Hope springs eternal. I am happy to report that a new colony of honeybees is now establishing its niche in a local ecosystem of northern Albemarle county. Worker bees arrive and depart the hive constantly, the launching board suddenly transformed from vacant runway to busy terminal. Today I am a beekeeper.
Last Tuesday (4/17) the long-awaited moment (‘Bee’-Day) arrived. We were finally ready. The new hive body was assembled and painted. We had placed it on blocks on our back lot where the sun could awaken it on summer mornings. The sugar syrup had been mixed. Under a brilliant blue April sky, two intrepid souls – a volunteer recruited for the trip and myself – made the drive down US-29 to Chatham. I was thrilled to finally pick up my package of honey bees, completing a process initiated months ago.
Upon surrendering my receipt to the gentleman at the Dadant bay door, he presented me with a screened box that literally vibrated with movement and sound. One pound of bees translates roughly to 3,000 winged insects. In that moment, I held three pounds of apis mellifera*, between my hands. They emitted a continuous, whispering buzz that thrummed into my fingertips with a muted energy. I held hope. Possibly, I held a small piece of our ecological survival in my hands. And hidden in the middle of that living mass was a newly mated queen, riding separately in her own chamber.
Three pounds of Italian honey bees restless, searching (with human assistance) for home.
Placing that box carefully in the seat of the car, we drove home with royalty – the august company of one Italian queen and nine thousand of her devoted subjects. We nervously cracked obligatory jokes about accidents, envisioning a splintered box and the sudden release of some very disoriented honeybees. We were therefore respectful of our cargo, reaching constantly to steady the box on tight ramps. Despite that precaution, it did tip over once, but I can report an uneventful trip nevertheless.
Installation became a matter of following a rehearsed and well-scripted procedure. The queen cage would be removed from the screened box and suspended between two of the frames. One end of the queen cage would then be uncorked, exposing a special candy which the workers would eat through to release their queen. Lastly, the mass of bees could either be poured directly from the box into the open hive, or the entire box temporarily placed inside.
Preparations before the install - bee veil, water, gloves, hive tool, and waiting hive.
Choosing the latter course, we removed half the frames and placed the screened box in the hive. With the box cover removed, the colony immediately began to emerge. Bees in this circumstance are quite calm; as yet, they have no home to protect. Lastly, we placed a container of syrup containing sugar and water in a 1:1 ratio in the hive entrance. The syrup becomes an essential supplement to hive nutrition until reliable sources of pollen and nectar can be located by scouts.
The colony emerges to explore their new digs. Queen cage tacked into place two frames over.
Having been released, the queen will crawl slowly about the foundation, fed and groomed by a consort of workers. She bides her time, her pheromal presence asserting a powerful orienting principle in the hive. She waits for cell construction to have been completed and the point where she can begin laying her eggs. And after some three weeks, new workers will begin to emerge from those cells, adding to the strength and vitality of this incredible organism.
Meanwhile, the industry of these small creatures energizes the imagination. Sources of nectar are being discovered and their location communicated to the hive. The nectar is being gathered, processed, converted to honey in some cases, but more importantly at this stage, to wax. For inside the hive, an engineering marvel is being constructed from raw materials, six sided pillars growing outward as the workers produce, chew and deposit wax in a characteristic hexagonal shape.
Promising activity levels four days later
The honeybee is essential to our ecological balance. Fully 80% of our flowering crops depend upon it. At the same time, colonies have declined at alarming rates over the past several decades. Wild colonies are now quite rare. But beekeeping associations are taking proactive measures, several states are reporting upswings in populations, and maybe. . . just maybe, things are looking better.
And so, having installed our little colony of honeybees, and having provided the optimum conditions, we stand watch, hopeful for nature to work its magic. And for all you old hippie classmates waiting to throw that pun: yep, we definitely caught a buzz. . . country style.
*(Apis mellifera is the scientific name for the Western or European honeybee.)