Under most circumstances, I’m calm and keep my composure. I’ve climbed long multi-pitch routes up granite faces, skied down steep couloirs, and made speeches in front of hundreds of people. I’ve never been afraid of needles and I gave birth to my first child without the benefit of drugs. The prospect of a bee sting or two didn’t really phase me. Naturally I thought that I’d be able to keep my cool in the presence of 30,000 bees. And for the most part, I did.
I had done my homework, so I thought. I took a few classes, had my reference books on hand, read some articles online, and attended a live installation of bees into their hive. I was prepared! In the days leading up to “Bee Day” I carefully prepared the hives by painting and stenciling them to identify each hive, made a few gallons of sugar syrup, and was outfitted with the most fashionable bee suit on the market. (Kidding: much to my chagrin, it is impossible to look fashionable in a bee suit.)
The bees arrived on Saturday. They spent a couple of days in the garage and by Monday they seemed desperate to get out of the bee cage. I was both excited and nervous to release them. Taking the instructor’s advice, I decided to go ahead and install my bees bare-handed. I started with the carniolans – a pretty grey and black striped bee that has a reputation for being docile. Right off the bat I discovered my first rookie mistake: I had forgotten my utility knife so I couldn’t pop the cork out of the queen’s cage and replace it with the marshmallow. That threw me off my game a bit. Luckily, Jonathan was on hand filming and taking photos. He always carries a pocket knife so I was able to improvise. Regaining composure, I successfully installed the first queen cage. Taking a deep breath I thought, “Okay, this isn’t so hard. All I have to do is shake 10,000 bees into the hive.”
It’s hard to describe the kind of adrenaline rush that you get when hundreds of bees fly up around your head, crawl all over your hands, and are pretty pissed off that you’re shaking and banging on the box that has served as their home for the last few days. In my head I was thinking “they’re supposed to just fall out of the box into the hive, just like in the demonstration” and “deep breaths, DEEP breaths, DEEP BREATHS”.
Note to self: bees don’t just fall out of the box even with a great amount of vigorous shaking and banging. You’re supposed to be able to get every last bee out of the cage, but as my nerves started to get the best of me I decided to leave the last few dozen bees in the cage and let them escape on their own. I placed the frames back into the hive, and moved on to the next one.
Italians. I just love that these gals are called Italians. It seems like they should be friendly and jovial, like most of the Italians I’ve ever met. I was determined for the second installation to go better than the first. It started out fine; transferring the queen cage was a cinch and the bees seemed to generally cooperate when I started dumping them into the hive. But then OUCH! I got stung on the palm of my right hand while banging on box. With about a third of the bees still in the cage I had no choice but to press on. Then OUCH! Another sting, this time on my left thigh. Second rookie error: do not wear skinny jeans while installing bees.
With hand and leg throbbing, I gritted my teeth and just kept going. The bees were not going to get the best of me. And then OUCH! A third sting in my right knee. With almost all the bees out of the cage, I took a few more deep breaths and called it good. I could feel myself shaking a bit, and momentarily considered taking a break before installing the third hive.
Having gotten this far, it seemed better to just keep going. Part of me feared that I might lose my nerve and leave the third group to perish in their cage. I couldn’t allow that to happen. Jonathan stayed for moral support and despite a few hiccups the final installation went smoothly. I wore a glove on my left hand for a little added protection and was able to get just about every last bee out of the cage. Victory!
The whole process took about an hour. Not bad for a first effort. I’m proud that no tears were shed and that I largely kept my cool. I’m stoked to call myself a beekeeper, stings and all.