Friday, May 9, 2014


I drove 2 hours from the Northeast Kingdom to our little farm in the Upper Valley with thousands of bees riding along in the bed of the truck.  I'd finished teaching a wonderful class at King Arthur Flour just before I left on my journey and as I bade my lovely students farewell, they wished me luck on my adventure.  They all looked terribly worried.

You can see the nuc box to the right.  You leave the box overnight for any stragglers who have a hard time letting go of their cardboard home.  On the hive proper, the lighter colored and squat box on top of the dark yellow "deep" is the feeder and contains simple syrup to feed the bees until there's enough nectar flowing outdoors so that they can feed themselves.  They have a lot of work to do and they go through 8 cups of simple syrup a day.  As the bees continue to fill out the frames in that large dark yellow box with larvae, honey, nectar, etc, I'll add another deep box on top so that they can expand their growing business.  Finally, I'll add smaller boxes called "honey supers" that will be guessed it...honey.

I'm bringing sexy back.
The little buzzers were sealed inside a nuc (short for nucleus) box, they couldn't get out.  The box had been their home for months, a working hive with a queen already laying the workers already working.  To look at it, it appears to be a simple lidded cardboard box with a hole on one end, until you squint and see hundreds of winged critters flying in and out of that hole.  Inside the box, 5 "frames" of drawn comb that house larva, nectar, pollen and honey are nestled one after the other. Just before the kindly gents at Northwoods Apiary put the box in my truck, they sealed the hole shut with some mesh, so the little buzzers could breath, and duct tape, because it's duct tape.  Duct tape fixes EVERYTHING, even bee holes. 

This isn't the only way to buy bees.  You can also buy bees in a "package."  3 pounds of bees are packaged into a screened box and sealed.  The queen gets her own little condo, a sealed tiny box of her own, and that's attached to the package.  The queen and the workers haven't been working together. In fact, they'll first get to know each other on the trip to their new home via USPS.  That's right, packages are sent via US mail.  Read that again.  US MAIL!   As this relationship between queen and hive is brand spanking new, when you install the bees into the hive, they have to get down to the work of accepting their new queen, drawing comb, etc.  So with a  nuc, you get a head start.

Early morning staff meeting.  Bees communicate constantly, about the direction of the best food sources, about whether to swarm (more on that another time), about EVERYTHING.  Different bees have different opinions.  One may think that a certain orchard is the place to be and another found an mint field in bloom that's totes aweseome-sauce.  The bees gather the information and vote on it.  I'm not kidding.  

Safely home, I carried the nuc to our corn crib.  My bee mentor, Jeffrey Hamelman (those bakers out there will recognize the name.  Jeffrey is the head of the King Arthur Flour bakery and one of the very few certified master bakers in the U.S.), offered to help me install my bees on Sunday morning.  In the meantime, they needed shelter so I carried the 25 pound box tight against my chest across the property, the low buzzing vibrating through my bones.  I imagined that Buddhist monks must feel a similar sensation when they throat sing, a warm soul vibration, just without the anaphylactic shock and honey.  I fell in love on that short walk.

You'll notice that the field bees coming in don't have pollen pantaloons yet, those wonderful sacks of pollen they attach to their legs.  It's too early in the season for much pollen activity (in Vermont) but I'd say we'll see some serious yellow slacks on those puppies in a few weeks.

When Jeffrey came in the morning, it took us a while to assemble everything we needed.  Smoker.  Deep body (The square box), the feeder, the simple syrup to feed, my hive tool.  And of course, the bees.  I gently pried each frame apart (they get sticky from propolis build up but nothing too alarming) and I gently lifted the frame as Jeffrey had taught me, keeping it over the body of the hive in case the queen decided to make a run for it (unlikely but you can never bee too careful).  He helped me identify capped brood, larvae, nectar, pollen, capped honey.  I saw a few drones, male bees who don't work in the hive but rather exist to fertilize a queen if they're lucky enough to find a lonely lass flying about (they don't mate with their own queen, who's also their mother, thank goodness).  I saw the queen on the 3rd frame, moving slowly and deliberately, going about laying her quota of 2000 eggs A DAY.  And then there were the thousands of worker bees, the ladies, taking care of the queen, tending to all the chores from going into the field to collect pollen and nectar to building wax for the combs (they excrete the wax through their abdomens).  Busy bee, indeed.

That's a bear fence around my hive.  Not attractive but essential.  And yes, those are pie plates smeared with peanut butter.  A bear isn't going to feel a damn thing barreling through that electrified fence, with all that fur.  So if they smell the honey and brood and amble up to your bee garden, any bear will take one look at some yummy peanut butter and say, "Don't mind if I do."  And then they get a little zap on the nose, where they'll actually feel it.  

I installed the last frame, put a feeder on top and closed up my hive.  I was brimming with the warm and fuzzies.  Or is it the warm and buzzies?

There's so much to learn and more to tell.  Like how much honey will I get from this hive? Likely none this year as they are building up their stores and will probably need it all to overwinter.  However, next year, I might get 20 pounds to 80 pounds, depending on how the nectar is flowing, etc.  Do I always wear a suit?  No.  I only wear it when I actually disturb the hive.  Do you wear that suit out in public?  HELL YES!

If you have questions that you'd like answered, join my Facebook baker's group HERE and ask away.  I'll answer them on the forum and will continue to update on the blog.  As a new beekeeper, I may not know the answer.  That's why people like Jeffrey and the insanely generous humans at Vermont Beekeepers Association are such a gift to new-bees like me.

Happy Mother's Day!

In case you were curious, here's the Berry Charlotte that I taught my class to make.