Bees!

(Madame Weebles, stop your reading right here because this post is all about bees, honey, and disgusting holes.)

I am going through a phase. I think it might be a lifelong one, but it’s one where I am very interested in urban agriculture and slow food. I would love to garden but we have very little space in our yard and I am very lazy. I would love to have chickens but they’re illegal here and I can’t even handle our silly dog most of the time much less frequent visits from the bylaw officer. Anyway, at some point I envision myself selling little jars of delicious things to people at a market.

So when I was meandering around the community organization booths at our local folk festival a couple of years ago and was reassured by a cute young man with dreadlocks that beekeeping was “very easy” because “bees have been doing this for millions of years”, I became enamored of the idea very quickly. Then I became obsessed. My husband did not approve of me bringing tens of thousands of deadly killers into our yard under the premise that they might sting our young sons and dogs, but I think it’s really because he is afraid. Anyway, somewhere along the way my friend Sarah mentioned that she was also interested in beekeeping I jumped on it and we decided to set up ten thousand deadly killers in her yard instead.

Sarah took the introductory beekeeping course and we sent nervous e-mails off to buy bees. Apparently beekeeping had become quite a craze here and our fearless cooperative had a hard time keeping up. We found ourselves picking up random materials at weird times, assembling things that didn’t really make sense, and hoping against all odds that the bees would like their new home.

These are the frames that the bees make honeycomb. The most important thing about this photo is that I got to use a nail gun.

And so on Mother’s Day I found myself standing in a field with about fifty more trepidatious souls watching a lady confidently shaking bees off of frames and gently flicking them off her arm, and thinking “what the fuck am I doing here? This is the stupidest thing I have ever done.” I was handed a box full of bees for the back of my van (extra duct tape please!), and sent on my merry way over to Sarah’s house to put the bees in their new home.

The lady pointed out that the box was “well sealed by friction” and asked if I would like some extra duct tape. Yes, I would like some duct tape please before I lock myself in a van with those fuckers.

I’ll admit, I was expecting to be stung a thousand times over that day and to hate bees forever, but it turned out that there was nothing to be afraid of at all. We put the bees in their new box, shut the lid and watched them for a few hours without incident.

Beekeeper gothic

Look at all those mofos!

Happy bees exploring their new digs

The first two months were a roaring success. The bees stayed in their home and built up comb and we occasionally took the lid off, took some pictures, patted ourselves on the back at our incredible beekeeping skills and toasted the hive. We were clearly naturals at this. It was shaping up to be a glorious summer.

What goes better together than kids and bees?

Ominously, days before I left on vacation a beekeeper was on CBC radio talking about how novice beekeepers often make mistakes and only find out after there is a swarm. What? Mistakes? No way. I left on vacation during a heatwave; it was 35 celcius or so (95 F = em-effing hot when you don’t have air conditioning). Sarah updated me that the bees had started bearding, as in, they were climbing all over the opening of the hive, not that she had taken to wearing a beard of bees (I had to clarify). Sarah assured me she was freaking out enough for the both of us, but concluded that it was just because they were hot and needed to air their little bee selves out. I resumed drinking beer in relief and promptly forgot about it.

The next update was not quite as calm. When I arrived in PEI, I had texts, Facebook messages, phone messages that the bees had fled! They were swarming! It’s the motherfucking beepocalypse in the yard!

Indeed, the bees had fled

Predictably, the bee cooperative was busy dealing with dozens of other swarming incidents, so Sarah and her husband bravely set out to earn their beekeeping badges. They essentially needed to get the queen back in the box and the rest of the bees would follow. So they put a tarp down, shook the branch and hoped like hell the queen fell into the tarp and dumped the box back on top of the writhing mass of bees. Amazingly, it worked and no one really got hurt.

Then they got ambitious. They had to kill some of the queen eggs off so that there would be no new queen = bee war = factions = second swarm. Or something. I didn’t actually take the course. This was at about 11 pm, and the internet warned that bees are not real fussy about nighttime visitors. Let’s just say that this was confirmed. About three times over. In the face.

