Saturday, April 26, 2008


Well, today was B-Day: The Day We Got Our Bees. This is the story of what happened when I tried to install my bees into their hive, something I have never done before. Did I remember everything teacher Dan told us about how to do it? Or did I founder on the rocks of my own bee ignorance, and get stung to death? Well, clearly not the latter, because I’m still here writing this. But it was close.

When I showed up at home toting my bee package – a small wooden screened-in box containing a tin can of sugar water and 3 pounds (or approximately 4000) angry, hungry, disoriented bees - my husband Jim greeted me even more cautiously than he usually does when I come home from work. “Hi…WOAH!” he said, backing up a few steps.

“Yeah,” I said, “It’s intense.” The bees were pressed against the screened sides of the box in a rippling, shifting, black and yellow mass. Thousands of little legs poked and waved through the netting as the bees tried to squirm their way to stinging freedom; the box shimmered with life as the light reflected off iridescent wings and shiny insectoid legs. I brandished my bee package at my husband, enjoying my newfound power. “Speak softly, but carry a box of bees,” I thought. I considered postponing the installation of the bees until later and taking them along with me on various unpleasant errands. Stand in line at the bank? Not with a box of bees! Can’t get my co-worker to give me her completed time-sheet? Sit down at her desk with a box of bees! Guy cuts me off in traffic? Pull up next to him and lob a box of bees into his open window! Ha! I realize that before I have even assembled my hive I have turned a peaceful agrarian pursuit into a weapon of mass destruction, and feel ashamed. I can’t go around town menacing people with bees, much as I might like to. That’s just not right. Plus it’s after 4:30; the bank’s already closed.

I park my bees in the shade, telling them I’ll be right back, and run to the dollar store to buy a giant bag of sugar and a spray bottle. I pick up Sadie from our neighborhood preschool and, on the way back home, I share my exciting news about the bees’ arrival with her. She is 21 months old, and has been hearing me talk about bees for 1/5 of her life so far. “Bitechoo! Look out!” she yells happily from the back seat, holding her finger in the air and zooming it around, making buzzing noises.

When we return home I cook up some sugar water to feed the bees, carry my hive components out to the edge of the field, where the bees will live, and walk back to the house to confront my family. “This is it,” I declare, clutching my shiny new hive tool, “I’m going to install my bees.”
“OK,” Jim says gravely, “Good luck.”

As I tie up my veil and pull on my gloves, I try to remember the steps teacher Dan demonstrated hours before, when he showed us how to install a bee package. I have a feeling that, simple though these steps are, I will have difficulty remembering them while cloaked in a swarm of road-weary bees. I repeat them to myself as I walk to the hive, bee box in hand. “Spray the bees with sugar water to give them something to do other than sting you. Pry off the piece of wood covering the top of the can. Pry the can out, being careful not to drop the box containing the queen (which is held in place by the can, see Fig 1) into the rest of the bees.
Remove the cork next to the queen candy from the queen box, and suspend the queen box between two frames. Dump some of the bees onto the frames where the queen box is hanging, then put the bee package into the hive and put the top on. Put some sugar water into the entrance feeder. That’s it. That’s not hard; that’s doable even with bees trying to sting you through your clothes. You can do it, Robin,” I tell myself as I arrive at the empty hive, “You can land this plane!”

My heart is pounding, and I have to admit that I am scared. I do not want to get stung by bees, duh, but more than that, I do not want to hurt these bees. Instead of doing what they are ordered by instinct and evolution to do – to save themselves and their species by gathering nectar, creating honey, and making baby bees -- they are wasting their preciously short springtime traveling all the way from Moultrie in a series of hot cars and living for 3 days in a crowded, uncomfortable box just so I can see if I’d like to be a beekeeper. I have a responsibility to these bees, particularly because, as everyone knows, bees in general are having a rough time of it right now. I do not want to be the one who strikes the final blow for the bees with her clumsy incompetence. This isn’t like the time when I was eight and wanted to be a champion bowler, but then quit after only two lessons because I was more interested in hanging out at the snack bar eating crinkly fries than in learning how to keep my wrist straight. This isn’t like the hamster I promised my mom I’d take care of and then banished to the spare room when his squeaky exercise wheel kept me awake at night. Is our entire food supply dependent on my bowling-/hamster-raising prowess? No, thank god. But bees…bees are crucial to our continued ability to feed ourselves because they pollinate our crops. Bump off the bees, and we’re all in trouble.

