Why I Keep Bees
A partly filled frame of honey from Carol Ann's garden
Photo by Carol Ann Harlos
Most readers of this column know that I am a beekeeper. My husband kept a hive of honey bees in the 1980s, but it died out around 1990. Attempts to re-establish a hive with packages of honey bees did not succeed. My interest in raising honeybees was rekindled about five years ago when I attended a class for people interested in starting beekeeping. I was bitten by the beekeeping bug! (That is a terrible metaphor you know—honeybees are not a bug, as they are in the order Hymenoptera, and thus are relatives of wasps. They also defend the hive by stinging, not biting.)
I bought all new equipment, hives, smoker, hive tool, beekeeper outfit. Then I purchased a “nuc.” A nuc is simply a mated queen plus honeybees from the same hive. It’s like a mini-hive. This is different from the “packages” purchased by my husband. A package consists of honeybees that have been scooped up and packaged but the queen is in a separate “cage,” as she is not their queen but has been raised and mated (either naturally or artificially). The container containing the queen has a plug in it of sugar or a tiny marshmallow. Her box is placed in the hive. The bees must get used to her pheromones and will gradually release her from the box. Sometimes this does work out successfully but sometimes they will kill her or fail to release her. Without a queen, the hive is doomed.
I have gone from one hive to two and plan to go to three hives this year. I have seen a hive fail and die. I cried.
I have captured a swarm, which meant that someone’s hive got too big. Swarming is nature’s way of reproducing a hive. The old queen leaves with up to half of the original bees, so a new queen takes over the bees left behind. A swarm seldom stings, as the honeybees fill their stomachs with honey before leaving. I knocked the cluster of honey bees, which were about three feet above ground on an arbor vitae. into a large plastic storage box, put on the cover, and placed the box onto the back seat of my Mini Cooper. I had prepared a deep box and a super for them in our yard, and literally poured them into the hive. They were doing well, but I didn’t have the heart to replace the old queen...a mistake. She died, and I eventually lost the hive.
I was down to one very strong hive. So, I did a split. I took some frames containing eggs and placed them into a box, shook some nurse bees onto the frames, and put in several frames filled with honey. It would take at least twenty-four hours for the bees to realize there was no queen. The nurse bees create a new queen by feeding some larvae only royal jelly. I waited three weeks before I opened the hive to see if all this was successful. I checked to see if there was a new queen and whether egg laying was occurring. It was! I was thrilled. This grew into a strong hive with lots of bees who made lots of honey.
If you have read this far you may understand why I keep honeybees. They are fascinating! I am so humbled by this experience. I am continually learning something new about honeybees.
People ask if I sell honey. That is not my purpose, although I do take some honey from my hives and give it away to friends and relatives. I am trying to increase the number of pollinators in the world. As an avid gardener, I can’t help but do that. I have been asked if honeybees compete with native bees. I doubt it. I also raise mason bees and their number on our property increases each year. To those who say, “You know honey bees were brought over here from the Old World” I reply, “Well, they have been here about four hundred years, longer than the ancestors of most of us.”
And yes, I do get stung on occasion. How would you like it if someone took the roof off your house to see how you were doing or to steal some of your food? I got stung on my face a year ago when I opened the hives during late winter to feed the honeybees. I assumed the bees would not be interested in me because it was cold out, so I was not wearing my veil, suit, or gloves. Another time, I got stung on my hand when some bees found a tear in my leather gloves. One time, a feisty honeybee followed me into the house and waited for me to take off my beekeeping suit before it stung me. If one decides to keep honeybees thinking they will never get stung, I advise against it, because it will happen sometime. (Less than one percent of people are truly allergic to honeybee venom, and it should be taken seriously, because they can go into anaphylactic shock.) I swell up and itch, which is a normal response.
Thank you so much to those of you who have written and asked, “Carol Ann, how are your bees?”
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