Who knew the honeybee was so downright fascinating? I mean, I knew they were important pollinators, and produced that delicious sticky sweet stuff we call honey, but until the past few years, I was not aware of the true complexity and genius of this small insect. This is an insect that evolved in the age of the dinosaurs, and is able to communicate to other bees the location of nectar and pollen sources, through different dances. Through ultraviolet vision, a bee is able to locate flowers rich in nectar, which will eventually turn into honey. The nectar is stored in a honey cell where the thickened nectar ages and becomes honey. Bees produce honey which differs in color and flavor depending on the flowering plant they collect nectar from; some of which include clover, orange-blossom, sage, and alfalfa. Not only is honey delicious, it has long been recognized for it’s health benefits. Keen on increasing my beekeeping knowledge, I attended a few talks given by local beekeepers, and more recently I attended a class organized by the Mountain Feed store and taught by Ian Coulson, a long time beekeeper and mentor. Attending this class was the final push in my decision to join this eight thousand year old practice, and begin keeping bees.
In preparation for my soon to be arriving bees, I took a tentative step into my first Santa Cruz beekeepers guild meeting. I was amazed to see the large room was packed, with only standing room remaining. As I quietly glanced around the room, I recognized several faces from students to restaurant owners. The faces were female, male, young, old, and everything in between. The guild meetings are open to anyone interested in bees or beekeeping. In the meeting was a very relaxed atmosphere where beekeepers shared stories and newbies asked questions. Towards the end of the meeting, one of the members did a step by step demonstration of how to introduce your new bees to their hive.
Feeling a bit more prepared after the meeting, I purchased my beekeeping supplies. Consistently, Mountain Feed in Ben Lomond has been my source for everything from irrigation parts to cover crop seed to home cheese making supplies, and now, beekeeping equipment. I had my checklist which included a bottom board, hive body, supers, frames, foundations, telescoping top, smoker, hive tool, and on it went...
The official bee pickup day at the Mountain Feed store was quite an event as hundreds of people swarmed into Ben Lomond to pick up their bees. I’ve heard from more than one source that there are now more new beekeepers than ever before. Maybe others have also been bit by the produce more, consume less bug. We were unable to make it to the official bee pickup, but readjusted our weekend travel plans so I could make it Saturday morning. Anxiously I drove to Ben Lomond checking and re-checking my to-do list to make sure I was prepared for our new bees. As we had done quite a bit of birthday celebrating the evening before, I worried my foggy brain would overlook an important detail. A few hours later, I was driving home with my new box of bees in tow.
Next, we prepared for the “shake out,” where the wooden box with mesh sides containing the bees, is turned up side down over the open hive, and the 10,000-12,000 bees are literally shaken out. Prior to this step, I played and replayed the sequence in my head. I was most worried about getting the queen safely into the hive. When I told my oldest and dearest friend who lives in Denver that I was on my way to pick up bees, I expected to hear a big reaction. Instead, she simply said, “will you name the queen after me?” So although I recognize the bees are not family pets, we dubbed the queen, Lew. Queen Lew came already mated in her own little box within the larger box, to keep her separate from the worker bees. As the bees have just been thrown together, rather than an already established colony, they are not familiar with the queen (queen Lew in this case), and will kill her if placed together too quickly. If something goes wrong with the queen, the colony will not survive. A healthy queen on the other hand can live up to four years and lay over one million eggs.
I had stalled for as long as possible, it was time for action. We geared up and gathered the necessary tools. Even though I was attempting a facade of complete calm, every time I glanced at my partner in crime she seemed to have retreated a few more steps, which made handing me tools a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, the shake out went as planned. The majority of the worker bees fell heavily into the hive. The others would eventually make their way there. Queen Lew was safely in her tiny box, soon to be released by her attending worker bees. All was well in the bee world.
*For an Excellent resource for students young and old, check out “The Life and Times of the Honeybee” by Charles Micucci.
*Pacific Crest is a local apiary located at 875 Calabasas Road. They teach beekeeping classes and have a great gift shop.