Apiology is a way to commune with nature while learning about the wonders of the tiny, cooperative, docile creatures known as bees – or at least that is what the brochures had led us to believe. My brother and I had read a stack of books, watched countless videos, and downloaded every beekeeping website we could find. All of them echoed the same two sentiments: “bees are simple to raise” and “good beekeepers can go their whole lives without ever being stung.” If there is any justice in the universe there will be a special circle of hell for those people who uttered these erroneous notions.
As with all new ventures, preparation is paramount. Bees must be ordered between November and December to ensure that the Apiary (the place where bees are raised) will have enough bees to supply the April orders. Hive boxes must be constructed ahead of time as well, since the bees can only be kept in their transport boxes for three to five days.
However our real adventure did not start until the Friday before Easter. I traveled across the state of Mississippi to pickup the new addition to our farm, while my brother stayed behind to make the last minute preparations. Since there were no beekeepers in our area, this was my first opportunity to visit a working apiary.
The owner and his two helpers drove in from the fields in a flatbed-pickup truck loaded with individual boxes containing three pound of bees each (three pounds is the typical amount needed to start a new hive). The men bailed out of the truck wearing only coveralls and began recklessly unloading the boxes, placing queens inside them, and closing them up with feeder cans of syrup.
In moments the entire area was swarming with hundreds of agitated bees flying by my head like Maverick buzzing the Top Gun flight tower. I had brought a beekeeping suit and hood but instead of looking like an amateur, I naïvely opted to go without.
However, any sense of bravado I may have mustered up was instantly lost when a bee lit on the edge of my nostril. To say I was unnerved would have put it mildly as every muscle in my body instantly and simultaneously clenched. Slowly I began to make my way from the work area but just as I was clear of the swarm, the bee that was now spelunking up my snout skewered me with what can only be compared to the sensation of tweezing a nose hair with a white hot curling iron. Instantly my right eye began to uncontrollably pour water.
Looking like a professional quickly fell from the top of my list of ambitions, as I hunkered down next to the truck and struggled to regain my composure. Finally the tears subsided. I dried my face and with a “never say die” attitude I returned to the work area only to be stung on the arm, behind the ear, and on the mouth giving my lips a supple Angelina Jolie-like quality. Eventually my truck was loaded and I headed back home, no worse for the wear.
My brother and I felt that fifty hives would make for a reasonable test group. Enough hives to see variations but not so many as to break our budget if this all turned out to be one big mistake. This idea proved prudent as problems arose daily.
First off, it was recommended that the bees be misted with sugar water before placing them in their new hives to make their wings sticky and prevent them from flying away. The fact that it was 30°F on Easter day caused several of the hives to become, for lack of a better word, gooey and then die. We also got stung a few times in the process.
Next, as per the literature we had read, we fed the bees sugar water in specially designed feeders that fit inside the hive only to discover that bees cannot swim. A large percentage of bees gave up their life to prove this heartbreaking point. We also got stung a few more times.
On day three, unbeknownst to us, one of the queens flew out of her hive while we were feeding them. That night her faithful subjects followed her out into the night air and committed mass suicide on the ground by means of exposure.
For an extra fee I was able to get replacement bees delivered to my house within a few days. Capitalizing on the lessons learned early that week, I placed the new arrivals on the front seat of the truck until after lunch to keep them warm. Later that day I found that the greenhouse effect from the truck windows had microwaved the bees into what appeared to be tiny striped pieces of popcorn. We also got stung a few more times.
By the end of the first week we had killed so many bees that we began to expect hate mail from PETA and by the end of the first month we had sent forty percent of our investment to that big beehive in the sky. By the end of the year we had lost all but 10. The following year, I took a job out of the country and stayed gone for a few years, leaving the bees with my brother.
When I returned, I asked my brother how many hives were left, and he said, “F*#@ those bees, they’re all dead.” It was a jolting statement to say the least but when I went to collect the old equipment, I found three surviving hives still making honey. A robust bloodline that had survived all of our neglect and cock-ups and had somehow endured on their own.
Since my brother no longer had any interest in beekeeping, I gave him all the wood working tools and I took the bee equipment. A fair and amicable split. Then I started over.
That was more than a decade ago. Over the past few years, I have learned a lot and I am finally on the right path. I divided my hives from 3 to 5… from 5 to 7… from 7 to 15… 15 to 25 and now hopefully on to 50 or more before the year ends. Eventually I hope to be a full-time beekeeper with 500 or more hives. However, for now, this blog is a record of my journey.
Please hit one of the follow buttons below and see how it all turns out. (Each Friday I also post a honey recipe – Yesterday I made honey cough drops and got the hot spoon stuck to my leg… but I’ll leave that story for Friday.)