_Okay, so I was totally lame and hadn't attended an open bee yard hosted by the Mecklenburg Beekeepers Association. An open bee yard is when an experienced beekeeper invites newbees to come and observe his or her hives. I had visited my friend, Hernan and his hives several times but hadn't gone to an official MBA open bee yard.
So last weekend I went to the last one of the season, hosted by Mr. Bill Bishop. He is one of the original MBA members and has been keeping bees for some 55 years. Mr. Bishop was the first beekeeper in the Carolinas to have Russian bees. He worked with the USDA, as it studied Russian bees in the U.S. some years ago. Russian bees are a little smaller and darker than the common Italian variety ... a little more gray in color, and they have different habits. One of which is that they are naturally resistant to the Varroa mite, which is a nasty little critter that can suck bees dry and ruin a hive. The Varroas are everywhere so sign me up for Russian bees! I am in awe of Mr. Bishop's knowledge and inspired by his no-chemical approach. It is definitely the way I want to keep bees. So I made a trip out to Mr. Bishop's yard. As soon as I pulled up one of his associates, a beekeeper from Louisiana named James said, "You just missed a swarm!" I quickly suited up and followed Mr. Bishop, several bee school students, and the MBA's president George McAllister to the swarm.
When bees swarm, it is a coordinated event following many days of planning on the bees' part. Usually the swarm heads to a temporary location such as a nearby tree branch, before their final destination. Somewhere deep inside this ball of bees, is the queen. Below, George gets his hand on the branch where the swarm landed.
_George sprayed the swarm with a bit of sugar syrup to keep the bees happy and calm. It keeps them from flying about and gives them a bit of food to digest while someone below gingerly prunes off the little branch holding this swarm.
With pruned branch in hand George walks carefully, hoping not to stumble, while another excited student takes a photo.
_Bill had a small hive box or "nuc" (short for "nucleus colony"), ready to accept the swarm. He put the nuc on a plastic tray in the yard. Here, Bill shows George how to tap down the bees from the branch, onto the tray and at the nuc's entrance.
"Bam!" George does just that in one swift motion. They all are bumped off the branch at the doorstep of their new home.
_The tray and bottom board of the hive was filled with bees. Instantly they smelled the wax foundation and started to venture in. So did the young queen. We watched her go in ... and out ... and in .... and back out again of the nuc's entrance. We wondered if she'd accept the new home. Here you can see the orderly mass.
Mr. Bishop advised that all was well even though these Russians took their own sweet time going into the box. It took a couple of hours. But apparently that is another trait of Russians. They are NOT in a hurry ... except when they say so. Bill kept telling us that the bees were inside re-arranging the "furniture" in their new house, getting things juuuuuust right for their young queen to come in and set up home.
_It was a magical moment and gave Bill plenty of time to give us his wisdom on bees, Russians in particular. I wasted no time asking one question after another. I learned a ton. Bill showed us how he stores equipment, without the use of chemicals, which prevent wax moths from destroying it all. Because he doesn't use chemicals, he had equipment at the ready for such an occasion as a swarm.This bit of knowledge wasn't lost on me! In this photo, you can see that about a third of the bees have entered the nuc.
And about two hours later, just a handful of bees remain outside the box and at the entrance. Success!!!
_While the Russians were setting up house other mentors were busy showing us newbees the ropes. Here mentor Jimmy Odom opens a hive au naturale. He shared a lot of information with with us. I got a kick out of seeing all of us newbees suited up head to toe while Jimmy opened up a box of bees with no protective gear whatsoever.
Here, Jimmy stresses the finer points of beekeeping. All in all, my open bee yard experience was really magical thanks to the mentors from the Mecklenburg Beekeepers Association who made it possible. I truly can't wait to give back in the coming years.
_I took my first hive to the drop-off point where it will be populated with a queen and all her workers. I should have them back within a week and then I'm off to the races.
_I set up the hive stand (four pained cinder blocs) and got good vibes from our four-legged creatures to bless the new bees home.
_I was buzzing with excitement when my beekeeping mentor, Richard Flanagan, called and asked me if I'd like to help him and fellow beekeeper Charles Stewart to retrieve a swarm. (Loosely defined, a swarm is when a queen and the majority of a hive leave their home and sets up shop in a new, bigger location. In this case, they set up in someone's house ... some years ago.) This was going to 'bee' an adventure. I couldn't wait.
Once we loaded the equipment, including Charles' humongous, weighs-a-ton ladder, we headed to the house with the bee problem. Turns out it was only a mile and a half from our house! The house was vacant, and was being prepped for sale. The painter encountered the bees, and his work immediately stopped. The homeowner called the Mecklenburg County Beekeepers Association, of which I'm now a member, for help. The bees had set up shop on the corner of the home's roof. And man, was it high!
