News from the Farm | April 28, 2014

Busy Bees

I drove home last Wednesday with 15,000 bees in the back of my Prius. For those of you who have been in a Prius before, you will know there is no separation between the trunk and the rest of the car. Lucky for me, only about 20 of them were outside the confines of their boxes. I turned up the radio and sang to them all the way home. This was as much an attempt to drown out the unnerving buzz coming from the rear of the car as it was to calm them (not that my singing voice has ever calmed anyone, ever). Bees actually take up surprisingly little space, and I probably could have doubled the amount and still been able to fit them all. This will be my second year keeping bees here at Full Belly. I started last year with two hives, and added four more this spring. Bees come in packages of 3,000 bees and one queen. Over the course of a good season, each package should get up to about 10,000 bees. If you can over-winter them and have a good queen, you might even see hive numbers get as high as 40,000.

Before getting my first bees, I read up on how to care for them through the seasons, how to install them, what problems to look for, etc. I watched YouTube videos and talked to everyone I knew about how to care for my bees. No amount of reading will prepare you for actually working with bees. Those YouTube videos are especially misleading. Typically there is a guy in a short-sleeve shirt calmly examining frames and pointing out things that are going on, while bees are landing on his face and arms. This has not been my experience. I have gained enough confidence to ditch my gloves, but my bee veil and a long sleeve shirt? Forget it! I still get a little a nervous when I open up the hives and inches away are thousands of buzzing creatures, with their little eyes all looking up at you. Although all the reading up was certainly not a completely useless endeavor, beekeeping is really best learned by doing. The first time I transferred bees to a hive from a package, it was complete and utter pandemonium. I did it at the wrong time of day, with my 8-month old baby looking on from my husband’s arms about 20 feet away. The YouTube videos had made it seem so easy! So orderly! The baby didn’t get stung, but we were all chased by irate bees. Needless to say I will not be winning any mother of year awards over here. I think in the transfer I may have lost one of the two queens, and the hive replaced her, resulting in one of my hives becoming extremely aggressive. This year I did four hives, and it was so much smoother and less chaotic. Nobody was chased, all my equipment was ready to go, and I was much calmer handling the bees. 

My husband would tell you that I am obsessed with my bees. The night after a hive check I often wake him to ask him questions about what I saw (which he almost certainly does not know the answer to, but in the middle of the night, asking him still seems like a good idea). I have dreams about them and worry about them.  Is there still enough water underneath the hive to stave off the army of black ants that are eager to get in the hive and eat all the brood? Is my queen still laying enough eggs? Should I replace her in the spring? Did I squish her during my last hive check? Did I check each and every bottom frame for swarm cells? Were there too many drone cells? Should I move the frames around? There is so much to know and so much to look for, and ideally a hive check should last only about 10 minutes. Despite all my fumbling around, I did get to harvest some honey last year, for which I felt pretty proud (not that I did any of the work to produce that honey).  


Bees are amazing and industrious creatures. The more I learn about them, the more amazed I am at how complex they are. For example, if a colony senses that its queen is starting to fail, they will pick several different eggs and feed them a special substance to create new queens. These new queens will emerge at the same time and fight to the death until one of them prevails and becomes the new queen of colony. A queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs in a single day (roughly equal to her bodyweight). A honeybee can make only about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Sure makes me think about all of the work that went into that big dollop of honey I put in my tea this morning! Most every bee in a hive is female. There are male bees, and their one purpose is to mate. Once they do that, they die (usually in about a week). The worker bees are busy indeed. After they emerge from their cell, their first job is tending to the queen. After that, they differentiate to accomplish a number of different tasks. They build out the comb in which the honey and pollen is stored, and the eggs are laid. They collect pollen and nectar, and evaporate that nectar until it is in the stable form of honey. They defend the colony from invaders like wax moths, ants, and other intruders. They also make the decision about when to leave the colony for new digs. I just recently heard (not sure if this is true) that new research suggests that when a hive is getting ready to leave its current home, they send out a number of scouts to find a new suitable location for the colony. When the scouts return, they dance. Whichever has the most convincing, most elaborate dance is the one that will lead the bees to their new home. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to interesting facts about bees. 

There is always something new to wonder about and puzzle over when I look in my hives.  I never would have guessed that I would have become so interested in an insect, but here we are. I am hoping to increase the number of my hives to 20 over the next several years. If all goes well, keep an eye out for honey at our farmer’s markets! 

— Jenna Muller