It has been a long silent winter with no bees. Lots of work went on in the meantime, which I'll be posting about. But things just weren't the same without bees. Winter was silent. I felt a continual sense of loss, but never lost hope. I knew my bees were out there and that it was just a matter of time. Immediately after my last hive absconded in November, I put in an order for two spring packages with marked Russian queens from Kelley Bees. I'd never worked with packaged bees before. What would they look like when they arrived? Surely, not the box with screened sides I'd seen in books and that's it. Well, yes, actually. God bless the United States Post Office. Stickers stuck on, my packages of bees shipped on Saturday, April 5 from Hardeman Apiaries in Georgia and arrived at the Mint Hill P.O. in fine order. Each package had a USDA inspection tag on them. Both were full of bees. Only a few dead bees at the bottom and a nice tight cluster in each.The previous Friday I printed out a photo of packaged bees in the mail with my phone numbers in large magic marker, and headed to the P.O. for a friendly meet and greet and explanation of how to handle the packages. Worked like a charm. The postal workers didn't sound freaked out at all when Monday rolled around. "Mr. Davidson? Your bees are here!" Skyler said on the phone.
It was a cold rainy day. Noah's Ark came to mind. And the post office apparently loved seeing me. On my way into work I got the first call from Skyler. Inching through traffic and rain, I slowly looped my way back to Mint Hill and picked up the first package. Only one arrived they said. "Hey, are there any more bees in the back" I had the front counter clerk ask. Nope, just the one. Three stragglers were hanging onto the outside, apparently the whole time in transit, because the box was buttoned up tight. That was the package on the bottom. After making it home and about 25 minutes later, I got another phone call. The second package had arrived. Back to the P.O. I went. This one had more bees than the first. A big'un. "Bonus bees!" I thought. When temps got above 57, I gave them a spray of sugar water on the outside of the screen. They have food in a soup can suspended in the center. But with only two holes in the can, I knew there were a lot of hungry bees in there. Friend and mentor Hernan explained to me that unlike bees that swarm, package bees didn't know they were going to be stolen from their hive, put in a box and mailed. So they never had a chance to fill up on honey before they left. The quickly slurped up the light spray.
Because the air was so chilly, I put hive bodies around the stacked packages on the table on our back porch. I didn't consider bringing them inside, because I knew the response that would get get from Yvonne. The back porch it was. I topped the make-shift hive with an inner screen and then an outer cover and left about an inch opening at the bottom so air could vent in from the bottom. I put our outdoor temperature sensor in the box with them. Even though it was miserably cold and constantly down-pouring wet outside, the bees were comfy in a 61-degree environment in the boxes. That temperature stayed constant all through the night and into the next morning. I waited throughout the day for the weather to break, but it just wasn't to be. I spent the day working remote and waiting on the weather. I'd have to wait to hive them the next day. The forecast called for sun. I made sure to give the girls a generous spray feeding before sundown, as well as a generous spray for breakfast and lunch before I headed out to work. The next day was dry and warm in the mid-60's. Perfect.
Getting home from work, the timing was tight. I had a specific window of time before sundown. I'd enlarged the hive space when it wasn't pouring too much the previous day. Plastic tarp held down by old roofing shingles provide a moisture and beetle barrier. I increased the height of the hive stands, as well as their width. I put gripper fabric underneath each screw that's on each of the 4 ends of the hive stands. Moving everything forward a few feet to give me more room off the ridge behind the hives to work, I leveled off each stand and adjusted the screws to maximize how much the hive top feeders can hold. Installing these packages, it was my chance to get EVERY-thing the way I want it to be for a while. No more futzing around. While I was at it, I gave each original hive body a super cleaning, sterilized and refurbed old previous frames, and repainted both boxes including their cartoon namesakes. Better than ever, I thought. Nice. Now this was how I wanted my apiary to be. Lots of room to work, for expansion, clean, orderly and jamming with bees. The roomy stands make working the hives just a pleasure, with plenty of space for work boxes, feed, you name it.
I got the Freeman beetle traps filled with oil. I bought these expensive but lasting screened bottom boards with a built-in, slide out tray trap from Heartwood bee supply. They've improved the design with a slanted landing board to keep rain out of the trap. The Freemans will keep Varroa that fall off my hygienic bees out of the hive, and also provide a quick death to any small hive beetles that try to escape harassment from the bees. The traps also have a cleated foot in the front and back, keeping the hives from sliding off the stand in either direction.
The moment of truth had arrived. I sprayed each box of bees down heavily with sugar spray. Time was ticking fast. I would do the "shake and thump" method of installing the bees: "ker-thunk" the boxes to make the bees fall to the bottom, remove the lid, queen and feed can and then pour, shake and thump the bees out of their packages into the hive. I also wanted to go this exciting, eventful route because it gets the bees immediately in their new home. It's also a hell of a lotta fun. Damn, I love working bees. I did glove up once I decided the fast but aggressive method was the way I'd go.
I removed half the frames. I pried off the cork at the candy end of the queen cages, and then placed each queen cage in-between two frames at center and near the front of the hive (the front of the hives get the morning sun). The queen cages came with a metal wing flap on the non-candy end of the cage, the end you're not supposed to open. The wing flap made installation a breeze. Just position the cage in-between two frames and the flap keeps her suspended from the top bars. Then I poured the bees out with a hard shake. Most fell out in one glorious, shaken group, onto the bottom board where I'd removed frames. Bees began filling the air. Some began head-butting me as I continued to work, calmly in the midst of mayhem. Trust me, girls, you're going to love your new home. No more mail boxes. Plenty of food and room. Some didn't listen to me, but most did. I nestled the remaining frames back atop each cluster of bees in the bottom of each hive, letting the frames slowly move the bees out of the way underneath so none got squashed. Each hive got half empty frames and half drawn comb. Once I got back inside the house, I noticed I'd gotten shat on by the bees that managed to fly out. Poor things had been holding it the whole time they were in the packages. They'd welcomed me with poop. I was smiling.
I quickly topped the hives with their top tray feeders, filled those with 1:1 syrup, put on a hive body on top of the feeders, the inner screen, the telescoping outer cover and a brick on each. I placed the package boxes in front of the hives, each touching the landing board. In no time a couple of bees were fanning their Nasinov glands at the entrance, a wonderful sign of ,"Come in here! This is our new home!!" to any bees remaining in the air or inside the packages. Then it was time to leave them be for four days. I will check them on Saturday to see if the queens have been released and are laying. Hives Boris & Natasha, my first two hives, are BACK IN ACTION, baby, just in time for the spring nectar flow! Suddenly, all felt "right" within my yard once more, with bees buzzing life back in the apiary. Here's to 2014 and the adventures it brings!
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Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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