Yesterday was the day! How exciting. I know you are lost at the moment. Let me fill you in. Yesterday I picked up my package of bees and installed them into our top bar hive. What a wild event that was. The bees are Italian bees that originate from southern Georgia (as in the state of Georgia) and each package contains about 3 lbs of bees….which looks and sounds like a bazillion. Inside the package is a syrup jar and a queen cage. The queen is kept separate from the group in her own little box with some attendants. Her box is solid on 3 sides and mesh on the top. That way, all of the other bees can meet and greet her through the mesh without actually, well, killing her. The queen is not original to this group, so keeping her separate is a matter of literal life over death for her. It is hoped that the bees she is packed with will get used to her and accept her as their own during shipping and installing of the package. Installing bees sounds easy…at least Mark (the president of the NRVBA and seller of the packages) sure made it seem so. Of course, I had some challenges with my turn at it that I will share with you. First, let me show you what a package of bees from Georgia looks like:
You can’t see in this photo, but there was a single bee that was actually on the outside of the package. She was there when Mark handed me my box. Bees are interesting in that way. She didn’t try to leave or fly around my truck while driving to the farm. Nope. She is committed to her group. As long as they are there, she stuck around. Pretty cool. Anyway, let’s talk about the installment. Mark said quite simply, use your hive tool to pry off the top wooden cover, grasp the syrup jar and slowly lift and slightly slide to gently remove any bees collected on its bottom, while holding on to the tab that has the queen’s cage on the other end. Done. So simple. But I did exactly what he said to avoid. While removing the syrup jar (which was harder than expected to remove as it was recessed and needed prying out), I lost grip of my queen cage tab and dropped her. Dropped her into the mass of bees. Buzzing moving mass of bees. Luckily, Mark is amazingly patient and said to call with any questions…which I promptly did because he said if this happened, you have to reach in there to retrieve it. I cannot express in words or images exactly how intimidating that proposition is. That mass of bees is a living thing…like a beating heart. At the end of those living things are stingers. Gulp. So, on the phone I went. Mark was calm as ever. No problem. Do you have apple cider vinegar? Yes. Good. Coat your hands and forearms with the vinegar, slowly reach in and remove the cage. You won’t get stung. The bees do not like the vinegar. So…I did exactly as he said and it turned out just like he said it would. I reached in, bare handed, vinegar coated; I felt soft feet touching me the whole way, checking me out as such. I moved slowly, deliberately, and I removed the queen’s cage, grasping it by its tab. I did not get stung. It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once. Amazing. Many bees came out with the queen’s cage. I am hoping they were expressing much love of her. Here is her cage atop the hive coated with bees from the package:
Of course, I have skipped ahead a little bit. Prior even getting to this point. I gathered all of my supplies together (smoker, kindling, lighter, gloves, veil, hive tool).
I prepared the hive and tidied up the area around the hive proper (mowed the area so as to not stress the bees with equipment early on in their adjustment period, planted some perennials, and installed a bird bath as a close-by water source). Mark had given me some honeycomb he had that was damaged by mice (see earlier post). He told me to tie it with string (I used cotton) to some top bars and the bees would use it to start their own comb. Amazingly, he said that they would clean and repair the comb while getting a jump start on egg laying and food storage. Once the bees fixed it up, the strings can be cut and pulled out.
Behind the two comb bars, you can just make out a solid piece of wood with a notch at the bottom. This wood is called a follower board. It helps confine the bees to a space until they get used to the hive, the queen and are more established. The notch is in the board because on the other side is an immediate food source: sugar water (1:1 mix) in a feeder jar. It is important to provide food in the beginning especially if natural food sources may be limited (nothing blooming or bad weather is at hand). Jordan built these things for me the day before (thank you, honey…we love you for it).
The feeder jar rim is secured to a piece of wood that also is notched out so that the bees have a channel to beneath the jar but no where else. Ideally, if we have no gaps (bees need 3/8 ths of an inch to move around), the bees will not be in this section. That is helpful because we don’t want them to build comb all over the place, and by having the feeding system separate from where they are working, we are able to change out the feeder jar with (hopefully) minimal disruption to the bees. It is a quart mason jar, and I am sorry that I neglected to take a photo of the channel that Jordan put into it. When I change out the syrup next time, I will take one then. I promise. Holes were poked into the lid with a thumb tack then the jar was inverted. The system seems pretty stable and surprisingly, syrup mainly just beads up at the holes…very little leaked out when the jar was inverted.
Here is where the bees will go. Another follower board (this one is solid) was placed so the bees will be confined to the center for right now. As they settle in, the follower board will be moved further down the hive or removed.
NOW we are ready to install the bees. The queen’s cage was secured to the top by a push pin. To install the bees, you’re supposed to give a strong tap of the package to knock the bees to one side of the box, then you just dump them out and gently rock back and forth until the bulk of the package is dumped. You can see the bees dumped in their new home and some still on the queen’s cage in the next image coming up. You may also notice that the queen’s cage has the mesh side up. That is so the bees can still take in her loveliness (pheromones) and get to know her better. You might notice that the end towards you has a cork in it. The other end had a cork as well. I removed the other cork (pried it out with a tiny nail). The other end also has a piece of candy blocking the hole. That is the only thing that keeps the queen separate from her new colony. I used the nail to poke a little hole through the candy to the queen, so the bees have sight and more incentive to release her. The bees in the hive gradually will eat away at that candy over the next few days. If the queen isn’t out by the weekend, I will remove the remaining cork and set my lady free, hoping that all will love her immensely. When I check things in 3 days or so and the queen is no longer in her cage, I need to look for babies. If there are no babies, I have no queen (colony rejected her), and I need to get a new queen as try again. If I have babies, then we are in business (or is it bees-ness haha).
As with retrieval of the queen cage, I likely didn’t do the smoothest install. I still had many bees remaining in my package. I think that I was too timid with my “firm” tap (the buzz they did after that tap was kinda alarming). For any bees not removed, you keep the package near the hive. They should find their way home easily enough. Access to the hive, though, is blocked off during the overnight just to allow a little time for the installed bees to settle in to their new home. This morning, I removed one of the 3 corks blocking the entrance. I hope the ones still in the package will have moved into the hive when I peak at the package tonight.
What wonderful creatures. I so look forward to watching their comings and goings. I am hopeful that they will thrive in their new hive and enjoy the fruit trees, flowers and garden plants for years to come.