Confessions of a Terrible Beekeeper


My life has been over-scheduled lately, and one of the things I've totally neglected is my bees.  I had every intention of splitting my colony into two hives, but I never managed to make time for this.

Until yesterday.

I wandered out into the back garden, with the stated objective of drinking coffee and staring at things. And one of the first things I noticed was that there was a huge mass of bees on the outside of their hive box.

Clearly it was time to attend to the bees.

As soon as I took the lid off the hive, I knew I was in trouble.  The bees had built honeycomb under their roof.  This was a clear sign that the hive was overcrowded, and that I needed to take immediate action.

A beehive is a lot like a filing cabinet, with frames that slot into place inside each box, much like hanging file folders.  While some beekeepers use different height boxes for different purposes -- honey production, and brood -- I like to use one size box for everything.  This has two reasons.  First, all my equipment is interchangeable. And second, by not using massive ten-frame "deep" boxes, I can actually handle the weight of my hive boxes.  According to calculations, a "deep" box with ten full frames of honey weighs eighty pounds. That's a hell of a lot of weight to manage, when working around thousands of irate honeybees. I use a smaller unit: a "medium" box that only contains eight frames. Apparently that only weighs forty pounds when filled.

I took out a number of frames of honey from my over-filled hive, as well as developing brood, and moved them to a hive box across the garden.  I added a number of empty frames in both hives, to give the bees room to expand.

My foray into the hive had the exact opposite effect than what I intended.  I had hoped that the bees would wander back into the hive, once there was a bit more room.

I started with several hundred bees clinging to the front of the hive, and ended up with this chaotic mess.

I was starting to get flustered, and know that when I lose my cool, I should close up the beehives, and come back to them another day.  Besides, Robb and I had to get ready for the Art Deco Preservation Ball. (More on that, later.)

When I came home from running errands, I had a good look at the hive, and it suddenly occurred to me that my bees had actually swarmed.  I've worked with a lot of swarms, and have written about them here and here (click for insane videos of my backyard during a swarm) and here and here.

Swarming is a normal event in the life of a colony of bees.  The queen of the colony and about half the bees fill their bellies with honey, and set out to find a new home.  The remaining bees raise a new queen (or several new queens) at the base hive.  This is a very clever reproductive strategy, sort of a "don't keep all your eggs in one basket" scenario.  If something were to happen to the one hive, the colony wouldn't die out.

Typically, a swarm is really dramatic. half the bees in the hive fly out all at once, and they fill the air, before settling on a surface. When they do settle, they'll cluster around the queen, forming a mass roughly the size and shape of a human head.  During this time, most of the bees will cluster around the queen, protecting her with their bodies, while other bees will fly about looking for a suitable new home.

A swarm typically hangs down from a branch, like this.

Or this.

One hallmark of a swarm cluster is the way the bees tend to arrange their bodies in the same direction.

Something the bees will cluster on an architectural feature.

Like a wall.

Or a fence.

But I've never seen bees quietly wander out of their hive and collect as a swarm on the front of their own home.

In hot climates, bees will often cluster on the front of the hive as a way of cooling off.  We almost never see this in my chilly neighborhood in Oakland.  And it was a particularly mild day yesterday.

So there I was, with what sure looked like a swarm of bees on the outside of my hive.  I needed to get changed into an evening gown, instead of messing around with bees.  So I did what any sensible modern woman would do.  I texted a few beekeeping friend, posted some panicky pictures online, and left for the ball.  Bees don't fly at night, so I was pretty sure that the situation wouldn't change until the morning.

Robb and I stayed out quite late (for us).  I stumbled outside the next morning at 6am, in pajamas and flip-flops -- the antithesis of practical beekeeping attire.  There were several hundred bees clustered on the front of the hive.  Significantly fewer that the day before, but more than I was prepared to handle without coffee. I staggered back to bed, and tossed and turned until 9am.  By that point there were only a few dozen bees left outside the hive.

I really don't know what happened.

I suspect that I opened the hive just at the bees were fixing to swarm.  Perhaps my activity disrupted the flying-around-like-crazy portion of the program.  Or perhaps my bees are so relaxed that instead of filling the yard with chaos, they opted to take a slow mosey down the side of the hive box.  Did the queen ultimately fly off with her attendants?  Or did she decide that the hive box looked like a good home after all?

I honestly have no idea.

I kind of suck as a beekeeper.


@thedarningdarling said…
Aw I’m sure you don’t suck at it! Whenever you’re working with nature there will be surprises! Carry on, brave bee-keeper
Aw I’m sure you don’t suck! Whenever you work with nature there will be surprises. Carry on, brave bee-keeper!

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