But Sarah was not deterred. She knew the bees needed more ventilation in the box if they were going to survive the heat wave. So she bravely dove in to MacGyver a new entrance for them. It…. didn’t end well. A bee got in her hat and she understandably panicked after witnessing her husband get stung IN THE FACE Y’ALL. The bees, already pretty pissed at being hot, shaken out of a tree, and thrown in a box multiple times, at night, chased Sarah down and tried to murder her. She got stung TEN TIMES. And half an hour later, SHE WENT OUT AND REASSEMBLED THE HIVE. She is my goddamn hero, people, because I would have burned that thing to the ground with an improvised hairspray torch while laughing maniacally and drinking mead made from their honey.

You are very lucky I was on vacation, my little friend

So thanks to the quick thinking and extraordinary measures of Sarah and her husband Dave, we’re still beekeepers but perhaps a bit more cautious now. And this has a lovely ending, because Sarah pointed out that it was a marriage building exercise. In her words:

“(A)s Dave and I were cooperating to funnel a pile of bees into the middle of a tarp, I thought “this is probably the only guy in the world for me.” Who can you handle thousands of angry bees with and still like in the morning? Very few people I reckon.”

Next up: winterizing the bees. I’ll keep you posted on whether there’s any survivors.

17 comments

  1. “I would have burned that thing to the ground with an improvised hairspray torch while laughing maniacally and drinking mead made from their honey.” I am also in that camp. Sarah is a saint.

  2. I LMAOd! I have one experience with a bee swarm – that is: one day, I’m standing in my kitchen and I see this weird brown cloud approaching my house. Then it forms a wall of bees on the side of the house which proceed to march one-by-one into a tiny hole between the foundation and the house. I called my friend who is a beekeeper and she said we had to call the exterminator because once the queen’s in there, there’s nothing you can do. And you don’t want a bunch of honey between your walls. I felt bad about that, but at least we figured out where the mice were getting in. Great story. And just when are the canonization hearings for Sarah?

    1. Oh my word, that would have been terrifying. Although I am actually not afraid of the bees, I am not sure I would have had the presence of mind to deal with a swarm calmly. Honey in your walls would have been a disaster, so I am glad you got it early. I have heard of people who have huge hives in their attic for long periods of time and I am not sure how that happens.

      Sarah is already a saint in my mind, no canonization required.

  3. Here’s to friends like Sarah! Swarming is just par for the course in beekeeping. And it happens even to the most experienced beekeepers. I am surprised by the ‘beekeeping is easy’ comment, though…Great post!

    1. Thank you. I am so glad to have found you so I can keep abreast of proper beekeeping adventures. We didn’t quite take the “beekeeping is easy” at face value and have invested a lot of time with our cooperative learning about bees. It was just unfortunate timing that all the swarms in our city happened on the same day so poor Sarah was left to fend for herself, otherwise we would have had a more experienced beekeeper to guide us through. Anyway, she did a great job, the bees are happy right now and they have lots of space and food right now so hopefully they stay put.
      I am going over to read all through your blog now!

  4. I am inspired. If I do ever keep bees, it will have to b A) at someone else’s house or B) one rambling acreage with enough distance between Le Clown and the bees that he sleeps at night and doesn’t divorce me.
    I would also love to have chickens. Maybe a goat.

    1. That’s why we kept them at Sarah’s house; Mr. Giraffe is not overly fond of the bees (what is up with these dudes? Wusses) and we weren’t sure how the kids would do. But now that I have seen them in action, I would have them in my yard no problem. I would just make sure there was lots of space in the hive when it gets hot out so they have room.

  5. Top bar hives are an interesting apcaorph to beekeeping, but my understanding is that to harvest any honey at all the beekeeper has to basically destroy the comb that the bees have so carefully created. So, while traditional beekeeping on standard frames may seem regimented, it at least allows the bees to spend less time building/rebuilding comb which takes a huge amount of nectar and energy. That way they can focus on other hive tasks like raising more workers and making more honey. Yum!

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