Here Richard suits up, as Charles offers timeless bits of wisdom. There was LOTS of laughing the whole time, let me tell you.
_Once at the corner, Richard had to figure out the entrance and exit of the bees. We were hoping they were in the lower portion of the roof, the return, on which you can see rotting wood. But Richard thought they might be in the upper portion of the roof. Only one way to find out...
Richard went to work disassembling the parts of the return. Charles kept telling him to pry off pieces and not break them. "Yeah, yeah, yeah", Richard laughed.
With a lot of work, he finally go the end piece off.
__After removing the moulding underneath, he pried off the underside of the return. Bingo!
That's exactly where they were. We all yelled hooray, 'cause it meant it'd be a short morning. Here you can see the bottoms of the comb pieces the bees built. The comb was very dark. Some of it was black. All of which meant the bees had called this their home for 4 to 5 years. Richard threw a piece of honey-laden comb down. Charles took a bite and offered me a piece. Heck, yeah, let me taste it! W-O-W. The honey was very dark, which meant they'd gotten at least some of their nectar from the native Tulip Poplar trees around Charlotte. It was about 10 times sweeter than store-bought honey, and had this AMAZING, delicious sour note on the back end. And the comb was so thin. Each chew gave delicious honey explosions.
_"Alright, it's your turn, get up there," Richard told me. "Uhh, did I tell you I was afraid of heights?" My knees kept knocking. But the bees called. And just LOOK at all the comb that's in there. We wondered how much honey was up there. There were very few bees flying around. Turns out it was a small colony that had spent a long time there. I nervously went one rung at a time, up the ladder.
Here I am, saying my prayers and contemplating the next rung. Richard and Charles kept talking to me, which was awesome. Helped me not think about how high I was up. I managed to put a few handfuls of comb in the bucket before deciding it was time to get off the ladder and let Richard finish the job.
_The bees were amazingly calm and a lot were out in the field doing their daily duties, so not too many were home. It was a VERY small colony. But they'd been there a long time. The process is simple actually. You just reach in, grab a handful of comb, pry some loose, and continue until it's all out.
_Look at this BEAUTIFUL piece of natural comb. Notice how the bees build in three dimensions, and in this natural crescent state. Reminded me of what I'd seen from Top Bar Hives, which is an alternate method of beekeeping that relies on the bees to build all aspects of the comb instead of the Langstroth system that is common today (the boxes that stack atop each other, using inserts of frames and foundation upon which the bees build their comb). Okay, I'm nerding out (can't you tell?). Below, you can see fresh pollen stores, surrounded by nectar. The bees eventually reduce that nectar down from about 85% water to 18.6%, which is what we call "honey".
_And VOILA! Richard pulled off a piece that had the queen. He's pointing to her with his hive tool. She's the huge bee with the solid, long brown body and big shiny black dot on her back (the workers all have stripes on their abdomens while she doesn't). Also, you can see capped brood (baby bees), and uncapped larvae on this piece of comb.
_I was in total awe. I didn't have my veil or gloves on at this point and the bees couldn't care less. They were busy being moved. Here's another shot of the queen. She's in the shade in the upper right corner. Look for her big shiny black dot. Also you can see fresh pollen stores which are used to feed the brood.
_We continued filling the buckets until there was 4 and a half! Honey was raining everywhere. Here you can see the bees covering the honey that had dripped on the side of the bucket. They don't waste a drop of the precious liquid. It takes 12 bees working their hardest during the nectar flows of spring to make a single teaspoon of honey. So anytime it's exposed, they rush to suck it up. This keeps them super calm. Once they're back in the hive, they put the honey back into the comb.
_I picked up all the little pieces on the ground, about which Charles gave Richard a lot of heckling, and which amounted to a half-bucket's worth. The area was cleaned out and sprayed with poison to keep field bees from returning and setting up shop again. We had a TON of fun. Smiles were big, and in an hour and a half we'd successfully done a service for the homeowner, gotten paid, and left with free bees, a queen, honey and comb. Below is Richard, left, and me at the end of our adventure.
Charles will take a couple large pieces of comb with the queen and her workers, insert them into a hive, and a new colony will be established. Charles is going to harvest the honey, and melt the remaining comb down for wax. Now being clued in on this method of getting free bees, I'm going to prepare an empty a hive for the next bee extraction. Not bad for a couple hours of adventure on a beautiful spring morning. :)
Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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