The Flight of The Turquoise Bee Apiary is expanding! I never imagined three years ago when I embarked on this hobby that I would be managing more than a hive or two. I remember with perfect clarity our first summer, packaging two hives, one of them went queen-less the day we set up the hives. It was a good lesson and we learned a great deal in the first few weeks watching that hive dwindle away. It was also a major disappointment. All was tempered by the end of that summer when we harvested two and a half gallons of honey in late August.
We attempted to over-winter that single colony our first year but alas they did not survive. I will admit, we had been greedy, taking too much honey for ourselves leaving precious little for the bees to survive over the winter.
That spring we hived two new packages with marked queens. It was a bittersweet season. We honed in on our skills, easily determining our hives were queen-right, moving frames around to make the most of the bee space, moving brood around to bolster a weaker colony and discovering a late summer swarm and a hive that re-queened itself right under our nose without us noticing! Totally excited about the harvesting prospects we purchased an extractor. But the wet spring worked against us and we didn’t even have enough frames of extractable honey to use the extractor. We ended up with a scant gallon of honey.
Hoping for the best and expecting nothing we put the bees to bed for the winter the end of October. In December we ordered two new packages of bees, assuming they would never make it. We had left plenty of honey in one hive but the other, well it spent all summer building crazy comb all over the darn place and not a lick of honey. January and February brought us several 60-degree days and a chance to check the bees. Much to our dismay both hives were thriving. Suddenly I started to panic. Two surviving hives and two packages on the way could mean as many as six hives.
6 hives? How is that possible? How will we keep them straight? How will we have time to manage them? Will there be enough pollen, nectar and water for all those colonies? It all seems so overwhelming and then there is this little nagging reason I went into beekeeping to begin with that isn’t working out the way I had hopped.
I have written about my visceral desire to keep bees before. My lofty ideas about the bees and me and some kind of spiritual connection I hoped for. I came to beekeeping with a need to be tamed, with the idea that the bees would empower me to be more mindful, more deliberate, contemplative. My work life is intense, managing critically ill children in the hospital. Families turn to me in their most vulnerable moments. It spends me to no end. I hoped beekeeping would temper my hyperactive mind and spirit. Take me away from the drama of my work.
It could not be more to the contrary. I am jazzed beyond measure about the bees. I am easily worked up to a frenzy fretting about getting stung. I am totally preoccupied with getting honey. I come by it honestly. I am easily excitable and willing to concede that little tempers me. Having sustained about 20 stings, all above the shoulders last August while harvesting, rendered me scared silly. For nearly two weeks I looked like National Geographic’s next photo op. Now I want nothing more than enough honey to host a honey harvesting party. When the post office called Monday morning to say our bees had arrive my heart started to race and flutter. I was giddy with excitement.
I have no idea what the summer will bring. We held a contest to name our hives so we can keep them straight. The parent hive is The Turquoise Bee after the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso who was a special Dalai Lama and a legend, leaving scores of poetry behind in which he refers to himself at the Turquoise Bee. That hive is full of a thriving colony of bees, the queen now a year old. We go into the summer with high expectations of this hive which is full of drawn comb, a sturdy stock and an experienced queen. This hive should be strong enough to divide which means moving half the bees to a new hive and introducing a new queen. Mr. Abbott’s Little Bee will home the offspring of The Turquoise Bee and their new queen.
Crazy comb made it through the winter although she is a much weaker colony. We will have to watch her closely and decide her fate. Her bees were troublesome last year building that crazy comb in every nook and cranny inside the hive. A colossal waste time and energy and they never gathered enough nectar to come up with a lick of honey. But here they are in all their glory. We may designate that hive to a number of natural and organic beekeeping methods we’d like to try.
Yesterday we packaged two newcomers. Colleen’s Royal Ruckus, a fitting name in honor of my oldest and dearest friend and newbie beekeeper and Katrina’s Drone Den. These two new colonies like their sister’s hale from Kentucky. They are well tempered and hopefully a hard working lot. Hiving these two packages proved to be a challenge and sent us on an emotional roller coaster!
We got Colleen’s Royal Ruckus in without a hitch, one down one to go. I still find hiving to be intimidating, daunting and tricky. You see there is that little queen in cage and she has to find her way into the hive. When we hived our two packages the first year one of our queens took flight. Hoping she might return we waited to long and ended up with a queen-less drone den. To this day I worry about the queen flying away while trying to get her into the hive. Back to getting Drone Den hived. We got organized, Colleen and Paula opened the package of bees and Colleen pulled out the queen cage. “Hey you got some dead bees here.” I heard her say. I wasn’t alarmed we always have a pile of dead bees in the bottom of the package. I didn’t realize she was talking about the queen cage. Paula and I inspected the cage, sure enough total carnage the queen and all of her attendants.
Every beekeeper will tell you being without a queen for even a fleeting moment is simply devastating! I quickly called the supplier to secure another queen; she would be there by Thursday, we could go ahead and get the rest of the bees, about 7000 of them into the hive. Paula shook them into the hive box and I peered down into the box. I could hardly believe what I was seeing crawling among the girls. A second beautiful queen, boldly marked and easily spotted. How could this bee? It was as though we had won the lottery. The likelihood of two queens in one package, well its no wonder one was dead. You see bees won’t accept more than one queen so if for any reason there are two they will kill one of the queens, stinging them with their toxic venom.
We are off and running with four hives, fingers crossed and a summer before us. I may not be learning how to settle down and quiet myself but I sure love the bees. I love the smell of the smoker, watching the bees dance to communicate, and seeing the large sacs of pollen the girls are hauling into their hives. I love the queen hunt, the time with my beekeeping partner Paula and watching my oldest friend Colleen mingle with the bees. Occasionally I get overwhelmed about being responsible for all these bees and screwing up but then I remember how rewarding it all is and that in some small way we are giving back to the planet Earth and I settle down.