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Adventures in Beekeeping

A few years ago, when the decline of bee populations was all over the news, I got the wild idea I could help. I met a 92-year-old man who showed me his hives and how to extract, or spin, the honey. It all looked do-able.

Step One – I located Dadant & Sons Beekeeping Equipment and Supplies in Fresno and ordered a beginner’s package. When it arrived, I was so excited! I opened the box and laid out the pieces like instruments on a surgeon’s tray. The wood smelled fresh; the holes were predrilled. Everything went together so easily. My anticipation grew with every nail I pounded. It took a couple of days until I was looking at my beautiful new, fully furnished hive. Now just add bees.

Step Two – I started this project in January, but it was March by the time the hive was done. I was a little late in ordering the queen and her entourage. I had to call several breeders before I found one who still had bees for sale. They came by regular post. The look on my mailman’s face was priceless!! He made a special trip, since driving around his route with bees buzzing didn’t sound like a good plan. That was three years ago, but he still mentions it. The box was smaller than a shoebox, with two netted sides. Inside was a thumb size wood box with the queen inside. Around her all the worker bees were huddled in a quivering, humming mass. A wondrous sight!

I followed the instructions from the bee book that came in the beginner’s package, and what the breeder had told me. I left the box unopened near the new hive for a day. Next day, I went out early in the morning, and with gloves and headgear in place, I opened the box. I’m glad no cell phones were nearby to catch embarrassing footage of my bumbling attempts to get the bees out. They did not immediately swarm out at me like some horror film. But you wouldn’t know that by the way I scurried to a faraway spot to watch until I had the courage for the next step in the operation.

Eventually I had to shake them out vigorously. They dripped out like heavy syrup, leaving the queen exposed in her special little box. When I had attached her box to the inside top of the hive box, I put the lid on and watched. As predicted the other bees all started to make their way inside. The queen could be fed through the netting of her royal chamber, so I left her captive until her comrades began decorating the frames with wax. Then I carefully opened her compartment, and left her to climb out and start filling the new wax hexagons with the next generation.

Step Three – To start a colony you have to feed them sugar water for a few weeks until they have scouted their own sources of pollen and nectar. They drink so fast you can watch the air bubbles ascending in the upside down Mason jar. My hive was doing well at this point.

Unfortunately my bee mentor passed away. With no guidance I was clueless about what was going on. I bought a couple more hive boxes to provide more space. Everything seemed fine. About two months along I saw a swarm. It is a sight to see! A swirling column of living smoke, like some mystical omen. And omen it is, for with this exodus a colony is depleted. I nursed them with a couple of jars of sugar water, but they swarmed again.

I left the honey filled combs in the hive hoping a swarm might come back. They did come back, to rob the stores abandoned. Eventually I gave up hope. But I had given Mother Nature three new colonies. I had no way to extract the honey, without a spinner. I’m sure there is a gravity technique, but it would have to be airtight, since robber bees would gladly snatch easy pickings.

Epilogue – Although it might look like I failed, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Only one sting and a big helping hand to the environment. That’s enough for me.

Note: To help you avoid losing your bees, UC Cooperative Extension provides beekeeping classes and information. Contact the UC Cooperative Extension office in Sonora at (209) 533-5695, http://cetuolumne.ucdavis.edu or in Jackson at (209) 223-6482, http://ceamador.ucdavis.edu.