Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bee Stings and Wounded Pride

Earlier this week, I showed off our awesome chicken coop, which we considered a homesteading success. Today, I want to tell you about a homesteading failure. It involves the bees.


We've had our two hives for about six weeks now, and so far we've opened them three times. The inaugural opening was when Nathan's parents were here. It went okay - at first. We smoked the bees and they were calm when we opened the hive. We were able to lift some of the frames out and even took turns holding them and posing for photos.


And then the bees were not so calm. Nathan got stung a few times, then a few more, and then we quickly closed those hives up, because bee stings are not pleasant. "We're still new at this," we told Nathan's parents, which was quite obvious. Later, we tried to figure out what we had done wrong, and came to this conclusion: a lot. We opened the hives in the late afternoon, around 4PM, when they were most active. Nathan had just gotten home from work and was wearing dark clothing. We used too much smoke and it wasn't cool enough, and instead of keeping the bees calm, they grew irate. All things we could easily fix, we assured ourselves. Two weeks later, we were ready to try again. 

This time, Nathan got stung almost immediately. We took no chances and ran away from the hives, bees chasing us down the street. I even tripped on a vine while trying to escape and fell, scrambling to my feet, certain the swarm would descend on me at any moment. It almost cinematic. Luckily, the bees gave up and once they had forgotten about us, we crept back to the hive, replaced the lid, and called it a day. 

Now, you might notice in the photo above that I am not wearing any kind of bee suit. When we took our bee school field trip to the apiary back in November, hardly anyone wore a suit - mostly because there weren't enough to go around. We naively decided suits were overkill, and that by keeping calm and using the smoker, we would be fine. Well, we were wrong. We've since decided that we are definitely getting bee suits and have put them on our wedding registry. In the meantime, we knew we'd have to find a cheaper substitution for our third attempt at working the bees. This is what we came up with:


A wide brimmed hat, draped with mosquito netting, gathered at the bottom, and tucked under a loose fitting shirt. Hoods up and collars popped, y'all. It did the trick. Mostly.

We decided to open the bees this past Sunday. I worked the smoker, trying to find the right balance between too much smoke and too little. We got the lid off and Nathan worked on prying the frames out of the box. And then - I got stung on my leg, though my pants. I'm pretty sure a bee got caught in the cotton fabric, and was not necessarily defending the hive, but still. We were nervous. Then Nathan got stung. The bees weren't happy. We still didn't know what we were doing wrong, and our mosquito netting, while helping, wasn't helping enough. But we could tell the hive we had opened was too full, and that if we didn't do something, our bees were at risk of swarming - leaving our hive in search of a more spacious home. So we decided that we would get our second hive body in place, no matter how many times we got stung. We moved slowly, we backed away as needed, and kept the smoker going. First one hive body, then the other. Lids on. And we were done.


Success? Sort of. We gave the bees more room to spread out and expand their colonies, which is great. But we still don't know why our bees dislike us, what we're doing wrong, and why we keep getting stung. I have a feeling that we simply had too many bees in our hives - there was no space to work around them, and Nathan couldn't avoid crushing a few bees when trying to lift the frames up. I'm guessing accidentally crushing a few bees is what set them off, but we can't know for sure. We'll find out in two weeks, when we attempt to open the hives for a fourth time. For now, we'll be nursing our bee stings and our wounded pride.

13 comments:

  1. I'm sure there's a learning curve to something like this, and I bet in no time you'll be handling them with no stings. In the meantime, you guys should feel like superheroes for getting this far. Beekeeping seems like such a badass hobby, and props to you for showing it in all its warts and uncertainties rather than just painting a rosy picture.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! Thanks, Rebecca. Nathan thought I should wait until we were actually good at beekeeping before I blogged about, I feel the truth is more interesting. ;)

      Delete
  2. You are brave. I would not be able to do this.
    PS - Gib and I LOVE the chicken coop!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I just started taking Bee Keeping classes last month down in Bryan Texas with a friend. Our second class is in a couple weeks so I will be going back down for that. I am excited about getting hives!

    Hang tight, I agree with Rebecca there is a huge learning curve on bee keeping.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. At least our bees are healthy. That's our one consolation! Also that it's bound to get easier. I'm glad I haven't scared you away from getting your own hives! :)

      Delete
  4. Props for getting this far and keeping on. Bee keeping looks incredibly intimidating.

    ReplyDelete
  5. We have a hive and the bees have been more agressive this season.

    I think with good reason though, first it has been windy and the bees find it very disturbing to have the hive opened with even a little wind. Second, they have been fighting quite a few pest invaders and they seem a little more wary of everything. What we learned is it really helps to open te hive when most bee sare foraging and to do things slowly with no pressure to hurry. Also we just stop if they are moody, more buzzy than usual. We do not use smoke either, but spray honey diluted in water on te bees, whi h they love! just thougt I would share what helped us.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for the tips! I never heard of diluted honey - we'll have to try that! And we've been opening the hive early in the morning, when most of the bees are home. We'll try later in the day and see how that works. It can't get any worse! :)

      Delete
  6. I always open my hives from the back side, away from their 'doorway' so that I'm not interrupting so many flight patterns. I always open the lid(s) away from myself, too. I go in mid-day, when most everyone is out foraging and they are too busy to bother much with me. I generally don't smoke them, though I often get the smoker ready just in case I might need it (and if so, I use it very, very sparingly, and generally only at harvest). I also think two people at once might be part of your problem - perhaps if y'all try one at a time you'll have calmer bees. That said, some hives are more fiesty than others are, and that's just the personality of the group (they all have the same mom, after all).

    My super affordable bee suit is a tyvek painter's coverall from Home Depot. Get a big one, so that it isn't tight on you anywhere. They can sting through it, but tyvek is slippery and harder for them to grip, plus they are white, just like a bee suit. I find that I am calmer when I'm wearing protection, so I do - I put the painter's coverall over my clothes (which makes for some space between me and the bees), and I do rubber bands if I need to (some of the coveralls have elastic) at my socks (two pair) and gloves. Then, move slowly. Don't blow your breath into the hive (carbon dioxide), and move slowly....slowly. Finally, try not to plan too much for one visit. If you open the hive, lift out a frame or two, close the hive, you will get more comfortable, and they will get more used to having you around too.

    It sounds like you're doing great - keep it up! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is fantastic advice! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experiences with us. We so appreciate it. I'll let you know how our next attempt goes!

      Delete
  7. Two things I forgot - those coveralls are only about 10 dollars - and make sure you get a zipper one instead of one with snaps. Also, never cover their doorways. Once, my first year, I put the hive cover over the front entrance to the hive (so it'd be out of my way?) and suddenly, every bee that was out foraging couldn't find the door, lol. Setting it off to the side is much better, so that they can go about their business while you go about yours. :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. I love your blog. I have had chickens for 15 years and have my first bees this year. One hive got moths. I opened the hive every morning for a week at about 6:00 am and searched for moths and larvae. They were easy to spot. I took out as much comb over a three day period, leaving enough for the bees to cover. I froze the comb, killing whatever maggot or egg was too small for me to see, and yes, any brood. After freezing, I returned the clean comb, one at a time, and just enough for them to cover. Immediately the queen started laying again and honey stores grew. The hive is still in danger, but you were right, low numbers led to ants, led to moths, led to tragedy. I only have about a half a pound of bees left, I don't know if they will make it. If my day goes well tomorrow, I am combining brood from my good hive with the survivors of the bad luck bees.

    ReplyDelete
  9. One thing, I worked on the split today, doing the rest tomorrow. I hope it works.

    ReplyDelete