Hangin' with my homebees: Our experience with "beekeeping lite"

August 18 | Guest post by Hannah Wernet
The new Queen is alive and well
A "buckfast" bee hive with the queen in the middle. (Photo by: necatorCC BY 2.0

We just received, what feels like, the most unusual wedding present in the history of matrimony. My new mother-in-law gave us a beehive — complete with ten thousand happily buzzing inhabitants.

In order to avoid a mass panic at the reception, she presented us with the hive and the bees separately. Before she unveiled the hive, she said that it "will grow like your family will, but sting like love does." Upon which I lost all control, and started jumping up and down shouting, "IT'S A BEEHIVE!"

To be precise, it's an Alsace Hoch model of beehive, which has the advantage over the more common Langstroh hive in that it a lot smaller and easier to carry. When full of honey and combs, hives are very heavy, so a smaller model is definitely better for a family where much of the work will fall to to me. Mathieu is into it too, but let's face it, he wasn't the one jumping up and down in a wedding dress.

So, if anyone is thinking of getting a beehive, here is what I have learned so far…

Find a mentor

My mother in law knows beekeepers, but if you don't have the contacts I suggest asking your local tourist board. They should be able to provide you with the address of beekeepers who give demonstrations. Other good places to try are country shows and farmer's markets, and even firefighters might have the number of a friendly beekeeper they call when they have a swarm to hive. Read a couple of good books before you meet your beekeeping buddy, to give you an idea of what questions you need to ask. I recommend The Beekeepers Bible and Beekeeping for Dummies.

Weatherproof your beehive

So I had my hive and my mentors, now I needed to put some bees in there. Before I could do that, I had to weatherproof it. This I did using two coats of linseed oil. I know people who rub it into cricket bats, and people who put it on salads, but it was quite an experience daubing it on by the pint. It is so much nicer than ordinary painting. If you get it on yourself you can just lick it off, and rather than having to have your stomach pumped, all you will get is shiny hair (maybe).

The equipment is important but not as extensive as you would think

I had a beekeeper's hat (another wedding gift) and a pair of thin gardening gloves. I wore that with jeans and a long-sleeved tee-shirt. The weather is maybe a more important consideration, as it's not a good idea to handle bees when there is a thunderstorm coming, as it makes them agitated and more likely to sting.

Transferring your colony

The colony destined for our hive was being kept in an old hive for safekeeping, and had to be transferred. I had half expected the owners of the bee farm to do it for me, or at least give me very cautious and detailed instruction, complete novice as I am, but instead they just said, "take that out and put it in there." There were ten combs in the hive and each one had to be gently slid out of the old hive, and into the new one. I had a hive tool, which is a small scraper and lever, to help separate the combs, and was shown how to use it, but then I was on my own.

Let me tell you, as someone who has been conditioned to flinch from even one solitary bee, holding a huge brown buzzing mass of them is pretty unnerving. Denis, the owner of the bee farm, on the other hand, couldn't seem to care less and wasn't even wearing gloves. I took courage from his nonchalance. Calmly and gently I slid the combs out of the old hive and into the new one, trying not to squish any of my new family, and muttering "pardon" under my breath as I nudged them away with my fingers.

Did I get stung?

Not even once. Denis told me that the bees are of the Buckfast variety, which are particularly gentle, and they really did have an air of calm industriousness about them. I felt like a superhero as I thousands of bees, and tried very hard not to sing the theme tune to My Girl.

The most important thing to check for, every time you open the hive, is the queen

Make sure she is present, productive, and fat. If she's fat, it means she hasn't got any plans to fly off, taking half of your bees with her. My queen had a yellow spot on her back to identify her, and she was wonderfully embonpoint.

That's all there is to do now until spring

Denis will feed them syrup, as they won't have a chance to build up reserves of honey, and every so often he will check them to make sure the queen and the colony are healthy. Hopefully, before I go home in September, I will have the chance to see some honey being made. And then I will come back again in blossom season to see them in action. I know it's only beekeeping lite, and I would prefer to have them at home with me, but that time will come soon enough and hopefully my hive will be strong and productive by then.

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  1. This is absolutely inspiring! I have never heard of a "bee farm" where different hives are owned by different people. Is it kind of like a community garden?

    Also, I learned anew word: embonpoint!

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  2. Admittedly, I've never kept bees, but listening to Jacqueline Freeman talk on it makes me wish I wasn't allergic. She has a fascinating take on the beekeeping process, and her relationship with the bees must work because she doesn't bother with protective gear. You can find her book, "The Song of Increase: Returning to Our Sacred Partnership with Honeybees" on Amazon and probably other places as well. Be forewarned, her take on bees and on reality in general is not normal, but I don't think anybody here necessarily has a problem with that. Anyway, her abnormalities are wonderful!

  3. ". . . sting like love does."
    Bee venom has been reported to be effective in treating arthritis – as long as you are not allergic to bee stings! How does one find out if one is allergic to bee stings without being stung, I wonder?

    • The first time you get stung, after you start to develop an allergy, you will get a much larger than normal swelling, like in my case my whole arm. You want to avoid getting stung at all costs after that, because it might be the next one, or the one right after that, that swells your throat shut and cuts you off from air.

      1 agrees
      • Dreamdeer, I had a similar reaction several years ago and was told the same information regarding risks. I really wanted to start beekeeping so I saw an allergist this spring. She said that people at highest risk for anaphylaxis (unable to breath) are actually people who have been stung but who have *never* had a bad reaction to a sting. People with large local reactions (where your entire arm swells) up are usually safe from anaphylaxis, but may experience increasingly annoying swelling with subsequent stings. Allergy shots can help.

        I was shocked by this information when I heard it as it directly conflicted with my understanding. I'm not sure if our experiences are similar, but I thought I'd share in case someone may benefit. 🙂

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  4. Oh bees!!!
    One of my (semi-closet) obsessions!!
    We had bees when I was in middle school and I took in our observation hive for my 8th science project (and won)! I also brought my scout troop to my house once, and between my father and I we told them allll about bees. I'll prattle on for hours to anyone who's interested…

    Despite my loves for bees, but I can't have them where I live 'cause our property isn't properly situated for them (house #2 perhaps!) 😉
    Anyway, yes, Buckfast are a great great race: docile, productive and more disease/mite-resistant than most. (My father would always get Caucasians though 'cause they're a little cheaper).
    You likely already know, but worth bringing up: avoid wearing dark colors when approaching the hive – they'll think you're a bear otherwise and may be more prone to stinging.
    Also always approach the hive out of the flight paths of the bees. They don't much like changing course for guests.

    Side note: did you know you can purchase bees through the mail?
    Spoiler: the post office doesn't like it when you do. You'll get a call the instant they arrive at the closest hub to you ;P

    In regards to finding beekeepers in your area: check out local bee clubs too.
    Most counties will have their own bee clubs that meet at least monthly. They're a great resource!

    Best of luck with your hive!

    2 agree

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