New Beekeepers Rescue a Hive

Brand-new Backwards Beekeeper Bonnie wrote this to our Yahoo Group:

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or How to Make a Thousand Mistakes and Still Capture a Beehive

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been keeping an eye on a hive in a large plywood box at the back of a neighboring vacant property. The box was about 2 feet tall by 2 feet wide by 4 or 5 feet long at the very back of the property. We were faced with a problem—try to cut them out now, or leave them over the winter at the mercy of a real estate agent, anybody who might be hired to do a clean-up job, or a possible new owner. With some encouragement from Kirk and other Backwards Beekeepers, we decided to go for it. We had no idea what we were in for!

We were a crew of five: my husband Marcus and I (Bonnie) and three of our four children, helping out in the adventure. We had lots of info from months of research, and zero experience. The plan was to get started on Friday, just as I was about to get into my bee suit, I started feeling bad, and the next thing I knew, I lost my breakfast (food poisoning?) and Marcus followed not long after. By Saturday we felt fine, though. We got busy finishing up painting the hive boxes and stand, and didn’t get our suits on until around 1:30pm. We should have started at 9 am! We opened up the hive and it turned out to be BIG. We thought we were well-prepared with 2 nucs and 2 five gallon buckets. That turned out to be not enough!

The hive took up about 1/3 of that big box. It was full of old junk—miscellaneous engine equipment, a toilet seat and a rat’s nest. Mr. Rat ran out as soon as we smoked up his house a bit. We pried up the lid to see where the hive started, and Marcus used his saw to cut the lid so we’d have better access. The comb was built diagonally across a corner of the box—about 12 rows of it, all tangled up in the junk. My husband got busy cutting it out, while I tried to fit the stuff he cut into the frames with rubber bands to hold it. This is a lot trickier than it looks, especially when you’ve got bulky gloves on. The rubber bands got stuck in the cracks at the ends of the frames, and when I tried to roll the bands over to put them in place, I’d end up squishing bees, squishing the comb, or having a rubber band break. Several times I cut it too small, and the comb fell out. Meanwhile, my husband was having a lot more luck cutting the comb out than I was getting it into frames. It was piling up!

The Good: My teenage daughter Madison was our photographer, and she got braver and braver as the process continued. Wearing no veil or gloves, she got up close enough to take all the pics. She got the first sting when she put her hand down on a bee and it got her palm. She said, “Is this supposed to hurt?” My son (age 11) was in the middle of everything with only a veil and gloves. Pretty soon the gloves were off and he was licking up the honey along with the bees. He got stung on the finger, and the arm. He rubbed some dirt on it, and called it good. Don’t you just love little boys? He later got stung again when a little cluster dropped on his shoe and two more went up his pant leg. He ran off dancing, but refused to take any Benadryl. He was back soon right in the middle of everything. My youngest daughter (age 7) just loved watching everything. She had a veil, and she helped with the smoker and with fetching and carrying. What an amazing learning experience for us all!

The Bad: I looked at the sun and knew we had about 45 minutes of daylight left. I worked as hard as I could trying to find brood comb to cut out into rectangular frame shapes. Half the time they ended up looking like trapezoids, and it was really hard to get them into the frames. The next thing I knew, the sun was down, the comb was all cut out of the box, and only a few of the bees were in the nucs. I had filled both buckets with comb, and realized we needed to figure out what to do. We tried brushing the bees into the nucs, but there was too much junk in the box to get them under where the bees were bearding, and we had left too much comb hanging on the side—they were clinging to it fiercely.

The Ugly: At this point, we felt like complete and utter failures. We had taken all of the beautiful work of the bees and trashed it like a couple of dumb bears. It was now really dark, and we felt like the only thing to do at that point was to put the nucs inside the box as best we could, and cover the whole thing up with a tarp. We weighed down the tarp with some rocks, and took the walk of shame back down the hill, feeling like we were leaving the bees to die a cold death because of our stupidity and inexperience. To make matters worse, we thought we might have killed or lost the queen. Towards the end, I had even quit looking carefully at the comb for eggs and uncapped brood. I never saw any. For all I knew, the hive would also be unable to requeen itself because I’d started throwing comb in buckets to get it out of the way after dark. To make matters worse, we wouldn’t be able to get back to the mess we left until Sunday afternoon. I’m a volunteer pastor at our church, and we both had commitments there Sunday morning. Both of us had nightmares about bees dying and vowed that even though we had utterly messed up, we would try again in spring.

When we finally got back up there, we were happy to find that there were still thousands of bees bearding on the wall in the grooves an inch or so deep where the combs had been. Still only a few bees in the nucs. At this point, we decided to be smart and call Kirkobeeo. He told us to pull the wall of the box off, and whack it over the nucs (we ended up doing it over a hivebox and a nuc because it was so big. Whoosh! In they went! We whacked, waited 20 minutes, whacked again, waited again, etc. I had a little bitty whisk broom and dust pan, and we cleared up little clusters here and there as best we could. The bees were finally staying in the box! Whew! Several phone calls and a couple hours later, all was well, and the bees were all climbing in the box. We left to get some dinner. A couple hours later, we went back up with a flashlight and all the bees were hunkered down for night. We put the entrance reducer on, and covered up the hive (loosely) with the tarp to help keep out the wind.

I am quite happy to report that in spite of our blundering, the bees are doing very well! They were really crowded in the first box, so today I added some frames with starter strips and another empty box on top and fed them some of their honey in bag. They were very happy and we had only given them a little hint of smoke. The honey is amazing—dark, buckwheat and wildflower, I’m guessing. We’re saving it all to feed them. I don’t feel like I can quite call myself a beekeeper yet, as these gentle girls still haven’t stung me!

Some pictures are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/littlecritter/sets/72157622865548352/

A million thanks to you, Kirk for all your help!

-Bonnie :)

It's a good day to give thanks for bees and the organic beekeepers who learn from them.