Yup, that was the question a couple of years ago. We go through a lot of honey, here on the farm. Honey and cinnamon on toast was a staple for the breakfast table. And everybody knows toast is important (Alton Brown, Good Eats: Season 7, Episode 17). We came home one day, and found thousands of honey bees buzzing about the yard. It was quite amazing, bees everywhere, and nobody was cranky.
A queen bee that has seen her second spring will get the urge to move. She will send a good number of scout bees out to find a new home. The scouts will return and do a dance that indicates the direction and distance of their find. The more excited the scout is about her findings, the more excitedly she will dance. The one that busts the best dance moves, as judged by the hive, will get the nod, and lead the queen and up to 60 percent of the hive out on a road trip. If the new nest location is too far for one flight, they will pick a hotel site to put up for the night. This mostly happens in the spring, however, in can happen at other times during the summer too.
An old English poem says:
A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July, let them fly.
This was in May, and I had remembered seeing bees all over our place the last year, so I knew we had a hive in the area. We finally found where they were parking for the night. There was a small knot hole in the siding of the old hired man’s shed. One of the scouts had checked it out and had done a dance, indicating this place was the “bees knees” for an overnight stay. As the sun started to set, I estimated around 20,000 bees had stuffed themselves through a knot hole and settled in for the night. I asked the last few heading in if they needed a wake up call. Nope, they had it handled. The next morning, I went out to see if anybody needed coffee before heading out, but they were already gone.
Well, that put a bee in my bonnet, so to speak. I started doing some research on bee keeping, hive building, honey extracting and so on. I ended up building a Top Bar style hive and we ordered some bees from Kentucky. They got delivered directly to the post office. We got a very nervous call from a lady at the post office. Apparently they don’t do a lot of bees by mail. In anticipation of this, we had taken the day off from work. The bees needed to be installed in their new home as soon as possible. We showed up at the post office, acting all “Yah, we do this all the time” like, and collected our new Italian stock bees. The post office lady thought we were nuts, and I was crooning, Dean Martin style, When the moon’s in the sky, like a big pizza pie… all the way home. The wife was very happy when I finally pulled into the drive. She said the buzzing was getting to her. Uh huh.
The bees came in a small screen box with the queen in a little screen tube. The box was stuffed full of about 30,000 bees. We sprayed sugar water on the hive box and dumped the bees into the hive. We then extracted the queen and introduced her to her loyal subjects. That pretty much ended our part of the deal. For the next couple of days, when I got home from work, I would grab a beer and a lawn chair, and go sit next to the hive. Every now and then I would the pop off with a “Whatsa matter you?” when they would buzz past my face. Italian stock bees are notably docile and would not get aggressive unless you did. I guess my Italian impression did not irritate them like it did my wife.
I built a panel in the hive, that would open so I could view the girls’ progress in making honey and new bees. Every week we would open the hive and take a few pictures. Invariably, a bee or 2 would not get out of the way of the panel when I closed it up. Regrettably, you have to smoosh a few bees to make a little honey. We never got a complaint from the queen, so we were off the hook, so to speak.
The first year, while the bees were just settling in, they ended up making 6 or 7 combs by October. We started feeding them some sugar water during the cold months and they huddled up into a big ball, to stay warm. I have been told by old time bee keepers that the center of the ball, where the queen lives, will stay around 74 degrees on the coldest day. They need fuel the keep that kind of heat going, and that’s where the sugar water comes in. We kept checking on them throughout the winter. On warm days, the hardiest of them would stream out and look for something to eat. Amazingly, we found them coming back with legs full of pollen at the end of February.
As spring came on, we were eagerly looking forward for them to fulfill their contractual obligations as per our original contract. We provide the room and board in return for a couple pounds of honey. A square deal, I thought. At one point they were trying to unionize and renegotiate the deal, this was in a cloudy stretch of March I think, and I cut off the sugar water until they came to their senses, all 30,000 of them. Negative vibes were evident, by me getting stung right after their vote. I let it slide, and put out a peace offering of sugar water in a peanut jar lid. I put this out by the door of my shop, and they came every sunny day and emptied the lid, smiles all around.
The fateful first harvest came in late April. The spring had been good, with lots of rain and warm temperatures. I notified them of payment due and gave them some smoke. Cracking the lid of the hive and pulling out the honey-filled combs is a heady experience. The bees really don’t want you to mess with the combs, and you end up brushing them off with a soft paint brush. The top bar hive worked out pretty well; we ended up with taking about 16 pounds of honey and only one cross-linked comb. That is where the comb stretches from one bar to the next. There was much more honey in the hive, but you leave that so they have enough for the coming winter.
Fresh honey from the hive, is something that makes the whole deal worth it. You quite often end up with bee parts in it, but you can live with the extra protein, or you could be all nancy-boyish and strain it.
We ended up moving the hive before winter to a new location, something more protected from the sun. They took the move well, I thought, and we continued on thinking the contract was secure for the next year. Never look a gift bee in the mouth, as it were. When Spring came around again, lots of buzzing about. I got many assurances that all was well, nothing to see here, just move along citizen…
I came out one April day and thought, hmm, I don’t see any bees flying about. I opened the panel on the hive and to my surprise, everyone was gone. A few expired bees lying on the floor the hive, combs empty, and no forwarding address. Ungrateful little wretches! I thought about waving my contract papers at the one or two bees hanging around in the garden, and then thought better of it. Bad optics. I consider myself pretty good in the woods and thought about tracking the little turds down. You can, with lots of patience, follow a bee to its hive. But then I remembered one of those trite sayings that comes out in times like this. If you love something, set if free. If it comes back, well… I would slap them with breach of contract and, hang on. That would be, like 30,000 warrants. I don’t think the Sheriff is going to be sympathetic to my claim. Never mind.