These thoughts, I realize as I twist open the nozzle on the spray bottle, are doing me no good at all. If I am going to succeed with these bees and get this job done, I am going to have to get ahold of myself and master my fear. Besides, I think, won’t the bees know through some kind of magical pheromone receptor or something that I am terrified, and, sizing me up like convicts in the exercise yard, decide that I am an easy mark? I have to show these bees who’s boss here, I decide. I have to be brave. “Bees can smell your fear, Robin,” I remind myself. “Or no, wait, maybe that’s horses.”

I spray the bees good with some sugar water and note with relief that their buzzing immediately subsides. They are nearly silent for the first time as they get busy licking sugar water off themselves and each other. I have a window of opportunity here where the bees are distracted, so I try to work quickly. I get the wooden cover off the tin can with no trouble and begin to pry the can out of its hole. I remember that Dan had some difficulty getting the top of the can out of the hole far enough to be able to grasp it and pull it all the way out, and that, while he was wrestling with this task, he mentioned that he tries to make sure not to let the box containing the queen fall into the rest of the bees in the process of removing the can. I also remember thinking that, no matter what, I was not going to let the box containing the queen fall into the rest of the bees. There was absolutely no way I was voluntarily going to stick my hand – even my gloved one – into a box of 4000 bees. So I was delighted when the can came up from the hole with no trouble at all. Watching Dan, I figured this would be the hardest part, but here it was – nothing to it! I held the strip of tin that was connected to the queen box with my right hand, and pulled up gently on the can with my left, easing it out of the hole. The bottom of the can reached the hole and…stuck. I lowered the can and turned it around and raised it again. Still, the bottom lip of the can caught on the wood and, no matter how I tugged and yanked and twisted the can, would not come free. I tried to stay calm as I lowered the can one again and turned it, hoping for a better angle, but I couldn’t help but notice two things. One, every time I lowered the can into the bee box, it would acquire a coating of bees. And, as I pulled the can through the hole, some of these bees would be dragged along with the can. When the lip of the can bottom reached the hole in the top of the box, the heads of these unfortunate bees would be pinched between the can lip and the wood, and would be separated from their bodies. I tried not to look as I raised and lowered the can, struggling to pull it out from every possible angle; tried to ignore the bulging black eyes and waving antennae of the hapless insects – the very ones I had minutes ago sworn to protect – as they met their deaths in my guillotine (or, more accurately, bee-o-tine). Every time I raised and lowered the can, I quickly estimated, I was killing four or five bees, and I was no closer to getting the can out of the box than when I started. I had been struggling with this task for 20 minutes already, and had probably offed about that many bees. The can was showing absolutely no sign of coming free, no matter what I did. How long would it be before I was left with nothing but a box full of headless bees with a can wedged in the top of it? Sixty dead bees per hour goes into 4000 total bees how many times? How would I explain this to Dan? To my bee classmates? To my family? To myself?

Two, I noticed that the buzzing in the box was with each passing second growing louder and louder as the bees still in the box were jostled by my unsuccessful can-removal efforts, and as they were showered with the decapitated corpses of their traveling companions. The bees had sounded angry and discontented up until now, but at this point, they sounded furious. I sprayed them with more sugar water and began talking to them, trying to regain my credibility. “OK, bees. It’s OK. We’ve got to think of something else to do here. This is not working.” The bees whined their angry agreement.

At this point, I took the box off of the hive, where I’d had it resting so I could easily reach it, and put it on the ground. I needed more leverage, or torque, or something. And I also took off my protective gloves. Working with these gloves was like trying to put on earrings while wearing oven mitts, plus, the can was now slippery with sugar water and the gloves prevented me from getting a good grip on it. I put my foot on the top of the box, holding down the tin tab of the queen box and giving me stability so I could pull as hard as possible. I leaned over the box, grabbed the can with both hands, and bent my knees and pulled. I pulled so hard that I made a noise that drowned out the bees, and as I did so, I dimly became aware of what I was actually doing. I had been so focused on the immediate goal of removing the can that I had quite forgotten why I was trying to remove it; i.e., so that I could free the bees. So, I realized, my reward for succeeding at this task, at which I had been working so diligently for almost 40 minutes, was that, if I was very, very lucky, the can would pop free and 4000 angry bees would stream in one buzzing column out of the small hole and directly into my face, which was inches above the can as I tugged and labored.

