said it was called bearding, which is when some worker bees exit the hive to keep things cooler inside. They fan their wings to move cooler air into and through the hive.
About two months in, it was time to add a half-super for the bees to store honey. Although the colony had been coming along nicely, we belatedly realized that the hive was leaning to one side. The wooden stand was not holding up to outdoor conditions as well as we’d hoped. Pete and I put a new one together, this time made of tough cement blocks so it would be sure to last. It was a perfectly simple solution, but then we ran into a different problem: how to transfer the heavy bee- and honey-filled hive to its new stand. We definitely didn’t want to agitate the bees. But Cesar and Carol came to the rescue once again. We smoked the hive to keep the bees calm during the move. The smoke hinders their sense of smell, which bees use to communicate. Normally, if there’s a hive intruder, bees release an alarm pheromone to ready a group attack. If they can’t smell the pheromone, they stay calm.
Cesar was excited to share the hive progress with Pete, and he handed him a bee-filled frame once the bees were soothed. Pete hadn’t expected to be so involved with my beekeeping adventure!
Then it was time to hold the bee-filled super, which probably weighed over 50 pounds. Pete later told me that he was so focused on the risk of an angry bee flying up his shorts that he didn’t even notice how heavy the super was. The good news is that none of us, including the bees, were harmed during the move.
Once everyone was settled in again, the super filled up fast, and I added a second one a month later. I left the honey for the bees this first year so they’d have plenty of food to get them through the winter. Straw bales now surround the hive to keep the bees warm during the cold Wisconsin weather. They’ll huddle inside to live off their honey stores until next spring, when the flowers will bloom and my honeybees will return to my backyard garden.
The Painful Truth
It’s true that if you become a beekeeper, you will occasionally get stung. But a honeybee sting is not nearly as painful as being stung by a wasp, and there are a lot of precautions you can take, like using a smoker and donning protective clothing. It’s also helpful to move slowly around the hive, avoid swatting at the bees, and open the hive only on warm days when most of the bees are out foraging. Beekeepers will tell you that the fresh honey and productive gardens are more than worth the occasional sting.