The Arrival of the Bees

Paul's top bar hive

Paul’s top bar hive

I’d always associated beehives with the traditional square-shaped Langstroth hive—there’s one right across the field that stoked my bee dreams every time I looked up from doing dishes. (It’s an old one that my Amish neighbor Jacob happened to have when a swarm landed in our wild plum tree a couple of summers ago. Alas, I wasn’t there to see it, but my husband Paul was. He’d described how Jacob had cut off the branch, bees and all, and plunked it into a box. Unfortunately, Jacob reported the next year that all the bees had died, but the box still stands there and taunts me.)

Anyway, I’d assumed I’d be getting a Langstroth hive if I ever did get bees, but the more books I read, the more I became convinced that top bar hives were the way to go. Their advocates made some compelling arguments about how they promote the health of the bees by allowing them to design their own comb rather than having the cell dimensions forced on them by pre-printed foundation.

I have to confess, though, that while the ecological arguments were strong, I was mostly swayed by their relative economy: While buying or building a top bar hive isn’t CHEAP, it’s a lot cheaper than buying a Langstroth hive and all the paraphernalia that goes with it.

The top bar hive without its roof

The top bar hive without its roof

A sugar water feeder in the hive

A sugar water feeder in the hive

As luck would have it, I spoke to a beekeeper who’d purchased a top bar hive several years before but had foregone it for Langstroth hives before he ever used it; he’d envisioned producing enough honey to sell, but top bar hives aren’t conducive to large harvests. He sold it to me for a very reasonable price, and after a winter drive over treacherous road conditions to pick it up, I’d taken my first step towards becoming a beekeeper.

Fortunately, I have a husband who’d both handsome AND handy, so he built me a second hive to match it. I’d decided to put the hives in our 25 by 25 foot chicken yard, since it was fenced in anyway, and by the end of April, the hives were in place.

I'm hoping I'll eventually do better as a beekeeper than as a model...

I’m hoping I’ll eventually do better as a beekeeper than as a model…

Everything was perfect as it could be. The hives were beautiful—Paul had even built an observation window into the new one—and my friend Barb and I had a beautiful driving day when we made the trip to Baldwin, about an hour away, to pick up the bees we’d ordered a couple months previously.
While hurtling down the Interstate with a car full of bees probably wouldn’t be an ideal road trip for most people, we had a great time. (Or at least I did—sorry Barb, if I talked your ear off, and thanks again for driving!)

Sage and several thousand new friends

Sage and several thousand new friends

One lonely exile gazes sadly at her imprisoned friends.

One lonely exile gazes sadly at her imprisoned friends.

My son Sage and I admired the bees, which were in mesh-sided wooden boxes joined by a thin wooden plank, until Paul got home at about 4:30 p.m. Then it was time for the installation, which went smoothly for the most part. At least as smoothly as could be expected of a pair of bee debutants, anyway…

Bees are sold by the pound, which was a slightly disconcerting revelation to me. This is what two 2-pound packages of bees look like.

Bees are sold by the pound, which was a slightly disconcerting revelation to me. This is what two 2-pound packages of bees look like.

Sage separating the packages. (Of COURSE it's a good idea to hand your kindergartner a saw!)

Sage separating the packages. (Of COURSE it’s a good idea to hand your kindergartner a saw!)

Paul eased out the queen cages from each package and stapled it to a bar in each hive; there, according to our research, we’d leave the queen for three days, after which we’d check to make sure the bees had chewed through the candy plug to release her. At that point, we’d remove the cages and leave the bees to build their comb as they saw fit. That was the theory, anyway, although complications arose later…

Paul taking out a queen cage

Paul taking out a queen cage

The only major glitch that day, though, was that neither Paul nor I had refined the “bonking” technique when we installed the first package in their hive. We’d seen and read how you’re supposed to firmly bonk the box on the ground, causing the bees to fall to the bottom, and then pour them like cereal into the “bee bowl” section of the hive, where they’d take up their initial residence.

A man and his package. Of bees, that is.

A man and his package. Of bees, that is.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t realized how stubbornly the bees would cling together in their package, so at least a fourth of the colony was still in it after our attempts to bonk and pour.

The "bonk and pour"

The “bonk and pour”

The package full of stubborn bees

The package full of stubborn bees

No matter, I thought; all the books say the stray bees would make their way into the hive eventually.
Not these bees. After an hour, they were still sullenly clustered in their cage, and the day—which was cool to begin with—had begun to fade. I was afraid they’d freeze if I left them, so I re-opened the hive to pour them in, receiving my first sting in the process. I poured in as many as I could, but there were still quite a few left in the package. At that point, though, the bees already in the hive were getting irritated and my lip was beginning to swell from the sting—I’d stupidly not bothered to put on my bee veil—so I decided they were on their own.

Happily, the bonking went better for the second hive, and most of them got in right away.
The stage was set: the bees were in their hives, and my dream was coming true. I should have realized that the best laid plans gang aft agley for bees as well as mice, though. But that’s a story for another day…

The bees in their new home. (We made the "bee bowl" section of the hive smaller than usual because of an unusually cold weather forecast.)

The bees in their new home. (We made the “bee bowl” section of the hive smaller than usual because of an unusually cold weather forecast.)

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One comment

  1. I must forward this to my beekeeper son Joel. The photos are as instructive as the text. You have a lot of interesting material here – both now and in the future.

    Don’t forget to “smoke” those bees – ha!

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