At class that afternoon, as we watched Dan install the package while whistling and also doing his taxes, Lisa, one of the other students, had leaned close to me and whispered that she saw a lot of potential for some “I Love Lucy” moments in completing this process. I had laughed at the time, but right now I was imagining something else entirely. “Did you see the one where Lucy pulled the can out of the box and fell on her butt and all the bees flew out and stung her to death? Oh yeah, hilarious; that one’s a classic!” I straightened up from the box and began looking around for another tool, like a power saw, or an electric carving knife. Finally, finally, I took my metal hive tool and wedged it between the can and the wood. I pried and pried, hoping to widen the hole, or squash the can in, or both. And after several minutes of frenzied activity, I was able to get one tiny arc of the can bottom out of the box. I was elated, but then terrified as the can got wedged even more tightly in the hole and all 4000 bees began to stream out of the tiny opening, rushing to the top of the box like stampeding concert-goers desperate to escape a burning nightclub, throwing themselves against my face veil in an orgy of apian vengeance. “Yargh!” I screamed, dropping the hive tool and all pretence of calm and fleeing into the pasture. The bees that had already escaped took off in all directions, never to return again, I imagined. Who could blame them?

I stood from a safe distance and watched as more and more bees left the box and flew in aimless and ever-widening circles around the trees at the edge of the field. I knew that this was some kind of bee rubicon right here; that if I didn’t get back up on that bee and ride right now, I never would. (Or no, wait, that’s also horses.) So I walked back up to the house and fished out my bee smoker, which I had never used. In a previous class, Dan said that he found getting the smoker to light to be one of the hardest things about beekeeping – that it was one of the things new beekeepers struggled with the most. But I didn’t know what else to do, so I filled the smoker with lit pine straw, the way I remembered watching Dan do it. And, miracle of miracles, it worked! In just a few seconds I had a good, reliable smoke going. Buoyed by this turn of events, I walked back over to the hive. As soon as I approached, the bees saw me and began assaulting me again, furiously banging themselves on my face net and crawling up and down my arms and legs. I soundlessly and very quickly engulfed the entire area with clouds of choking smoke, hoping that if the smoke didn’t calm the bees it would at least obscure me from their view for a few seconds, and walked over to the box, which was coated with bees. I brushed the bees off the can with my gloved hands – I was over it by this time – and gave the can a final sideways yank. And “POP!” just like that, the can was free and the box was open. And the queen box was in the bottom of the box of bees. “Oh Jesus Christ, bees!” I swore at them, “What now?”

I turned on my heel and walked back up to the house, walked into the kitchen past my frightened, hungry family, and yanked open a drawer. “Are you OK?” asked Jim, hesitantly.

“Yes,” I said, yanking something out of the drawer and making for the back door. “I just need some tongs.”

“Tongs?” Jim’s worried voice floated out to me as I trudged back toward the bees.

When I got there, I picked up the box and peered into the hole, shaking it back and forth, hoping to see the queen box in there, somewhere, under the big pile of shifting bees. There! I saw a corner of the tin strip sticking up and went for it. I stuck the tongs deep into the box, and immediately waves and waves of bees began crawling up them and onto my hand, where they viciously stung my glove, or crawled further up my arm, or buzzed menacingly around my head, or all three. “Oh, you bees,” I said absently, sticking out my tongue and concentrating on what I was doing. I fished the queen box out of the package and there she was: a big golden bee with a red dot on her head. Feeling exactly as though I had just defused a bomb, I scraped the cork out of the queen box, hung her in between two frames, and put the box with the remaining bees in the hive. I put the top on and filled up their sugar water. “Here you go, bees. Thanks for your patience.” I stood at the edge of the pasture as the sun went down the rest of the way and the lights came on in the house, watching the bees. As I watched, more and more bees flew to the hive and circled around the feeder, then crawled through the opening into the hive. It was a rocky start, but maybe these bees would someday forgive me and would accept their new home. After all, in the same way that the bees don’t mean you any personal malice by stinging you or crawling all over you or buzzing fiercely around your head – it’s just what bees do - I didn’t mean them any harm by drowning them in sugar water, cutting off their heads, and suffocating them in noxious pine smoke. They do their thing, and I do mine.


Dan said...

Great stories. Its good to hear that it all ended well….although the decapitated bees might take exception to the term ‘well’. Robin, what did you use to make the package drawing in your story? That looks pretty neat.
A beekeeper’s group might be a good idea. Kimbra Smith was collecting names with that in mind at one of the earlier classes. I don’t know if she’s had any time to follow up but I’ll ask. There’s a group that used to meet in Bishop but now meets at the UGA beelab in Watkinsville. I believe that they meet once a month. That might be another alternative.
I hope we’ll all stay in touch.

EmBot said...

Bees! I can't get away from the bees! Why do they keep following me????