Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Getting to know the bees

Brendan and Tai work with bees at
Quesasda Gardens.
by Elizabeth Skow

We didn't know much about bees. But that was a few weeks ago.

Our household got together and purchased a beginner beekeeping kit this spring, joined the SF Bee Association, and took a basic beekeeping class. Still, experienced beekeepers told us, the only way for us to learn was to go ahead and do it.

You might already know a bit about my changing backyard: trees felled, new ones planted. Add to that: a TON of concrete moved to accommodate an apiary, a lemon tree planted, and some roses started which we expect to grow alongside a hive.

The hive, an unassuming cream-colored box, is already filled with thousands and thousands of diligent little creatures.

We were all interested in bees, but we had some reservations about getting stung.

Everyone at the SFBA said "Don't worry! The bees aren't even paying attention to you, they are doing their jobs," but no matter how many times people have told you bees are gentle, the fact is, they sting.

I found out firsthand when I picked up the bee box and my middle finger touched the screen part. Instant sting! Didn't hurt much, and didn't swell up.

Brendan, my housemate, volunteered to install the bees by pulling the queen and her little plastic sarcophagus out of the bee box without dropping her. After dropping her anyway, and reaching into the box full of bees to find her, he placed her in the center of the hive box where she would later be released as the other bees would begin to get used to her scent. He then literally shook the other bees into the box, installed extra frames for honeycombs, and stepped back to admire his work.

As you can see from the photos, Brendan is wearing a bee suit, and there are quite a few bees flying around. But our neighbor, like many seasoned beekeepers, doesn't use protection when he keeps bees. Brendan said he was a lot less nervous working in the bee suit next to someone with virtually no equipment.

Once the bees were installed, we waited about ten days to look inside and ensure that the queen had been released, with help from a bit of beekeeping magic: she comes with a candy plug that the other bees eat through.

A bee smoker made our first inspection easy. It puffs smoke into the hive opening which sedates the bees so that we could pry off the cover. Since bees like to stick everything together tight with propolis, the cover must be pried open each time.

After ten days, the bees had filled most of the box with honeycomb. After two weeks, the combs were filled with bee larvae, future workers to collect pollen and honey through the summer, and the queen was roaming around laying eggs.

I lifted out each frame to see how busy the queen had been. Pulling them out is tricky because the box is crowded and it's hard not to crush a bee or two. It is quite a sight watching the bees go back and forth across the frame, doing their job despite my rude interruptions.

We quickly grew more comfortable with the new hive, and placed a chair nearby so that we can watch the workers come in to deposits the loads of pollen on their legs. We find it quite meditative to watch.

Not that our own work is done. Next time we open the hive, we will be sprinkling our bees with powdered sugar which manages bee mites, a cause of feral bee colony collapse. Beekeepers have found that if they sprinkle powdered sugar on the bees, the bees eat any mites and mite eggs off of each other. That’s much better than using insecticides.

Thank goodness for the SF Bee Association...and Youtube.

Some amazing things about bees:

They dance to communicate where the most nectar is. You can see them doing this around the entrance to the hive in the springtime.

They are very neat, and they haul the dead bees and any trash out of the hive right away. One new hive owner reported that her bees had deconstructed the plastic queen cage, made of thick plastic, removing it piece by piece from the hive.

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