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.